Letters paint a vivid picture of family history.
Coming from a family of prodigious, prolific letter writers, I have stacks of shoe boxes in a cluttered closet, each filled with letters.
None of my relatives wrote a better letter, and more often, than my dear Aunt Mary. Her letters were rich with description and fascinating anecdotes, and chronicled a profoundly meaningful life.
I'm in the process of trying to collect as many of her letters as I can find, and I have recently started to read them. They have enthralled me for hours. She started writing as a child growing up in North Dakota, and continued throughout her life until her death at 82.
Home from the war
Of all Mary's letters, the one nearest and dearest to my heart tells of my father's return to American soil after three years overseas in World War II. I read it for the first time while I waited for my car's oil to be changed at a shop in Edina. As I sat there in the waiting room, a lump swelled in my throat and tears streamed down my cheeks.
When she got the happy news in Chicago that her soldier brother was back in the United States, she didn't call her parents in Jamestown, N.D., she wrote to them. The letter began:
"Can you imagine the thrill of a lifetime???? It is about 8:45 a.m. of the morning of Columbus Day in the year of our Lord, 1945. Usually by this time, I am over at the church plunged into my morning's work, but last night we were at the Academy of Music to hear Artur Rubinstein, and it was after midnight when we got home.
... There is no one else in the house at the moment, and then the telephone rings. I dash down to the second floor to answer, and the minute the operator says, 'Is this Victor 4410?' I know it is long distance!
... And then I hear the operator say, 'Is this Miss Mary Huey?' And my heart jumps about four beats, and I start to say, 'This is Mary,' and then I think, 'why I don't know that operator from Adam so I shouldn't say Mary; I should say, 'Miss Huey.' ... I hear the operator again, and she says, 'Here's your party; go ahead, sergeant,' and I know it is Robert!
And I say, 'Hello, hello!' and everything seems cut off for a moment, and I keep saying 'hello' and finally a man's voice says something, but I don't remember what, and finally there is just silence, and I think what's the matter with the phone or the operator, and I say, 'Robert, is this you?"
But my father was so overcome with emotion that he could not get a word out.
"Still it seems like 10 years go by and still silence, and then a voice that's a little shaky, 'I guess I just can't talk for a minute.' And small wonder! It was all I could do to hang on to the phone myself!"
To paraphrase Mary, can you imagine how thrilled my grandparents were when they got her letter?