Monday 2 September 2013


When I was young, my mother would sometimes get a dreamy look in her eyes and say, “Your father and I were apart for close to three years during World War II, but we wrote to each other almost every other day.” When I asked to see the letters, she would get out the dusty old Eaton’s box, and let me look at them, but she wouldn’t let me read them. She told me they were private and spoke of a deep love she hoped I would also experience one day.

While clearing out their house after my father’s death, (my mother had died 12 years earlier), I came upon that same box in the bottom dresser drawer. Not knowing what to do with it, I took it home and stowed it away in my closet. I didn’t want to break the confidence of the parents I had loved so much, and who had loved each other. But how could I discard those letters, unread?

Ultimately, curiosity got the better of me. Looking inside, I found several neatly stacked bundles of blue airmail letters, tied with yellow ribbons, and a note saying, “Letters written from 1943 to 1946 between Harry and Helen.” I took this as permission to delve further.

I found approximately 600 letters from each to the other. I wasn’t surprised that my mother had kept those he sent to her, but I was amazed that my father had carried all of hers with him in his kit bag, while he travelled around the British Isles during the war. As I read through them, I discovered not just declarations of undying love, but also detailed descriptions of what was happening on both sides of the Atlantic. If it had not been for the war, the two likely would never have encountered each other.

Helen Reeder was the eldest daughter of eleven children growing up in an impoverished Saskatchewan farm family during the Depression. Seeing no future for herself there, she studied shorthand and typing through correspondence courses and at a secretarial school. She found a job in Ottawa in 1942 working in the Department of Munitions and Supply. It was there that she met and became engaged to Harry Culley who played clarinet and saxophone in the Royal Canadian Air Force #3 Personnel Reception Centre Band at Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Station. 

During their two-and-a-half years apart, they kept their love alive through letters and packages – she sent over care boxes filled with tins and home baking, including cookies, fruit cakes, and candies, as well as homemade items such as woollen socks and scarves. And he sent her flowers and jewellery for her birthday, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas.

While overseas, he endured bombings in London, the overall scarcity of food, and the exhaustion of travelling by trains, buses and army trucks with irregular schedules to perform in concerts, parades and dances. But he and the other band members knew that their music was keeping up the morale of soldiers and civilians alike, especially during the dark, early years of the war.

Of their love letters, Helen wrote, “We’ll bind them up and read them over about twenty years from now . . . it’s a nice thought.”   I don’t think they ever did sit down together to re-read those letters – they were too busy living the lives they had dreamed about all those years before. But I’m certainly glad that they left them for us to enjoy.

Helen Reeder
Harry Culley