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Meet the Parents

Since the last letter suggests that Mary and Jim are spending part of their weekend together visiting her parents and Jim’s parents in Clinton, I figure it’s time to meet the parents.  Or, in the modern generation vernacular, the ‘rents.


Ira and Ethel Kunkler.  Jim’s folks.

Ira Stuart Kunkler was a contractor in Clinton.   In fact, Jim worked some construction sites with him.  I don’t remember too much about him.  What I do recall were his great, big bear hugs.  I also remember hiding behind his chair when my Uncle Joe came over to their house.  Uncle Joe lost two of his fingers in farming machinery and to my small child mind that was kind of scary.  My great-grandfather was my protector.  Unfortunately, he died when I was only three. The night after Christmas he sat on the bed, leaned over to untie his shoes and passed away peacefully.


Ethel Josephine Turk was his wife.  She was a teacher in a one room school house when they met.  I have lots of great memories of Jim’s mother.  She lived until she was 98.  What I remember most was her cooking. She could kill, pluck and gut a chicken and then fry it to perfection.  She made biscuits that were a mile high.  Her cinnamon rolls were life changing.  She baked cakes from scratch.  In fact, she made everything from scratch.  A pinch of this and a dash of that.  I think I only saw her use a recipe once.  She clipped one from a magazine for Baked Alaska.  It was a two day endeavor.  I have a motto for my kitchen, “love people, cook them tasty food.”  She shared a lot of love from her kitchen.  I also remember that she was skilled at playing Bridge.  She played in tournaments.  And won.  Bridge is a card game that I never learned to play.  I think I will add this to the list of things I want to try.


Jim and Mena Potter.  Mary’s parents.

Mena Maughs Proctor is Mary’s mother.  She was the youngest daughter of an influential businessman and politician. Sadly, I never knew Mena, who my mother called Mayme.  She died of ovarian cancer.  What I have been told, though, is that she was a wonderful hostess who entertained frequently.  She was civic minded and a caring and compassionate woman.  From her pictures, she was also quite fashionable.  I think I would have enjoyed shopping with her.


Mary’s father, also Jim, was a prominent lawyer.  James Arthur Potter began his practice in Aurora, Missouri before moving the family to Jefferson City, the state capital. He was appointed the state’s assistant Attorney General to Robert Otto with whom he later formed a law partnership.  He also lived until he was 98 so I remember him well.  He visited us often and every summer my mother and I visited him on our yearly trip to Missouri.  He was my best “patient” when I got a toy nurse’s kit for Christmas one year. Every afternoon he would take me on his daily “constitutional,” which was a walk around the block.  He liked to smoke cigars, or rather chew on the ends of them, which I don’t remember smelling bad because of the strong odor of menthol camphor ointment he wore on his hands.  Actually that didn’t smell so great, but better the memory of that than a stinky stogie.


Here is Mary’s letter to Jim the Tuesday after they spent the weekend together and visiting with the ‘rents.


Postmark Jefferson City, MO

February 18, 1930 6:30 PM



Dear Jim:
I am afraid you will not have much of a letter tonight.  I just got in and it is six now.

The P.T.A. met this afternoon and I had to stay until they all left.  I have to talk to all of them about their child and it gets so tiresome.

I went down to try on my dress and it was not like I want it.  If I ever get forgiveness for having this made-I’ll be satisfied.

It is hard for you to be away over the weekend and not get any studying in but maybe you won’t be busy after awhile.  I hope your hard course gets easier.  

Your folks are not going to disown you and I’m sure I won’t so why worry?

Dad is feeling better and left tonight for St. Louis.  He can’t eat very much but said he guessed he wouldn’t starve if he could get some milk to drink.  He was sorry not to seen more of you too.

This weather is grand just like spring.  I would like to get out and walk about a mile.  If it keeps this up I think I’ll get the spring fever.

Jim, I surely did enjoy the weekend with you.  It seems hard to settle down and just work without doing anything else.  I was tired but the trip didn’t make me because I was about worn out when we started.
Well don’t work too hard and write soon.



