My great-uncle was 70 years older than me. We built a friendship by sending letters to each other.

Scanned photo of child and old man
Courtesy of the author
  • My great-uncle was turning deaf and struggled with computers — so we began writing letters.

  • Despite being over 70 years and 10,000 miles apart, we developed a strong friendship.

  • My life would likely have turned out very differently if not for him

I wanted to know my enigmatic great-uncle better. Yet he lived over 10,000 miles away, was too deaf to use phones, and hated computers.

It was my mother who made the suggestion that ultimately proved life-changing. "Why don't you write to him?" she asked. And that's how our friendship began.

Despite being separated by oceans and years, my great-uncle became a dear friend

My great-uncle was born in 1921, meaning we had an age gap of over 70 years. He lived in Cornwall, England; I lived near Canberra, Australia.

In hindsight, I was naive in entering into correspondence with him. To what extent could a teenager, with all her adolescent preoccupations and limited life experience, really prove an engaging letter-writer for someone in their late 80s? Would my youth be uplifting or depressing — especially to a widower who had fought in a war, raised two children, and outlived them both?

I didn't ask these questions — and my mother, aware of how lonely my great-uncle was, intuited that my letters, for all their youth and ingenuousness, would likely at least be entertaining (consciously or otherwise) and would offer him something to look forward to. In fairness, people of all ages and stripes can be interesting if one approaches them with curiosity.

And so I sent my first letter, enclosed in a white envelope with stamps showing bilbies, quokkas, and emus. My great-uncle wrote back swiftly and at length.

Our friendship changed the direction of my adult life

To our surprise, we had plenty in common. Like me, my great-uncle adored languages and words — potentially more so than any of my other family members — and gave me the encouragement I needed to pursue a study path in literature and languages that I found rich and fulfilling, even though he himself had received limited education.

He was also wickedly funny and simultaneously deeply sad following the death of his wife and second daughter, and his openness about his experiences was generous and formative in terms of me better understanding the emotional complexities of people much older than myself.

In fact, what was perhaps overall so significant about this friendship, for me, was that here was a fully cognisant, older man, self-aware and open to communicating — but only via letters, and only, I realize now in hindsight, with someone young enough not to be overwhelmed by the sadnesses in his life, because I couldn't entirely comprehend or contextualize them. In that sense, we both offered something to one another.

He opened up to me about topics ranging from surviving a childhood home in which his father was physically violent to being a pilot in World War II. He wrote about walking along a beach before an airstrike, certain he would be killed the following day. He told me how much my great-aunt had improved his life, even though he sometimes feared he hadn't been all she might have hoped for from a husband. He went sailing with her for years despite being less keen on open waters than she was. They sailed well into their 70s all the same.

His friendship has been a lasting gift

After several years of writing to my great-uncle, I met up with him in England following a stint of working as an au pair in Italy. I traveled by bus and train to where he lived in Cornwall, crocheting a blanket for him en route; he later took this blanket with him to his retirement home.

I stayed with him for several days. With his limited appetite, he took great pleasure in seeing how many biscuits I could eat and continuously offered me food. He showed me his study and his books; he was in his 90s at this point, yet was busy studying Norwegian for fun and revisiting Tolstoy in the original. During the war, he had learned the native languages of various airmen from occupied eastern Europe who were serving alongside the British; he then continued teaching himself languages throughout his lifetime. As someone who also loves languages, writing, and talking to many different people, his undimmed intellectual curiosity proved inspiring to me.

I recently revisited Cornwall, now in my late 20s; the train passed by the station where I saw him last, standing just behind the barriers. I had known when farewelling him that I would never see him again. Passing that station once more and the space where he had stood felt especially poignant. I potentially wouldn't be in the UK — wouldn't have made it to Cambridge to study literature and languages — if it hadn't been for him.

An additional ongoing gift from my friendship with my great-uncle is that of writing letters. Since writing to him and realizing how differently — and beautifully — people sometimes express themselves in long-form handwriting, I began writing letters to friends and receiving letters in turn. Over the past decade or so, I have seen how taking the time to write letters to one another has deepened our friendships. Some of my friendships now have a precious quality they potentially wouldn't otherwise have were it not for letters. I have my great uncle to thank for that.

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