To Be Able To Touch The Past

I find myself these days touching the past.  My hands are touching old letters, cards, and mementos that once were touched and written by my great-great grandmother to my great grandmother.  Two of these were written in 1898 just as my great grandmother had married my great grandfather.

These are the words of this first letter from Christina to Maude in 1898.

March 13th is the date.  The spelling is as contained in the letter.

Dear Baby,

Through the kind mercies of god, I am Blessed with the opportunity of answering your welcome letter which was duly recieved and read with pleasure.  The contents thereof conveyed pure and unaffected happyness to my heart knowing you was so well satified and Enjoying your self so well.  I Truly thank those good people for being so kind to you and I ask of you to be a good girl and be good and kind to them in return This leaves us all as well as usual I hope you are all well and Enjoying yourselves. 

well to night I have been at Dans since yesterday morning his wife has been verry ill she is better now and I Think now she will get well.  Soon I have not go to do anything hardly since you left and there is a very busy week before me and I guess I will get to fix up your things to send to you till the next week.  I will write to you and let you know when I get them ready  I will send you the money for your bedstead any time I dont know whether I can get money for your cow by the time you would want it or not but I guess if you conclude to sell her if I dont get the money … (The rest of the letter is missing)

And I am beginning to really go through stacks and stacks of letters and diaries that tell the story of the love that existed for over 70 years between my grandfather and my grandmother.

Stack of letters, some wrapped in ribbon
Stack of letters, some wrapped in ribbon

I find I open one after another of these treasures that provide me with much more than a glimpse into their lives and those of the family members they often wrote about.  Each one has the original envelope with the postmark enabling me to put them in order and allow their story to be told.  I feel an excitement as I pull a letter from the envelope wondering what bit of unknown history will be contained inside.

My grandmother and grandfather each had a large black steamer trunk that remained tucked away in their attic spaces unopened for years after they passed.   But once opened their lives became real again–and tangible and intimate as I read their handwriting and opened the ribbons and dance cards carefully preserved by them both.

Dance card from 1924
Dance card from 1924

I am amazed still they both took such pains to keep and preserve each card they received from a birth or graduation notice.  A scrapbook of my grandmother’s revealed she had a beau who proclaimed his love for her after she told him she was engaged to my grandfather.  His next two or three letters showed his feelings for her and his disappointment at losing her to another.  And contained in the same scrapbook are decaying petals from flowers each with a small card from my Grandfather marking the Easters while they were engaged.

I find in many ways that I am only now beginning to know them.  Or at least  know the youthful aspects of their lives and love.  I feel very happy to read of my grandmother riding horses, playing tennis and swimming as a young girl.  My grandfather hiked, farmed, and hunted and played tennis with her.

But I write about this to share with you the pain I am feel when I think of what we will all now leave behind for future generations to come.  I do not have a trunk filled with jewels such as these.  I have a couple of “keepsake” boxes and there are some older handwritten letters inside.  But nothing that equals this.  My husband and I stopped hand writing letters when we got our first computer and email addresses in 1996.  I thought about this when I opened the first letter my grandfather typed on his “new typewriter” to my grandmother in the mid 1930s.  It was still him and his words, but there is something so intimate in knowing that their hands put pen to paper and I can still touch and read those words.

Many letters between them were written after their marriage when my Grandmother would return to her family and home place in Tennessee.  I read of the first time she thought she might be pregnant–though she would not dare write the word.  And then the disappointment she felt when she realized she wasn’t.  She writes of feeling she had done something wrong because she had gone swimming and boating that day.  I can feel her sense of homesickness early on in their marriage and their struggle to afford the train tickets for her to allow her to return from time to time.

My grandfather’s letters talk of missing her so much when he writes of coming home to their “empty room” and how he wishes she were there.  He talks of her having his pipe ready and a fire lit in the fireplace for him when she is there.  They wrote to each other every other day at least while apart without fail and would chasten each other if more than two days went between letters.  These letters like their own travel would arrive on the trains that traveled then through these mountain communities.

I still hope to publish a book containing their lives and loves as captured here to share their place and time in Appalachia with others before these pages too begin to crumble with age.  And perhaps one day soon I will find the time to put pen to paper for my own great-great granddaughter to find someday.

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