HAMLET —Love took two best friends away from each other. More than 70 years later, love brought them back together.
Helen Salome Stephenson, 94, and Evelyn Roscoe Monroe, 93, both grew up in Hamlet. They met each other as they entered the seventh grade at Hamlet High School together. From that moment they became inseparable.
“We were the only two girls from the wrong side of the track,” Stephenson said of families more prosperous than theirs. “Everyone else worked for the railroad.”
They remained close as could be until one day Monroe met a gentleman and married. She was in her last year of high school when she decided to get married instead of finishing school. She was six months shy of graduating.
“I got married and back then when you got married you couldn’t go to school,” Monroe said. “I would have finished school, but getting married was more important to me back then.”
Monroe married on Jan. 14, 1939. In those days, marriage often meant —for the wife —separation from old friends. Only 10 days later, though, Stephenson realized she missed her friend. So she mailed Monroe a letter. The letter described how lonely Stephenson was without Monroe in school and how much she loved and will always love her “school chum.”
This was at a time when such a letter between two friends was normal.
According to the letter, Stephenson knew she would like Monroe from the very first day she spoke to her. The letter meant so much to Monroe. Monroe kept it among her private possessions for several decades.
Together, as they sat and reminisced in Hamlet, Stephenson could only laugh as she said, “I can’t even believe you kept that silly letter.”
“It wasn’t silly to me,” said Monroe, as tears welled up in her eyes.
Stephenson, she said, “was such a special friend, and that was the reason why I kept it. Whenever I felt down or needed uplifting, I would read the letter to remind myself there was someone out there who loved me.”
While Monroe married before graduation, Stephenson didn’t marry until she was 22.
“I was the smart one to wait,” Stephenson joked.
Stephenson stayed in the area for nearly 10 years before her husband’s job took him to Florida. She’s lived there ever since. It put an even bigger gap between her and Monroe when she moved.
“Communication wasn’t too good back then,” Monroe said of a world without Facebook, email or Skype. “We might get the newspaper once a week. We had no television, no radio, no telephone, so I don’t know how long it was before we connected again because (Stephenson) left.”
It wasn’t until three years ago that they were able to reunite. It had been 71 years.
“We arranged to meet up again at the Smith reunion,” Stephenson said. “Before that, I had a cousin down in Jacksonville (Fla.) who I asked if Evelyn was still around the Hamlet area. My cousin knew someone who knew Evelyn and got her number for me. I called her and we talked until midnight. It was as if no time had passed at all. It was during that conversation when Evelyn told me that she still had my letter. It really touched me.”
The two friends smiled as they thought about the times they spent together during school.
“We would walk to the grocery store and get a nickels worth of bananas,” Monroe said. “Then we would walk back to school eating them and throwing the peelings in the street.”
Stephenson laughed as she remembered why they bought the bananas in the first place. “We ate the bananas to gain weight. We were so skinny! You don’t hear about women wanting to gain weight now.”
They don’t get as much face to face time as they like since they live far apart, but they do talk on the phone regularly.
“It has been wonderful just to talk again,” Stephenson said.
The two hate the time they missed being apart, but it is comforting to them knowing that they have picked back up where they left off.
“I don’t feel as if we were disconnected,” Monroe said. “Even though I didn’t see or hear from her she was still my best friend.”
Stephenson could only nod in agreement.
“What matters now is that we are back together,” Stephenson said. “And whatever comes or whatever goes, we will stick together from here on out.”