The Letters: A Valentine’s Day Message From My Late Parents
Published in ChicagoNow, February 13, 2019
My mother bequeathed all of the love letters she and my father wrote to each other during World War II to me. After my father died, she made me promise to keep them and I did. Over 400 of them languished in my basement, unread for almost four years. A combination of guilt and curiosity led to my New Year’s resolution that 2019 would be the year I would read them, and I’m now writing a valentine to my parents’ very young love story.
My parents’ lives during the war were always a mystery to me. I knew that they met in May of 1941, just before Mom graduated from high school. She often shared the story of how they were introduced by mutual friends. How my father didn’t even walk her to the bus stop after their first get together. How he violated the three criteria she had at that time for good future husband material: He was not three years older than she. He was not tall. And worst of all, he was not a good dancer. But he was persistent and, as she described her feelings, he grew on her.
They were engaged on November 25, 1942, the day before Thanksgiving. She was nineteen and he was twenty-one. And then the part of their story they shared with me ended. I knew they were married on January 30, 1944, but they never talked about those years between their engagement and their wedding. Like many members of the Greatest Generation, my parents rarely shared much about their experiences during World War II. There were a handful of stories, particularly of my mother’s train journey from Detroit to Alexandria, Louisiana in the company of her future mother-in-law to visit my father when he was in basic training. I had seen the photos they sent to one another and photos taken during my father’s furlough. Beyond that, I had little understanding of who they were and how they felt so many years ago.
When I finally decided to read what Mom called her love letters, I uncovered some things that dispelled the myths that had been handed down from my parents. But more importantly, I now understood how much they loved each other and how difficult it must have been for them to sustain their relationship with only unreliable mail service and occasional short, long-distance phone calls. Hard to imagine in today’s era of cell phones, texts, and FaceTime. When my father reported to basic training at Camp Claiborne on December 14, 1942, my parents had been engaged for less than a month. In a letter dated February 26, 1943, my future father wrote,
“Childhood and teenage foolishness are gone forever. We are actually living our own lives in a world left in a terrible mess by our elders. Our generation has come of age right in the middle of hell.”
In his early letters, Dad called my mother darling, sweetheart, dearest, honey, baby, wifey, beloved – not the father I knew at all. In turn, Mom addressed him as her dearest darling and wrote long passages detailing how much she loved him and the glorious future they would have together once the war ended. She never grasped the magnitude of the war and felt certain the end was just around the corner. Mom spent her time working, going out with her sister and girlfriends whose spouses and significant others were in service, and learning a bit about the facts of life from one of her older sister’s friends. She was so naïve that she couldn’t write what she called swear words, instead resorting to “he–” or “da–.” She remained as optimistic as possible by focusing on the happy future they would have together. She often shared her wedding dreams, “We are going to have the works.” The longer they were separated, the stronger her declarations of love became.
To stave off his unhappiness and loneliness, Dad hatched the “marry me” initiative. Perhaps he was insecure about her loyalty and love for him. Reading the batch of letters he sent in 1943 before Mom’s March visit and his April furlough, I understand why she found these to be so romantic. While admitted he got tongue tied and nervous when he tried to talk to her by phone, his letters were filled with florid passages about his love for his future wife. He became obsessed with the idea that they should get married when he came to Detroit on furlough and even chose the date of April 18 for what he thought would be a simple ceremony performed at home with close family in attendance.
To understand the pressure my still-teenaged mother was under, you would have to know this about my father. All of his life, he was a relentless debater who would argue his point endlessly and never concede or compromise. Thus, he badgered Mom about getting the marriage license and blood work done for their furlough wedding. The myth I was told was that her parents said no to the furlough wedding because her older sister needed to marry first. But what I discovered in my mother’s letters surprised me. She nixed the furlough wedding because she wanted to be practical. They were in debt and she wanted to save money first. She also wanted her dream of a real wedding. She reassured my father that she loved him and wanted to marry him, just not right then. My parents married in January, just nine months after Dad’s “marry me” campaign. Mom wore a fancy wedding gown borrowed from her cousin. And her older sister was married first.
My father spent a total of ten months in the army in 1943, the height of World War II. He was discharged due to a number of health issues, some physical and some emotional. Due to his great shame, this is the story he hid from his children, only revealing a few details near the end of his life. Dad left the army on October 11, 1943, so there were no more letters filled with his hopes, disappointments, and flowery proclamations of love. Back in Detroit, he and my mother planned the wedding she had hoped for, and on January 30, 1944, they became man and wife. I know this outcome did not lead to a happier-ever-after ending, at least not then. Dad went to a therapist who kindly saw him for little money. His dreams of a college education were transformed into attending accounting school and becoming a CPA, a job he loathed. On September 7, 1945, his first child was born. She was an accident. She was me.
My parents were married for 68 years. During all of those years, his time in the army was never discussed, and yet they kept the letters. Mom wrote, “I’m saving all of your letters…Someday we ought to make a book of your letters. Honestly honey, you do write beautifully.” When he shipped all of his army things home, Dad reminded her to, “Keep it all for us especially the letters. Store them with the others you have so that someday our kids will know all we had to go through.”
The enduring message in my parents’ letters was their love for each other as they struggled with their separate existences. Now that my parents are gone, I realize there were so many questions I wish I had asked them. I guess this is a pretty universal phenomenon. All I have now are their letters, but reading them reminded me of the love they shared. These letters are a perfect Valentine’s Day gift from my parents to their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.