The Story Behind the Letters

 

In 1972, with the children finally out of the house, my parents enlarged the second-floor master bedroom of their custom-built, mid-century, split-level house in Highland Park, Illinois. In the expanded basement footprint beneath the bedroom, in what had once been the maid’s quarters, my parents constructed a small storage closet measuring about four feet by six, where they moved dozens of deteriorating cardboard boxes from their former, unkempt home in the garage.

I had always been the nosiest of the four children, the one who investigated the nooks and crannies elsewhere in the house, or the tiny cabinets above the bedroom closets, where my brothers’ high school papers were stuffed in an old brown accordion file behind the tabletop hockey game, where my father had wrapped in newspaper the china dogs that my oldest, canine-crazed brother had collected. Here was the second oldest brother’s collections of plastic horses, and the assortment of Steiff animals my youngest brother had accumulated. And here was my mother’s moth-eaten and stained wedding dress, which she had lent to an irresponsible friend decades before. I rediscovered the crude painted blue Ginny doll bed my father had nailed together for me one day in winter 1960 and a basket filled with the dolls and doll clothes that filled my childhood.

But as nosy as I was, for the longest time my curiosity stopped short of exploring that inner sanctum in the basement. Although the door was never locked, it seemed off-limits. I sensed that the room contained the most important items concerning the family, including, perhaps, things I was not meant to see.

None of us children had given much thought to these things when the boxes had been sitting on unreachable shelves in the garage, and as adults we were largely indifferent to their home in the basement closet. Maybe it was because, in order to reach the closet, you had to pass a scary oil painting of my father’s mother that glowered from its place over a decommissioned toilet. Maybe it was because the entire basement area was spookily messy, unlike the rest of the house, which my mother made sure looked beautiful, just like her prized flower garden. If my father was the guardian and preserver of the family artifacts, my mother was the guardian and preserver of their home’s artfulness.

I did eventually visit the room on trips to Highland Park from my home back east, but just to glance briefly at its contents. My father, with his passion for order, his devotion to the past, his shockingly good memory for names, dates, and decades-old conversations, and his extreme collecting tendencies, had filled the closet shelves with boxes big and small, many of them identified with a Magic Marker in his fastidious block letters: COLORADO TRIP, MILITARY SERVICE, CHILDREN’S COLLEGE PAPERS, and so on. The floor was cluttered with framed prints and photographs, and rolled-up rugs currently out of decorative favor.

As time went on, my visits to the storage closet involved closer inspections and I made a series of discoveries that surprised me, even if I should have expected nothing less from Dad. A compulsive archivist, he had saved and labeled all correspondence (he kept carbon copies of his own half of it) between him and every one of his children, his business partners, and his friends. He saved all his children’s school papers through college, as well as the notes and crayoned pictures I had scribbled as a child for them to find when they came home from a Saturday evening out. There were hundreds of letters from both sets of my grandparents, some written in my father’s parents’ broken English and difficult to decipher. He’d organized decades of Kodachrome slides and a scrapbook of his own columns from the Crane Tech High School newspaper. He had arranged decades of snapshots into chronological albums, captioning every photo in felt-tip pen. In one album, he’d pressed the single rose given to my mother in 1942 on their first wedding anniversary.

He had saved every valentine he’d ever received, every Western Union telegram, every household budget from his bachelor years before marriage. He even saved every tiny flower card he and Mom had received with gifts of bouquets. You just had to hand it to the guy’s energy, organizational talents, and his infinite sentimentality.

However, it was only during a visit home in my early 30’s, now with small children of my own, that I saw what I had missed before. I awoke early one Saturday morning before anyone else and went downstairs in my pajamas to the musty basement to look for a novel to read among the old high school yearbooks and well-thumbed copies of Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and Ethan Frome that we children had left behind, and which had been crammed in a bookshelf just outside the storage closet.

Maybe it was the expanded curiosity about my parents’ pasts that comes with parenthood of one’s own, but I bypassed the bookshelf and opened the heavy door to that inner closet, where I noticed—for the very first time—that on the highest shelf, well above eye level, my father had arranged 10 shoeboxes from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller, neatly stacked in two tiers.

