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Letters from Helen: A Novel

Letters from Helen: A Novel

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Letters from Helen: A Novel

119 pages
1 heure
Apr 19, 2006


The unconventional circumstances of Helen's birth almost ruined her life. In the compelling story, Letters from Helen, the reader meets Helen, who was born in India in 1926. As an infant, she is sent back to England and put up for adoption when her British army officer father discovers that she is not really his daughter.

In this lovingly crafted celebration of family and life, a courageous young woman comes of age against the backdrop of World War II England. As Helen matures, marries, and starts her own family, she shares her secrets, hardships, joys, and sorrows with her American cousin. Their letters are woven into the book. Her unfulfilled desire to atone for the stain of her illegitimacy is a recurrent theme in the story, and her quest and its resolution will touch your heart.

The endearing characters, who are at once ordinary and extraordinary, will linger with you. Their own misdeeds,triumphs, tragedies, and romances lend a rich texture to the book. And the final unexpected plot twist will leave you captivated and satisfied.

Apr 19, 2006

À propos de l'auteur

The author, a former professor of Romance languages, lives in Southern California with her husband and two cats. She has traveled extensively in England and visited her extended family there, to research family history. She is currently working on a new and darker novel.

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Letters from Helen - Colleen T. Anthony


A Novel

Colleen T. Anthony

iUniverse, Inc.

New York Lincoln Shanghai

Letters from Helen A Novel

Copyright © 2006 by Colleen Anthony

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

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ISBN-13: 978-0-595-39146-2 (pbk)

ISBN-13: 978-0-595-83532-4 (ebk)

ISBN-10: 0-595-39146-X (pbk)

ISBN-10: 0-595-83532-5 (ebk)

Printed in the United States of America


INDIA, 1926



















When I was a little girl, we were told as a home-truth that we were uppermiddle class. We weren’t, of course. It was just part of our extensive family mythology, a pretension that my mother nurtured with assiduous care.

If she had been a better manager, we might have squeaked into middlemiddle class, but her profligate distribution of resources doomed us to some less desirable region. My grandmother used to say of her lackaday daughter, No one who is such a poor housekeeper deserves such a nice house. While our homes were solid and in respectable neighborhoods, somehow our income didn’t stretch to cover quite the right clothes or an occasional vacation. We didn’t have a television or hair dryer until long after our friends. Our entertainments were modest. But we felt special because we always had Letters from Helen.

Apparently my mother has long drifted between a skewed reality and a fantasy world, part romance novel, part cinema, part I am the long-lost niece of the Duke. When she was a teenager, she nagged her Australian-born grandpa without ceasing until he finally managed to produce the address of a long-estranged brother in Perth.

By sheer force of personality, driven by a desire to Be Somebody or to Be Related to Somebody, my mother found what she was after—or thought she had. When she was sixteen, just as Europe had been swept into World War II, she began a life long correspondence with the English cousin whom she had unearthed with her relentless researches.

Helen, her English cousin, was a year older than Betty, my mother. Helen was the only child of a solidly middle-class couple. She came to them late in their lives. The Rolfes, her family, lived a comfortable life in a small town in the southwest of England. Helen was doted on but not spoiled. As befitted her place in time, geography, and the British Empire, she finished school, but never pursued higher education.

My mother, on the other hand, was more ambitious. She confounded her stolid salesman father (who had only finished third grade) and her excellent housewife mother (who had completed eight grade and wrote a beautiful hand) by insisting on studying French, Latin, and geometry while entirely neglecting Home Economics (sadly, as it turns out).

Betty managed two years at a well-regarded ladies’ college before allowing herself to be swept off her feet by a man she wrongly believed would provide her the wherewithal and status she craved as a thirsty jogger does a sip of Gatorade.

Meanwhile, Helen was competing in her own fantasy derby. She found a scholarly older man who beguiled her with his effete Oxford palaver. While Betty had visions of herself as the wife of an important executive, Helen was mistakenly picturing herself as the helpmate of a respected scholar or at least as Mrs. Headmaster.

