Un­earthing the lost love let­ters of war

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY FRED LUM

Through cu­rat­ing and pre­serv­ing old mis­sives, Chris­tine Es­tima forges con­nec­tions with oth­ers who have loved deeply and lost greatly

Chris­tine Es­tima’s es­says have ap­peared in The New York Times, The Wal­rus, VICE and New York Daily News.

Ap­ple blos­soms fell into my hair as I read Ed­ward’s love let­ters in the park. Full of yearn­ing and ar­dent long­ing, Ed­ward, a pi­lot sta­tioned over­seas with the Royal Cana­dian Air Force, wrote fast and hard on the robin’s-egg-blue pa­per, rem­i­nisc­ing about his life back in Toronto.

“Never a day passes with­out some thoughts of us … Soon, now, you should be able to take a run out to the Old Mill for a dance – or would you pre­fer the Royal York? Do you re­mem­ber the last time we were there? How nice and so very proper it was…

“Please keep hav­ing fun. I so much want you to be just the hap­pi­est girl in the world. And, be­lieve me, when this ruddy war is over, if you haven’t changed your mind, I’m go­ing to do ev­ery­thing in my power to see that you are happy… I can’t prom­ise you all fun and no wor­ries – but I can and do prom­ise that I shall be faith­ful to you for­ever.”

Look­ing up at the sky, hold­ing more than a dozen of his let­ters, I felt both a heart-swell of af­fec­tion and a groundswell of dread.

“I have no de­sire to be in any­way melo­dra­matic, but the more I see of this war, the more hideous it be­comes; and the more I feel that we are do­ing the right thing by fight­ing Nazi tyranny.”

Th­ese let­ters weren’t ad­dressed to me. Ed­ward had writ­ten th­ese let­ters 76 years ago dur­ing the Sec­ond World War to Mar­garet, the sweet­heart he had left be­hind.

I’m a reg­u­lar at Toronto’s St. Lawrence An­tique Mar­ket, which buzzes and hums with ac­tiv­ity ev­ery Sun­day near the lake. Row af­ter row of ran­dom rar­i­ties are sold to hun­dreds bar­ter­ing for the best deals. There, I have my reg­u­lar vinyl guy, my an­ti­que­travel-book guy, my type­writer guy and my pho­to­graphs guy; they know my ad­dic­tions.

Es­chew­ing the items on the ta­bles (too over­priced and ven­dors won’t hag­gle), I pre­fer to dig through the boxes on the floor filled with re­main­dered bric-abrac. There may be noth­ing glitzy in the floor-boxes – no art-deco jew­ellery, no gilt par­rot cages or vin­tage Ko­dak In­sta­mat­ics – but it’s where I’ve found the most mean­ing­ful items: love let­ters.

Let­ters writ­ten with care­fully cho­sen lan­guage, con­vey­ing the deep­est of sen­ti­ments. Let­ters writ­ten dur­ing the First World War by Bel­gian refugees dis­placed from Ypres. Tele­grams sent from prison dur­ing the in­ter­war years, beg­ging mothers for bail money. Let­ters from wives to their army-doc­tor hus­bands sta­tioned in France dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. PoWs from Vi­enna, look­ing for the women they once loved. Ja­panese women to Amer­i­can sol­diers, hop­ing for a re­union. Love notes passed in class in the 1970s. Good­bye let­ters of re­gret. I’ve bought them all.

And be­cause let­ters aren’t a big seller, they’re priced to move.

There’s some­thing about let­ters that mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion will never be able to du­pli­cate. A let­ter is the next best thing to show­ing up at some­one’s door and kiss­ing them on the mouth. Your hands fon­dle the pa­per, your saliva seals the en­ve­lope, then your let­ter is car­ried over their thresh­old like a new­ly­wed. Ev­ery­thing from pen­man­ship to an ink-smudged fin­ger­print or a lip­stick-kiss re­veals char­ac­ter, mo­ti­va­tion, in­ten­tion and de­sire. It’s like toss­ing an emo­tional grenade into some­one’s house; a lit­tle ar­row­head stuck in your flesh and then bro­ken off. You can’t ig­nore it. Dur­ing wartime, let­ters could take weeks or months to ar­rive so ev­ery word had to count; ev­ery sen­tence im­bued with mean­ing and fire. Not one frac­tion of the page was wasted be­cause they never knew when they would hear from their loved ones again. Now, we cor­re­spond in sec­onds, but we don’t put any thought into the lan­guage we em­ploy, be­cause com­mu­ni­ca­tion is dis­pos­able. We used to throw peb­bles at our lover’s win­dow; now we text.

