Saturday, September 22, 2012

Letters From Another Time - I

I will break this into three parts, and will print them in reverse blog-order.  That is, in the order that we always read everything until ten years ago.

The first letter is from my grandmother's younger sister, Elin, to my grandmother, Louise, giving her details about the hard news she had received previously by telegram: that their youngest sister, Evelyn, had died of scarlet fever at 19.  Indulge me a bit on the length - I wanted to have them printed in full to provide certain effects.  Notice how different the experience of death was, even less than a hundred years ago in 1926.  I will not put that into words for you; I think that is beyond my skill, but more importantly, I want you to have a try at it yourself.  The tone is just different; they lived in a different world.

My second intent is something of an "Our Town" prism in viewing the past.  Reading primary sources is a different experience than reading historians - which is why the training of historians includes an insistence on primary sources.  In tracing family history this sometimes hits with great force.  We read the courtship letters of a marriage that was unhappy.  Whether we see the first seeds of discord or hear only joy and affection is irrelevant - we experience pain. Tucked away in a box, we find letters from a son in the service in the Pacific Theater who never came home.  The writers of these letters do not know what happens after.

So, spoiler alerts.  I will introduce you to the characters, which will color your reading.  The writer of the first letter herself dies prematurely, of mitral valve disease three years later. A friend in NYC replies to inquiries from one of Elin's sisters whether she left any debts which should be paid.

Louise, the recipient of the first letter, had had a hard life, but things were looking up somewhat.  Second of seven-plus children (stillbirths), her father died when she was fourteen (1910), at which point she left school and went to work.  She married a man who had also had a hard childhood, his father abandoning the family when he was small.  But he had some drive, and became the first CPA in NH, bringing Louise into the comfortable middle class and better.  That was still to come, however.  At present, he had taken a job in Lockport NY, where they had moved and started a family.  She had lost her first child, but her son David had just been born.  She was far from family in Manchester, NH.

Evert, Al, Esther, and Selma (Sal) were the other siblings. In time, Louise, Esther and Sal formed rather an iron triangle as the true center of the family - the brothers having scattered out-of-state.  Brilliant, literate women who created a family culture which I still consciously pass on.  Word-people in the extreme, able to quote long sections of poetry or latter verses of obscure Christmas carols, and wallop you at bridge or Jeopardy.

Other relatives mentioned have importance to me - Frieda, Bernadine - but likely not to the reader.  But if you are a female 40-80, or knowledgeable about children's books, one name may be of interest to you.  "Jennie" is Jennie Lindquist, who was editor of the Horn Book and author of a Newbery Medal runner-up in the 1950's, The Golden Name Day. Girl books. Swedish children in America. All far in the future for these letters, but I think it illustrates something about this network of women who are writing to each other, and gives some credibility to the idea that Elin's unpublished poetry may actually have been worthwhile. I've got it all here, including the posthumous pamphlet of five poems, but I'm no judge. I may post those sometime soon, just for posterity. Other pieces I will explain with footnotes as we go.

1 comment:

MaxedOutMama said...

Very moving. I skimmed your part I, and so was mystified at first by the second letter. That surely magnified the impact of learning that Elin too had passed away.

Death was not a shock to them.

When my mother had her first baby, she was puzzled by her own grandmother's seeming lack of interest on a visit. She congratulated my mother on having a son, and gave them a gift, but didn't want to hold the baby much or pay much attention to him.

On a second visit she asked my mother how old my brother was, and on hearing that he had had his first birthday not that long ago, said "Oh, a year old! You'll probably get to keep him then." And that time, she held my brother and showed much more interest in him. My mother's paternal grandmother had three surviving children, but I think she had lost four.

The world has changed so greatly that we do not have the framework to even guess at how we differ from our ancestors, nor why.

It's worth noting that the two deaths in your letters came not that long after the Spanish flu epidemic which took so many young adults.