Once upon a time, on October 5th, 1949, a loud, opinionated New York writer typed these words:
Marks & Co.
84 Charing Cross Road
Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature
says that you specialize
in out-of-print books.
The phrase ‘antiquarian booksellers’ scares me somewhat,
as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive.
Nonetheless, Helene Hanff “poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books” placed an order with MARKS & Co.: Hazlitt’s Selected Essays, Leigh Hunt, the Latin Vulgate, etc.
She promptly received a reply from Frank Doel (for MARKS & Co.), a most professional and quintessentially reserved Englishman who shipped her four books, invoice enclosed.
Thus began one of the most unusual love stories of the Twentieth Century. By rights, this English man and this American woman should’ve never met. There was no commonality in their lives to bring them together, except a love of antiquarian literature. In fact, they never did meet in this life.
But they wrote to each other for twenty years. Slowly their letters morphed from “Dear Madam…Yours faithfully, FPD for MARKS & Co.” in 1949 to “Dear Helene…Love, Frank” in 1968. Along the way, this most unlikely of pseudo-romances changed them, as all relationships do.
Helene Hanff discovered her inner comedian by writing Frank the most outrageous letters.
14 East 95th St.
March 25, 1950
Frank Doel, What are you DOING over there,
you are not doing ANYthing,
you are just sitting AROUND.
Where is Leight Hunt?
Where is the Oxford Verse?
Where is the Vulgate…?
You leave me sitting here
writing long margin notes in library books
that don’t belong to me,
some day they’ll find out I did it
and take my library card away….
Well, don’t just sit there!
Go find it!
I swear I don’t know how that shop keeps going.
14 East 95th St.
WHAT KIND OF A…BIBLE IS THIS?
Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up
the most beautiful prose ever written,
whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin?
They’ll burn for it, you mark my words.
It’s nothing to me, I’m Jewish myself.
But I have a Catholic sister-in-law,
a Methodist sister-in-law,
a whole raft of Presbyterian cousins
(through my Great-Uncle Abraham who converted)
and an aunt who’s a Christian Science healer,
and I like to think none of them would countenance
this Anglican Latin Bible if they knew it existed.
(As it happens, they don’t know Latin existed.)
“Poor Frank,” she wrote to Cecily Farr of MARKS & Co., “I give him such a hard time, I’m always bawling him out for something. I’m only teasing, but I know he’ll take me seriously. I keep trying to puncture that proper British reserve, if he gets ulcers I did it.”
Frank experienced the meaning of kindness and generosity as Helene was “simply appalled” to discover that England was still “rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month”! For years, she paid a Danish company to ship meat, eggs, sugar, etc. to MARKS & Co.
Frank forgot his proper British reserve and quite enjoyed being the butt of Helen’s outrageous letters. Helene discovered the joys of generosity. They changed as people….for the better.
That is the point. You fall in love (or in like, if you prefer, and I certainly do) with the most unexpected sort of person and hey! presto! your life and your identity are turned arse-over-teakettle never to be the same again.
It changes you…hopefully, for the better. The more the adversity, the more strength and character you find hidden in your soul.
When I met Michael in 2012, I had just kinda, sorta figured myself out. I’ve written about creating a “Manual” for yourself, for how to operate the machinery of yourself through this life, and in 2012 I’d barely figured out how to operate me and my life so I wasn’t perpetually burned-out anymore. In my imagination, it was titled The Care and Feeding of A Lenora.
Then Michael and his three (then) teenage children burst upon the scene, the manual flew out the window and everything was turned arse-over-teakettle. My name, my identity, my life changed dramatically … and it’s still changing.
I wasn’t prepared for this. My parents, bless their hearts, took extraordinary care in prepping and preparing me for every eventuality. But not this. Never this.
You see, it was never to be.
Meaning the best, I suppose, my parents made it clear that I wasn’t to even entertain the thought of, much less date, a man who had “baggage.” (No offense.) It was understood that a divorcé or, worse yet, a man with children was taboo for me. I suppose they meant well, speaking from experience. Mom even went so far as to say that if Dad’d had children from his first marriage, she wouldn’t have married him.
A single, unattached, unencumbered (no offense) man…that was the goal. They didn’t even think to mention “physically healthy.”
So when I defied all that to marry someone who was the antithesis of everything they taught, everyone was shocked. Most of all, me!!!! This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t supposed to be my life.
It changed my identity. And it’s still changing me. Like the Andrew Lloyd Weber song says, “Love changes everything.” Damn straight!
Yet, looking back over the past 7+ years, I can honestly say 1) I’d do it all over again, 2) I’m a better, stronger person for having done it and 3) Michael Thompson and all the “Little” Thompsons make me really, really happy.
He is not his circumstances. He is he…and he makes me happy!
What I didn’t know about marriage is that you must separate problems from personalities. It’s essential to view ill health or trouble with the ex as separate from your spouse, even if those troubles are the “baggage” they brought into the relationship. Don’t blame! Don’t shame! Just get on with it as a united front.
Another thing I’ve learned is that every senseless pain, turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I had to hurt in ways I didn’t “deserve” to hurt. Pains that “should” never have entered my life.
But I only saw the tangled underside of the embroidery; God saw the beautiful right-side of the tapestry. Every anguish I’ve borne has been redeemed when someone crossed my path bearing the same burden. I could reach out to them and say, “I know. I understand. It really, really sucks. But…this is how I cope. Maybe it’ll work for you too. Chin up. Don’t give up hope.”
“Turning lemons into lemonade,” I believe they call it. That’s just one of many annoying clichés that’ve turned out to be true.
The other one is attributed to Winnie the Pooh: blah, blah, blah, “You’re stronger than you seem, blah, blah, blah.” Turns out, that annoying cliché is true too! From being told by my parents that I “almost failed” seventh grade and my first job merely because I struggled, got headaches and cried a lot, I found that I am much stronger than I ever expected. Certainly stronger than they ever gave me credit for. Heck! Stronger than I gave myself credit for. (Remaining “No Contact” is the hardest thing I’ve ever done!)
When faced with adversity, what are you gonna do!? Give up!? Failure is not an option. No, there is only one thing to do: Soldier On. You’ll find strength and moral courage you never knew you had until you just do it!
That’s why I’m not a fan of the phrase, “I’m not ready for…” or “You need to get ready for…” What nonsense!!! That philosophy has been mighty instrumental in keeping a generation immature, unattached and terrified of life because “they don’t feel ready.”
How the heck are you going to “get ready” for ill health? Three step-children? Poverty? Where’s the tutorial? When’s the rehearsal scheduled?
There isn’t one. So just get your head down, grit your teeth and work your ass off. Failure is not an option. Quitting is not an option. When you rule that out, you’ll find you are “Stronger than you seem.”
Was this supposed to be my life?
No, not according to all ye gods and demi-gods who raised me. But they are not omniscient (thank goodness!)
But yes! Yes it was! Michael always says that most couples would’ve broken up if they went through all the shit we’ve been through in seven years. Yet here we are, in the words of Frank Doel:
Dear Helene: Good to hear from you again.
We’re still here, getting older and busier, but no richer.
From twenty years of letter writing, Miss Hanff and Mr. Doel gave us one of the most unusual, poignant love stories. Their love story and letters became the book 84 Charing Cross Road and the book became a movie that changed my life. It’s safe to say that Narcissism Meets Normalcy would definitely not exist if it weren’t for 84 Charing Cross Road.
But that’s another story, for another day.