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.