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An Upsetting and Surprising Letter

Postmark Jefferson City, MO

February 25, 1930 10 PM SPECIAL DELIVERY


Dear Jim:
I am really sorry you took such a stand in regard to not hearing from me.  You surprised me Jim and I am sorry it happened.  Please don’t get so worked up next time.

I have had all I could do and more this week.  I just got home from the funeral.  It certainly was sad.  I took two daughters and a son in my car.  I just got so nervous I thought if I didn’t get home I would just die myself.  I surely feel sorry for them.

Mother has been doing a lot of cooking for them and we have been so upset.

I was glad you called me last night.  I sure couldn’t understand not hearing from you either.  Well it is over.  I hope it doesn’t happen again.

Jim, you seem to be rather easily made angry lately.  I think you are tired and nervous.  You may laugh at me but you haven’t seemed yourself for a week.  If anything is worrying you please forget it.

I think of you so often and I am sure you must be mistaken if you think I don’t like you, cause I surely do.  Please don’t get angry at me again.




What in the world has been going on the past seven days? No letters for one week.

Jim is unhappy and upset about this.  Angry, in fact.  It seems that they’ve been giving each other the silent treatment.

This letter is upsetting.

Mary is upset, too.   Upset enough to send this letter special delivery during the middle of the week.  Upset that someone died.  Could it be the boy who had the shoulder operation recently?  Upset enough to think she might die herself. Upset that Jim is so worked up.  She thinks he’s easily angered because he’s tired and nervous.  When I am exhausted and anxious, I can fly off the handle, too.  Just ask my family.  That’s not so surprising.

This letter, however, is surprising.  The tone of her writing is totally unexpected…argumentative and defensive but also apologetic.  What is perhaps most astonishing to me is how she tells Jim that he should just forget about whatever he is worrying about.  Mary was an accomplished worrier.  She worried about the weather, health, what to wear, her family, other people’s families, how many knives and forks to set at each place setting, animals, the state of affairs in the world, keeping your hair out of your eyes (remember the bobby pins?) and driving too fast.  That’s the abbreviated short list of the abbreviated short list. Maybe she suggests that he put the worry out of his mind because she knows the emotions it stirs up and the problems it creates, real and otherwise.  Yet her worry shows her concern for others and for him.  She is not going to let him forget that…”I think of you often and I am sure you must be mistaken if you think I don’t like you, cause I surely do.”

Well it is over.  Thank goodness.  I hope it doesn’t happen again either.

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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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