To the Editor:
I’m writing in response to your invitation to send in photos of family members who were veterans. I couldn’t find the picture of my father I was looking for but I did find other things: his beret his knapsack his medals his “dogtag” booklets describing the use and mechanism of machine guns a copy of Canadian Soldiers’ Song Book.
My father never talked about his experience in the Second World War. He was a pharmacist working for Eaton’s in Toronto when he enlisted in 1942. He was 34 years old and engaged to be married. First he went to Camp Borden for training. In February 1943 he was notified that he would be sailing to Europe. He and my mother married “on Embarkation Leave.” Their honeymoon was a weekend in Niagara Falls.
Little did they know that it would be more than three years before they saw each other again. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been. Another item I found in the box gave me a glimpse into that time. It was a little black notebook. On the first page my mother wrote “Record of letters and parcels sent to My husband – Pte Coburn L.W. R.C.A.M.C. No. 1 Canadian General Reinforcement Unit Canadian Army Overseas”. She numbered every letter and parcel and she kept track of when she sent them and my father wrote back telling her when he received them. Letter #1 was sent on March 10/43; letter #503 was sent on February 6/46.
The first parcel she sent was sent on March 22/43. It contained “Underwear Notepaper Cigarettes Figs Kisses Willards Mints Bovril Cheese Tin of Tomato Juice and Hot Chocolate.” Father received it on May 6. The last parcel she described was #62 sent November 15/45.
In another part of the notebook is a record of all the letters and gifts my father sent to my mother. He sent flowers at Easter earrings for her birthday roses on their anniversary photographs and a perfume bottle from Belgium.
What devotion; what discipline – recording every letter every gift. I imagine it must have been her way to keep him close to try to keep him safe. I suppose thousands of women did the same thing. My partner Eric tells me that his aunt and her husband invented their own secret code to get by the censors. One of their code words included in a harmless-looking sentence in a letter would let her know what part of England he was in or where he might be going.
There is another box in the cupboard – a small black case. In it are all those letters from my father. I never knew about that box until I found it after my parents had both died. Each letter is actually a reduced copy of what my father had written on a standard letter form. I suppose it was read by a censor to make sure that there was nothing in it that revealed the Allies’ secrets and then photographed. Each letter is in a small tan-coloured envelope folded so that the mailing address can be seen through the opening on the front. I imagine the thrill my mother had each time one of those envelopes appeared in the mail. And once she started keeping them how could she ever throw them out? That case came with them when they moved to Minden in 1949.
So this is what I can offer for this year’s Remembrance Day edition. Thank you for the nudge to dig out those boxes and think back to what life was like 70-some years ago… on the “Front” and back here at home.
Eagle Lake Road