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Monday 17 June 2019
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Tony and Bonnie: How pen pals grew to love

Bonnaventure and Anthony Joseph constantly displayed their affection during the interview at Newsday's office, Pembroke Street, Port of Spain.
Bonnaventure and Anthony Joseph constantly displayed their affection during the interview at Newsday's office, Pembroke Street, Port of Spain.

IN today’s world, communication is instant. WhatsApp, FaceBook, Instagram, even the now aged text messaging, to name a few, are digital platforms that put you in touch with just about anyone you want to be in touch with.

But there was a time when communication took time. When one waited for a long-distance phone call, or for a letter to arrive. People in their late 30s and beyond will wistfully remember the age of pen pals: meeting new people through letters, knowing what someone’s inner voice sounded like before you even heard their voice.

And this is where the love story of Anthony Joseph, 63, and Bonnaventure Francis-Joseph, 59, begins.

As a young man, Joseph asked God to send him a woman who understood him. One of his favourite things to do back then –in the 80s – was go to the movies. There he would see people holding hands and smiling and it seemed like “for them that was the greatest joy.”

Anthony and Bonnaventure in their younger years at their engagement.

He always held a romantic view of the world. He grew up believing that it was “supposed to be happily ever after.”

The names and addresses of prospective pen pals were a common feature in newspapers back then.

“I had (pen pals) from (Sangre) Grande, Calcutta number one, Japan among others. I was always writing. I would see them in the paper and write. Around that time I used to go to cinema a lot. There was kick-up and Western...that was my thing,” Joseph said in an interview at Newsday’s office at Pembroke Street, Port of Spain.

The then 19-year-old Joseph soon realised he was lonely, seeing men put their arms around their girls' shoulders at the movies.

One day he sat on the steps of his mother Clementine Ottley's house in Maraval and said a prayer. He told God he was lonely and asked God to send someone into his life. Ethnicity did not matter to him as long, as the person understood him and he understood her.

Some time went by after this prayer and he continued writing to his pen pals. One of the people he wrote to was Linda Singh, Francis’s friend. Singh did not respond, and Joseph instead received a letter from Francis. They became pen pals in 1980.

Looking over at her husband of 35 years and smiling girlishly, Francis explained, “One of my friends (Singh) who I went to school with...she had pen pals, but I did not have any. She had so many so she decided to share with me. She shared about six letters; one from Arima, Ghana, England, Canada and one from Maraval and it was Anthony Joseph.”

Francis soon realised there was something special about Joseph and his letters. This fact was soon driven home when one of her other pen pals, from Arima, paid her a visit. She realised this pen pal was only after one thing.

“I did not like how he was approaching me and first thing he talking about baby and thing,” Francis said.

But in Joseph’s letters, she found a sense of “realness” and genuineness.

“There was no funny stuff in it. He was asking me like, what is my favourite colour, my hobbies, how many brothers and sisters I have.

“He was real, and that is how we continued writing. I loved how he wrote,” Francis said.

When she received her letters from Joseph, she would often read them with her late grandfather, Paul Matthews.

The two kept writing to each other and one day Joseph visited. He had written to Francis asking her to meet him at KFC in Chaguanas, but Francis never received that letter.

So when Joseph got to KFC and did not see Francis, after waiting a while, he decided to head to Las Lomas, where she then lived. He saw a friend, asked them how to get to Las Lomas and headed there.

When he arrived he asked a shopkeeper if she knew where “Bonnie” lived. The shopkeeper told him where to find her. But Joseph was also able to identify where Francis lived from a tiny picture of herself she had sent to him.

“When he walked in (to the area) he saw a board house and my mummy (Virginia Francis) was talking to a guy there, but he did not know she was Mum. He kept on walking. The picture that I had sent for him in the letter, he saw the bench and an icebox and was able to identify that as the house,” Francis said.

She recalls those moments with great clarity: coming out with her glasses and her shorts on, hearing her name being called and looking out and seeing Joseph.

He asked her if she was “Bonnaventure” and she said yes, stretching out her arms to greet him.

“I was so surprised, and after, I called my grandfather and told him, 'Look Anthony,'” she said.

She introduced him to her friends and family. Joseph described their first meeting as “kind of surreal...It was like the grandfather had known me for years,” he said.

It was a while before Joseph visited again, but they kept writing. And his second visit set the stage for them to be more than friends. They both had other, romantic “friends,” but were uncertain of where they stood with those “friends.”

On his second visit to Francis’ Las Lomas home, they took a walk and he said, “You have a friend and don’t know what going on, I have a friend and don’t know what going on. Better the two of us get something going.”

The otherwise shy Joseph was shocked at the words that came out of his mouth, but that led to them becoming more than just pen pals. It was also the day, Joseph recalled he got his first kiss. When he said this Francis playfully hit him.

Within six months, on April 28, 1984, they got married at the Church of God, Chaguanas.

The retelling of their story is intertwined with laughter, teasing and blushes. Francis would rest her head on Joseph’s shoulders many times during the interview.

Their 35 years together have given them six children, three born in Las Lomas and three in Maraval, where they now live.

They remember their engagement party and people dancing to Michael Jackson’s music, some even doing the moonwalk. Their ability to recall the little things is a signpost of a life well shared.

Their relationship has weathered time. When Joseph became ill with a spinal injury, Francis stood by him. He was unable to work, and one of his friends hit on Francis, but she stuck by him, he emphasised during the interview.

“We are always together, like when we are going to the market...we do things together,” the couple jointly said. People, Joseph said, would tease him, telling him, 'Why don’t you leave the woman alone?" but they always enjoy doing most things together.

For them, a date would simply be going around the Savannah or sharing doubles. Joseph says he does little things to make his wife feel special and to know that she is appreciated. He also still writes to her, whether it is a letter or a poem. He does not do it all the time, for fear of overkill, but he knows the right time when it needs to be done.

Anthony and Bonnaventure Joseph still in love after 35 years of marriage. They were penpals before they became husband and wife.

The couple never got the chance to celebrate a honeymoon and so for their 35th anniversary, on April 28 this year, Joseph took Francis to Tobago and did a special dedication to her on the radio.

The couple shared their story because they want to encourage people to “go the distance.”

They see a lot of relationships and people being given up on.

Joseph said, “It does not mean it is going to be easy along the way, every step of the way, but you have to want it that much for it to work.”

The Josephs also shared their story because they believe that people are not appreciating relationships and love as they should.

For those now starting their journey in love, the Josephs recommend doing things together, being patient and, most importantly, understanding each other.

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