Friday, July 28, 2006

The Old Hidden Letters

My blogging buddy Terri recently came into possession of an old trunk. The previous owner is deceased and the trunk probably contains bits, pieces and mementos of personal history. It inspired me to write today's blog--about some letters found in my boyhood home.

In the beginning, the letters started out chatty, impersonal--comparable to the banter you might read today in an on-line chat with a stranger.

But not even the ballpoint pen had been invented when these pages were written in fountain ink. In fact, they were over 40 years old when my father discovered them hidden in the rafters of an old house we bought when I was a first-grader.

There were about a dozen letters as I recall--all written around 1918 by a young lady from Jackson, Michigan to a young gentleman, a former occupant of our home in Bay City.

How the pair met wasn't clear. Jackson and Bay City are more than 100 miles apart and this was before the Model T had been invented. The young woman did mention meeting in person, probably more than once, but the letters didn't reveal how or where.

Through her words, one could glean life as it was almost 100 years ago. An influenza epidemic ravaged worldwide that year, claiming a half million lives in America alone. She wrote about neighbors dying from the plague. America had entered World War I and she described a mock battle which took place in her city.

As best as I can remember, since it's been many years since I've read the letters, she chatted about the goings-on at her job in a typing pool, working in the stifling upstairs of a two-story building long before air conditioning was common. Eventually, her letters became less about events and more personal. She never wrote of love, but you could sense the growing fondness in her correspondence. One letter included a picture of her on a swing. She also sent a postcard special delivery. I remember the stamp depicted a mailman aboard a bicycle.

Obviously, they had met more than once because her letters spoke of their face-to-face encounters--friendly yet platonic, with a hint of romance. She teased about where their relationship could lead. A young man approached her, trying to make conversation, she wrote. He asked her if she had a boyfriend. She passed along the question to him in a letter.

It was implied that the answer would come at their next rendezvous, The young woman wrote about his upcoming visit with eager anticipation. In reading, I could almost envision a heroine from a gothic romance awaiting the return of a suitor. Yet this real-life story was about to take an ill-fated turn.

For whatever reason, the young man's mother did not approve of the developing relationship. She had it within her power to forbid her son from seeing the girl. And she did. An emotionally written final letter from the young woman blamed not the mother but the young woman herself for not being deserving of him. It was her goodbye. There were no more no more letters from her.

But inside the cigar box, among the letters carefully folded and put back into their original envelopes, there was one final letter. It was from the mother of the heartbroken girl. Directed mostly towards to the young man's mother, the older woman said she believed that young people should be free to make their own decisions, to live their own lives.

If there was any response, we never knew. Elderly neighbors who recalled the family, and knew of the correspondence, said the pair went on with their separate lives. You wonder why the man even felt it necessary to collect and preserve the letters through all these years.

Some years ago, my mother discovered an older man on the sidewalk looking over our house. She inquired why and was told that he was a member of the family that had lived there decades prior. My mother invited him in to see how we had remodeled the interior. During the course of their visit, my mother gave him the cigar box with the letters.

So we lost a piece of interesting history. My guess is that the letters now would command a not too paltry sum on E-Bay. But my guess is also that their sentimental value would be greater. For someone anyway.


Blogger Deb said...

What an interesting and heart-breaking story. Makes me curious to know what happened to the two people.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

First of all....thank you for the mention, Dave. I didn't mind at all.
WHAT a great story! Wow...I felt like I was beginning a novel and wanted to read more.
Reading this, the saying "It's better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all" came to mind.
I think this happened a lot back then, but wasn't the young woman's mother ahead of her times....understanding that the couple should be free to live their own lives. Unfortunately...they didn't. Such a shame.
Thank YOU so much for posting this. I enjoyed it a lot and I'm sure happy it jogged your memory with such a great story.

3:16 PM  
Blogger poopie said...

My most prized pieces of family history are a pair of letters written between my grandmother and uncle on the occasion of my birth...the first grandchild.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

Good story Dave, it's not just the modern generation that can make a mess of relationships it seems.

12:50 AM  
Blogger OldHorsetailSnake said...

That's pretty sad, Dave. Nicely done. You better go have a beer now...

9:25 AM  
Blogger Summer said...

very touching, sad story and so romantic. i just wish the couple ended it happily, but if they did, maybe your family have never found the letters. thanks for sharing!

6:22 PM  
Blogger Kacey said...

Back in the dark ages, when all we had were pen and paper to provoke interest from the opposite sex, we would have "pen pals" and try to get something going. I spent my summers as a pre-teen in Lovels, Michigan with an aunt and uncle, but home was Toledo, Ohio. It took six to eight hours to make the trip at a speedy 35 mph. The boy next door to my aunt's cabin was a nifty fourteen to my lowly, underdeveloped twelve. We did a few letters in between seasons, but I thought he had forgotten all about me. Surprise! A couple of years ago, he looked up my family name in White and called a relative to get my married name. He then called my home and told my husband of fifty years that he was my old boyfriend. Things from the old days are not nearly so romantic after the "golden years" have set in, but he is writing to me again----this time it is e-mail from California! I loved your story and will add you to my favorite bloggers. Perhaps, you will check out mine.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Me said...

What a great post! My mother has saved all the letters my dad and her wrote to each other before they got married. I've never read them though. This story is so sad! I wonder how the guy who came to the house was related.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Merle said...

Hi Dave ~~~ Great post and I really
enjoyed this story. It could have many different endings but to me that mother should not have had that much influence
and maybe the boyfriend was a bit weak.
Thanks for your comments, Take care, Merle

11:43 PM  
Blogger Merle said...

Hi again Dave ~~ I was interrupted before and fiished hastily. I meant to thank you for the info of "It's a lovely day Tomorrow" and I should have known
that Frank Sinatra sang it. A friend of
my late Dad used to sing it beautifully and I always associate it with him.
Maybe I talk about food too much.
Cheers, Merle.

2:02 AM  
Blogger Fred said...

Great story, Dave. I think future generations will miss out on this type of sentimental history due to the digital age. Even pictures are no longer being being squirreled away for someone to find in future generations.

There may have been a chance they met via car; I think the Model T was being mass produced by then?

8:38 AM  
Blogger Teri said...

Dear you know, your story isn't just a story. There is a moral, if you will. A lesson to be learned. I like the way you presented your post so that we readers could "read" between the lines. As you said, it is parallel to my own article this week. I'm happy that you saw through my thinly-veiled attempt to hide the most important issue in my post...yes, it is the father who is worried about his son's choice for a wife. Ahhhh....if we only knew then what we know now - or is it "if we only knew now, what we knew then?"

Ciao for now...great post.

12:00 PM  
Blogger LZ Blogger said...

Some things just can't have a PRICE on them! ~ jb

1:50 PM  
Blogger bornfool said...

What a nice but sad story. The letters would have been something to hang on to, but they ended up where they belonged.

Big Dave, I challenged you on my blog. Hope you play along.

2:25 PM  
Blogger pissed off patricia said...

Jeezz, I am such a freakin' romantic sucker. I am sitting here crying. What tossed me over the edge was your mom giving him the cigar box and the letters. What a wonderful thing to do.

Thank you so much for sharing that story, I love it.

:) with a few tears remaining.

10:22 AM  
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