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It’s A Surprise!

Postmark Jefferson City, MO January 30, 5:30 PM


Dear Jim:

I was surely surprised yesterday when you called me.  It was sure thoughtful of you.  I was quite thrilled.  If we broke the line I can’t imagine how we did it -can you?
We had a long teachers meeting this afternoon at the college.  All the teachers are in town.  Our superintendent really was angry because some teachers have been late so often and others leave too soon after school  I usually get to school on time but often leave before I should.  We are supposed to stay ten minutes after school is out.

Dad is taking Mother and me out to dinner at the Hotel tonight.  I’ll have to make this short-so I can get dressed up.  Some men are giving it.

Jim I haven’t heard from Henry since you left.  I guess he is alright.

I have a surprise for you in a few weeks.  I decided the other day.  You can guess all you please-but I won’t tell.  I’ll just surprise you some time.

I hope everything is alright at school.  You will come out with your usual good grades in the end.  One always feels that the first week is awful hard.  I will be proud of you when you finish even if you haven’t made the highest grades.  They don’t always count the most.

It has been trying to snow here all day.  I hope it doesn’t.  I am so tired of bad weather.

Your letter written Tuesday came today.  It was mailed at 10 AM the 29th.  If you mail a letter at night at the post office I get it about 10 the next morning-mail your letters at the co-op-they collect more often there, I think.




A surprise.  How fun!  With all the cold and snowy weather, could it be a stocking hat or warm gloves or a wool scarf?  Maybe a sled?  More candy, or perhaps cookies?  I wonder what it could be?  I wonder how long Jim will have to wonder what it could be?

I’m a sucker for a good surprise.  As it turns out, I happened to be married to the world’s all time best surprise giver.  Ever.  Sure, I have been the recipient of flowers for no special reason, funny doodads and shiny trinkets.  But, my husband is at a totally higher level when it comes to creating surprises.  Think stratosphere.  Once I learned our travel destination at 35,000 feet.  I immediately regretted packing the sweatshirt and hiking boots for a trip to the Virgin Islands.  He has also been known to mastermind events with family and friends all across the country.  He employs many accomplices.  One memorable Valentine’s Day he surprised me with a catered dinner and a harpist…in our very own dining room!  On the other hand, I am not very good at giving surprises.  For one, you must admit that the bar is set pretty high.  Yet, it also happens that I am married to a champion surprise finder outer.  He utilizes his sleuthing super powers to read my body language and the tone of my voice to determine if I might be up to something.  He engages me in conversation that inevitably leads me to make a slip of the tongue.  He has also been known to coerce others to gain information.  As I said, he has many accomplices.  It doesn’t help that I get so excited about the surprise and the element of surprise that I can’t wait for the perfect moment to catch him off guard, which is never since he is always on guard so this makes it next to impossible.  You see my problem?

I guess the thing that makes a good surprise is that it comes unexpected, for no reason other than wanting to give the other person joy.  A moment of pure grace.  Like I said, I’m a sucker for a good surprise.

What’s a memorable surprise you’ve received or given?

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She Wore Cold Cream

I’ve read that very first letter that reignited my grandparents’ courtship so many times that what was once an obscurity is now committed to memory!  There are many intriguing things the letter reveals, but here are a few I find especially fascinating and why.

She visited San Francisco but didn’t see the Golden Gate Bridge. 

My grandmother, Mary, never spoke about the trip she made to California the summer of 1929 nor the sights she would have seen on that train trip. In the letter she says she spent time in Long Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles.  My grandparents would live in another suburb of Los Angeles during the 1950s.  I imagine Mary in her bathing cap and swimsuit, enjoying the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, then wrapping herself up in the beach coat that she mentions.  A railroad ferry likely transported them from the port of Long Beach to San Francisco.  She would not have seen the landmark Golden Gate Bridge, though, because construction did not even begin until January 1933.  She might have visited Nob Hill, Lincoln Park, the Palace of Fine Arts and probably Whitney’s Playland Amusement Park.  If she did, I hope she had It’s-It Ice Cream Sandwich, vanilla ice cream between two oatmeal cookies and covered in dark chocolate.

