70-year old letters come to life!

Sprawled out over my desk are more than 500 handwritten letters (many in pencil), written between 1942 and 1945. They are waiting to be typed. They are love letters – some still in envelopes – between my mother and father during the war years; letters that convey not just the love, but the anguish and the torment of separation; letters that bring a renewed expectation of hope and understanding, knowing that their love for each other will sustain them until they are reunited.

The emotions are raw. They are intimate. They are real. And sometimes they are heart-breaking.

These letters have remained in boxes for over 70 years.

Dad was no longer alive when my mother died in 1981. Not long after her death my siblings and I thought it best to “do something about them”. Whenever the seven of us got together – which wasn’t that often, as some lived overseas – out came the boxes. “We really need to do something about these letters” was the repeated sentiment, but we just couldn’t agree. Some wanted them to go to the Victorian State Library, some wanted the War Office in Canberra to have them, some felt they were just too personal to share with others, and some thought they should be destroyed, so we simply returned them to the safety of their boxes, and there they have stayed. Until recently.

 

 

I decided to bring them back to Sydney with me a few months ago, sort them into chronological order, and have a go at typing them up.

I was not prepared for the result.

St Kilda
June 9th, 1943

My beloved Ted,

……I shall now again say au revoir – one day closer to our reunion. Let us try and think of it that way, no matter how distant it may be, every day brings us just a little wee bit nearer to each other.

Meanwhile, in the midst of that dreary waste, I know there is one oasis – that of your love for me and mine for you. That mutual bond will hold us steadfast; steadfast, even through the possible frustrations of our hopes by many a mirage.

My darling, my love goes out to you from the very depths of my being: may I be so bold as to hope that it helps you, ever so little, in your very grey days which of necessity must be ahead. Until tomorrow, all my thoughts my sweetheart.

Your always adoring
Billie xxxxx

On June 9th 1943 – the day my mother “Billie” penned the above sentiments to my father – I was a four-month old foetus in her womb. She had not long turned 33 years of age and was expecting her first child.

It would take a further seven decades for me to understand and appreciate my parents’ love for each other. A love that endured for many years, despite the later, sometimes traumatic times that punctuated their lives.

My father, Ted, was a Commando during the war. My mother was a classical musician, and during those tumultuous years when Ted was stationed with army troops in North Queensland, she was in Melbourne, teaching. In October 1943 – one month before I decided it was time to leave the womb and embrace my own journey, Ted wrote:

Selheim, Qld
October 24th 1943

My darling

I am afraid that if my letters were dependent upon a structure of news, they would be almost entirely conspicuous by their absence. Every day here is a faithful counterpart of its predecessor, humdrum and entirely devoid of incident and interest; that is if interest is not inclusive of such mundane things as seeing a “talkie”, drinking a bottle of beer, and once a week valiantly indulging in a bridge tournament.

And yet, all around me are men, hundreds of them, all apparently quite happy and contented, smiling and laughing each day into the next.

I must be losing my “punch” darling, for it’s many a day since I have possessed the delightful ability to laugh and enjoy the incidents of everyday life, even Army life. It is as if that year of me has been left behind with you, and until such time as I can get home to reclaim it, I shall not be myself.

Now that I am eagerly counting every day to the occasion of our reunion, my impatience at the seemingly awful length of every day, and even hours, knows no bounds. I just cannot fit into my present environment. I am perfectly convinced that such as we are, as you remarked in your letter of today, we are quite useless apart, not in a practical sense but rather in an emotional, spiritual and intellectual category.

I often wonder whether we gain from such a separation: at times I am inclined to the opinion that the pangs of such are as a fire wherein are forged still stronger links for the chain of our future happiness; then again, in spasms of despondency, I think that maybe we are losing so much valuable time: time in which we could be achieving so much; time in which we would be drawing even closer to our mutual goal of complete unity of purpose and achievement.

Since the only tangible fact is the one of a very real separation, it were best to believe the former conjecture, and face the future with confidence that we both will emerge stronger and more capable of dealing with the successful consummation of our lives together……

Au revoir my darling wife. Ever my undying love and devotion.
Always Yours
Ted xxxx

In the above letter, when talking of their unborn first child, my father also wrote:

…..My “commando” training will be of a practical nature. After numerous hours of diligent perambulations and the customary soothing noises attended by a loving father, I shall, no doubt, in a futile effort to quieten Anthony Michael, or Janet Agnes, utilise the aforesaid training and apply some “unarmed combat tactics”.

