The Making of a Love Story
by Johanna Hanley
In the late 1950s an extremely shy young nurse and Indonesian war refugee was living in a small cramped apartment with her parents in the Netherlands. Her friends and colleagues urged her to join them in signing up for what could best be described as yesteryear’s version of an on-line dating site. Each young lady wrote a few letters which were sent to single active military personnel who had also signed up with this pen-pal meeting service.
On arrival to a base in Suriname the head cook of a ship received a large package. To his surprise and delight (and to the jealousy of his shipmates) the package contained letters from almost two hundred young women. The cook read each one, organizing and sorting them like a pile of applications.
A lottery win for a lonely navy man. The shipmates who originally mocked him about joining the service now wanted a part of his good fortune. As he had far too many letters for one guy to handle he did what any enterprising young man would do – he auctioned off those many letters to those ship mates for a beer or two a piece. Needless to say, it was a long time before he was expected to pick up the tab.
He chose the 10 best for himself and he wrote back to all of them. The few with mutual interest responded. After several months, he chose to continue communication with only one. For two years, without meeting, the two wrote to one another, sent gifts and photos, and traded reel-to-reel recordings so they could share music and hear each other’s voices. A week after he arrived back in the Netherlands, his military term completed, and finally able to meet her in person, the cook and the nurse decided to marry. Six months later they immigrated to the United States and 51 years later they remain in love. A side benefit was that those beer letter trades resulted in several other relationships and the potential for some darn good stories.
My children love stories of their parents’ past. They have a particular interest in the “How did my parents meet” question. Like the children on “How I Met Your Mother,” they want to know. The previous story belongs to my parents and was shared with me as a child. While my the memory is apt to embellish or romanticize, this is how I remember the story that gave me faith in the idea that enduring love could exist. Besides the storytellers, all that remains are the letters and reel-to-reels which are safely preserved until they decide to share them. Until then, this story is enough.
My siblings and I always knew growing up that our stories couldn’t match that of our parents (funny, romantic, enduring) but there would be a story or at least an entertaining way to share our own stories when the time came to do so. So although most people’s how we met story isn’t entertaining enough to warrant a long running sitcom—may not appear unusual, funny or enduring—I think everyone has a story worthy of sharing. My kids have heard our story (I only have one real “love” story), and we have told it to them together and separately many times. They like to hear it repeatedly. I hope that they too will have the opportunity to share a personal story of love with their children regardless of how wild or mundane it may appear to be.