Twenty-five-year-old Caitlin Penner wears it every day. A simple ring. A thin yellow band, two small diamonds and an elegantly centered pearl.
“I only take it off to go to work,” says Penner, a nurse at Health Sciences Centre. “It’s one of my favorites.”
It’s not worth much and it’s not the stones, or the gold that Penner admires. It’s the story behind the ring.
A marriage that was a result of handwritten love-letters exchanged during the First World War between her great-grandfather and great-grandmother.
“It’s a piece of my family,” says Penner holding the ring in her hand. “They wrote hundreds of letters to each other and he would always end it with, ‘yours as ever.'”
Penner’s grandmother, Ollie Miller, gave her the ring a few years ago.
“I found the letters with my son in the early 90s,” says Miller, who lives in B.C. and turns 82 on Nov. 10. “They were in an old trunk of my father’s. I knew they existed, but I didn’t know how detailed they were. They were very romantic, my father was a good writer.”
Miller’s father, Tom Johnson, left a Manitoba basic-training camp in October of 1916. Johnson, a pastor before the war, then went to Digby, N.S. before heading to France. It was in Digby where he met Lulu Croft.
Johnson and Lulu had an immediate impact on each other, the letters show.
Oct. 30, 1916 – Johnson letter to a friend – “My thoughts are occupied with the Croft family I’ve just left.”
Oct. 19, 1916 – Lulu’s Diary – “I taught piano lessons all day. Heard a Battalion arrived nearby. Had a nice prayer meeting where a Private Johnson spoke splendidly.”
Oct. 20, 1916 – Lulu’s Diary – “God is surely answering my prayers. Mr. Johnson is here for dinner.”
Oct. 30, 1916 – Lulu’s Diary – “Mr. Johnson came to say goodbye. We had half an hour together. I am so happy, but why should we be separated when life is so dear?”
Once Johnson arrived in France, he began to prepare for one of Canada’s most historic battles – Vimy Ridge.
Jan. 4, 1917 – Johnson letter to Lulu – “I shall never be clean enough to enter any more into a respectable house. I will need to be fumigated, and have every stitch on me burned. I had no conception of what soldiering was like until I came into France. Just imagine a soldier, not bright and polished, but mud-spattered from head to foot, buttons almost green, face unshaved, dirty and disreputable, equipped with brass and leather equipment, but with web the colour of his dirty tunic, rifle and bayonet, with heavy pack and haversack.”
Johnson, along with nearly 100,000 Canadian troops, gathered along the Belgium border in February 1917. Johnson wrote to Lulu as he prepared for the battle.
Feb. 26, 1917 – Johnson letter to Lulu – “Don’t worry about me, Lulu, for I am as safe in the front line trench in God’s hands as I am with you at Digby or in some bomb-proof job in England or Canada.”
Feb. 23, 1917 – Johnson letter to Lulu – “I just received two letters from you. If you only knew what sunshine your letters shed into my life. I will come back to you and sit in your room, when everything is peaceful, where it is warm and cozy and where there is no censor, we shall have many a good talk about our feelings.”
Johnson was wounded on Easter Monday, 1917 and sent off the front lines to recover. In January the following year he began his trek back to Canada. Once home, he purchased the small engagement ring for Lulu that is now worn every day by his great-granddaughter.
“It’s very important to me,” says Penner. “Their story goes everywhere I do.”
Penner’s grandmother and uncle spent years organizing Johnson’s letters before publishing them in 2007, in a book called, Letters Bridging Time.
“I knew my father as an old man,” says Miller. “These letters and diary entries made him real to me.”
Miller was born 10 years apart from her siblings and always felt as if she was interrupting her parents’ lives.
“My mother was a snappy woman. She was vulnerable, like I had entered into their romance. In the letters, I was able to see how affectionate she was.”
Miller is glad that her parent’s story is recorded and hopes the ring will continue to tell their story.
“It’s important to collect these stories, they unite us like nothing else.”