Letters Link Us Across Years and an Ocean

Because we both have birthdays in June, Audrey and I traditionally exchange letters this time of the year. Not perfunctory greetings and well-wishes, but real letters, the kind you drink in, fold and unfold, tuck in a drawer, and keep coming back to. Letters of content.

In June, we catch up on the months that have passed since our Christmas exchange; at Christmas we tie up the year from June. Each chapter is good, rich fare, drawing sustenance not so much from the weight of our words as from a mutual willingness to get to the quick of our recent experiences. Lean on padding and light on fluff, our transatlantic exchange has kept me in touch with Audrey and with myself since the early 1970s, when she and I began corresponding.

In the summer of '71, I was backpacking through Europe and the United Kingdom with a college friend. We traveled close to the bone for our means, but even so, we greatly overestimated the time it would take to exhaust our funds. My mother wired emergency relief, and somewhere near London we recalled a casual suggestion from one of our professors that we "ring up his mum" on our travels. More to the point, he had given us her phone number.

We arrived at Taunton, near the Devon/Somerset border in a driving rain, with just enough cash left for the phone call. Audrey collected us in her little white Renault 20 minutes later. If she harbored misgivings about the bedraggled pair now in her care, she never expressed them. Pris and I sensed more than our immediate salvation from this intriguing woman, 35 years our senior.

Our "overnight visit" stretched to two weeks, as we exchanged work around Broomball, her country home, for bed and board. I mucked out the stables; Pris painted the study. We both exercised the Exmoor ponies; and we three became fast friends, freely speaking our minds.

When I flew home to the States for my senior year of college, Audrey saw me off. So did Pris. Having graduated that spring, Pris stayed on at Broomball many months. About a year after she departed, I came back, fresh from the heartache of a troubled romance and seeking rural refuge. Audrey and I hit it off again, philosophizing about life and relationships as we gardened and rode out over the moors.

I learned to properly sit a horse, mulch a flower bed, cook on an Aga, and bide my time. I contentedly milked cows and mucked out. In January, we put up marmalade, all but sleeping in the sweet mists of the steamed-up kitchen. I left Broomball's bucolic cocoon after what I'd considered a six-month sabbatical from life, not yet realizing how fully I'd lived it there.

I'VE revisited England and Audrey a few times since, but it is the letters that keep us close. They took up where our briefly shared life left off, and it's the rare December or June we haven't been in touch. We still philosophize about love and relationships, hers and mine. We continue to ponder and celebrate our mutual attachment to the soil. When I slip open the envelopes from England, I can almost hear the curlews, feel the spring of the moor, and taste the bitter tang of the breakfast marm'. Since I've become a dairy farmer on my side of the sea, Audrey has entered her 80s; she's still at home in the milkroom.

Our June letters are in the mail, airborne somewhere over the Atlantic. Grounded on our respective soils and in the shared territory of words, we'll be in touch again any day now.

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