Both the young women married and began setting up their respective households while maintaining a steady correspondence. Helen’s blue aerogrammes were closely written in thick squatty penmanship. It always took us days to decipher them. We lacked television, but we did treasure our unique pastime of puzzling out the meaning of dear Helen’s epistles. Only many years later, did we find out that Betty’s madly undisciplined ball-pointed American hand had routinely elicited a similar bewilderment across the sea.

Each of the two young women constructed a complicated life of pretense, based on hope, ambition for their mates, and a good measure of detachment from their respective realities—Helen in England in a drafty thatch-roofed cottage with no hot water or heat, Betty in the States in a modest two bedroom flat with coal to shovel and no budget for frills.

As their babies came—Colleen in Chicago, and Annie in Taunton—they settled into the mind-numbing routine known to mothers the world over: feedings, diapers, baths, laundry. Slowly the dream of someday meeting began to take shape and grow. It was their own private, special entertainment. The monthly letters carried them away, across the ocean. The thatched roof and real fireplace sounded impossibly romantic and desirable from Chicago. Betty’s American central heat and automatic washing machine made Helen’s eyes fill with tears in unguarded moments.

More babies came. In Chicago, Betty’s Janie arrived soon after Helen’s new son Charles. Betty felt increasingly overwhelmed by the unrelenting responsibilities of motherhood and disillusioned in her marriage. Her college-educated husband was failing to scale the ladder of success at a sufficient pace and was failing to measure up either as a provider or as a soul mate.

In order to cope, Helen sank deeper into her fantasy world. When Victor, her husband, proved less than successful as a breadwinner, she pretended that she loved the adventure of washing nappies on a washboard. She manufactured a romantic and loving persona for him to fit her ideal. She imbued him with a whole litany of virtues, imaginatively exaggerating the truth and molding his image to fit her needs. Affection came from the babies that she kept producing—or so Helen believed. After Annie and Charles, followed Fiona, Harry, and many years later John.

Helen perpetually tended the lamp that kept alive the flame of myth: Victor was a superior being. He was so intelligent that normal manners didn’t apply to him. He was allowed to speak his mind in any circumstance and without regard to anyone’s feelings. He was exempt from mundane chores. And he was definitely beyond criticism of any kind.

As years went by, the legend of the English family became part of the history and fabric of the American family, and the reverse was true as well. Christmas always brought exciting and exotic parcels. One of my first memories is of a scratchy blue wool cardigan sent by Helen. There was a tiny toy coronation coach which was sent as a souvenir of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, and always coin shaped chocolate candies, wrapped in gold foil. For her part, with war shortages and rationing in mind, my mother sent tinned hams and nylon stockings every year for at least twenty years.

The dreary existence of two impecunious housewives 4000 miles apart was brightened by those many letters and small packages. And the bond they helped to forge gave birth to a plan: the families must meet.

Betty, the American and the more adventurous of the two women, determined to get a short-term job, save all the money, and finance a trip to England. Taking Colleen and Janie on a European tour fit in well with her fanciful self-image of a carefree cosmopolite. With uncharacteristic focus and determination Betty proceeded to carry out her plan. She found a job filling in for the summer at a small insurance agency. In the evenings she poured over Europe on Five Dollars a Day and other economy-minded travel guides.

After twenty years of a relationship confined only to letters, cards, gifts, and photos, we were to meet in person. Our anticipation was mind numbing in its intensity. Janie and I had been brought up on maps, atlases and travel guides. The idea of going to Europe was better than hot fudge sundaes with pecans, sex, or getting 1600 on the SATs. If heaven had entered into the comparison, it would have been a close call.

Helen and Betty both felt theirs was a deep and special relationship. They shared many secret thoughts. Somehow it was easier to pour out their innermost feelings to someone thousands of miles away, and easier still if they were family. Helen, however, had reason to worry. She had a secret she had never dared to share with Betty.

The night we arrived in Taunton was very festive. Helen had readied an elaborate tea with fancy sandwiches made with the thinnest of white bread and rich English butter. There were strawberries and clotted cream—a new delicacy for us.

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