Couple’s war letters became book

Norah Egener was 25 years old when her husband, Fred, went overseas to serve his country in the Second World War. With a two-year-old son and a baby on the way, Norah moved in with her parents in Owen Sound, Ontario. There, she waited four years for her husband to return.During their time apart, the couple wrote hundreds of letters back and forth, describing everything from their deep love for each other to their everyday lives.“We told each other the latest news and then we seemed to have a heart-to-heart talk,” Norah, now 85, says. “We expressed how we were feeling. Sometimes we didn’t agree.”

Fred, after reading the letters, would mail them home to Norah who stored them with hers in boxes.

Never spoke of letters
After the war ended, the couple never spoke again of the war or of the letters. “It was as if,” says Norah, “we pulled a blind down [over the war years].” The letters lay forgotten in the attic.

More than 45 years later, Norah contacted journalist Stuart McLean to suggest a story for CBC’s Morningside on items people store in their attics. McLean liked the idea and asked to visit hers. He arrived in the fl of 1988, several months after Fred’s death, and Norah showed him her treasures, including her husband’s military uniform.

“She sent it out every six months to get it dry cleaned which I found very touching,” says McLean.

Broadcaster read letters
McLean spotted the grey boxes under the eaves and asked what was inside. It was the forgotten letters.

“It was a funny feeling,” Norah says. She showed McLean the contents. At the top of the pile was a telegram informing Norah that her husband had been wounded. Beneath it was the telegram from Fred saying he was finally back home in Canada.

“We looked through quite a few of the letters and Stuart said, ‘You’ve got to do something about them,'” Norah recalls. “He really got me started.”

After McLean left, Norah tried reading all the letters but found it too difficult so soon after Fred’s death.

“It threw me back — emotionally — way back in time.”

More than 400 letters
But the more Norah thought about the letters, the more determined she became to turn them into a book. She contacted novelist Joan Barfoot and encouraged her to edit the letters for publication.

Barfoot went through more than 400 letters, some 20 pages long-letters that not only expressed the couple’s deep love for each other but also revealed the tremendous strain they were under living apart for so long.

Norah and Fred worked through disagreements and insecurities while thousands of miles apart-and even forgave each other for extra marital affairs.

“About two weeks before they went to press, I got cold feet,” Norah says of her decision to include such highly personal information. “I had made up my mind, though, that I was going to be forthright. Nobody wants to read a fairy tale.”

Historian’s view
Desmond Morton, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in Montreal, calls the letters historically significant-“quite rare, quite interesting and quite frank. I have spent a lot of time reading letters home from servicemen and women in both wars and I have seldom found any that were as …emotionally revealing.”

But there’s some question whether Fred, an extremely private man, would have approved. Even so, Norah went ahead with the book in honour of her late husband and named him co-author.

“Some people said they didn’t really know Fred until they read the letters,” she said. “He was very much admired and respected but they really didn’t know him.”

A Time Apart: Letters of Love and War 1941-45 is published by The Ginger Press.