Binge-reading my parents’ love letters: was I wrong?

Should you read your parents’ love letters? For years I thought the answer was No. No because they were too private, never meant for others’ eyes, and likely to creep me out. But that changed once both of them were gone. I gradually realized that I exist because of their love story, so have standing in this matter, and get to look. Other people no, me yes.

I dug them out of the chest they’d been resting in for years, took a deep breath, and plunged in. At first, I binge-read hungrily, absorbing their travels, the difficult logistics, the anxiety of waiting to see when he’d be drafted and where he’d be sent. Let me tell you their story.

They met at a Christmas party in 1940. My mother was two years out of college, a market researcher at Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati; my father a local boy made good who was invited by a friend to the party. Lucky for me, they met, they fell for each other instantly, they stayed up until dawn, and unhappily, they parted.

The next day, she went home for Christmas. He managed to send flowers to her small town in the Smoky Mountains, giving her many siblings plenty to tease her about.

Their meeting was what we all dream of, but their courtship wasn’t easy. For the book publishing company he worked for, he traveled the Midwest and Western U.S. by train and car. She traveled via train around the Midwest and East for her P&G job. And for months, never the twain met.

They both stayed in hotels wherever they went. The letters are all on hotel stationery, usually scrawled late at night, with fountain pens. They are funny, sad, and filled with longing and awareness of the coming war and how it would interrupt their lives. Several times a week, their letters crossed the country, keeping them connected.

Once he was drafted, he began other trips, from basic training to his first post and then his next. She continued her travels, always with a group of other young workers. She was having way more fun than he was.

After a while, I slowed my pace, to savor what I was experiencing as an introduction – to each of them as young people with energy and excitement and plans. I was right that the letters would let me in on intimate details, but not the ones I feared. Instead I heard their hopes and intentions expressed in loving detail. Their primary wish was to be in the same place at the same time – not too much to ask under normal circumstances, but too much in the lives of travelers, and way too much later in wartime.

The letters stopped abruptly in 1943. They got married at my aunt’s church in Columbus, Georgia, once it was clear he was not going overseas. I know that because I peeked ahead. Their life together started and there are no more letters to narrate the next 7 years until his early death.

I was so wrong not to read them sooner. I found out that my dad was pretty darn funny, and completely smitten from the first day, and that my mom was what got him through many days. Now, I’m reading them slowly, and tagging ones that reveal turning points in their lives and the lives of the country. How else could I ever have known their hearts in their heady, complicated lives before me?


This post is in response to this month’s BlogapaloozHour challenge at ChicagoNow: Write about a time you were wrong about something.

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