“Burn that letter I sent”—83 years later, I’m glad she disobeyed
I’ve spent today delving into the letters in the attic. After reading a few from 1917 (and doing my normal note-taking and free-writing about them), I sorted through other stacks of letters. Separated a bunch (1921-1925) into piles by year. Found some written in spring of 1925– a few months before my grandparents got married. Jackpot! Motherlode! Mother’s Mother’s Mother’s weary load, it was. Mama’s (Fannie’s) reaction to news of her daughter’s engagement. Which take different forms over five or so letters as the unwelcome news settles in. But the Jackpot letter was the one in which my great-grandmother describes to her daughter her own marriage to Ben.
She said, I thought I might write this story in a letter for you to read after I am dead. But then she thinks the better of it, in light of young women who make mistakes and say, If I only knew! If only my mother told me. So she wrote that letter. And today I read it.
Dear web reader, what a tease I am! I’m not going to dish all the dirt. But there’s dirt. It’s juicy. It’s filled with a recounting of disappointments, mostly of the checkered path of my great-grandfather’s so-called career. He went from job to job, and not in a good way. There’s some moral failing, too. Over two generations. And near moral failures. It’s frank. As Fannie said, I want to wipe the slate clean.
There’s the story of when Fannie and Ben got married—Fannie’s mother was sick, but no, after offering to postpone the marriage, Fannie’s mother said go ahead with it. Fannie’s mother died four days after the wedding. Then there’s living with the in-laws. And following Ben to job after job. How this one failed. How that disaster happened. From Maine to Boston to New York to Yonkers, to Boston, to St. Paul, and to Billings, Montana. The story of bearing five daughters, and burying two. Of living through sheer hell and emerging from the other side not fearing fire nor brimstone, because she’s been there, done that.
It explains so much. We’ve figured that Fannie and Ben didn’t have a happy marriage. This lays it all out. It amazes me that a woman in Billings sewed day and night, and pushed her husband to work hard (he needed pushing) to support their two daughters away at school. Other letters describe Fannie’s sewing commissions. This dress, that set of embroidered handkerchiefs. A bathrobe for so-and-so’s wife for Christmas. So many commissions that Fannie’s own Christmas presents of house dresses for her sisters would have to wait until after Christmas. This, so her daughters could pay lab fees and studio fees at their respective schools in Boston. And all this in light of the trail of failures and bad luck from Ben’s jobs. They put two girls through school.
At the time of this writing, my grandmother wrote to Mama news of her salary, her raise. Not far into her career, she was earning more money than her father ever had, even at that best job that happened, oh, some 20 years back, before all the bad stuff came down. Such promise for her daughter! Fannie didn’t want her daughter to get married too soon. No, not yet.
In a later letter, she said, Please burn that letter I sent you. But my grandmother didn’t, because today I read that letter. Then I called up my mother, and said, Do you have 20 minutes? I have to read you this letter from your grandma to your mom. And I did.
My mother said, It confirms my suspicions. It says so much. What an amazing letter. Thank you for reading it to me.
Thank you for writing about the experience of finding such a treasure. I love reading letters from the past as they provide such an intimate avenue for one to understand the person writing and receiving the letter. I really enjoyed the post.
I remember reading this when you first wrote it and don’t know why I didn’t comment back then. Maybe because it hit too close to home. I know just how your great-grandmother felt. I worked hard to give my daughter the education that I never got. She has a bio-chemistry degree. Hopefully she’ll find a use for it someday. Meanwhile I’ll enjoy my beautiful grandchildren.