The other boy’s name was Willis.

His name was Willis.  No last name.  Just Willis.  I had not ever wondered about that “other boy” that Mary was engaged to before Jim.  I was always content and pleased to know that the story of Mary and Jim had a happy ending.  But now, I must confess that I am more than a little curious about Willis.  Where was he from?  How did they meet?  Was he really ten years older than her?  She shares that he was in the care of the state institution, which I know is the hospital in Fulton for persons with mental illness.  It was the first such public institution west of the Mississippi and was visited by Dorthea Dix who famously advocated for care of the mentally ill.  What was Willis’ ailment?  I read that at that time the hospital treated a wide range of illnesses such as indigestion, tuberculosis, epilepsy, anxiety and “disappointed love.”  Did the broken engagement lead to him receiving treatment for the melancholy of disappointed love?  Or was it something else?  What ever became of Willis?  Was his name brought up in future conversations between Mary and Jim as sometimes old boyfriends and girlfriends are prone to?  However it ended for Willis, I hope it was happy.

She wore cold cream with her hair pinned back.

When I was a little girl, I loved the smell of Pond’s Cold Cream in Mary’s dressing room. I can almost smell its cool, rose water scent when I envision her bundled up in her pullman car berth.  Her skin was always like porcelain. She never wore make up.  She would “fix her face,” which meant powdering her nose with face powder. I also remember bobby pins…dishes of bobby pins in her dressing room, bobby pins in the bottom of her purse, bobby pins in desk drawers and bobby pins at the ready to keep my hair out of my eyes.

She thought she was an “old maid.”

I have to chuckle that Mary considered herself a spinster figure like the one on the deck of cards.  When this letter was written, in August 1929, Mary would have been 21 years old.  I find this both funny humorous and funny ironic.  It is funny humorous because the minimum age to marry without parental consent in that era had just been raised to age 16 from age 12 or 14 in some states.  Twenty-one was an old maid!   Many of her friends were probably already setting up housekeeping and having children.  Women pursued higher education but the ideal vocation was marriage and homemaking rather than a career. It is funny ironic because her daughter, my mother, married the first time at age 19.  My mother was quick to tell me not to get married so young, and also that Mary would tell her the same thing… and often.

There are salt beds out West.

Fifth grade US geography did not cover the fact for me that in the Northwest corner of Utah are something called the Bonneville Salt Flats.  The area is actually part of the Great Salt Lake Desert.  Miles and miles of land flat enough to race cars.  It is known for its land speed records. If you are old enough to remember, the Pontiac Bonneville took its name from these famous salt beds. We actually had a Pontiac Bonneville but it never broke any land speed records.

She had a way with words.

Somewhere in the middle of the letter, Mary expresses her feelings toward Jim in the most endearing way.  Mixed in with the sentences describing her trip, anecdotes about cold cream and season tickets to football games and the weather not to mention the news of her change in relationship status,  she pours out her heart:

I am writing you this because even though I am sure you are not worried as to what I might do, you have always been so true and have understood me so well.  I just wanted to tell you that.  I have never known a boy that had higher ideals than you and in my mind you are surely placed the highest.

Reading this I suddenly understand what my grandmother loved about my grandfather and it makes me love them all the more.

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Dear Folks

The round black ink postmark on the envelope reads “Kansas City MO AUG 20 9PM 1929.”  The red two cent stamp is upside down; George Washington is standing on his head.  This letter must have been sent in a hurry.  The envelope is addressed to Mrs. Ira S. Kunkler, 309 East Jefferson, Clinton, Missouri.  A letter from my grandfather to his parents.  It is one of several pieces of correspondence bundled in with the others in the letter box.  I open up the single page letter to discover several additional pages of another letter tucked inside.  I found it.  The letter we have heard about all these years.


