When Ellen Glasgow and lifelong friend Sandra MacDiarmid began exchanging weekly letters, the cost of a postage stamp was 4 cents. Fast forward 60 years and thousands of stamps later, the pair is still sending handwritten correspondence to each other.
“I never know what I am opening each week,” said Ellen, an artist who owns the Capital Gallery of Contemporary Art on Lewis Street. “She’s my best friend and we’re family.”
Each envelope and letter Sandra sends is a work of art worthy of its own collection. She adorns them with intricate drawings and stunning watercolors that illustrates both her passion for art and her friend.
“I just think she’s incredible,” said Ellen’s daughter-in-law Martina Glasgow, who is in the process of creating books of the women’s correspondence. “The art just pours out of her — she has to do it.”
Forging a friendship
The two met in 1957 when their husbands were in flight school together in Corpus Christie, Texas. The training was extremely competitive and stressful. In fact, the military wives had to attend a seminar on how to take proper care of their husbands.
“That was our job as military wives,” Ellen stated. “We learned what kind of meals to cook and how much rest they needed.”
When Sandra experienced a difficult pregnancy that left her ill, Ellen was there to wash the dishes and dish advice. She was also there when Sandra’s daughter was born.
“When you have your babies together and you have nothing, well, we bonded in that situation,” Ellen said, adding there was no television or radio and telephones were on party lines back then. “Letter writing was a common thing. We couldn’t afford weekly long-distance phone calls.”
Ironically, Ellen and Sandra only ever lived in the same city for that single year. In 1958, Ellen and husband Jim, who was in the Coast Guard, relocated to Biloxi, Mississippi. Sandra and her family stayed in Texas for a short time before being sent to Hawaii.
“When her husband was deployed, she was out there by herself with three kids. She was lonely,” Ellen reminisced.
Thirty-five years ago, Ellen and Jim could have gone anywhere in the world. They chose to settle in Frankfort for its small-town charm, walkability and nearby airports. What they didn’t expect was to fall completely in love with the capital city.
“People don’t realize what a jewel of a place this is to live,” she said, as she cast a glance around her gallery. “This is heaven.”
Sandra set up her home in San Jose, California, and the two have continued to exchange, as Ellen describes it, copious amounts of letters.
Long lost art
While each envelope is a masterpiece, it is the words contained within the letters that evoke an emotional response from both women.
“We talk about art and kids,” Ellen said of the letters, which are written in cursive (an endangered script), and are lengthy. “We’ve been friends so long we’ve gone through evolutions.”
Even Ellen’s mail carrier has taken notice. Technological advances in instant communication have led to a drastic decrease in the number of personal letters that funnel through the post office. Those with personal messages, drawings and paintings, he said, are downright rare.
“Now the mailman waits to see what’s on the next one,” Ellen laughed. “Interesting how a small thing can snowball and make us all smile.”
The friends do visit each other sporadically, though it’s been about three years since they last saw one another. They have also taken vacations abroad together to Italy, France and Mexico. And, while cell phones and computers make it easier than ever before to connect with others, Sandra and Ellen prefer their letters.
As the pair has gotten older, storing their correspondence has become an ever-growing issue. Ellen keeps many of Sandra’s letters in an old military mail-sorting cabinet, but they have spilled over into boxes and drawers. Despite losing a few when her basement flooded several years ago, Ellen attempts to keep them all together.
“It’s a collection of art and a history of two military wives and our family,” she said. “This is why I am concerned about what happens (to the letters and envelopes) when I’m gone. It’s emotional. I don’t want it to be a burden.”
Ellen hopes to preserve the letters for future generations, but the vast quantity makes it difficult.
Her daughter-in-law, Martina, a self-described Shutterfly addict, photographed dozens of Sandra’s envelopes and created a keepsake book. Together, they sent Sandra — who strongly dislikes surprises, a copy of the book last month.
“She is stunned,” Ellen said of her long-time friend’s reaction to the compilation.
In the meantime, Martina has completed the second volume of the book with plans to keep documenting Ellen and Sandra’s relationship.
“It’s the history of their lives,” Martina said with a grin.