By Cora Nelson with Nick Looker
When I was growing up in my family home in Amherst in the 1960s, a stack of photo albums stored in a tucked-away bookshelf held a certain mystique. The albums contained pages and pages of photos of my mother in her twenties at her family home, with a different man in every photo.
“Mum…who are these all men?” I’d ask and she’d roll her eyes and explain, once again. I think I was always looking for the hint of a smile I’d see in her eyes as she thought back over those years.
My mum, Dorothy Catherine McKay, was born an only child to Reta and Noble Renton in 1921 and grew up in her family home on Lutz Street in Moncton. Her father worked as a train conductor with the Canadian National Railway. During the Second World War, his route regularly involved the transport of young servicemen who, having come to Canada from overseas for their training, were en route home to begin their service. The men were usually in Moncton overnight before being transported overseas, and Noble often invited some of them to his family’s home for a relaxing evening and dinner before they continued on their way. The photos were a way to remember these young men; to record that they were there, before they were swept up into war. Of course these were enjoyable evenings, and of course my mum remembered them with a smile.
My mum passed away in the spring of 2016 and the job of sorting her estate fell to my brother and me. Death affects each of us in a different way and I knew that I could best cope with my mother’s passing by working through her Amherst home of 60 years, box by box, item by item, and even, ultimately, piece of paper by piece of paper.
I was saying goodbye to so much and handling each item one last time offered me a way to acknowledge and accept Mum’s passing and a path to peace. My brother, generously, and perhaps also with a bit of relief, granted me the space and time for this task.
Among her many, seemingly endless, boxes of papers, I came upon a thank-you note, still in its original envelope, dated 1948. This note, written in exquisite penmanship in a monogrammed Christmas card, was from a young serviceman of the war. He wrote, “With unfailing gratitude for kindnesses shown to me. To your parents and yourself I send my sincere best wishes,” and was signed “Lodwig.” Lodwig had been one of Noble and Reta’s guests.
That the note was written three years after the conclusion of the war caught my attention, and I had to believe that the evening had provided a respite for this young serviceman, enough so to be remembered—and perhaps cherished—years later. It seemed very worth trying to track down this gentleman and return his note. His full name, “Lodwig Hefin Looker,” was printed on the front of the card and upon entering his name into Google’s search bar, with incredible good luck, his address popped up—in Cardiff, Wales. And, it appeared that Lodwig was alive and well, even after all the passing years.
Knowing that the sudden appearance of this thank-you note in Lodwig’s mailbox would be a surprise, I wrote and enclosed a letter, explaining that Mum had passed away and that I’d come across his note among her belongings. I mentioned that she’d kept his note, her photo albums and happy memories of those times, but now that she had passed on, the note belonged with him. I explained that she’d had a long and happy marriage (to a former Spitfire pilot), that they’d had two children and that Mum had remained healthy and independent, with her quick wit firmly intact, well into her 95th year. I signed and sealed the package and dropped it off at the post office, hoping that somehow it would all work out.
And it did. Within just a few weeks I received a letter from Lodwig’s son, Nick. Nick explained that Lodwig (whom he’d always called by his second name, Hefin) was alive and well at 91 years of age and was still living in his Cardiff home. He wrote that Hefin had been only 20 years old at that time, away from his North Wales village for the first time, and was in training to be part of a crew for a Lancaster bomber. The note’s unexpected appearance had triggered many fond memories for Hefin, not all of which he’d had the chance to share in the past. He went on to say that he and his father had spent an evening reminiscing about the adventures and experiences those war years brought to this serviceman’s young life.
And really, that would have been a wonderful ending to this story, begun with a thank-you note. As it happens, however, our good luck continued.
I had long before made plans to join a walking company for the spring of 2017, for walking trips in Wales and England. My elder daughter was joining me for the Wales portion and our train bookings had us travelling through Cardiff. Nick and I had continued to correspond and upon learning that we’d be spending a night in Cardiff, he arranged for the four of us to meet. Nick met us at the train station and took us to Hefin’s home, where plans had been set for us to stay the night. We met Hefin, a tall, distinguished and absolutely charming gentleman, who welcomed us into his home, so reminiscent of Noble and Reta and my mum welcoming him into theirs, years before.
Over tea, we talked and exchanged stories of long lives lived with adventure and in good health and then our group moved on for an evening together in a Cardiff pub. Our evening was spent over good food, companionship, stories and the sharing of long-remembered memories.
As our evening was drawing to a close and we got up, I lingered and took a last, long look at our table, covered with the remains of an evening spent in friendship. Immersed in the warmth we’d shared around it, it occurred to me that Mum, who so would have enjoyed all this evening brought, had, in a sense, shared it with us. She’d opened the door for all of us, by treasuring a thank-you note from days so long ago.
Intro & Header Image:
Caption: Cora Nelson looking through her mum’s photo albums.