In 1947, a Royal Navy ship called the HMS Porlock Bay visited Grand Cayman. As was common in those times, a dance was held to welcome the men aboard the vessel, and that is where local girl Ardyth Smith met a sailor she never forgot.
His name was Alvin Stoppard Thompson, from Southampton, England. Ms. Smith thought he was friendly, and “nice-looking,” and he quite liked her, too. The next evening, she accompanied Mr. Thompson to another event, this time aboard his ship.
It was the beginning of a unique friendship, even though the two never saw each other again.
Mr. Thompson’s ship had been dispatched to Belize, British Honduras to protect against Guatemalan threats to the colony, and shortly thereafter, the vessel was decommissioned. It never returned to the Cayman Islands.
While in Belize, Mr. Thompson found a Caymanian vessel, and asked if anyone on board knew Ms. Smith and could take a letter to her. By a stroke of fate, the captain of that ship was her uncle.
For years, the two wrote to each other.
“They were ordinary, friendly letters,” Mrs. Smith said. “There wasn’t too much happening in those days.”
He sent her postcards, pictures of the verdant New Forest area of southern England, close to his home in Southampton. And they exchanged photographs – Mrs. Smith, now 85, keeps two photos of Mr. Thompson on a shelf in her home in West Bay to this day, among other photos of her family.
After a few years of writing back and forth, she had collected a bundle of letters from Mr. Thompson. But then she got married to Ervin Smith, a Caymanian seaman, and had second thoughts about keeping them. It would not be appropriate for a married woman to have letters, even just friendly letters, from another man, she thought.
She decided to get rid of them.
“My mother said that I should never have burnt them, because they were so sweet,” Mrs. Smith said.
Mr. Thompson also married, and the two stopped writing to each other. Yet their connection continued, through Mr. Thompson’s family. And the result was that 68 years after Mrs. Smith met the handsome young sailor at a George Town dance, they were, in a way, reunited, when his niece, Pat Wilding, and her husband, Rod, visited Cayman this October.
“It was wonderful,” Mrs. Wilding said of meeting Mrs. Smith in person for the first time.
“We hugged as if we’d known her all our life.”
For although Mrs. Smith had stopped writing letters to Mr. Thompson, she had continued writing letters to his sister-in-law, Peggy Thompson. They wrote to each other, frequently on birthdays and other holidays, and Mrs. Smith often sent presents to the Thompson children, including Pat.
“We couldn’t wait for Christmas to see what came, and you’d look for the stamp to see if it was from Cayman,” Mrs. Wilding said.
She says she especially loved the colorful dresses Mrs. Smith would send, because at that time in England the clothes for children were rather drab.
Ms. Thompson died at 43, and Mrs. Wilding, then 21, took up her mother’s correspondence with Mrs. Smith.
“We continued writing and then about six, seven years ago, Ardyth contacted me and said ‘I’d love for you to come over, I’d really like to meet you,’” Mrs. Wilding said.
The timing never seemed quite right, but Mrs. Wilding knew if she was going to meet her family’s longtime pen pal in the Cayman Islands, it needed to be soon, while Mrs. Smith was still healthy enough to receive guests. So Mrs. Wilding and her husband at last came to visit Mrs. Smith in October.
“We first met Ardyth on Oct. 20, the day we arrived,” Mrs. Wilding said. “She was waiting in the hotel reception when we arrived to check in. She spotted us first and we went across to say hello. It seemed so natural to hug and kiss even though we had never met before.”
Mrs. Smith was very glad that the Wildings were finally able to come to Cayman to meet her.
“They’re enjoying the island – really crazy about the island – soaking up the sun, getting very brown,” she said.
The English visitors also spent plenty of time visiting with Mrs. Smith at the home she has lived in for the entirety of her married life, at the end of a long gravel driveway in a quiet neighborhood near Mount Pleasant in West Bay.
Mrs. Wilding enjoyed looking at Mrs. Smith’s old photographs, especially those of her bright-eyed uncle at 19, and Mr. Wilding enjoyed learning all about the history of the Cayman Islands from Mrs. Smith.
“Ardyth is a phenomenal historian,” Mr. Wilding said. “She knows everything about the Cayman Islands.”
Mrs. Smith also presented Mrs. Wilding with a piece of her own family’s history – a little pin that Mr. Thompson had sent to her so many years ago. Mrs. Wilding plans to give the little token to Mr. Thompson’s sons.
Mrs. Wilding said her experience corresponding with Mrs. Smith had made her wish that people still practiced the art of letter-writing.
“I think people should still write letters,” Mrs. Smith said. “It comes from the heart.”
A recent reunion marks the full circle of a remarkable correspondence relationship that began between two young people who met in post-war Cayman.