One evening before a trip home to Christchurch, New Zealand, I finalized plans with my cousin Dorothy. Just before hanging up, she added a teaser.
“Oh, and Francis, when you come home, I have something to give you.” Intrigued, I pressed her for more details. She adamantly refused. “No,” she insisted, “I will give it to you when you are here.” I had no idea that her package would hold the key to unlocking my lifelong struggles with self-acceptance and love.
As a teenager, Dorothy had come to Christchurch from the country and lived with my parents during World War II. Dorothy was great company for my mother, Iris, while my father was away serving in the Air Force, and she enjoyed fussing over Francis, her new baby cousin–me! My father returned home at the end of the war; Dorothy married and moved on. In 1949, my mother went in to Christchurch Public Hospital for what was presumed to be routine surgery. During her recovery there were sudden complications and she died almost without warning. I was 8 years old.
I still carry the vivid mental picture of the phone ringing with the terrible news. A neighbor, keeping care of me, answered the phone and ran back into the room. Ashen faced, she blurted out, “That was Wally. Iris has died!” Another neighbor cried out in disbelief and we all dissolved in tears.
As often happens, sorrow dogs tragedy. The years that followed brought a series of relationships and moves for my widowed father. In his loneliness he turned toward alcohol and away from me. I lived an unstable life with my father and his numerous women friends during many of those tender, growing-up years. The unsettled nature of my home life following the devastating loss of my mother fed my insecurities. Eventually my father remarried and provided me with a stable home and a stepmother who saw to it that I had a good education and an introduction to the gospel and the church.
I grew up and moved to the United States. By 1996, although both my father and stepmother had died, I wanted to return home to visit Christchurch. My wife Billie Jo and I, enjoyed the beautiful country and especially visiting with my cousin Dorothy–who still kept her secret. Visiting her was of special significance to me because she and her husband had bought our family home from my father. I slept in the same room in which I had slept in as a child. One evening, before we left, Dorothy excused herself for a moment and then returned. In her hands she held a box which had originally contained chocolates. She handed it to me and said, “There are some things in there that I think you will find interesting.”
Right away I noticed the lid of the box, “The First Four Ships Assortment.” I knew that referred to the four ships the original English settlers had disembarked from at what is now the port of Christchurch. I also knew that those chocolates had been distributed at the centenary of Canterbury Province in 1950, a year after my mother’s death.
Imagine my surprise to find the box contained, not chocolates, but instead something infinitely more sweet and meaningful.
I lifted the lid. Imagine my surprise to find the box contained, not chocolates, but instead something infinitely more sweet and meaningful.
Nestled inside were dozens of letters and cards my father had received upon my mother’s death.
Also preserved inside were cards and ribbons taken from the funeral wreaths. I held each one.It overwhelmed me. Dad had given them to Dorothy for safekeeping and they had been pushed to the back of a closet shelf – quietly hidden for 47 years. But Dorothy had held back the most meaningful pieces of all.
“I kept these two separate.” Dorothy handed two envelopes to me. One was addressed, “Mrs. Barker, Ward 8, Public Hospital, Christchurch.” It was a letter I had written to my mother while she was in the hospital. It began, “Hello Sweetheart, now do you like to be in the ‘hostital’?” The remainder of the letter contained the exciting events in the life of my 8-year-old life at home, a small boy who missed his mother, waiting eagerly for her to come home.
Apprehensively I moved on to the second letter, addressed to “Mr. Francis Barker, 43 Longfellow St., Beckenham, Christchurch.” That was me.
This letter had two unused King George VI one-penny stamps on it. I soon realized why the stamps were mint. This was a reply from my mother to the letter I had written to her. My father had brought my letter to the hospital on Sunday morning; my mother had replied to it late that afternoon. It sat on her bedside table waiting to be mailed Monday morning.
However, my mother died during that night in between and my father had collected it, together with her other belongings, the next day. 46 years later I read for the first time the letter my mother had written to me on the day she died.
Mother explained just how much she loved her little 8-year-old boy. She promised a holiday (vacation) together when she was well again and described a jersey (sweater) she was knitting for me. It concluded, “Well my little sweetheart, I must close now. Lots of love to you. Mum. xxxxxxxxx (kisses).” I shed many tears that afternoon.
That affirmation of love from my mother filled an emptiness I had but couldn›t define. I recently came across this quote:
“The most valuable gift we can give our children is to love them, and communicate it!”
Now, every Mother’s Day, I thank God for the gift He gave me, the letter in the chocolate box…the letter that contained the gift of love from a mother to her little boy, the sweetest gift of all.