Dad had a sense of humour, one I only really discovered much later and after his death, when coming across his writings and short stories. I do remember him telling jokes, and I remember, as a child, laughing along with the rest of the family, even though I had no idea why it all seemed so funny.

My mother and father had obviously chosen to name me before I was born, after my maternal grandmother, Janet. Janet Agnes (Agnes, my mother’s ‘real’ name) became Janet Maria, and they had to wait a further ten years before a son called Anthony became their eighth child. Anthony Michael was changed to Anthony John Louis, the two middle names after my father, Edward John Louis.

It is not often that we are able to read about ourselves as a baby and small child – let alone as a foetus in the womb – especially via the written word of our parents, but 75 years since that eventful day in late November, 1943, when I was born, I am now learning about the little Janet Maria.

Mercy Hospital
East Melbourne

December 5th 1943

My darling Ted,

………Now where do I commence? I think perhaps I’ll leave out for the time being the early stages, and get down to a description of your daughter. She has gone along, improving from day to day and everybody who should know, gives a good report of her. The Doctor yesterday afternoon used the term “gorgeous”. Apparently all premature babes are a headache to start off, but thanks – I expect to the fact that both of us are pretty solid creatures – our wee mite has come along remarkably well.

I’ve seen her only twice, but expect to be feeding her very soon now. From the last good look at her I hazarded a guess that she would resemble you, and she does, darling. My summing up for the moment is that she has very big eyes, wide-set (everyone speaks of her lovely big bright eyes), pretty set sort of jaw (one of the sisters told me someone’s will must need to be matched against hers!) and so far as one may judge at this stage, a decidedly deep brow.

Perhaps a doting mother sees intellect written where others would not, but others do say she has good solid features…. Oh her hands – they look good to me – longish fingers but also pretty square and solid palm. Oh, darling, I hope you are not disappointed, as I said before, I’m probably seeing all sorts of wonderful things that aren’t really there at all! I must stop.

Forever your loving Billie xxxx

******

Nth Queensland
December 1, 1943

My beloved wife,

I am still in a daze after the most unexpected news of yesterday; it took me fully five minutes to lucidly digest the contents of the telegram. Darling, what a surprise to spring on everyone, and what a beautiful surprise – a wee little girl. I still have far from grasped the reality of the situation; I cannot realise that at last has been brought to fruition the consummation of all our dreams and hopes – everything has been so sudden and unpredictable.

I am totally at loss for words to express my feelings and thoughts about this awe-inspiring and beautiful happening.

Hell!! darling if only I could tell you how I really feel. All I know is that my whole being clamours for your presence, to be able to hold you in my arms and let you see my internal love for you and this wondrous creature, that is of our flesh, soul and spirit.

As much as I have hungered to be with you when the event was due, I thank God from the bottom of my heart that it is over now, for I have been intensely concerned about you and how the giving of this wondrous new life would affect you….

… Dearest, I want to thank you from the depth of my being for the two beautiful birthday gifts: Janet Maria and the adorable and the lovely little cigarette case. Not that there is any implication of comparison, except that both have been given from your most innermost heart, and the one being in the world whom I love with such an intensity of feeling and passion, that life would be utterly meaningless and total devoid of existence without her.

My truly beloved, the future is for us to mould to the shape of our eternal love, and the time is nigh for us to step out together with our little one as an added bond and inspiration. My heart is full to overflowing, darling……

Ever yours
Ted xxxx

******

North Queensland
December 4, 1943

My Darling Billie,

Just a wee note today to let you know that my thoughts are with you continually and even though my paltry body is some two thousand miles in separation, my spirit and true self assuredly are your constant attendants.

My somewhat dazed condition of mind of late has been replaced by a serenity and contentment from the realisation that at long last are we in close proximity for the crowning touch necessary for the completion of our happiness.

When I arrive home in the next few weeks, and I am confident it will not be longer than that, we, the three of us, must go away some place together and become thoroughly acquainted, for, my beloved, I feel there will be a beautiful addition to my little adored wife that I must get to know.

We shall have so much to discuss about the wonderful promise of our future, particularly so of our beloved little one. So, dearest, even if I don’t arrive home for the immediate present, we shall of a certainty be compensated for the continued exercise of a little more patience…..

Your ever loving husband
Ted xxx

******

North Queensland
December 9, 1943

My Beloved Billie,

My letter of yesterday was a trifle premature with regard to concerns at the non- appearance of mail from you. For today, the much sought-for letter arrived. The effect of such was tremendous; from a dejected and miserable mortal was transformed a totally new individual.

