Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A century-old love story

Letters to a young woman from her wartime suitor found in Wolseley attic

  • Print
KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 
Lori and Darrell Lafond discovered 100 love  letters hidden under the floorboards of their home during a renovation. The letters are from a First World War soldier to his girlfriend, whom he later married.

Enlarge Image

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Lori and Darrell Lafond discovered 100 love letters hidden under the floorboards of their home during a renovation. The letters are from a First World War soldier to his girlfriend, whom he later married.

The walls didn't talk in the century-old Wolseley home Lori Dustan Lafond and her husband, Darrell, moved into six years ago.

But the floorboards did.

Darrell vividly remembers the moment and how it happened.

He and his dad, Denis, were renovating the house, and they had just pulled out a few of the old fir planks in the third-floor attic floor, "and my dad said, 'Wouldn't it be awesome if we found some old money or something.' "

Moments later, Darrell spotted the something -- a stash of love letters dating back to the First World War.

"I just kept pulling them out," said Darrell.

More than 160 of them.

They were addressed in handsome handwriting by Cliff Chapman to "Miss Meryl Snyder, 202 Ethelbert St." The same house where the Lafonds and their three girls live today.

So who were these young lovers? What happened to them? And how could Lori and Darrell find the surviving family this buried treasure of intimate memories belongs to?

Oh yeah, and why were they hidden?

There really was only one way to find out: Start to read them.

-- -- --

It's been five years since Darrell made the discovery, but it was only this month Lori finally contacted me in hopes of finding the family.

Life -- having babies, doing her master's degree and working as a teacher -- had distracted Lori from her mission.

Although, Lori occasionally drank a glass of wine while going through the letters she kept in a shoebox.

It turned out the first one was so hot, it wasn't there.

Meryl had burned it.

As Lori would learn in the first letter that survived -- dated Sept. 3, 1917 -- Meryl did that at the urging of her suitor and relentless correspondent, Cliff, a farmboy she met at agricultural school. Pleading with her to burn it was his way of expunging words he regretted writing.

The early letters had been written from the Chapmans' farm, near Beresford, in southwestern Manitoba.

"The letters are very romantic," Lori said. "He writes, 'I love you to the depths of the ocean.' In some letters, he goes on for two to three pages of how he feels about her."

There's also a degree of Downton Abbey-like drama from the era.

That initial conflict that goes up in flames, another suitor, repeated concern that Meryl won't commit to Cliff, wondering if Meryl's strong-willed mother and pipe-smoking CNR conductor father will approve of him. And the spectre of conscription and war.

His parents need him on their farm. The Royal Air Force needs him at the front.

On April 4, 1917, Cliff writes that he has been called up and only has days to report.

Cliff would go on to survive plane crashes and the war.

Lori read all of 1917, and half of 1918 before skipping ahead to 1920.

"I wanted to know how it ended," she said.

And?

"It's a cliffhanger. He's still away, and no mention of when he's coming back."

There was an ending to Lori's search, though. A happy ending.

By 1920 -- the year the letters finish -- Cliff and Meryl would graduate together from the Manitoba Agricultural College. By 1924, they would be wed, at 202 Ethelbert, two floors below where the young lovers' letters were still hidden.

Lori and Darrell didn't learn about the marriage from letters, of course, but from searching public records.

She would also learn that Meryl and Cliff had three sons who were raised in Regina, where Cliff worked as a manager for an insurance company, before being transferred to Toronto. And they learned Cliff would die in his mid-80s in 1982, and Meryl would live until she was 95.

But they only learned some of that detail this week because on Thursday, I located the family.

The couple's only surviving child, Donald Champman, is 88 and a retired University of Manitoba-educated architect who resides in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

"They found all those letters?" Donald exclaimed when I told him about the discovery. "From my father to my mother? Oh, that's fantastic."

Lori and Darrell sent the letters to the family by courier on Friday. For Donald Chapman, the previously unknown letters offer an insight rarely seen by children; an intimate and revealing account of who his parents were as young people in love.

"I don't know what he was like in front of his children." Lori said, "but you can tell he's definitely very in love with her."

Of course, Lori is happy the family will finally have them. Yet sad, too.

"I've had them in my possession for a few years and they've been in our house for almost 100 years. And now that I've read them I feel kind of invested."

Then Lori added this: "They're a part of our house's history. But not a part of our family."

Oh, by the way, there's a postscript.

-- -- --

Lori thinks she knows why Meryl hid the letters.

"Because they start getting more lovey. More intimate. It talks about going for a car ride and loving her up. So I can see why she hid them in the floorboards. I would, too."

That reminds me of something else that happened last week when I was visiting 202 Ethelbert. I was standing in the attic with Lori and Darrell, just a few feet from where I could envision young Meryl placing the letters under the floorboards, when Darrell mentioned something I hadn't considered.

Lori and Darrell have love letters, too, that they aren't planning to ever let their children read.

And guess where they are?

Hidden in the attic.

 

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 B1

History

Updated on Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 9:40 AM CDT: Corrects when letters were sent

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

It’s the End Of the Term And They Know It, Part Two

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A nesting goose sits on the roof of GoodLife Fitness at 143 Nature Way near Kenaston as the morning sun comes up Wednesday morning- See Bryksa’s Goose a Day Photo- Day 07- Web crop-May 09, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Aerial view of Portage and Main, The Esplanade Riel, Provencher Bridge over the Red River, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights and The Forks near the Assiniboine River, October 21st, 2011. (TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) CMHR

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Are you still on the Bombers' and Jets' bandwagons?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google