Dated be­tween 1942 and 1944, I found Ed­ward’s let­ters buried at the bot­tom of a card­board box. A young King Ge­orge VI graced the ver­mil­ion postage stamps, and sec­tions of some let­ters had been cen­sored. Ad­dressed to Mar­garet, who lived on Sam­mon Av­enue in the east end of Toronto, the let­ters were gracile and wilt­ing. I held them as if I were cup­ping a mag­pie.

Af­ter a bit of hag­gling, bought them for $14.

My col­lec­tion be­gan in Cologne, Ger­many, in 2013, where I lived with my then-boyfriend. He was some­thing else. He was kind to strangers, a sucker for Pablo Neruda’s po­etry and the mu­sic of Chilly Gon­za­les. In love with life, he was well-trav­elled and took the stairs three at a time. Whereas I was afraid of hav­ing sex stand­ing up be­cause it might lead to danc­ing.

In the early days of our re­la­tion­ship, we wrote each other love notes: first, through the cold medium of in­stant mes­sen­ger, then recorded voice files, grad­u­at­ing to let­ters typed on a 1940s Rhein­metall type­writer. He took me to a dif­fer­ent flea mar­ket ev­ery week­end, show­ing me what could be pro­cured just by do­ing a lit­tle dig­ging. Banned books. War medals and ra­tion cards. Pass­ports with swastika en­try stamps. But most of all – love let­ters. So we bought let­ters and wrote let­ters in equal mea­sure. In many ways, our re­la­tion­ship was a pa­per house: good on pa­per, but bad in per­son.

He was con­trol­ling – most days he wouldn’t let me leave our apart­ment un­til I dressed to his sat­is­fac­tion – mak­ing me won­der why he loved me in the first place. He seemed to me a bro­ken bird; un­able to fly, so he clipped my wings out of spite. Then one morn­ing he said, “You have no place in my heart and my soul.” That was all I needed to know.

Af­ter he left for work, I wrote him a note on our type­writer, packed one small bag (leav­ing ev­ery­thing else be­hind), walked to the Haupt­bahn­hof and searched the de­par­tures board for the first train out of Ger­many.

I never saw him again. Just like it had started, our re­la­tion­ship ended in writ­ing.

In the years that fol­lowed, I bounced around Eu­rope, house sit­ting and crash­ing on strangers’ chester­fields just to get by. But I con­tin­ued the one tra­di­tion we’d shared – buy­ing old love let­ters. For only a few eu­ros, I could buy epis­to­lary tomes by the stack.

In Vi­enna, I bought a let­ter, dated 1947, sent from a Vi­en­nese man named Emil to a Jewish woman named An­nie. The first line says, “A cou­ple weeks ago I was re­leased from a Soviet PoW camp,” sug­gest­ing he was a sol­dier in the Third Re­ich. He begs

My col­lec­tion be­gan in Cologne, Ger­many, in 2013, where I lived with my then-boyfriend. … He took me to a dif­fer­ent flea mar­ket ev­ery week­end, show­ing me what could be pro­cured just by do­ing a lit­tle dig­ging. Banned books. War medals and ra­tion cards. Pass­ports with swastika en­try stamps. But most of all – love let­ters.

it was the flea-mar­ket epis­tles from lost lovers that got me through my heart­break. Maybe they re­minded me that true love, and hap­pier times, can still ex­ist.

her to write back and says that he is des­per­ate to see her again, as he hasn’t seen her since be­fore the war. It was sent to Bri­tain, but the en­ve­lope is stamped Re­turn To Sender. I paid €3.

