Who could have guessed that a letter to a stranger would lead to a lifetime of love?
The story of Jack and Shirley Godley, who are celebrating 60 years of marriage, can perhaps comfort us. It reminds us that good things are not born exclusively of our own efforts, and perhaps not even of our best intuitions. Often all we can do is gratefully cultivate and protect the blessings that come to us providentially through unexpected events, even ones that at first might seem unpleasant.
In 1957 an English sailor published an ad in a newspaper looking for pen pals to pass the time while sailing. It was to be expected that at the word “sailor” many female hearts would go wild.
Unsurprisingly, he was soon inundated with so many letters that he passed some of them on to his fellow seamen. Such was the case of a letter written by a very young girl named Shirley.
Her letter was passed up by the sailor who had requested the letters. It ended up in his friend Jack’s hands, explains reporter Jessica Green of Daily Mail.
It’s not usually nice for a girl to be cast aside. But this little twist of fate translated into a real meeting of hearts and not just the passing entertainment of a seaman on duty.
Jack truly listened to the voice behind that very young girl’s letter. She was just 15 and he was 19. As they wrote to each other, they found out that they lived five minutes from each other.
If Shirley — if any of us — had been told that true love was living within walking distance of home, she might not have believed it. She’d written to a sailor in the middle of the sea!
Often, we think that true happiness is always somewhere far away from here. “Elsewhere” always seems more alluring to us than what’s before our eyes.
A slow and distant love
After that first chance meeting by mail, Jack and Shirley continued to write to each other for a year before meeting in person. It sounds absurd in light of today’s technological tools, which make a face-to-face conversation (albeit a virtual one) possible immediately.
It was a time of slow, long-distance acquaintance. This kind of love doesn’t precipitate into possession, but matures very deeply in encounters at a certain distance.
Handwriting a letter, mailing it, reading it, writing a letter in reply, and sending it: It did indeed take a long time to correspond, even when the hearts of two young people were beating wildly.
Shirley and Jack got to see each other during each leave from his naval service. Jack asked Shirley’s father for her hand in marriage. The Daily Mail reports that in 1960, three years after they first met by mail, they became husband and wife.
An extraordinarily normal life
We can perhaps imagine Jack and Shirley’s story piquing the interest of some television writers. The initial plot has that touch of surprise that captures interest.
But after that comes the weak spot of marriage. What’s the story after that? How can you keep the viewers glued to the screen, especially without affairs, betrayals, grief, tragedy, aliens and other drama?
This is precisely where we see the abysmal distance between reality and fiction. When a fictional plot arrives at the wedding, the audience’s interest wanes if the story isn’t enlivened by upsetting events. On the contrary, when a real-life plot arrives at the wedding, the real adventure begins, under the disguise of an almost monotonous normality.
Shirley and Jack’s life is hardly monotonous, though. In the midst of the pandemic, they couldn’t celebrate their 60 years of marriage properly. After such a romantic and rollicking beginning, the interesting parts of their story have been hidden behind the seemingly opaque veil of the everyday.
In a Netflix series, Jack would’ve stayed in the navy and been involved in a few skirmishes with an enemy fleet, while back at home Shirley would fall in love with the new neighbor on the block and have a lusty and illicit romance.
In reality, Jack left the Navy in 1962 and has since worked as a bus driver, Daily Mail reports. Shirley worked as an address printer and helped handle mail. They became the parents of five children—Karen, Kevan, Donna, Lisa, and Debra.
Does that sound boring? Trying their hand at raising such a large family must have filled their days with those titanic battles that we know so well. These exhaust and exhilarate us, and are deeply meaningful, but they don’t make the headlines.
It’s too bad that when we turn on the TV we’re assailed by stories that fill us with suspense and shock, but which no longer give us the hope written in so many real life stories. It’s a great blessing, however, that the roles are not reversed. Everyday life is still what holds up the world, without need for special effects.
“May you see your children’s children.” (Psalm 128)
There’s indeed a great blessing in the words of this psalm. There were limits on the celebration that Shirley and Jack were able to hold due to COVID-19 restrictions. But this is made up for by the image of the faces of their 10 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
It gives us a great sense of gratitude to see that the web of life is constantly growing in beauty, even when we’re no longer the protagonists in the foreground. The fact that human love, so imperfect and fragile, can participate in a world that is reborn is a mystery through which God gives us a foretaste of true eternity.