Old picture of a couple on the beach

Every Tuesday on the Virtual Social Centre, the wonderful Ross hosts a session called What’s Your Story? Patti, one of our lovely participants was kind enough to share one of her stories with us.

Every person has an amazing life story waiting to be told. Sometimes we write these stories to get things clear in our head, at other times it helps to leave a little bit of our history to share with our friends and family. 

HOW I MET MY SPOUSE – by Patti Gerkens 

Melinda’s beautiful golden-brown eyes were gazing at me sadly. 

“Mum, you had such a terrible life with Dad. Now that I’m 19 and about to get married to Joe, I feel so sorry you’ve never known what it’s like to be in love.” 

Her concern caused a smile to curl at my lips as I watched her eyes become wide at my reply. “Well, now you are an adult, there’s a story of a long-lost love I can share.” She immediately flopped into the chair, flipped her hair from her face and, staring at me, blurted out, “Tell me more Mum”. 

I poured out the story of Peter. How we’d had a short but sweet love affair, making plans for a future together; the way he broke my heart with a letter announcing he was bowing out after learning about Ron, her father, and his persistent ways. Seeing how intrigued she was, I continued. 

“Despite your father’s accusations, Peter and I had no contact on any of my trips from the States to visit family back home. I often wondered what happened to him, especially after my mother exposed the fact that he had contacted her. He’d kept his promise and went looking for me when he’d been out of the Navy for five years.” 

Melinda’s eyes shone. “Well, we have to find him! We are back in Australia now.” She was practically yelling at me. She was now on a mission and her brain was in full gear. We did an online search, looking for his name in Sydney, Melbourne and Darwin where I believed he had some connection. If only we had known not to be so precise, we could have widened the search by merely typing the country name.  

Hope began to rise in my soul while writing letters to every person on the list, only to be smashed again and again when answers came back producing no hint. So, we gave up. It was annoying but I wasn’t too concerned because I couldn’t even imagine how a man would fit in my life. My days were filled with work, extended family and with Brad and Mandy both in high school, time was short. 

Ten years slipped by. In the autumn of 2004, travelling by bus to visit a friend in a cute town on the Murray River, I was lazily watching the trees out the window when my phone rang noisily. Glancing at the sleeping woman beside me, I listened to my two daughters who were screaming down the line at me. “We’ve found Peter!”  

“What?” My head spun, my stomach lurched and not caring that the young woman next to me stirred in her seat, I listened to my girls, both talking at once. Excitedly, Melinda explained how she had been researching the Veterans’ website for her father’s military record when the idea hit her to check for Peter there too.  

“Mom, it only said he’d been in the Navy so I was disappointed. However, with his name still fresh in my head, an email from a work colleague with the exact same last name pinged into my computer inbox.” 

Incredulous now, I stammered, “What did you do?” 

“It was too much of a coincidence, so I wrote back and asked if it was possible she could be related to a man in his sixties named Peter with the same last name.” 

“That’s my Uncle Peter. Why?”  

Melinda could only come up with a lie. “Um, my Dad asked me to check up on some of his old mates. What can you tell me about him?”  

“He’s a widower and lives in Newcastle.”  

Melinda told me she started to shake and felt sick; however, she managed to finish off the conversation somehow, check the White Pages and find the address and phone number. Needing her sister’s support, they put the call into me to break the news together. The rest of the journey on the bus was a blur of excitement and nerves and old memories. 

In Tocumwal at my friend’s house, I fussed over writing a letter. Would he even remember me? Surely, I was just someone he had a fling with when his marriage was on the rocks. Everyone knows a sailor has a girl in every port. Deciding to give the barest of details, I folded the letter, licked the envelope, stuck on a stamp and queasily popped it in the mailbox. Trying to gauge how long it would take to get to Newcastle and when to expect a phone call, the long weekend away was ruined. On the bus back home, I figured it would be a full week of waiting. I could barely sleep or concentrate on my job that week. 

When he left a message on my answering machine, I wasn’t home. Listening to his deep voice sent shivers up my spine. I played it over and over again, trying to remember the details of him and what it was about him that made me feel like a giddy teenager. He said he would call the next night so I waited again, this time with heightened nervousness. The kids teased me about it because I couldn’t even concentrate on the Irish dancing when celebrating St Patrick’s Day with them. I just couldn’t miss his call again. 

When it eventually came and we began to speak, it was like a flood. The past 35 years just came gushing out. We had so much to catch up on. I listened as he explained that his wife had passed away of cancer at age 48. He’d been alone for the past 15 years. He denied the bowing out letter. Didn’t remember it at all, said it didn’t happen. He would remember something that important. Hmm…

Feeling somewhat suspicious, I wished I had kept that letter instead of burning all his letters and photos when Ron insisted on a new start. I’d only held onto one small picture of him in his officer’s uniform and had hidden it away all those years. 

The phone was busy every evening for hours on end until the big decision was made that Peter would drive the thousand kilometers down to Melbourne to visit me at Easter. We exchanged photos by mail. Thinning hair had replaced his smooth black locks but he still looked handsome with suntanned skin and no wrinkles. The years had been kind. I was glad I’d sent a flattering picture of me with my three kids but worried what he’d think when he saw me in the flesh. 

More waiting until the day came when we met up again for the first time in 35 years. 

Senior man and woman smiling at camera


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