In Brus­sels, I bought a let­ter, dated 1945, where a man says good­bye to the woman he loves, apol­o­giz­ing for all the pain he caused her, and laments that he now must go into ex­ile, sug­gest­ing that he did some­thing dur­ing the war from which he must flee. I paid €1.

In Lon­don, I bought a pri­vate jour­nal of an English­man liv­ing in Mar­seille in 1934, who writes of wit­ness­ing the Jewish and Ro­maSinti refugees al­ready pour­ing across the bor­der from Ger­many, and the pogroms in­sti­gated by the gen­darmerie. I paid £2.

I also bought a First World War let­ter sent by a Bel­gian refugee orig­i­nally from Ypres who was ma­rooned in Sau­mur, France. He writes about see­ing the trains ar­riv­ing ev­ery day filled with bro­ken and weary Bel­gians, and how the very sight makes them cry, as they wish for the an­ni­hi­la­tion of Ger­many. I paid 50 cents.

But it was the flea-mar­ket epis­tles from lost lovers that got me through my heart­break. Maybe they re­minded me that true love, and hap­pier times, can still ex­ist.

Ed­ward had writ­ten to Mar­garet in Toronto:

“If only I could see you again! Just to talk to you – tell you again and again that I care so very much. At times, you must won­der if I do, when I don’t write so of­ten. But, be­lieve me, you are al­ways in my heart. Never could I stop lov­ing you. Way back in ’34 you started me dream­ing – now I can’t stop.”

Or maybe they re­minded me that once I, too, was loved.

Ed­ward’s let­ters to Mar­garet abruptly end in early 1944. What hap­pened af­ter the war? Did they ever meet again? I wanted to find out.

Turn­ing to the Toronto Pub­lic Li­brary, I be­gan to dig. I had Ed­ward’s full name, rank and RCAF se­rial num­ber. Surely I could find some­thing. Scour­ing civil cer­tifi­cates, pas­sen­ger man­i­fests, voter rolls and cen­sus records, it didn’t take long for my search to bear fruit. I found his de­clas­si­fied mil­i­tary file.

In May, 1944, Ed­ward’s air­craft went miss­ing over en­emy skies. The bod­ies of other mem­bers of his squadron washed up on the shores of Oc­cu­pied France. His never did. Pre­sumed dead, he was posthu­mously awarded the Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross. The Run­nymede Me­mo­rial in Sur­rey, Bri­tain, bears his name; a lake in Yukon was named in his hon­our. His file con­tained car­bon-copies of the let­ters the RCAF sent to his mother on Wood­bine Av­enue – writ­ten mourn­fully and with re­gret that Ed­ward’s body would not be com­ing home for a proper burial. It also con­tained his of­fi­cial RCAF por­trait: a dap­per man sport­ing a pen­cil mus­tache, im­mac­u­late in his uni­form, with a winged-crown em­blem over his heart.

Seventy-four years af­ter the fact, I sat in the li­brary and cried. The robin’s-egg-blue en­velopes in my hand were the kind of eggs that never hatch.

But then, they did. Maybe it was the thought of all the things left un­said, or the thought of death, that pro­pelled me for­ward. I con­tacted the Toronto District School Board, which put me in touch with the prin­ci­pal of East York Col­le­giate, who had his staff search their ar­chives for any men­tion of Ed- ward. They lent me year­books from 1931 to 1936, in wh­cih I found Ed­ward’s grad­u­a­tion quote, pulled from Shake­speare’s

As You Like It, “Nay, I shall ne’er be ‘ware of mine own wit till I break my shins ’gainst it.”

I con­tacted the City of Toronto Ar­chives, who sent me PDFs of city di­rec­to­ries, where I found out that Mar­garet mar­ried af­ter the war and had chil­dren. Ac­cord­ing to cen­sus records from the 1960s, their first son was named Wayne. Cal­cu­lat­ing his ap­prox­i­mate year of birth, I re­al­ized that Wayne was most likely still alive. I de­bated for quite a while whether I should just stop here and quit my prod­ding, but some­thing told me that I wouldn’t be sat­is­fied un­less I tried to find him.

