By Louise Ure
I told you two weeks ago about the rekindled relationship with my siblings and what a wonderful experience it was working with them to divide up my mother’s estate – a task that could have been fraught with angst and frustration.
The trip took longer than I expected and we accomplished less than I had hoped, but we got decisions made, experts resourced and a timetable in place. We plowed through closets and file cabinets and drawers stuffed with old papers, photos and mementos. We found my grandmother’s satin wedding shoes from 1898. My mother’s cape from nursing school when she graduated 74 years ago.
And those letters.
I don’t have many love letters from Bruce. Nor from earlier beaux. Our relationships were carried on in the days of easy phone access, dotted notes and emails. But my parents grew up in an era of diaries and long letters and longer absences. Thoughts and hopes and dreams left on the page for someone else to read and reread.
And that’s what I found.
A couple of years ago I posted a blog here about my father. He died when I was sixteen and I remember him only as a distant and cold man. He kept separate rooms in the house for himself and only dined with the family three times a year. He was a strong presence in my life, like that of a chilly draft in an otherwise warm room. I was always told that the war had changed him.
They had planned to marry on August 17, 1941. On July 29 of that year, he was told to report to Kodiak Island in Alaska. My mother crossed off the August 17 date on the invitations and wrote in “August 1.” They married and hopped on a train for San Francisco. He got off in Los Angeles to report for duty and my mother continued on to San Francisco for a honeymoon alone. She didn’t see him again for five years.
What she didn’t tell me was that she kept the letters he sent home … hundreds of them … one every two days for five years. They are still in their little parchment envelopes, rimmed with blue and red stripes for airmail. Each one still has the censor’s initials and stamp of approval. The handwriting is strong but ornate, befitting one who was educated in the ways of penmanship.
And as I read, I met a new man. A man who used endearments. A man of wit and humor. A man who enjoyed gossip. A man who loved deeply and was loved in return.
“I hope that this letter will reach you in time to tell you that for the New Year I only wish that you should remain my very lovely and adorable wife. It seems that every little thought or action that I might have is linked so closely with you that I have no choice of my own. I love you so.”
This from a man who never called me by my name.
He also seemed introspective and unsure in the letters, traits I would not normally have credited him with.
“Tell me, dear, why do I make so few close friends? I know that I demand perfection in anything that is associated with me and I know that I can be sarcastic and over-bearing but why people fear me either in my judgments or opinions, I cannot guess. Can you tell me? It has bothered me so much since I have been here.”
He wrote with a strong sense of duty and honor:
“Granted it is unnecessary in a way and calls for some sacrifices and hardships but we can’t help looking on it as a duty or service and in some ways an opportunity. I can’t help but feel that out of this will come a better, fuller life for a greater number and that it is not the end of everything. It may have taken a war to bring to the world’s attention the conditions that brought about such bitter feelings – mainly the economic inequality among nations and individuals, the crowded distribution of population in some areas, and the age old hatred of races and nations. When we win, many of these things will be corrected and this old world will be set for a long productive, peaceful and plentiful era.”
And he was a hopeless optimist:
“I am not the least afraid of the future and look forward to the fun of living in it. Also the effect on the allied nations after the war will be great. England will become a democracy in fact rather than word. The U.S. will further consolidate social and labor reforms and government will retain strong control over business. And Russia will come out of its secrecy, double-dealing and distrust and become one of the world’s great powers along with us.”
My sister and I read from separate boxes of letters, sharing choice comments or sadnesses as we found them. “I spent the day in 1941,” I told her over a cocktail. “I was living in 1943,” she replied.
I’ve met a different man than the father I knew and I take great pleasure in making his acquaintance.
So tell me about love letters, ‘Ratini. Do you keep them? Do you need to burn them before your heirs go through them? And if you don’t have them any more, which is the love letter you would most like to have in hand?
Louise I've kept for my daughters the letters that record the early days of their father and I. We were so young. So filled with hope and love. He was so open. He is now not so. Well sporadically he can be. As we got older events from his youth swallowed him up. I want, when they are ready, for them to know him as I did. I'm not sure when this may be, as they do remember him being open from when they were little. It's been the last 10 or so years where he has been harder to reach.
I am sad that you didn't experience the Dad of your letters. But also glad that you can experience him in a medium that you also express yourself so beautifully in. Bittersweet.
