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Past Times

Tears of joy as Mariana in Brazil united with mum’s long-lost teenage penpal from Nairn

Donald Finlayson identified himself as Mariana's mum Claudia's penpal after an appeal in the Pand J. reports.
Susy Macaulay
Mariana Menezes, far left, turned to the P&J to track down Donald Finlayson, right, penpals with her mother Claudia, centre, in 1959/60. Image: Mariana Menezes, Finlayson Family, DCT Design Roddie Reid.
Mariana Menezes, far left, turned to the P&J to track down Donald Finlayson, right, penpals with her mother Claudia, centre, in 1959/60. Image: Mariana Menezes, Finlayson Family, DCT Design Roddie Reid.

When Brazilian academic Mariana Menezes lost her inspirational mother Claudia during the pandemic, she was naturally heartbroken.

It took a while to bring herself to go through her mother’s possessions.

But when she did, she discovered something that so intrigued her that she was prompted to get in touch with the P&J for answers.

She found a little bundle of letters with a note bearing the name Donald from Scotland.

Mariana’s mum Claudia corresponded with Donald Finlayson of Nairn. Image: Mariana Menezes.

The letters revealed that during 1959/60, Claudia, then 13, had a penpal from Nairn named Donald Finlayson.

Mariana said: “At the time she lived in the small city of Petrópolis, located in the State of Rio de Janeiro.

“She passed away right in the beginning of the pandemic and at the time it was too painful to go through her things but now I’m slowly reading some of the letters she kept and I found the correspondence sent by Donald from 1959/1960 and he is from Nairn.

The photograph of himself Donald sent to Claudia.  Image: Mariana Menezes.

“By his calligraphy I did not quite understand his surname, but I believe it is Finlayson.”

Mariana tried an internet search for Donald Finlayson, without success.

But her curiosity was piqued, so she got in touch with us to find out if there was an official route through which she could track down Donald.

We were able to go one better, and put out an appeal to our readers through a Past Times feature, which you can read if you click here.

Shortly afterwards we were contacted by Donald Finlayson himself, from his retirement home in Cyprus.

Donald realised he was reading about himself

When he saw the article, shared in social media, he rushed to respond.

Donald said: “As soon as I saw it was me, I got in touch.

“I remember clearly sending the letters and I was sad to learn Claudia had passed away.

“Whenever I heard anything about Brasilia and Brazil the thought would pass my though my mind wondering what happened to her, what was she doing, did she have a family.”

One of Don’s letters to Claudia, dated June 12, 1960. Image: Mariana Menezes

For Donald, who likes to be known as Don, having a penpal was about finding out about the world and other people’s lives.

He even thinks he might have found the penpal advert in the P&J, which his mother had every day.

“I took the Eagle and the Dandy, but it wasn’t from them,” he adds.

“My English teacher at Nairn Academy told me having a penpal would broaden my horizons.”

Don met his future wife that year

The year Don started corresponding with Claudia turned out to be momentous in his life.

He met his future wife Dolina, known as Dolly, at the local youth club.

He said: “I’d seen her around, and when I saw her at the club, I walked her home, and  we’ve been together ever since. We got married in 1966.”

Don and Dolly went on to have four children.

Donald’s three siblings, left to right, John, Isobel and Ena Finlayson.  Image: Barrie Finlayson.

Don says he has had a happy and fulfilled life, with 22 years service as an electrical engineer in the RAF between 1962, when he left Nairn Academy, and 1988.

After that, he spent 10 years working for electrical retailer Currys in the midst of the momentous technological changes from black and white to colour TV, CDs, DVDs.

Don and Dolly retired to Cyprus in 2004.

Nostalgic memories

He looks back on his correspondence with Claudia with nostalgia, particularly what they reveal of the young Don of the time.

He wrote Claudia reports of what Nairn was like, of visiting his ‘Highland grannie’ near Craigellachie and a trip he took to Loch Ness with a friend.

He said: “I must admit when I read the article I thought, she knows more about me than I do!”

Surprised at himself

“I was surprised I managed to write as much as I did.

“The letters remind me of how keen I was on nature and correspondence and trying to better myself.

“I was after knowledge all the time. Claudia was interested in Scotland, very much.”

And there was a surprising revelation in the letters even after all these years.

Shaggy dog tale

In his letters, Don refers to the family dog as a Pekinese by the name of Fugee.

“Only in later life I realised he was Japanese and called Fuji after Mount Fuji,” he said.

Don talks of his three siblings in his letters, particularly his brother John, in the RAF at the time.

He said: “John is still alive and in Tayside, my youngest sister Ena died, but my sister Isabel is living in Forres.”

Donald Finlayson, left, with his great-nephew Barrie McDonald in Cyprus, around 2016.  Image: Barrie McDonald

Don’s great-nephew Barrie McDonald, 43, from Nairn, said he was amazed to see the story of the penpals emerge in the P&J.

“It was surreal,” he said, “you just don’t expect to see something like that about your family in the paper.

Six decades on

“It’s amazing Claudia kept the letters and incredible that after six decades someone on the other side of the world has reached out wanting to find out more about the connection.

“You can see by some of the words Don uses in his letters how smart he was as a 13 year old.”

Mariana at work as a part-time florist. She is an academic researcher, very much inspired by her mother. Image: Mariana Menezes

When Mariana, who now lives in São Paulo, heard that we had found her mother’s penpal she was overwhelmed.

She said: “I am so happy, I couldn’t stop crying, especially thinking how happy my mother would be.”

Claudia’s life took a very different path from Don’s, as she became an anthropologist committed to the cause of preserving the rights of indigenous people from Brazil.

Claudia, pictured here in 1990, was an inspirational anthropologist who worked with native tribes. Image: Mariana Menezes

Mariana was inspired to study anthropology, sociology and political science because of her and is now an academic researcher, as well as a florist at weekends.

She said: “My mother loved Scotland and had the opportunity to visit the country.

“Many years later I became a huge fan as well and recently started studying Scottish Gaelic.

In awe of Scotland’s beauty

“I have some books on Scottish flowers and am in awe at its wild beauty.

“I also read and reread The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, and her poetic and yet raw perception of the relationship with Cairngorms.”

We can only hope Mariana gets the chance to come to Scotland, enjoy its beauty and flowers, practice her Gaelic, and in honour of her late mother’s link with Donald, pack in a little visit to Nairn.

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