Love Letters – Past and Present

By Nancy Oliver

Love Letters – Past and Present

I am a widow now, but when my husband and I were dating in the 1990s, we sent silly cards to each other. We lived in different towns, and sometimes the first awkwardness of expressed love is best carried out when a silly Hallmark card provides you an opening.

Some 17 years later, and eight years after his death, I found a box of these cards that he had saved, unbeknownst to me. He never seemed sentimental, but now I have proof that he had been. I was completely unaware that he had saved them. He had even kept them in their original envelopes in dated order in a little wooden box that his grandfather had made for him as a boy. It gladdened my heart to find this box tucked away in the back of his desk…so many years after so much had happened.

I relived the progress of our relationship as I pulled each card out. I had sent him a series of sepia-toned cards. They were much like Ed – quaint and charming. His own cards to me had been all dog and garden related. Both dogs and gardens went on to be an integral part of our lives together.

For the last four years, I have been renovating my family home place and processing paperwork from the estates of relatives. I have come across similar boxes of sentiment, packaged in much this same way. Tucked neatly in tiny boxes and perfectly timeless in their message, these letters tell me so much. I have been enlightened and delighted by these lovely love letters. Despite my sister’s efforts to have me throw them away, I cannot. I take them out and reread them from time to time.

My aunt Irene must have had this same compulsion. When I was going through her papers after her death at 96, I found letters that she had saved from her husband’s parents, written in the late 1870s. My uncle’s parents were “Delia” and “William” to the world, but in the flowing script of these beautifully written love letters, they refer to each other as “my Delly girl” and “my Billy boy.” They were just courting, but the letters are provocative in the depth of their earnest yearning. William wrote to her that he had thought of nothing but her “immense” beauty and the golden curls that “danced” on the back of her “frock.” She wrote that she felt as if her heart would break when she realized that both he and the horse had finally disappeared from the horizon. “If only wanting could bring you back to me…” she wrote.

In an old valise, its black leather cracked from age and excessive heat, I found a few of my father’s letters to my mother. Written in the late 1940s, these letters to my mother were written by a young 25-year-old man, who was full of hope, happiness and plans for their future. Writing from his house (and the house that I am currently renovating and living in as I type this), he tells her she is “so very sweet” and that she has the reddest hair he’s ever seen. After their engagement, my mother writes to him that “all” the girls at work were impressed with the size of her engagement ring. She respectfully added how much she appreciated it because she knew how long it had taken him to work to pay for it.

I have no letters for either set of grandparents; they have been lost due to fire or mishap. I do have photographs of them, though, that speak volumes. I have a photo of my mother’s parents on their wedding day. They are sitting in a wagon; the horses are ready to go. The big metal wheels are caked with mud. My grandmother has a shy Mona Lisa-type smile. My grandfather, whom I’ve been told I favor, is sitting beside her, grinning from ear to ear.

I have a little rocking bench that just seats two. My father told me that my grandfather made this for my grandmother so that the two of them would always be able to have a seat on the porch together. The back of this bench curves like the upper parts of a heart. I also have a photo of the two of them – probably taken when they were in their 30s or early 40s. Their heads are leaning in to each other, their temples nearly touching. They are both trying to look at the camera but are keeping their gaze on each other.

When you read of today’s lavish weddings, it seems impossible that two sisters could be married in a 12-by-14 foot parlor while another sister played the piano, accompanying a friend who soloed with “I Love You Truly.” Yet, this happened in this house. And, it must have “taken,” because both marriages lasted unto death.

Does the grandeur of the wedding ceremony really show the depth of the love or the level of the commitment? Of course not. Yet I’ve met a few young brides in recent years who were convinced that it did. When there is an emphasis on “me” and “my day,” there is no “us.” In my case, it was awkward for me to make a wedding about me, because I knew the marriage would be about us.

Ed and I only wanted to be married. It was a bond we shared, but we wanted to get there in two different ways. I wanted to elope; Ed wanted a “big” wedding. We compromised on a small ceremony in Duke Gardens with just the two of us, a minister and a few dozen friends and family. We had no attendants, no meal and no party. And it lasted unto death.

Whether it is set in an exquisite script and talks of dancing curls or is written in a chicken-scratch scrawl that says “Miss You Awful – See you Friday,” the love is there. Words committed to paper demonstrate the love that two hearts share. It sets it, and it seals it. Not just for the time when it’s been written and read, but for all time.

About this writer

  • Nancy OliverNancy Oliver, is a writer and editor who is currently working on the renovation of her family’s 104-year-old farmhouse in rural North Carolina. When she’s not sanding floors, she’s making notes about the life around her.

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