What a wondeful post! Heartbreaking yet hopeful, your father had a way with the written word and was a thinker. Love letters – had two in my life – one from a boy who had a teenage crush and the other from my husband to be shortly before we were married. Sad to say, I don't have them anymore but I do carry them in my heart.
Ah, Louise, this breaks my heart with its cut glass edges. To get to know him is beautiful, and yet, to know what you missed…
I think there is a scrap book of mine somewhere at my mom's with love letters from boys, and I'll leave it for the kids to chuckle over. My husband (being dyslexic) doesn't write love letters, but all anyone has to do is walk in our home and look around at the projects he's constantly doing to see every syllable of love that could have ever been written.
I have all of 2 notes from my husband. He's not a writer. But I've kept all the letters from my mother when we were planning my wedding. I was getting married in a town 3 hours away from my mother & of course, back then, we didn't have cell phones & most long distance phone calls were for emergencies. The letters flew back & forth several times a week.
I'm glad you got to get acquainted with your father through those letters. I wish I had something like that. My father died when I was 2 1/2 years old. I do have a ton of pictures, including one of my parents taken on the farm in the early years of their marriage. I'd never seen it before my mother died. They look so happy in that casual picture, arms wrapped around each other.
Chris and I never exchanged letters. I have a few cards with his signature, he has a few of mine. But that's all. As you say, it's easier in this time of email and phone calls.
But Chris's parents had a remarkable correspondence. They met in England in the early 1950s at the National Gallery as Edith, an art historian, was trying to get a museum staffer to turn a painting around to see if something was on the other side. Ernest, in the Royal Air Force, was visiting the museum and watched the whole thing, amazed by this woman. A week later they ran into each other at the theater and had coffee afterward. What resulted was a year of writing letters as Edith went back to Brussels on her Fulbright scholarship and then back to Iowa. A year later, she went back to England and they married, living four years in their cold water flat. They speak so fondly of those years, despite the hardships.
Catherine, keep those letters. Your daughters will appreciate them.
Grace, I'm glad you hold those letters in your heart.
Toni, you're right. His projects are his love letters.
Jody, I found so many new pictures in my hunt. Wonderful memories.
And Karen, I adore your parents live story!
How marvelous for you. We so seldom are afforded the opportunity to experience our parents as people.
Lovely love letters. While in high school, I worked on the SS Admiral, a tourist boat that plied the Mississippi going upstream several miles before it turned around and headed back to St. Louis. It held oodles of passengers searching for warm sun, a calliope playing on the top deck and river views for four or five hours a day. There I met M. Older than I and a romantic. We’d exchange letters, passing them to each other on the sly during the day. We lived miles away from each other, me in Illinois, him in Missouri, the river our common connection.
The guy had a way with words that wrapped around my heart. He went away to college and for months I skipped to the mailbox. Like most summer romances, it faded with fall’s amber leaves.
Before I married, Mom decided it was best to toss them, and she did. What good are old love letters? Only the heart knows.
Oh Murderati fan, I hope you're still skipping to the mailbox.
Some years after my grandmother's death, my mother had the opportunity to read her parents love letters to each other only to find that the father that had raised her was not her biological one. So began a quest that that took 2 years and the truth that her biological father had died in WW2. She has since connected to his sister. She frequently reads those letters – I guess to reconnect to that time, those people.
Your story brought tears to my eyes. Louise, enjoy those letters.
No love letters for me. I have a lot of the cards hubby gave me though. One week anniversary, two weeks, etc., he was so mushy then, it was adorable. The little notes inside make me giggle when I read them now. One day, must be over 20 years ago, he took letter size sheets of paper and cut out in big letters " HAPPY ANNIVERSARY I LOVE YOU" and spread them on the floor so I saw them when I walked in the door. I've still got those "letters."
Wow. What a powerful post. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see him before he was changed. And can't help but wonder – what did he see that altered him so?
I keep all my cards – we aren't letter writers, but I can't bear to throw anything away that says Love on it.
The other day I read that Elton John and his husband exchange cards every Saturday and have for twenty-ish years. Good thing they can afford a big house to keep them all!
