My father is the reason I said yes to an e-mail asking whether I wanted a review copy of “Love Letters from World War II.” But I didn’t think this at the time.
The book’s cover is what I thought drew me: photographs of a man and a woman looking like characters in an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, lean and beautiful, and of a time, both staring outward but looking inward, too, separate, facing away from each other but clearly, and maybe even hopelessly, indivisible.
The cover got my attention.
But what kept me reading, I know now, was my father.
You see, he also wrote love letters from World War II. He wrote for men in his platoon who couldn’t find or didn’t have the words to write what they felt. He wrote for four long years.
I had no idea that he did this until one afternoon when I was 11 and home alone and found in my mother’s bureau drawer a cigar box packed full of letters and poems. “My Dear Rita.” “Dearest Alice.” “My Darling Hazel, Theresa, Helen,” these letters began. And I thought, my father had this many girlfriends?
When my mother came home, I showed her what I’d found and asked about all these different names. “No. No. They weren’t your father’s girlfriends! Your father was like Cyrano de Bergerac. He was good at writing love letters, so he wrote them for anyone who asked.”
“Did you really do that, Dad?” I asked him later that night. And he nodded. And that was that. He didn’t expound, and when I went looking for these letters a few weeks, maybe a few months later, they were gone.
“Love Letters from World War II” isn’t at all like this serendipitous find. But it’s a find, nonetheless, and not just for Robert Stevenson who was was 71 when he discovered in his loft a cardboard box containing 524 letters his parents had written. It’s a find for all of us who are now able to read these letters because Stevenson organized and published them.
“It was a terribly slow process,” Stevenson, who lives in England, wrote in his preface. “My mother’s writing was not bad, but my father’s was just awful. However, as I progressed I was rewarded. A new and unsuspected father and mother emerged -- vibrant, passionate people who were ‘doing their duty’ but longed for the end of the war and to be together again with their children.”
Robert’s father, Alan, was a doctor in Britain in 1939 when Britain declared war on Germany. Immediately his father was sent to France, and his mother, Sheila, was left on her own with 3-month-old him.
Alan and Sheila Stevenson fared better than many displaced by war. Alan, except for the nearly two years he spent in Africa, got leave occasionally. Sheila had the help of family and friends. But for six years they did not live together as a family. And for six years they wondered whether they ever would.
For the reader of these letters, there is no dramatic tension because we know the ending. We know that Alan was one of the lucky ones, that he came home to Sheila, that Sheila survived and her boys, too, and that they, plus a daughter born in 1947, lived as happily ever after as real people ever do.
But for them, then, living through these dangerous times there is tension in every moment of every day. Would Germany win the war? Would Alan be sent to the Pacific? Would he come home injured? Or not come? Would their boys ever feel safe? Would life some day be the way that it was?
The letters between Sheila and Alan are like newsreels and 78 records and telephones with a rotary dial. They are the past. “My Very Dear.” “Dear One.” “My Beloved” “ ... you are ... the girl I love, the half of me without which the other half is useless.” Alan wrote.
My father wrote, too. To Alice. To Hazel. To Theresa. He hadn’t met my mother yet. I wish he had. I wish I had the letters they might have shared. I envy Robert Stevenson his find. “Love Letters from World War II” is more than history. It is a treasure.Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.