It all started 43 years ago with a letter, written from one North Dakota teenager to another teenage girl living in Norway.
Now two women who have shared most of their lives together as long-distance pen pals recently reunited and spent three weeks getting to know one another in person in Brainerd.
Sharon Carlson, Brainerd, was 16 when she selected 17-year-old Inger Rgeberg's name from a list of potential international pen pals while Carlson was a student at West Fargo High School. It was popular at the time for Norwegian high school students to have international pen pals as a way to develop their foreign language skills, said Rgeberg, who lives in Sandefjord, Norway, south of Oslo. She had other pen pals from Australia, Denmark and Germany, but there was something different about the letters from Carlson. The two girls immediately struck up a friendship.
"It was something special between us from the beginning," said Rgeberg.
The two teens wrote about their lives, about boys and parties and about each other's countries. When Carlson enrolled at the University of Minnesota, she sent college sweatshirts to Rgeberg, who in turn knitted a sweater for Carlson. At 20, Carlson traveled to Norway and worked for a summer in the mountains near Lillehammer and met Rgeberg, who was then pregnant with her first child. Carlson returned to Norway two more times, the last time being in 1971.
The two women continued to write until 13 years ago. Rgeberg receive Carlson's Christmas cards but she stopped writing back. It wasn't that she didn't want to write to Carlson, but she was going through a divorce and raising her three children. She said she didn't feel as though she had the energy to write back and talk about the personal crisis going on in her life at the time. Carlson also was busy in her own life, working and raising her and her husband Rod's three children in Brainerd.
Three years ago, Carlson used the Internet and tracked down Rgeberg's address. She sent her old friend a letter.
Carlson's letter brought back a flood of memories for Rgeberg, who deeply missed her friendship with Carlson. She wrote back.
"She never gave me up," said Rgeberg, smiling at Carlson as they sat together in Carlson's north Brainerd home Wednesday.
The letters continued and the two women caught up on each other's lives. Rgeberg works at a bookstore in Sandefjord and is a freelance writer/photographer for her hometown newspaper. She has four grandchildren and one on the way, while Carlson has three grandchildren of her own.
Carlson sent Rgeberg clippings from The Dispatch that had local references to Norway and tourist information about Brainerd. She begged her friend to come for a visit.
"I dreamed of Minnesota, I dreamed of coming here, but I wasn't sure I could afford to come," said Rgeberg.
Rgeberg stepped into the office of a travel agent to find out just how expensive it would be to fly here -- as a way to talk herself out of such a trip -- and ended up walking away with her plane ticket to Minnesota.
When Rgeberg stepped off the plane in Minneapolis on June 7, it was the first time in 32 years she had seen her friend.
The women have shared the past three weeks together, traveling around the state and doing everyday things, like holding a garage sale and taking a trip to the city dump. Rgeberg has enjoyed meeting Carlson's friends and family and felt welcomed into the Brainerd community. When people realized she was from Norway, they stopped and wanted to talk to her about their own Norwegian ancestry. Rgeberg said she was amazed that many Minnesotans continue to feel a strong connection to their Norwegian heritage and her home country.
"Now I've realized that everything is big in America," said Rgeberg with a laugh. "The rivers, the roads, the chicken dinners, the chocolate cake and the hospitality."
Rgeberg was to leave today for Norway. Both women expected Rgeberg's departure would be a sad one. But she believes she will return one day and Carlson hopes to travel to Norway again within the next couple of years to visit Rgeberg.
"It's been such a gift," Carlson said of Rgeberg's visit. "It's been a wonderful friendship journey all these years and this has been the greatest chapter."
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