Legacy of letters: Relationship begins as pen pals, grows to family bond

By Amy Miller amiller@tnonline.com

In today’s fast-paced, technological society, the art of handwritten letters seems to be lost to time.

But for one Jim Thorpe woman, hundreds of handwritten letters between her mother and a woman in France have inspired and captured family memories that have lasted a lifetime.

In Judith Umlas’ new book, “Soulmates & Strangers,” Umlas delves into the personal connections that her mother, Sylvia Handler Wagreich, made with French-born Claudia Raymonde Bouillard Mariotti.
Soulmates & Strangers

“Before email or FaceTime, when snail mail was the only way to communicate across oceans, my mother and her French pen pal created a family legacy,” Umlas wrote in the introduction to the book. “Their writings to one another, starting when they were teenagers and ending in their 80s, preserve a precious time in the past, while inspiring generations of the future.”

“Soulmates & Strangers” is a tale of Sylvia, a girl from Bronx, New York; and Claudia, of Lyon, France. It begins in 1936, when Sylvia and Claudia write to each other for the first time, never imagining that their new friendship would last over 70 years and withstand the test of time and war.“I want people to treasure their own histories because everybody has got something from the past, and a lot of people keep it in a box and never look at it or throw it away,” Umlas said.Sylvia and Claudia’s story begins in school, when at ages 15 and 16, they were asked in their high schools if they would like a pen pal.“My mother was the only person who raised her hand in the class,” she said, noting in France, Claudia was the only one in her class who chose to participate.“It was fate,” Umlas said.

The two girls began corresponding and instantly forged a friendship that grew into an extended family.They shared their hopes and dreams, their heartaches and pain and their loves as they grew and married.A friendship across timeAs the years went by, Sylvia and Claudia continued to write to their friend they never met.Once Umlas was born, the pair turned from friends to mothers together even though Claudia never had children. The two women shared their love of Judith, who affectionately called Claudia her “French mother.”When she was in her teens, Umlas traveled to France and met Claudia and her husband, Mario.During that summerlong visit, Umlas bridged her mother’s friendship even more.The two families continued to write and grow closer, and finally Claudia and Sylvia were able to meet after nearly 40 years of long-distance friendship.Meeting my motherThe pair’s letters to each other ended in 2002, when Sylvia’s health began to fail.But the bond these two women created and the family that was built has lasted until this day.Umlas and her son went to visit Claudia and Mario in 2005 and were gifted with a lace envelope, filled with the letters Sylvia had written for the first 12 years of their friendship.“I was shocked and delighted,” Umlas wrote.The letters, dated from Feb. 3, 1936, to March 26, 1947, were an insight into the woman her mother was growing up.This package was a cherished gift.She didn’t immediately read the letters, but kept them close.In December 2008, she lost her American mother and decided to visit her French mother, who was now close to 90.It was during that trip over to France that Umlas finally read the first letter.
“The letters were so packed with personal information and their loves and hates and the movie stars of the day,” she said, adding that she sobbed the first time she read some of the letters.
“It was so incredible to see my mother’s handwriting and writing in French,” she said.“It’s such an amazing story. I learned what my mother had for breakfast, when she went to bed, what boyfriends she had. You get such history. The history they exchanged about the food shortages and labor strikes and boys who didn’t come home (from war) and the loss and longing, it was stuff that they went through.”These letters helped Umlas see the woman she loved growing up in a whole new light.Umlas kept in touch with Claudia until her passing in 2014 and then began thinking about the letters again.At that time, she realized she needed to tell their stories, not for the world, but for herself and to preserve her two mothers’ legacies.“I feel that it’s my mother’s legacy and therefore my legacy and my daughter’s,” Umlas said.Because of this, Umlas also created a publishing company, Handler and Wagreich, which is a combination of her mother’s maiden name and her maiden name. The goal of the company is publishing with a purpose for writers and their love of language and the legacy of generations.“This is where ‘Soulmates & Strangers’ lives,” she said.
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