Voices from the past, loud and clear

I’ve been feeling my age lately.

I know, I know. I’ve written about this before. Same story, different issue.

But this time, I’m walking around on a cranky knee, watching my 16-year-old son make mature decisions regarding his future, marveling at my 15-year-old daughter fixing a meal for her younger brother, beaming as my 10-year-old readies himself for his part in the chorus of a high school musical.

Some days, the hubs and I actually have time alone before the sun goes down because the three kids are busy with their own lives, which are becoming increasingly more tangential, less congruent, to ours.

Time marches on.

And then in the mail the other day arrived a letter from my aunt.

That right there was unusual – getting an actual letter instead of an e-mail? How old school.

And what was inside was even more so. My sweet aunt – my dad’s sister – had photocopied some letters her father wrote her mother before the two ever married, when they were just a couple of crazy 20-somethings. A note was attached:  “Hope you can read this letter from Navy to Loie,” wrote Aunt Mimi. “Some things are different in this century and some are the same.”

Hmmm, I thought. Intriguing.

The date on the first letter was Richmond, Calif., July 19, 1933.

Now, I had a bit of an idea what this was about. When I was a high school sophomore, I had to write an oral history on an older adult. Lucky for me, my paternal grandparents were visiting my southeast Missouri hometown for the Christmas holidays. I asked my grandpa if he’d let me interview him, and he agreed. We spent several hours talking, me with pen and notebook in hand, my grandpa with an ornery look in his eye. Sometimes during the interview, I wondered if he were pulling my leg with his stories.

Because I’d never in my 16 years heard the stories he told: Of his days in the U.S. Navy in the early 1920s, picking up dead soldiers from Central America, spending time in port in San Diego, going to college as an “older man” in his mid-20s, which earned him the nickname “Navy.”

Navy

College is where he met my grandmother, Lois. She was six years his junior and a serious Park College coed. He tried for years to woo her, but she was a hard sell. She had goals – to become a teacher – and she didn’t want some romancer to get in her way. But a few years after the stock market crash of 1929, she had to leave Park and return to Marceline to find a teaching job so she could help her family make ends meet.

Loie, when she was a little girl.

Grandpa, an independent man by then, paid his own pay to college and finished in about three years, including time spent at the teachers’ college in Warrensburg. But he couldn’t find a job after graduation, which frustrated him. So he took his money, bought some camping gear and a good pair of goggles, bade his poor mother adieu and hopped a freight train heading west.

So that’s the back story on those letters. By the time I heard that story, my grandpa was 78. He died a year later. I haven’t heard his voice in 27 years. Until, that is, I read the letters my aunt mailed me.

“Procrastination is the thief of time,” began a letter dated July 24, 1933 from Bakersfield, Calif.

I could just hear my grandpa deliver that truism. He had a way with words – I have a vivid memory of a hot August day in 1977. I was laid up with a toothache on the couch at my grandparents’ house. Everyone else had gone shopping for new school clothes, but I couldn’t. Grandpa volunteered to stay home with me.

I was watching something on TV when Walter Cronkite broke in with a special report: Elvis Presley had been found dead in his Memphis home. Elvis. Dead.

I gaped at the TV, but my grandpa just kept on playing solitaire and making a tsk-tsk sound. “It’s about time,” was all he said.

My dad inherited that trait, and these letters reminded me of that.

In my grandfather’s neat handwriting, the letters detailed for Loie his trip west, the beautiful scenery he saw – mountains, rivers, valleys, gorges – and the desperation he encountered in Hoovervilles around the west, families begging for food, educated men working menial jobs. My grandpa chose the transient life for a bit, but for others he encountered it was the only way to survive. The experience cemented my grandfather’s views for the remainder of his life.

But what my aunt was talking about, her cryptic words about some things never changing, was the fact that my grandfather invited my grandmother to join him in the hobo life, if only for a little while.

What? They weren’t even married, my mind screamed. Grandpa and Grandma thinking about…shacking? And he wrote it down?

“How would you like to be out with me for say – one week?” he wrote. “I have run across many girls and women on the road. They have quite a time of it.”

Hmmm. What did he mean? Do I want to know?

Needless to say, Loie didn’t hit the road with Navy that summer. She was too practical. And she didn’t want to lose her job. They didn’t marry for another two years, mainly because Loie had a good-paying teaching job, making more than Navy did as a teacher. And she knew that as soon as she married she’d have to quit so a man could have her job – married women didn’t need to work.

So Loie stayed single until her salary fell below Navy’s.

The rest…well, I know most of those details. But these letters my aunt sent gave me a glimpse into the lives of two young people whom I never met until they were well past middle age. I thought I knew them so well, but suddenly, they’re mysterious strangers.

And like that, my 44 years seem yet a blip in history. And I don’t feel so old.

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2 thoughts on “Voices from the past, loud and clear

  1. Hey, Katie, I’m sure glad to see you using those geometry terms so well in your blog… Remember how much fun we had when you were taking the subject by correspondence a few years back? Incidentally, or is it tangentially, you learned more from my Dad than I ever did. I’m so glad you interviewed him. Did he tell you he witnessed the Union Station massacre?

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