A letter across time

In November last year, around the time that my late wife Karina and I would have celebrated our 54th anniversary, I received an old-fashioned letter from England. While it was addressed to me as professor emeritus, the envelope bore a handwritten note indicating it was “personal.”

I became curious. We came back from England half a century ago, and, except for a brief visit I made in 1998, we hadn’t returned to this lovely country since we were students at Manchester University. We had lost contact with our former professors and classmates, and I wasn’t aware of any enduring friendships we had made outside the university. But how could I think we did not make friends? As fleeting as it might have been, there was one friendship that remained securely lodged in the memory of two bubbly pre-teen girls whom Karina and I met during a three-day coach holiday to the coastal town of Bournemouth, in the south of England. Janet was maybe 12, and her sister Julie was around 10. The letter came from Julie, now 62.

The two girls, who were traveling with an aunt, were the only kids among the 25 passengers in that coach tour. We, apart from being the only foreigners in the group, were the only ones in the early 20s. It quickly dawned on us that the tour we had joined was designed primarily for retired people.

I now vaguely recall how we got on that tour. We had saved some money from our meager scholarship to be able to celebrate Karina’s 24th birthday by seeing another part of the country. (Today, March 19, would have been her 77th.) There was no particular reason why we chose the Bournemouth package, other than because it was the cheapest available at that time.

“Dear Professor David,” Julie’s letter began. “Firstly, apologies if I have the wrong person. Please find enclosed a photograph of a coach holiday to Bournemouth in 1970. I am the little girl seated on the floor to the right, my sister Janet is on the left. On this trip we met a couple called Randy and Nina David, who chatted and played with us during the holiday …” And there, indeed, we were — in that memorable group photo, the only Asians in a bunch of beaming Lancashire faces. Karina (Nina) was young, tall, and lovely in the printed dress we bought for her birthday. Looking thin and gangly, I stood at the back with five English gentlemen in their finest woolen vests and coats. The coach driver, also in coat and tie, sat on the ground between Julie and Janet.

“My sister and I came across this photograph whilst clearing our parents’ (Joan and Jim Gornall) home. My mother passed away in 2012 and my father is now in a care home due to onset dementia … You came to our family home, in Grimsargh, for a meal and to meet my parents.” Slowly, my mind returned to the happy memories we had as a young couple, visiting old villages in the picturesque English countryside just outside Manchester, and stopping by the local pubs for a pint of ale and steak-and-kidney pie.

Julie wrote that, even before they discovered the holiday souvenir photo neatly filed in their parents’ photo albums, she and her sister Janet had kept a vivid memory of the Filipino lady who “taught us how to make a ballerina from the cellophane around a cigarette packet and a flower from the silver paper inside.”Karina and I were both smokers in our younger days. Instead of throwing away empty cigarette packets, she saved the cellophane and silver paper wrappers. From these, she fashioned exquisite origami figures. The ballet dancer and the flower were her classic creations. The two girls were awestruck at seeing such artifacts of beauty materialize like magic in Karina’s fingers. They quickly learned how to make them, and, from their account, proudly shared this smoker’s skill with their own families and friends.

On learning that their origami mentor had passed away in 2019, Julie wrote: “She was a beautiful lady. We remember her fondly and our/your story has been passed on to our children and grandchildren, along with the origami flower and the ballerina.” They remembered her as Nina, and Google search yielded no entry for the “Nina David” they knew. I told them to try “Karina Constantino-David,” so they would get an idea of how the gifted woman they admired for the origami figures she created fashioned her own life as a professor, a feminist, a singer/composer of protest songs, a community organizer, and a civil servant. It took six months before Julie’s first letter would reach me. The postmark showed that it arrived in the Quezon City post office on May 25, 2022, or two weeks after it was mailed from England. It must have been buried beneath the pile of undelivered mail accumulated during the pandemic until somebody fished it out. It finally landed in my office in UP in early November. “I was sure my letter had been lost or did not reach you (or I got the wrong person),” Julie told me later.

But for me, it came at just the right time. I was going through what Maria Popova calls a “season of inner withering,” waiting to recover the “sparkle of vitality.” And then came Julie’s letter. “On the off chance,” she wrote, “I looked on Google and came across yourself. I know it will be over 50 years since this trip, and you probably, if it is you, may not remember us, but I did not want to pass this opportunity to try and contact you as both my sister and I have very fond memories of you both.”Last week, I reconnected with the two sisters, now both grandmothers, through the wonders of a video call. They showed up with Karina’s silver flowers pinned on their clothes, leaving me speechless in that precious moment of Proustian recognition.