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Reading my parents’ wartime letters

When I was a child, my mother would sometimes look off into the distance and tell me, "Your father and I were separated for almost three years during World War II, and we wrote to each other every other day."

When I would ask to see the letters, she would get out the old Eaton's box and let me touch them, but I couldn't read them. She told me they were private and spoke of a deep love she hoped I would experience one day. My older brother was also fascinated with the letters, but for a different reason. He wanted to cut out the old British and Canadian stamps to add to his collection.

My mother died in 1997 at 78. In 2009, after my father's death at 94, I was clearing out the house where they had lived for 55 years when I came upon the old box in a dresser drawer. Cradling it in my arms, I stowed it away in my closet. I didn't want to break the confidence of the parents I had loved so much. But how could I discard all those letters unread?

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Finally, curiosity won out. Looking inside, I found several neatly stacked bundles of blue airmail letters tied with yellow ribbons. On the box my father had written, "Letters written from overseas, Harry to Helen, 2½ years, 1943 to 1946." I took this as permission to delve further.

My parents met in Ottawa in 1942 at a YMCA social club. He was 28 and she was 23. Helen worked in the Ministry of Munitions by day as a secretary and was a volunteer server at the club at night. Harry was there playing clarinet in the Royal Canadian Air Force band. After a year of dating, they became engaged. He was promptly sent overseas. It was a difficult parting, as they had no idea how long the war would last.

Reading through their more than 600 letters, I found a lot of flowery love language. But there was also so much more. They gave each other details of their lives. He told her about being stationed in Bournemouth, playing clarinet as part of the RCAF's No. 3 Personnel Reception Centre Band. He travelled around England, Scotland and Wales playing concerts, parades and dances – keeping up morale through music. He also made money on the side playing alto and tenor sax in a smaller dance band.

She told of her life in Toronto, where she'd moved after he went overseas. She said she didn't mind working night shifts, weekends and holidays at the Toronto Transit Commission as it helped keep her loneliness at bay.

They were both mindful of censorship. In one letter he wrote, "Well, I won't bore you or the censor any more with the minute details of our daily lives!" Most of the envelopes have a label marked, "Opened by the Examiner."

Harry, however, made a few references to the war. On June 12, 1944, after D-Day, he wrote: "Please God this war won't last too long now. Now that the second front has started, maybe they'll let the mail through." He talked about visiting Coventry and seeing the bombed-out cathedral. And on June 20, 1944, he said, "Things look good for our side."

Harry wrote that his whole interest in life was trying to keep warm and get decent food. But he knew they could be a thousand times worse off.

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It's amazing what went through the mail. She and his parents sent parcels with clarinet and saxophone reeds, hand-knitted socks, pyjamas, fruit cake, shortbread, hot chocolate, soap, fudge, cigarettes – anything he asked for. Helen asked him if the coffee rolls she sent were still edible – strangely, he didn't answer that question. He sent her flowers on Valentine's Day, cables at Christmas, postcards and photos of the band, the scenery they passed while travelling, high jinks in the barracks and himself sitting at his desk writing her a letter.

Through their correspondence they shared their love of music. Helen asked Harry if he'd heard the latest songs on the radio. Harry described the "red letter day" when they played for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London.

By far the most touching letter was from Aug. 15, 1945: "My darling Helen, The war is over at last! It seems unbelievable to me that factories won't be making shells and guns any more and that men will all be going home at last instead of setting out for battlefronts all over the world. … There is no one more anxious to use my uniform for a doormat than I am."

Harry returned home in February, 1946, and they married a few months later.

Close to 70 years on, it's difficult for me to imagine the uncertainty of that time, how neither was sure they would ever see the other again. The letters have made me see my parents in a new light, as young, hopeful individuals similar to my own children, who are roughly their age now. The letters have helped me understand them better – how they worked so hard in anticipation of their lives together and subsequently had high expectations for their children.

In 1944, Helen wrote, "Through the hundreds of letters we have written our love has grown deeper." These letters are a gift from the past, a glimpse into the world they were living in and their perspective on world events. Their devotion to each other during their years apart provided a foundation in establishing a loving home, raising three children and being happy the rest of their lives.

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Joanne Culley lives in Peterborough, Ont.

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