All of my life I have known the significance of THE letter. This special correspondence is pivotal in my family history. A single piece of mail is the catalyst that brought my grandparents together and is the true genesis of their relationship, a relationship that endured more than 70 years.
My grandfather, Jim, relished in telling the story of THE letter.
Mary and Jim met sometime during 1927 while they were both students at the University of Missouri in Columbia. The details of their meeting and their first date were never highlighted. These particulars were never all that important, at least in Jim’s mind. All that mattered to him was THE letter.
They dated, briefly, but then, as Jim puts it, “Mary quit me for another boy.” Mary dated and, in fact, became engaged to someone else. She also quit school, which I find interesting because dropping out of school would have been forbidden to me. The idea of quitting school would have been forbidden. Thinking about the idea of quitting school would have been forbidden. Still, she dropped out of the university and began planning a wedding.
As it happened, the love affair between my grandmother and this other unknown man had a really unhappy ending. It was so traumatic that her father, who was an attorney for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, sent Mary, her mother and her best friend on a trip to the Pacific Coast. He put them on a train in Jefferson City, Missouri bound for California in the summer of 1929. Her father figured that the distance and the sunshine and fresh air of California would help to heal her hurting heart. He was right.
Somewhere along the way home, Mary wrote a letter, THE letter to Jim from the train. She was writing to inform him that the engagement was off and that she had told the other boy goodbye. She wanted to know if they could be friends again. We all understood this to mean more than just friends, but boyfriend and girlfriend. Jim liked to tell it that “she wanted to know if I was still interested in her and would take her back.” Which he did, of course.
My grandfather would always get a little teary eyed recounting the story. (Turns out real men do cry.) He would also always point out that this piece of private correspondence arriving in his mailbox forever changed his life and was the origin of our family.
Somewhere in the stacks of bundles is THE letter. I sort through the envelopes, searching postmarks and addresses for clues. Most of them are stamped 1930 or later.
It is exciting and wondrous to think that somewhere amid the hundreds of envelopes in the letter box is one that holds the most important family communication of all. What is really in that letter? What exactly did she say? What were the words that melted his heart? What other secrets might she reveal? I suddenly realize this is very personal, to them and to me.