Christine Estima’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Walrus, Vice and the 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 over 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 antique-travel-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-a-brac. 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, I 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 as how 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 her to write back and 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 ($4.50).
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, France, in 1934, who writes of witnessing the Jewish and Roma-Sinti refugees already pouring across the border from Germany, and the pogroms instigated by the gendarmerie. I paid £2 ($3.40).
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 Edward. They lent me yearbooks from 1931 to 1936, where 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 and 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.