SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Shirley Eisnach and Shirley Amundson write letters. Sometimes it's the kind that calls for a pen and paper; other times they've used a typewriter, but all the letters require a stamp on an envelope and are delivered to a mail box instead of an inbox.
"We use the United States Postal Service," says Shirley Eisnach by phone from her home in Pierre.
The women have written to each other for 60 years, but they have seen each other in person only three times. The pen pals launched a friendship in the 1950s that has endured their marriages and the births of their children and multitude of grandchildren.
They built a tradition with pen and ink and thoughts on paper.
Before they were married, they were Shirley Mary Ellen Salmonson of Estelline and Shirley Mary Ann Salomonson of Colton.
In addition to the similarity of their names, Shirley Mary Ann Salomonson shared the same birth date as the other Shirley's dad — are you still following?
In 1951, Shirley Mary Ellen Salmonson (now Eisnach) saw Shirley Mary Ann Salomonson's (now Amundson) name in a newspaper column in which people answered questions put to them by an Argus Leader reporter about a specific topic.
"I wrote her a letter and told her about the similarity in our names," Eisnach says. "We started writing back and forth. That was when you could address the envelope to just 'Shirley Salomonson at Colton, South Dakota' and it would get there."
Amundson remembers. "She thought it would be fun to be pen pals," she says.
That was a lifetime ago, but the friends still write back and forth, sharing family news and yearly pictures.
Eisnach sent Amundson an earring and necklace set for her graduation all those years ago.
Amundson, now 80, sits at her dining room table in rural Colton with a plethora of photos of her five children and 40-plus grandchildren on the walls. She opens the aged jewelry case and gingerly picks up the gold necklace cast in a feather and flower design set with purple and clear stones.
"She couldn't come to my graduation, so she sent this through the mail," says Amundson, cradling the necklace in her hand.
The first time they met was at Eisnach's high school graduation in Estelline in 1954.
Seeing each other in the flesh was a revelation.
"We were about the same size. We were both short and wore glasses," says Amundson, who had surprised her pen pal at graduation.
Pen pals were in vogue years ago. "It was common in the '40s and '50s to write someone you didn't know and keep in touch," says Eisnach, 77, a retired schoolteacher.
Taking the time to write a letter forces people to organize their thoughts and, through that, evaluate their life stories. Decades ago, people were well versed in the art of letter writing. Receiving a letter addressed to them was an occasion, and sometimes the missive was cherished correspondence meant to be kept a long time.
'I'm from the letter-writing generation.'
"I'm from the letter-writing generation," Eisnach says. She sends a lot of mail to friends and relatives. "I think I can tell you where everyone from my high school school class is."
The two women usually exchange a yearly family photo and periodic updates of families, moves, careers and the minutiae of life. The women are among distinguished company — Mark Twain, John and Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning and Ronald and Nancy Reagan all were avowed letter writers.
Regular contact has cemented the Shirleys' relationship, even though it hasn't been in person.
"I've never been to her house," Eisnach says. "She's only been to mine once."
Never mind, says Sarah Alexander, counseling services supervisor at Lutheran Social Services — the key is in the contact.
"One aspect that can be useful in healing and life in general is to have witnesses to our lives," says Alexander. A pen pal's letters are the narrative of his or her life's story.
Witnessing each other's lives over time anchors a person in their history. "People from our pasts bring out things in us that we have forgotten we have," Alexander says.
Plus, it's a way to be there for another person.
Now that email and texting have usurped the common letter, Eisnach has bridged the gap and incorporated the new writing styles into her repertoire.
"I'm texting my grandkids and writing letters to my elderly friends," she says. "I like the computer, but with grandkids you pretty much have to text if you want an answer immediately."
But she has never emailed Amundson. "I don't even know if she has an email address," Eisnach says.
Their relationship has been almost exclusively through letters, meeting only a few times in more than 50 years. The second time the pair met was when Amundson stopped by on a trip that passed by Eisnach's home in Pierre.
The third time was a few weeks ago. Eisnach was attending her 60th high school reunion in the little town of Bruce. Amundson tracked Eisnach down and surprised her at her table.
They didn't recognize each other at first — after all, they hadn't seen each other in person for 30 years — but the friends soon overcame the obstacle.
"She was so surprised," Amundson says. "She couldn't believe I pulled it off."
After a nice talk, it's back to letter writing with an envelope and roll of stamps close at hand.
"When we started out, I thought this is something that will last a week or two, but it has been continuous," says Amundson, who counts Eisnach as one of her good friends.
"She's so friendly and so easy to talk to. I'll never give it up."