Oh my, whatever happened to your father during the war did have an impact on him. I think that childrens' regret for the parents they never knew is unfortunately relatively common. My mother found my grandparents' WWII love letters after they both died, and they also showed happier young people, before years of drinking and hostility spoiled the relationship and the tone of the family for the next two generations. Similarly, when my parents in their late 60s and early 70s resolved some health issues and overcame the last vestiges of bad family upbringings, they turned into happy, fun people (and what I would have given to have had happy, fun parents when I was a lonely, miserable child). Oh well. We just go forward, I suppose.
I LOVE this post and am so glad you shared it! What a treasure to find those letters and get to know your father in the way your mother had known him, how he once was.
When my grandmother died, I was 19 and had drifted from her with more important things, like boys. I never got to 'know' her entirely and had so many questions I wish I had asked her. After the funeral when everyone was downstairs pilfering through everything, I locked myself in her bedroom and began my own private investigation. I ran across an old diary that was mostly empty, save a few entries from when she was around the same age I was at then. She was talking about going to the city and was excited about getting to see a boy. I wish that diary had been full, but just those few entries allowed me to forgive myself, realizing that all young girls go through a boys-on-the-brain phase.
And during high school, my first real boyfriend went to another state for summer. I was skipping to the mailbox as well. Not only that, I watched for the mailman every day, ever hopeful for a letter. Man, could that guy write. I no longer have them but wish I did.
Those are the guys I have really fallen for…the ones who have a way with the written word.
Heartbreaking post. We have a whole new generation of young men and women being altered forever by war.
I recognized your journey. Although I was very fortunate that my father was an active part of my life, I realized as I went through his apartment after his death that there was so much I didn't know. I wrote this after my journey.
"A life is the sum of many parts, a dear friend reminded me. And sitting on the floor of Dad’s apartment touching the contents of emptied desk drawers and dusty cardboard boxes, I was taken into his life on another dimension. In sepia there was the high school athlete dribbling a basketball. There was the young theology student’s report card as well as his explanation about why he was changing fields. I found the dapper young man meticulously groomed in fashionable wire glasses, suit, and tie ready to begin the practice of law and the Second Lieutenant in the Army standing with his mom and dad and youngest sister before leaving for what would turn out to be 26 months in places on the other side of the Atlantic. I met the lonely soldier spending his birthday in Paris with French civilians and fellow soldiers, who seemed in their penned messages to have understood the magnitude of that moment in history they were sharing. I encountered the courting lover, his heart and his dreams; the engrossed father on a Christmas Eve proudly sharing his one-year-old son with his in-laws in California. Before my eyes were the “rising star” of the Wisconsin General Assembly who was appointed to powerful committees; the comedian who photocopied jokes; the cook who clipped recipe after recipe, ever the optimist because his wife never let him in the kitchen; the golfer who used sport as an avenue of connection and communication; the tennis player who could disturb anybody’s concentration with a well-timed swivel of his skinny legs; the judge who – well, I’ll let him tell that one in his own words: “I always felt that the good Lord thought I could serve Him by being a kind, compassionate, and understanding judge, by respecting that each and every individual who came before me was to be regarded as a creature of God and was entitled to be treated as such.”
"Long before my mother bought the newly released To Kill a Mockingbird and placed it on the bookshelf in our music room, I knew Atticus Finch. By then, I had lived with him for ten years."
Kellee, that's both a mystery and a romance.
And Pauline, he truly is romantic.
JT, I haven't finished the letters yet but I'll bet I can answer your question when I do.
Alafair, I'd have to settle for weekly emails, not cards.
MJ, yours sounds like a haunted family.
And Charlotte, I too love the men of words.
Alex, I imagine today's soldiers are creating exactly the same love letters.
And Sandy, what an incredible eulogy to your father. He sounds like a fine man.
Hi Louise – lovely blog, as always. I keep very few letters and take very few family photographs. When my memory goes, so will the memories.
So beautiful, Louise.
Steve wrote to me every day when I was in college. He would drive 2 1/2 hrs to see me every weekend, then 2 1/2 hrs home, then more letters each day, sometimes 2.
Your father's character and behavior makes for an enticing mystery.
My love letter: One week after Tim died, I was in his office at the studio, looking for papers we needed. I found the envelope with the Valentine's card I had brought him in the hospital. I pulled it out, and there was his love letter to me in return. He had brought it from his hospital stay to the studio, i know, to transcribe it onto one of his drawings, as he had every Valentine's Day before. But the illness and his need to finish an art installation in Watsonville used all his strength. I almost didn't open the card…I almost didn't get the message I needed most in the world to hear.