A Letter to Winnie
They say that energy never dissipates completely, it simply changes form. I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but I do wonder if they ever thought about love in that way. Take a letter, for example, written in 1920 from a young man to his sweetheart (his rather illicit sweetheart as you’ll see, he was actually courting her elder sister), each one of its words buoyed with that strange stomach-squeezing feeling that comes with a crush. What form would that feeling have taken once released from its words, I wonder? Bearing in mind that most of them are borrowed from Irving Caesar and George Gershwin. But then, how else would a young, British gentleman retain his stiff upper-lip?
Harry met and married his Winnie, they had two children, he became a colonel in the Royal Engineers, they had a third child, he retired from the army, built his second career with Freddy Laker, travelled all over with his Winnie, died young. Twenty years later, having not remarried, so did she. Here I hold this letter in my hand, nearly one-hundred years on, yet its energy finds and fills my tear-ducts. I feel it, not as the object of that stomach-squeezing love but, as someone who knows what would happen after that letter was written; all that time ready to make this story sad before it had begun.
I also see the first spark of me in this exchange.
It’s all in the detail, we say as writers; the little things that make one life different from another. Although I have always known what he was, finding this letter was more revealing about who he was. Ultimately, it has made me feel closer to my grandfather.
21 London Road
Dec. 8th. 20.
I’ve been away from you a long time; I never thought I’d miss you so. Somehow, I feel; your love was real. Near you I long to be. The birds are singing, it is songtime. The banjo’s strummin’ soft and low. I know that you, yearn for me too (??) Swanee – you’re calling me.
(That’s the first verse, I hope you can read it).
Among the city ways I wonder, I know the sunshine and the cloud (heaps of cloud this morning). Still all the while, my mammy’s smile lives in my mem-o-ry. I want my homeland over yonder. I’m just a stranger mid the crowd. Swanee, know – I’ve got to go, Swanee – you’re calling me.
(And that’s the second spasm. In case you don’t know all the chorus – here goes:) Swanee – how I love you! How I love you! My dear old Swanee. I’d give you the world to be among the folks in D.I.X.I.Even now my my mammy’s waiting for me – praying for me, down by the Swanee. The folks up north will see me no more – when I go to the Swanee shore. (I’ll be happy) (I’ll be hapy)
Swanee – Swanee. I am coming back to Swannee – Mammy – Mammy. I love the old folks at home.
(Repeat whole blinkin’ shoot from ‘I’ve’ to ‘Swanee shore.)
Are you going to Keston’s on Thursday? He has got a dance, hasn’t he? Will you tell Ethel that I’m hoping to write Betty Arbuckle a note today in answer to the one she sent me?
If I do write it I’ll drop it in No. 154 this evening; perhaps I can remember to bring a snapshot of my hideous phiz and thus satisfy the yearning desires of your sister. And another ‘perhaps’ – perhaps I shall see you?
I’ve asked you four questions in about as many sentences, so how about a fifth? Awfully hot, is it not?
Haven’t seen George since Mon. night. He said something about gym tonight but I don’t know whether we’re going.
Were you bored on Sunday? Would you go through it again – for me?
See you soon.
Please excuse the scrap paper. H x
by Amy Lilwall and Lt. Col. Henry Ernest Cross, ‘Harry’