By Clint Buffington
I am obsessed with finding messages in bottles because they open windows into the lives of people I never could have met any other way. For me, this has always been a matter of friendship, never romance (alas!), with the exception that my lovely wife Kate has signed on for a lifetime of finding messages in bottles with me.
Amazingly, a good many people have fallen in love through messages in bottles, and still others have rekindled love through bottled notes.
In a previous issue of Glassing, you read about Ake and Paolina Wiking, who met in the 1950s via a message in a bottle and were married about a year later. They went on to raise a family together in Sweden. Ake and Paolina remained married for 43 years until Ake’s death in 2001.
In 2016, Paolina told Ud & Se writer Anders Ryehauge that she still had the message and bottle, and even all these years later after Ake’s death, she kept it in its place of honor on her fireplace mantle. “The paper is so old that you can no longer read the message,” she said—but it didn’t matter. She knew the message by heart.
You also read about Frank Hayostek and Breda O’Sullivan, the ill-fated penpals whose affection was doomed never to blossom into love. Frank was an American GI returning from WWII and was stuck at sea for Christmas, 1945—his third Christmas away from home. He tossed his lonesome message in a bottle into the dark, endless sea that Christmas evening. Eight months later, Irish milkmaid Breda O’Sullivan found it (well, her dog Oscar found it, and she cottoned on). They wrote each other constantly for years until he visited her in person. But by then, their story had attracted so much media attention that the pressure was too much. Frank went home and they continued to write sporadically, but nothing ever came of it. For a deeper dive into this incredible story, listen to Peter Mulryan’s RTE 1 documentary, Message in a Bottle.
There are a few more love stories from messages in bottles that boggle the mind—two of which come from the UK.
First, if you have ever wished for a version of Nicholas Sparks’s Message in a Bottle with a happier ending, look to Annie Rivet and Niels Elffers. Edinburgh’s Annie Rivet was only 10 years old in 1963 when she sent a message in a bottle that would change the course of her life, according to The Times of London. Her family was crossing the English Channel en route to Europe for vacation when she dropped her note overboard. Not long after, it tumbled ashore in the Netherlands where it was found by Niels Elffers, a boy who was—conveniently—her very age. This kicked off a devoted penpalship that first bore fruit two years later when Annie’s family traveled to the Netherlands to spend part of their vacation with the Elffers. Can you imagine devoting a vacation to hanging out with your 12-year-old kid’s penpal’s family? But thank goodness it happened.
This was Annie and Niels’s first meeting. We can only imagine how it went, but neither could have been too terribly shy—they resumed writing each other regularly after the trip was over and continued to do so for years. Even so, it would be eight years before they met again.
“I was working in France one summer when I was a student,” Annie told The Times, “He and his parents visited and invited me to spend a week with them in Holland, which I did. I had a very pleasant time.”
Incredibly, it seems not to have occurred to either of them that they might consider going on a date, for they again parted after this holiday, and went back to writing letters to each other and dating other people.
Finally, when Annie and Niels were in their early 20s, the events put in motion by Annie’s whimsical gesture over a decade before began to pick up steam. One of them mentioned to the other—in a letter, of course—that they were planning to backpack through France for a bit. The other responded that they wanted to do that too, and, gee, maybe it would be smart to pool their resources and go together? You know, for the sake of efficiency?
“She put her rucksack in my car and it never left,” Niels told The Times in 2005, “It just happened.”
A few wineries, croissants, and breathtakingly beautiful train rides later, Annie and Niels fell in love. They got married, moved to the Netherlands, raised two kids, and eventually settled in the UK. As Annie told The Times, “It has always been a special relationship. How could you marry someone else after that?”
Next up is one of the strangest stories I have ever heard, and it comes from Scotland and the historic market town of Beverley, England.
While on a school trip to the Isle of Arran off Scotland’s west coast from her home in England, the aptly-named Mandy English sent a message in a bottle asking the finder to respond. Two years later, in 1981, a little boy named Richard Morwood found Mandy’s message at Skipness, a small, historic coastal town on a peninsula of the Scottish mainland that reaches out toward Ireland. He wrote back right away, but, as Richard was only six and Mandy was in her teens by then, she felt he was too young for them to be penpals and didn’t write him back.
That would be the end of the story if it weren’t for a lucky bit of house cleaning. In 2011, thirty-two years after Mandy sent her bottle, she and her boyfriend were digging through her accumulated belongings, sorting things out, when they discovered the postcard from that little boy, Richard, who had written to her when they were kids. She hadn’t seen the postcard in decades.
But Mandy recognized the name on the postcard right away—Richard Morwood—because her boyfriend was named Richard Morwood. He was the very same Richard Morwood who had found her bottled note and written to her, but neither had ever realized it!
In 2011, Allastair Taylor interviewed the couple for The Sun. Richard said, “I couldn’t believe it when Mandy told me she was the one who had put the message in the bottle. It’s bizarre…We definitely think fate brought us together. The most amazing thing is that in 1981 I signed off ‘Love Richard’ — and, now she’s my girlfriend, I really do love her.”
Messages in bottles are often scoffed at, and regarded as absurd—some even think of them as trash. I like to share these stories in response. It may seem silly to some that a message in a bottle could lead to love or marriage, but it happens, and the relationships they create are every bit as real and full and rich as anyone else’s. In fact, if we are really honest, their love stories are just a little bit cooler, aren’t they?
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