After my grandma Rose died, I received some letters that were written to her by her high school boyfriend who enlisted in the Army in 1942. I received the letters with awe as though they were the key to unlocking grandma’s true personality – the one none of us knew because we were too integral to who she was as mother and grandmother. I had always heard that grandma was quite happy with this boyfriend and I wanted to approach the letters with reverence. I wanted to light a candle and say a prayer before I read them – these letters felt sacred.
So I’ve held onto the letters for quite a while. A few weeks ago I took them out of the pink, fabric-covered hatbox – just opening the lid filled my senses with grandma, her smell overwhelming me – and then I moved them, wrapped in plastic, to my backpack, intending to finally create the perfect space; give them the time and respect they deserved. And so they sat in my backpack, bookended by a Chemistry textbook and a laptop computer. Every time I thought of pulling them out, I became overwhelmed. It didn’t feel like the right time, I didn’t feel ready; I couldn’t give them what they deserved.
On the warmest day of the year to that point, I sat down to study. I set up my computer on a round table against the window, hoping I might feel some sunshine as I read about gas chromatography and spectrophotometry. My Chemistry book in front of me, I read and reread the terms, unable to focus. I reached into my backpack to find a pencil and my hand brushed against the plastic bag holding the letters. I pulled them out, intending to organize them chronologically. I noticed the postmark of the first one was November 23, 1942 – my mother’s birth day, only 13 years before her actual birth. As I organized each letter by time stamp I began to wonder about all the other hands who had touched these letters. Then I thought of my grandma’s hands, receiving the letters with excitement, then opening them neatly with a letter opener. I wondered if she examined each letter as I did, looking at the date stamp and the careful cursive that addressed the letter. The letters began in 1942 and spanned until 1944. The envelopes were uniform in size and shape with the exception of the first and the last which are just a bit bigger than the others. They were a pleasant weight in my hand and I breathed them in – the smell a mixture of old bookstore and Estee’ Lauder body powder.
Initially I only planned to organize the letters as an escape from my studying, but once organized, they begged to be read. And this is how I came to read Anton’s letters to Rose Marie – not in the light of a candle but in the light of our first warm sun of the year and not after saying a typical prayer but after reverently placing each envelope in a careful stack on top of a Chemistry textbook.
At first I meant to only read a couple and then save some for later but it was clear they were meant to tell a story. The letters were not particularly intimate – Anton starts almost every one with the same line and talks largely about the weather. He hints at one point about not being able to say much because of the Army. He also asks if there is any news about the war as they don’t hear much at camp. He asks about the weather in Nebraska and how Rose’s studies are going. The letters are pretty benign and read as if written by someone young – which I guess they are. Anton – “Tony,” is only 22 years old when he first starts writing.
So instead of the content, I start reading between the lines, looking for clues as I imagine grandma may have. At one point Tony thanks her for the lovely picture, going on about it and I conjured an image of what that picture may have looked like sitting on his shelf in his barracks. He mentions offhandedly that he has to guard a prisoner and isn’t looking forward to that. This idea must have been almost unimaginable to grandma. He varies his salutations – at one point signing “Lovingly, Anton,” and another point, “Just a soldier, Anton.” I thought of grandma holding these letters to her chest, breathing them in the way I did when I opened them, searching for hints of him. I thought of her smiling as she read them over and over, soaking in every word, trying to imagine the places he was describing – California, Alabama, the monuments in Washington D.C. I wanted to think of her as feeling a teenage love, not ruined by practicality and expectations. Though she was not a stranger to fear and hardship as a child, I wanted to think she was granted true, dumb love with a quality of slight naiveté. I wanted her to have that before life became Adult and Hard and Work. She deserved joy in love.
The last letter is postmarked May 2, 1944 and was sent from Camp Butner, North Carolina. This is the letter that thanks Rose for her picture stating in careful cursive, “There aren’t very many boys here that have a picture like that.” The letter is four pages long and Anton ponders where the outfit is going next, mentioning that the rumor is they are going “across.” This is the only letter signed “Tony.” After reading this last letter, I felt like the last chapter of my novel had been ripped out. I flipped the pages over, wanting more as Rose might have done and found nothing. I noticed how deep the fold creases were in this letter especially, as if it had been opened and refolded dozens of times. I wondered if she had written him back. And of course, I already knew how the story ended.
I stacked the letters back into their neat pile and looked up Anton’s name online. I idly marveled on he and Rose’s behalf at my ability to do this – just put his name into a search engine and watch the result pages fall into place. It was surprisingly easy to find him in St. Martin’s Cemetery in a small township in Nebraska. His headstone was marked only with his name and his date of birth, November 15, 1920 and date of death, November 9, 1944 – only 6 months after he wrote that last letter from North Carolina.
Of course grandma Rose went on to marry my grandfather and to have four children and many grandchildren. I suppose this story is perhaps a minor one in the scheme of things – if it hadn’t ended the way it did, it’s possible I wouldn’t be here now. And perhaps I have a tendency to over-dramatize things, but I am filled with a mixture of sadness and gratitude. My heart hurts for Rose – in lieu of Rose’s – and imagines that deep pang of sorrow that must have come, startling her even years later at the oddest of times: while hanging diapers on the clothesline or while scattering feed for the chickens. She must have allowed herself even a few moments once in a while to think about how things could have ended differently, and, having only that young, carefree love to reflect on, she must have guiltily wondered if things could have been better.
And though I am willing to forgo my own existence for a few seconds to think about how her life could have been different, I am filled with gratitude that I am here; that I am included in her legacy. I have felt grief over how hard she had to work and I have felt she deserved better – my sweet, strong, loving grandma Rose. I have wanted some token, some insight into who she was as a person; I wanted evidence of her happiness outside of children and grandchildren. And somehow, though ending in sadness, these letters have given me this sense of Rose as a person, before us. So I am grateful as well for this glimpse into a sweet little romance between a girl and a boy who loved each other for a while.
There is a picture that exists of Rose with her boyfriend, Tony. In it, they smile widely with no embarrassment. Rose’s cheeks are like apples and her hair is curled angelically around her face. Tony is wearing his Army uniform and stands proudly. They are together and they are happy.