Letters were her only way of keeping in touch. Why couldn’t she figure out what to say?
Nancy, a volunteer at my local historical society, sat me down at a desk and handed me a pair of white cotton gloves. “Wear these when you’re looking at the old newspapers,” she said. “It protects the pages.”
I opened the big brown folder full of yellowed pages, all the research I would need for the article I was writing about my hometown during World War II. Nancy turned to leave me to it, then stopped. “How’s Nathan?” she asked.
My oldest son was serving in Afghanistan. Nancy knew how much I worried about him. “Last we heard he was fine,” I said.
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She left me with my newspapers full of stories about a war that took place 60 years before. Anything I wanted to know–right at my fingertips. But Nathan I hadn’t heard from in weeks.
He was a special ops Marine deployed to one of the most rugged regions of Afghanistan, completely cut off from modern means of communication.
I felt cut off too. Just that morning I’d tried to write him an old-fashioned letter and found myself tongue-tied. Everyday life seemed so foreign to Nathan’s situation, it didn’t seem right to go on and on about it.
Maybe I should just stick to signing “Love, Mom” on a card at the bottom of a care package, I thought. I turned back to my newspapers.
Every yellowed page referenced World War II. News from the front, editorials about the military strategy overseas, photographs of the service men and women from the newspaper’s files.
Even the advertisements were connected to the faraway fight: “Buy Pyrex for your wartime casseroles!” “Support the Troops! Invest in US war bonds today!”
The decades-old pages spoke to me now. Times had changed, but concern for our enlisted loved ones was no different today. How could I begin to comfort my son with words written on a page?
“I forgot to give you this,” said Nancy, coming over to the desk. She carried what looked like an old Macy’s shirt box. “It might help with your story.”
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I untied the cotton string that held the box shut and lifted the lid. It was full of letters on thin airmail stationery and Victory Mail, postmarked over several years. “Take your time with them,” Nancy said. “They’re all pretty wonderful.”
I sifted through. Long letters, short. Some marked by a military censor’s pen. Little by little I came to understand: The letters were all written between newlyweds during WWII.
“Dear Ralph, Today I spent the day with your sister and her little baby, then played bridge with others in the neighborhood,” Ellen wrote.
“My dearest Ellen,” Ralph always began, “I received your letters today.” I came to understand why he always started by saying that–receiving those letters was the best part of his day and he wanted to share that joy with her.
At first I felt wrong reading them, as if I was eavesdropping on a private conversation, but as I read on each letter felt less like an intrusion and more like an invitation to discover something I needed not just for my story, but also for myself.