My grandparents still speak to me long after both of them took up residence with the angels.
How do they do it? Through handwritten letters.
One of my most treasured possessions is a box of letters from my grandmother to my grandfather during the Depression years. They were living in separate states while my grandfather worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, for two reasons–because the job paid well (relatively, for that time) and because his ex-wife was after him for back alimony. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to pay the alimony. He just didn’t have it to give. My grandmother, six years younger, was twenty years old when she started writing him in 1931, and deeply, madly in love. She was working as a stenographer in Enid, Oklahoma, where they were both born and raised.
In her letters, I discover my grandmother in ways I never could have when she was alive. She lived to be eighty-six and I knew her as well as a granddaughter could have. She and my grandfather lived down the street from me from the time I was seven until I was fifteen. Yet, I never knew that fall was her favorite season, as mine is. I didn’t know how much she loved to dance–as I do, as my sister does. I knew that she was an early feminist, working as a legal secretary until she was in her sixties. But I would never have known how easily she could see through the “advice” given to women in her day.
“I read a piece in the Photoplay magazine the other day written by some old something or other advising girls not to play much tennis, golf, or swim, or anything else because it would ruin their looks,” she wrote in July 1931. “The writer of this piece doesn’t allow any of the movie stars to take much exercise. She says the reason is that they might accidentally develop some muscle and it wouldn’t look pretty. Isn’t that too bad? Wouldn’t it be terrible if I played so much golf and tennis that I developed an arm like Jack Dempsey? My goodness sakes! Boy, I would sure manhandle you if I did…. I think the old girl is nutty. ”
Don’t you just love her already?
In her letters, my grandmother captures who she was in her early twenties and by her references, who my grandfather was as well. “Good morning, Jack Frost,” she wrote. “Ouch, what a letter I got this morning. I believe you addressed me as “Iceberg.” Listen, old dear, I always try to write my letters in the same temperature yours are written in.” She was a prolific letter writer while he was not. Apparently, he thought her letters were entertaining enough and he was just sentimental enough to keep her letters for their entire fifty-eight year marriage. He had bound the letters in string, tied in a bow by month from 1931-1935.
You can read the facts about the Depression on Wikipedia. But I can tell you how difficult it was for my grandparents to get a job, so difficult that they had to be separated for three years. I can tell you how often my grandmother lost her job when a business went under, how much a pair of shoes or a coat cost, and what she had to sacrifice to buy those shoes.
I know my grandparents, especially my grandmother, in a way I never would have without those precious letters being saved for almost one hundred years now. I feel her presence with me as a living, breathing woman with an ageless, endearing sense of humor, an admirable and rare optimism in the face of extreme hardship, and a strong, healthy sense of who she was as a person. I see her handwriting, as individualistic as a fingerprint. I hold her letters in my hand and I think about this woman who wrote about the gritty details of one of the worst periods in U.S. history when she worked nine hours a day for $7.50 per week and was happy to have the job. She wrote almost every day during those years.
My mother told me that my grandmother always wanted to be a writer. She was a writer. And I thank God for it.