Darling, I am radiantly happy now that I know you and the adorable creature are truly well. Apart from the main reason for my wanting to get home – that is self explanatory – I can hardly contain myself waiting for that occasion to enable me to discover for myself this wondrous result of our mutual love and passion.

The description of Janet the Great augurs well for the future of the child. Tis a great pity though that her “Nibs” resembles – according to you and her Aunt – her “old man”. Let us pray the likeness is confined to the physical medium and that she inherits her mother’s talent and intelligence.

If your description is somewhere near the point of accuracy, and I fail to comprehend to the contrary, there is ample justification for optimism with regard to her future. Firstly – wide set eyes – an undeniable mark of a generous and truthfully frank nature. Secondly – a high broad forehead – the hallmark of intellect and reasoning. Thirdly – a good square hand with fairly lengthy fingers – a definite promise for an artistic career, more probably, a pianist or an artist.

There indeed lies the seed of a flower most promising. Tis for us to nurture and develop with guiding hand this rare flower. When I arrive home for good and once the little one discards her shell of infantile indifference to her immediate surroundings, I am going to spend – with her mother’s permission – a half hour each day introducing and making her acquainted with the piano, for I feel almost a sixth sense that she will find her medium for artistic expression in that instrument.

Good heavens, darling, do you realise that we may have a child prodigy on our hands. And yet, on the other hand, she may be a throw back and not have the smallest iota of musical and artistic ability. I prefer to think not. Whatever direction her latent talents may take, I am sure of one thing: that with such an adorable darling as her mother, she couldn’t help but be successful and charming. That little bit of truthful flattery will cost you an extra dozen beers on the ice for my homecoming, darling.

My beloved, I am so happy; happy in the realisation of our unquenchable love and happy in the knowledge of a wonderful new life – Janet Maria. We are indeed en route to a beautiful future. Let us be worthy of our obligations.

Your ever loving Ted
xxxxx

******

I certainly had a lot to live up to!

As I sit here, typing, typing, typing, and learning more and more about my parents that I could ever have hoped for, the “we must do something about these letters” sentiment is now well and truly history.

The boxes that housed these treasures for 70 odd years have been discarded, and the lives of Agnes Jean “Billie” Courtin and Edward John Louis Courtin are, once again, well and truly alive.

 

About Jan Courtin

A Bloods tragic since first game at Lake Oval in 1948. Moved interstate to Sydney to be closer to beloved Swans in 1998. My book "My Lifelong Love Affair with the Swans" was launched by the Swans at their headquarters at the SCG in August 2016. www.myswansloveaffair.com

Comments

  1. Hey Jan, that is a great story. My wife had our first child in the Mercy Maternity Hospital, East Melbourne. If our experience was a guide, then your mother had a great experience!

  2. Neil Anderson says:

    As the twig is bent Jan. How lucky are you to have those genes including inheriting those writing skills you share with us almanackers.
    My father assisted by my mother was a good and caring provider for us kids, but lacked the ability to outwardly show his feelings. I realized much later he was acting like his own father who was a hard task-master bringing up about ten kids (my father was the eldest) on a farm in the western district of Victoria.
    My aim was to break that cycle of ‘not being able to show your feelings’ with my own children and I think I have succeeded fairly well.
    I really enjoyed reading those letters, particularly as someone from your era. My father was in Darwin during the war and in Townsville briefly in the early 1950’s when I was a child.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Colin Ritchie says:

    Fabulous read Jan! Your family has been very fortunate to have been left such moving, heart felt and intimate reminders of your mum and dad. Letters, like those of your folks, can provide a detailed legacy and reveal information about loved ones that you may never have known about if it had not been for the letters. I wonder if my mum and dad exchanged letters? I cannot imagine them writing intimate letters such as your parents did.

  4. Fantastic, Jan. Thanks for sharing with us.
    What a treasure-trove.
    It speaks of a different world, a different time.

  5. Luke Reynolds says:

    Absolutely wonderful words Jan, by both of your parents as well as yourself. Incredible the letters have lasted this long without being disposed of or otherwise. Fascinating, and quite moving correspondence. And what a lovely photo of your parents at the end. As Smokie said, thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks, one and all, for your comments

  7. Earl O'Neill says:

    Marvellous Jan, thank you.

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    This is amazing Jan, thanks. I’m intrigued to ask about your recollection of their everyday conversations. The contrast between the language used in the letters and ordinary conversation is striking.

  9. Thanks Earl and Swish
    These letters were in the infancy of their love affair, Swish, so I imagine over the years, and after the War when the letters ceased, the language changed. I don’t honestly remember much of their conversation other than it centering around a hectic household of seven children, but when they were together in privacy, who knows!

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