Dear Folks-

This has to be short.  I am sending you the letter I got from Mary Potter.  As a little explanation-The fellow she was going to marry was 10 yrs older than she.  I talked for a year to stop it, and I succeeded.  Her mother didn’t want her to and her father didn’t want it.  So I surely wasn’t wrong.  She knows it now.  

Don’t you think that is one of the sweetest letters you ever read?  When you are through with it, save it for me someplace where it won’t be lost.  I want it.

I will mail my laundry tomorrow.  I’ll be home Sat. if possible but please get it back before then if possible.  Mail it so it will get here Sat. if you can.  I’m working pretty hard now.  I’ll write more in a day or two.  I haven’t done anything to tell you about.



I can’t believe it.  I can’t believe I found THE letter.  I can’t believe that it is in one of the first envelopes I open. I can’t believe it is in an envelope with another letter.  I can’t believe Jim sent the letter to his parents to read. I can’t believe that after 83 years, the letter was not lost.  I can’t believe my grandfather sent his sweaty, dirty clothes home to be laundered.  And with a clean clothes deadline, too.  Really?  If my son ever did that I’d send the filthy load back with a coupon for Tide.  But when I stop and think about it, the only time my son sends me anything through the regular mail is my birthday and Mothers’ Day.  Believe it.

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THE Letter, Part One

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.

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The Letter Box

My Grandparents' Courtship Correspondence

The courtship between my grandparents took place largely in letters.  An old-fashioned, romantic notion for those of us who live in the modern information age of technology.  Most of our interpersonal communication is electronic.  Cell phones, email and text messages were conventions barely known to my grandparents. Their social media consisted of stationary, a fountain pen and a two cent postage stamp.  For nearly four years, from 1929 to 1933, Mary Potter and Jim Kunkler wrote letters to one another every day when they were not together.  Sometimes twice a day.

Some years ago my mother happened upon a bundle of letters while cleaning out the basement of my grandparents’ home in Ohio.  It wasn’t surprising.  My grandmother was a saver.  She kept everything.  We found trunks filled with all kinds of stuff like World War II ration stamps, old baseball game programs and powder puffs still in their original packaging.  Newspaper clippings with names of people she knew were tucked within the trunks of items for someday use or reference.  The bundle of letters, though, were a valuable find, a true keepsake.  Further sifting and sorting.  More letter bundles were discovered.  My mother had uncovered virtually all of the letters my grandparents’ wrote to one another during their courtship, along with some additional assorted correspondence.

My mother boxed up the letters and gave them to me for safe keeping.  She also urged me to “do something with them someday.”  I put them in the attic.

Someday came a few weeks ago when I realized that this treasure might be too easily lost forever like a deleted email.  This cherished piece of family history, the story of Mary and Jim and their letter writing courtship needed to be shared with my children and preserved for future generations.  Now was the time to do something about the letters.

So, I climbed up in the attic and began to rummage around the cardboard boxes and plastic bins.  Our attic is a repository for cardboard boxes and plastic bins.  We have a varied and extensive collection of cartons from such moving companies as Mayflower, United Van Lines and U-Haul as well as numerous shapes and sizes of Rubbermaid containers. (I guess I must be a little like my grandmother.) Finding the box with the letters was going to be a challenge.  After an hour of searching and almost giving up that they were gone, I found the box.  Behind the Christmas decorations, next to our daughter’s American Girl Collection and underneath a box with my high school yearbooks and memorabilia was the box of letters.

This correspondence has been read by only two people.  Until now.  As I read these personal letters, my twenty-something grandparents are both well known and strangers to me at the same time.  The letters are like reading a conversation between two people that loved each other and that I happen to love, too.  I just didn’t know them then.  Strange but not fiction.  How I wish they were still here to ask about the friends they mention and the funny anecdotes they record!  Still, like any great mystery or adventure, there are clues to be explored to point me in the right direction that somehow will lead me to understand, just maybe, a little more about them.  And perhaps myself in the process.


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