Rose Phillips and Jane Doherty have written a letter to each other every week for the past 40 years.
These days, they look back on their writing record as something that occurred naturally over time. They couldn’t help but call and write each other after Phillips moved away from the duo’s neighborhood in Hanson, Massachusetts, five years after they met.
Opening the mailbox was like opening a Christmas present, said Phillips, who’s now 83 and lives in Cary.
“Her letters are an oasis,” she said.
Given their different personalities and locations over the years, Phillips and Doherty say their bond is an unlikely one. Phillips identifies herself as a “typical extroverted Italian” who feels at home in formal wear and jewelry. Doherty describes herself as shy and outdoorsy.
They became friends by taking an interest in each other’s lives. They became like sisters by making an extra effort to preserve a relationship that’s built on honesty, trust and commitment.
“You have to extend yourself no matter where you move,” said Doherty, who is 78 and lives in Bourne, Massachusetts.
Though Phillips and Doherty are both from the Brockton, Massachusetts, area, they didn’t meet until later in life. Their first interaction was pleasant, albeit a little awkward.
Phillips, a career florist, delivered flowers to Doherty on St. Patrick’s Day in 1970 shortly after Doherty and her husband moved to their neighborhood in Hanson.
“Thank you, but I’m not Irish or Catholic,” Doherty told Phillips upon answering the door.
While they learned of more differences between them, the two bonded nonetheless and found they had more in common than they realized.
The more time they spent together, the more similarities they discovered.
“We’re both Virgos,” Phillips said. They also shared an affinity for grammar. Doherty worked for many years as a high school English teacher.
“I’d go over to her house, and we’d sit at her kitchen table and correct papers,” Phillips said.
By the time Phillips married her husband, Ed, in 1975 and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, she and Doherty had become best friends.
Without quick means of communication, such as texting or email, the 190-mile separation could have frayed or effectively ended their friendship. In fact, Phillips and Doherty say their friendship has deepened, thanks to exchanging the hand-written letters for so many years.
“I can tell her anything,” Phillips said. “We’ve had an amazing friendship.”
Phillips and Doherty recently celebrated their relationship with a St. Patrick’s Day party, as they do every year. This year it was at Phillips’ Cary home, and she surprised Doherty with 45 green gifts – from an elegant stone necklace to a few Irish Springs soap bars.
Before serving a big Italian dinner to Doherty and some friends, Phillips thumbed through a box of letters while sitting on her couch. While Doherty keeps only the most meaningful letters, Phillips keeps almost all of them. They’re stuffed into various boxes in her craft room.
There’s no identifiable style to the letters. Many are written in cursive. Some were written using a typewriter. Some were written in Hallmark cards, some on stationary and others on whatever paper was lying around.
“Neither one of us cared a hoot about email,” Phillips said.
The letters “are almost like a diary or a journal,” Doherty said.
A few of their communiques resemble modern-day Facebook posts. In addition to sending a letter, they sometimes used a paper clip to attach and send snippets of the local newspaper.
“My husband used to say that we’re the only people he knows that would call each other to say we sent a letter,” Phillips said.
Otherwise, the topics of the letters ranged from cooking recipes to Doherty’s back surgery and the death of Phillips’ husband, Ed.
“We know we’re not gonna sugarcoat things,” Phillips said. “So if you take yourself too seriously, you’re gonna have a problem.”
Phillips and her husband, Ed, who served in the Navy before working for American Can Company, moved to Cary in 1983. Doherty and her husband, Bob, cut short a vacation in Nova Scotia, Canada, to attend his funeral in 1996.
“I’d cancel a visit from the Pope if I knew she was coming,” Phillips said.
Doherty and Phillips try to see each other four times a year. They like to tell stories while playing Boggle, Scrabble or a card game.
Other than their annual St. Patrick’s Day party, they don’t feel like they need to plan their days together.
“Old friendships are the best friendships,” Doherty said.
When asked to speculate what their 50th St. Patrick’s Day party might entail, Phillips threw out the first thing that came to mind.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe do some bungee jumping or something.”