I found a pile of musty-smelling letters tied with rotting twine. There are over a hundred of them written home by me from boarding school. They were written between 1970 and 1978 when I was aged between ten and eighteen so the earliest are just about fifty years old.
Aged ten I had my first taste of being away from home. My letters home were basic ‘played football today’ type stuff. Not in the least reassuring for what were doubtless anxious parents. One beauty contained these uninteresting non-sequiturs: ‘There was a film on Sunday which was quite exciting. The weather is a bit dull.’ What tripe!
They’d probably agonised over whether I should go away to boarding school at all. One reason is that I was slapped about by the headmaster of the day school I went to locally. They’d call that abuse these days.
I was at this first boarding school for three years before strings were pulled to allow me to go to a big school, largely I suspect because I was good at sport and the trumpet. Sometime during my final year at junior school in 1973, when I was 13-years-old, my father was diagnosed with Leukaemia, terminal.
He had told me earlier in the year that he had an illness that they couldn’t make better. But he did say that they could probably stop it getting worse. Maybe I didn’t want to hear and was in denial, but I don’t think I really believed it. He and my Mum kept the seriousness of it from me and my younger brother and sister just about till the end.
I have subsequently found a photograph of the 1973 school cricket team. It was the annual fathers match when all the dads turn out and have some fun with their kids. My Dad was a great sportsman and very good cricketer in his time. Everybody was dressed in cricket whites and blazers except my Dad. He was sitting in the front row wearing ‘civvies’ because he wasn’t well enough to play.
I was standing behind him not realizing he had less than six weeks to live.
It must have taken a huge effort for him to even be there that day. Perhaps it was because of this, and the fact that I was basically in denial, that I didn’t react more to his illness. I didn’t believe he would actually die.
My letter-writing had not improved since I started school and the ones I wrote in May 1973, four months before he died, in addition to looking like they were written out of a sense of misplaced duty, also asked if they could send me a little money. I cringed when I read them. Basically the last thing I wrote to my Dad was garbage.
He died in September 1973 aged fifty eight, two weeks before I was to go off to the big school.
A few days before I was due to leave I found a letter he had written to me wishing me luck with the previous cricket season. It was signed, ‘Ever loving, Dad’. That really broke me up.
‘Ever’ for us never came.
I was distraught. I threw the letter in the dustbin and ran off into the fields.
I wish to this day I had kept that letter.
When I arrived at the big school I remember a few lads, some of whom had come with me from the previous one, offering sympathy. It was well meant but neither they nor I really understood what the ramifications of it all were.
I found letters I’d written to Mum dated less than a month after Dad had died. Then more letters over the following five years. Not once did I mention Dad. Never once did I ask Mum how she was. Oh sure, I said, ‘Hope you are well’, but they were only words to open a letter, no real comfort. Is it an excuse being only thirteen years old? No, I don’t think so. I’m sure I blocked some stuff out but when I think of the burden my Mum carried, well, I can barely imagine it.
After I left school I went to Canada with my friend for six months. Lucky boy eh?
I’ve just read through about a hundred appalling letters, first to Mum and Dad, then just my Mum. Finally I found one that said something interesting. It detailed me and my mates ‘epic’ three-week trip around the USA. Maybe it’s indicative of the unsettling time I had at school that I had nothing positive to say. Not only had I apparently nothing to say, I managed to say it very little enthusiasm! Now, travelling, I seem to be enjoying something for the first time, and perhaps my letter, which I wrote after we’d returned to our Canadian base in Montreal, reflected that.
I have to say, re-reading it was fun. Even I enjoyed it. Alarming in parts for Mum because I documented how we arrived in a dicey area of New York City and chanced our arm walking through even more dodgy areas to reach the YMCA where we stopped that first night. The fact that I wrote the letter retrospectively means we survived OK, but I’m sure Mum was rather nervous about anything we might get up to in the future.
My long letter to her was addressed to a camp site in France. She too was on holiday with my brother, sister and some friends. She wrote back telling me about her fun times, which was great. I remember feeling genuinely happy that she was enjoying herself. That was a happy letter.
Then within a week another letter arrived in Montreal. I knew something was wrong.
My Uncle had died while walking in his beloved Lake District. He’d had a massive heart attack and collapsed up on the hills. This man had been part of my life since year dot. Since my Dad died he had been an ‘important’ part of my life. He was quirky and slightly nutty. But he was there for us. Until he wasn’t. He died aged just fifty-five.
My Mum’s letter to me must have been incredibly hard for her to write. I can see her sitting at the kitchen table. It was her safe place I think, where she found comfort, where she’d sit and listen to the radio. Without that she’d have had some lonely, silent spells I think. It’s here she would have written my letter. It was compassionate yet factual and she wrote from her heart. When she said that he died doing what he loved, she meant it and she was right. It wasn’t just a platitude to help me out.
I was half a world away and I went for another long walk. While I trooped through the parks and streets of Montreal my Mum once again was right in the thick of it, basically on her own, and she had to cope. Another person on whom she’d been able to call for help had gone. But even in her grief she’d penned a wonderful letter. As I read it again today, forty years on, I know that it was thought deeply about. Written, through her grief, for me.
I have kept that letter and half a dozen others, the rest today went up in smoke.
I wish I had learned the lesson earlier that if you’re going to write something, do it properly, especially letters. They are intensely personal and they endure. The vast majority of the crap I wrote sat in a shoe box for fifty years before being burnt. It was like an exorcism through cremation.
During our cathartic house move I’ve been through all sorts of stuff in an effort to slim down the past. There’s intrinsically nobody but me who has any real interest. Lots of letters but other things too that I’d previously not really taken in. My Dad and Grandfathers obituaries for example. I rediscovered that my Dad was a Squadron Leader in WW2. My Grandfather served in Mesopotamia in WW1. I had learned both these facts years ago but had parked them in my memory. Now they’re back for good. Both went on to serve others throughout their lives and were worthy of extensive obituaries. I’m proud of both of them, especially my Dad because there will be some people walking around our town today because he, as a consultant physician, was able to make them well all those years ago.
Lastly today, after reading, sorting and burning I’m rather reflective.......
All the folks who have gone are in my thoughts.
I feel as if I’m sitting at the edge of a sandy desert. On the far horizon, is a heat haze. It’s here my forebears wait and watch. They are indistinct, no more than a shimmer in the distance, but they are there, patiently awaiting my arrival.
But not just yet, I’ve more letters to write.
This time I'll try and get them right.
Jo May © 2020