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excavating my mother’s passionate past

What would you do? On this drizzly grey morning, I just lifted a bag marked “Letters to Mum” from one of my storage boxes. Inside, various piles, including a huge one, “Letters from Len.” Opened it. NOOO. Hundreds of letters, 1942-45, from Oxford where he was studying, from around Britain after he enlisted in the air force, then from Ottawa and Pensacola, Florida where he was in flight school – though luckily in ’44 and ’45, too late to be killed in the war.

As a teenager, Len was evacuated from London to the countryside during the Blitz and was lucky enough to land in the rustic village of Potterspury, where he met the 3 beautiful Leadbeater sisters, the youngest Sylvia in particular, with whom he fell desperately in love. Mum and Len were engaged by 1942 and almost married in ’43. He continued to write love letters to her daily until 1945. But after the war she left England, first for northern Germany where she worked resettling refugees, and then to New York to see if things would work out with the handsome Yank she’d met in 1944. And luckily for me, they did. So much for Len. 

So should I just throw all these out? Of course not. You might; it would be a sensible, time-saving thing to do. But I am detective here, trying to see if there’s stuff to be gleaned.

For example, I’ve found letters from someone else, Kenneth, who was crazy about her and wrote almost daily through 1945, until she dumped him. Later she never once mentioned poor Kenneth, who was competing not only with the abject Len but with my father and a Scottish airman called Jock. Was my mother hedging her bets? 

People WROTE in those days. The letters go on and on – about daily life but also about how much they worship the divine Sylvia. “Don’t ever think there’s any part of you I don’t adore, physically or otherwise,” wrote Len, after detailing every single part of her that he adored. Have to say, I feel deprived. Nobody ever detailed in a letter or even a postcard every single part of ME that they adored. Romance is dead. 

Of course, it was the war — feelings were urgent and extreme.

The sheer volume of these letters, almost one a day from Len for years, requiring sitting down with fountain pen, unearthing thoughts on paper, putting in envelope, stamping, addressing, mailing. 

Mum and Len wrote fitfully through the years; unlike her daughter, she was not a good correspondent. He married, not happily. After my father’s death in 1988, Mum got back in touch, they wrote and telephoned, and finally, with his wife’s approval, Len flew to Edmonton to reconnect with the love of his life. It was a disaster. He chain-smoked and was as insecure as he’d been as a young man. I gather they even tried to make love – Mum with her one breast and scar from navel to sternum from open heart surgery – but Len, Mum told her friends, could not. He returned to England and that was that.

I can’t help but feel that she devastated him twice. He wasn’t strong enough for her. My father was, in spades. They were well matched, powerful ego to ego. She needed that.

So, back to the pile, scanning for clues, and then throwing in recycling. Done. Only, in the storage box, there are more bags from others, more letters, more excavating to be done. Exploring the eternal mystery: who were those mysterious people, my parents?

PS True confession: I did the same thing to my first boyfriend who adored me, though he wasn’t as literary as Len. After our summer together – I just turning sixteen, he seventeen – my family moved to another province; he wrote desperate letters and came to visit, but it just didn’t work and I wrote a letter breaking up with him. Twenty-five years later, after my divorce, I got back in touch, we connected deeply by email and telephone, and he was ecstatic to have me in his life again. He flew in to visit, and I flew to where he lived. It didn’t work, we didn’t have much in common, and I broke up with him again. I feel guilty to this day for hurting someone twice. 

Love and war.



2 Responses to “excavating my mother’s passionate past”

  1. Theresa says:

    A friend wrote a novel while at UBC 40 years ago. It was really good,a loosely disguised memoir about growing up in London in the 1940s. She wrote a section about an early love and then she went in search of him. This was pre-internet. Writing about him made her all swoony! But she found him and was bitterly disappointed. He was so ordinary! No fireworks at all. She didn't pursue publishing her novel after a couple of very positive rejections (if you know what I mean) and I think it was partly the disappointment of finding him…

  2. beth says:

    Whereas some people manage to choose the right person even when they're very young. Is it luck, finding the person who's going to change in the right direction along with you over the years?

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