Search­ing through so­cial me­dia, I found a cou­ple of men who fit the ap­prox­i­mate age and lo­ca­tion. I con­tacted both of them, and only one of them wrote back. I had found my man. He con­firmed that Mar­garet was his mother, and that she had died in 2016. When I told him that I was re­search­ing the life of an RCAF of­fi­cer who knew his mother, his im­me­di­ate re­sponse was, “Was his name Ed?”

I be­came ex­cited, in­cred­u­lous that Mar­garet had told her son about Ed­ward when she was mar­ried to some­one else. Wayne agreed to meet with me, and a few days later, at a Star­bucks on Yonge Street, in walked a jovial, chatty, el­derly man with a huge smile on his face. I be­gan to yam­mer on like a par­rot in a bird­cage, ask­ing him dozens of ques­tions. How did Mar­garet and Ed­ward meet? Where are her let­ters to him? What hap­pened to Mar­garet dur­ing the war? How did she find out Ed­ward had died? How did she pick up the pieces of her life and move on? Un­for­tu­nately, Wayne wasn’t able to tell me much, which is un­der­stand­able. I don’t know many mothers who would re­veal to their chil­dren the ta­pes­try of their pri­vate love af­fairs. The only con­crete thing Wayne could tell me was that, some­times when his fa­ther wasn’t in the room, Mar­garet would say that if Ed­ward hadn’t died, she would have mar­ried him.

En­cour­aged by my suc­cess, I be­gan to re­search the other let­ters. I was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the 1947 Vi­enna let­ter from Emil to An­nie, and marked re­turn-to-sender. I dis­cov­ered through nat­u­ral­iza­tion records that An­nie was a Jewish woman who em­i­grated to the United States in 1940, where she mar­ried and worked in pub­lish­ing. By the time Emil’s let­ter was sent in 1947, she was long gone. He died in 1991, and she in 2007. But, true to form, I was still not sat­is­fied. Did they – a Nazi sol­dier and a Jewish woman – love each other be­fore the war? What did Emil do dur­ing the war that landed him in a Soviet PoW camp? Did they ever meet again? To that end, I am re­turn­ing to Vi­enna this Christ­mas so I can dig through the Vi­enna city ar­chives, visit their fam­ily homes, their graves, to see what I can dis­cover.

Cu­rat­ing and pre­serv­ing th­ese let­ters gives me a con­nec­tion to peo­ple who loved deeply and lost greatly, just as I have. Like Ham­let, I must “un­pack my heart with words” just as the au­thors of the let­ters did.

What a shame it would be if there was no one left to ap­pre­ci­ate them. If th­ese lovers’ words are still be­ing read, then their sto­ries can go on. Their voices can­not be si­lenced. They won’t be for­got­ten.

In May, 1944, Ed­ward’s air­craft went miss­ing over en­emy skies. His body would not come home for burial.

At an­tique mar­kets, let­ters are not in big de­mand.Th­ese Sec­ond World War love let­ters were found at the bot­tom of a card­board box.

Au­thor Chris­tine Es­tima is pho­tographed in front of some of the framed let­ters hang­ing in her Toronto home.

Ed­ward’s let­ters to Mar­garet abruptly cut off in early 1944.Cu­ri­ous to know the end of the story, Ms. Es­tima turned to the Toronto Pub­lic Li­brary’s ar­chives to try to un­cover the pi­lot’s fate.

While liv­ing over­seas and re­cov­er­ing from a heart­break, Chris­tine Es­tima be­gan col­lect­ing wartime let­ters that she found at an­tique mar­kets. One col­lec­tion touched her heart and set her on a jour­ney to find out more about Ed­ward, an RCAF pi­lot, and his girl­friend, Mar­garet.

Ed­ward in his RCAF uni­form. ‘When this ruddy war is over, if you haven’t changed your mind, I’m go­ing to do ev­ery­thing in my power to see that you are happy,’ he wrote to Mar­garet.

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