I am the historian of my husband’s family. A lover of stories, the task fell to me to ‘listen’ to echoes from another time… isn’t that what all stories are?
For years, old photos, cards and letters sat in an attic in his parents’ house. When they passed on, his brother continued to live in the house, but had little interest in family photos and such. I persuaded my husband to collect what he could from the attic and give it a home with me.
I liked my inlaws very much, but there was much about them that I never knew or understood. When my husband came home with a box of old letters, I began to piece together their story and – even better – I began to know them in a way I never could have while they were alive.
My father-in-law was a man much in the tradition of ‘The Great Santini’. Those of you who’ve read Pat Conroy’s wonderful book will have some understanding of what I am saying. Like Conroy’s character, he was a marine; also like ‘Santini’, he chose for a period of time to make a career out of the military. He was a Corsair fighter pilot in World War II, and flew over the South Pacific. Later, during the Korean Conflict, he trained young fighter pilots. He was a tough guy, a marine in the best sense of the word. His favorite movie was ‘Patton’ and, again reminiscent of Conroy’s character, he often addressed his sons by saying, ‘Hey, sports fans…’ Unlike Santini, however, he was not abusive toward his family, but he did keep four sons in line while they were growing up.
The letters he wrote to my husband’s mother prior to and during World War II disclosed another side of him, one I was surprised to learn existed. I knew him as gruff and opinionated. Apparently, I didn’t know him very well.
Barely an adult, he courted my mother-in-law during his time in flight school. When it was time for him to go off to war, the two married. Life was uncertain and they were in love. They took a chance he’d be coming home – from the letters, one gets the sense of urgency they both felt as they tried to give their lives some normalcy during a time of uncertainty.
While he was in the South Pacific, she continued to live with her mom and dad. It was while he was away that she soon learned she was pregnant. His letters to her – during their courtship and subsequent marriage – are tender, flirtatious, caring and full of sweetly offered advice. He admonished her to remember she was now a young married woman and that while she lived with her parents still, she was not to take everything they said as gospel. He reminded her that she was no longer ‘just their little girl’; she was his wife. He requested that she visit his parents once a week and have dinner with them because they were worried about him and because it would be the right thing for her to do as a daughter-in-law. He discussed his hopes and dreams, instructed her as to how to prepare a budget and save for the future, and wondered with her what their baby’s life would be like and, especially, what the world would be like when the war ended. He believed in what he was doing, that it was worth the sacrifice of not being with her or being there to see his son born.
Each letter begins, ‘My Darling…’
Sometimes, I wish I had been able to read those letters while they were both still alive. It’s sad to really only gain an understanding of people once they are gone. The thought of my late father-in-law as a very young man in a far off land, not knowing whether he’d survive his next bombing run, taking a few moments to compose a sweet and tender letter to his wife is poignant to me.
The last ‘letter’ in the box was really not a letter at all. It was a telegram dated December 1946: ‘My darling. Coming home.’