Like almost everything else in that room, he had carefully labeled the boxes: “Letters Carey to Sol 1938,” “Letters Sol to Carey, 1941,” and on and on. I took down one, then the other, opened them and riffled through the contents with amazement.  Each shoebox was packed to the gills with the letters, neatly arranged by date, that my parents had written to each other between 1938, when they were 18 and 22, respectively, and 1945, when, now married for four years and fully reunited after World War II, they were 25 and 29.

That morning, I chose one box, its bursting seams mended with Scotch tape, and carried it carefully to the couch in the den. After gently lifting the cover, I randomly chose one letter, eight pages of my father’s fluid script written on stationery from the Branscome Hotel in St. Louis, where he was a young salesman in the late 1930s, and stared at it, wondering if this was any of my business. My parents, who were not particularly private people and hardly protective of their pasts, strangely had never even mentioned the letters’ existence. But why not? And what were they saving them for?

Throwing caution to the wind—a habit I inherited from my father—I dove right in. The envelope had been carefully opened with a knife or letter opener, the paper was crisp, and the blue fountain pen ink had somehow forgotten, over the years, to fade.

 

November 27, 1940

 

My dearest own,

 

If only you could know how much you mean to me and how you devour my thoughts, you’d probably hang your head in shame and bow your back with the weight. (I wish I could stop trying to be clever and just write simply and childishly.) You’re all to me—I love you again and again and again and again to pieces—my diet is soup and tea, you fiend! My only rest from your ceaseless being is morphine—or three bottles of beer—or seeing you—SATURDAY and on thru the years.

 

Eternally, Sol

 

December 9, 1940

 

My own darling!

 

As for those gadgets and electric razors, they are no more than that and I find them slow, scratchy and impractical. But why inquire—unless it’s Xmas your thinking of? In which case, please don’t think of presenting me with anything mere dollars can buy. What I prefer is priceless and non-purchaseable—your affection for the rest of my years and myself to be worthy of it!

 

Ever, Ollie

 

There was no stopping now.  I read four or five of my father’s letters and then retrieved my mother’s from the same month. The writing was touching, funny, colorful, beautiful, passionate, and longing. Who were these people? They described a life and love from a different time. The letters used language from an era I knew only from old movies—words like “gosh” and “swell” and “’twould.” There were references to movies, actors, books, plays, radio shows, musical performers, and artists, only some of which were familiar.

I visited at least four times a year, and each time after that first discovery I would head to the closet to resume my clandestine letter-reading. I started taking several boxes at once up to the privacy of my bedroom to read, marking the most astounding of them with pale blue Post-its. I was left with so many questions. When did my father put them in order?  Did he have an agreement with my mother that they would save these precious letters forever, no matter what? Did he have a plan for them and forget to tell us?

I can’t remember the exact year when I asked my parents if I could read some of their letters to them. I wanted to share these treasures with them and watch their responses. Another father might have said, “They’re private,” but when I broached it with Dad, he said, “What’re you waiting for?” And thus began the tradition of letter reading every time I came to their house.

My parents were inseparable. Unless my father was at work, they were in physical proximity to one another nearly all the time. They sat down together to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They even built a sitting room with an opening between it and the kitchen so that they could still be in visual and hearing contact when my father was reading in one room and my mother cooking in another. After my dad retired from business, my mom usually made sure she was home from her errands to have lunch with him.  They read in matching chairs. They made sure they napped together, went to sleep and woke up together.

They especially loved their sunny, spacious bedroom with its two armchairs next to the large picture window facing the backyard with its towering trees and tiny trickle of a stream, the stream my father had once predicted that they’d have back in the 1940s. At some point in the day on my visits, after lunch or dinner, when they were both be their chairs, books on their laps, I would ask, “Dad, can I get a box?”

“Yes, of course.”

I would sit on the end of their queen-size bed, facing the two of them in their comfortable chairs at the foot of the bed, and pull a letter from the box.

“Joycie, put the one next to it on its end,” my father would say, “so you can put the one you’re reading back where it belongs.”

“Here’s one from May twentieth, nineteen forty-three,” I would say, and my father would lean back in his chair with his eyes closed, hands clasped on his lap, a radiant smile on his face.

In her chair, my mother would smile too, but her hands were busy with a book or magazine or concert schedule.

“May twentieth, nineteen forty-three—don’t tell me,” Dad would mutter as the miraculous time machine in his brain carried him back. “Oh,” he’d say after a moment, having located the time in question, if not the exact day and the weather. “Aaahhh.”

“Begin,” he’d say.