I draw inspiration from my grandparents' wartime love letters (2023)

The box arrived at my house unexpectedly. It was dark and heavy, with a flower carved into the wooden top. But the box itself was not important. As with all treasure chests, it was what was inside that mattered most. Lifting the lid, I found a box of letters my paternal grandparents had exchanged during World War II.

My cousin Meg received these letters after my grandmother died. Meg sent them to me when she found out that I was writing a novel set in the 1930s and that one of the characters was based on my grandfather, an Irish immigrant who came to New York in 1929 with dreams of organizing one of the great bands of the era.. During the war my grandmother lived in Queens with her young child - Meg's father, my uncle Rich - while my grandfather was in upstate New York, New Jersey, Corpus Christi and, finally, San Diego. I was hoping these letters would help me remember some useful phrases in my grandfather's Irish English. Even better, my grandmother's letters would detail the scenes set in the novel: buildings, buses, and subways in midtown Manhattan. the smell of shopping on the Bowery. a visit to the World's Fair, the Savoy Ballroom or a glamorous wedding in the Bronx.

Instead, I discovered the daily longing of two people who missed each other so much and wondered how much longer they would be apart. My grandparents met in 1931 and married six years later. They wanted to settle down, start a family and start a life together in Depression-era New York. Shortly after the wedding, the doctor told my grandmother that she would never have children: it was a severe blow to the happy life they had imagined. When Richard arrived, they were excited - life could finally begin. Then the war came and my grandfather was called to fight for his new homeland. Despite their worst fears (Marines, Pacific Theater), my grandfather's age, marital status, and fatherhood protected him from the most harrowing deployments. However, for the next few years, their marriage will be arranged by correspondence.

The letters were in two piles. One was a loosely organized collection of letters and postcards sent by my grandfather. The other pile was neatly folded and tied with a thin pink ribbon. They were Nana's letters to him. On the last page of each letter was Grandma's lipstick kiss.

The lipstick was physical proof that the same side I was holding had been touched and even kissed by my grandmother, who died in 2006. But what surprised me even more was the first line of the letter. Nana's handwriting in the 1940s consisted of the same elegant handwriting that signed the birthday cards she sent me every year until her death, always with a five-dollar check. The cards stopped a year before she died, but when I saw the ups and downs of each word, she suddenly became a presence in my life. These letters may have been written and sent only a few days ago.

What did I learn about them from their letters? I already knew they were devout Catholics—wherever he was, my grandfather attended Mass every day—but I quickly realized how deeply, down-to-earth their devotion was to each other. When my grandmother worried about running with women in California, my grandfather repeatedly claimed to be single. Moreover, he swore to her that a certain part of him was reserved only for her. In the most moving parts of the letters, he longed to be with her, and the arc of his longing culminated in early 1945. In January, my grandfather wrote that he had been granted leave, which gave him enough time to cross the country by train, spend 10 days with my grandmother, and then to return to San Diego. He told her to rest before his visit and prepare for "a lot of love." In another letter, Nana tells him, “it saves energy. You'll need it when you get home' - and it's clear that she has a lot more on her mind than household chores.

"The cards stopped a year before my grandmother died, but seeing the ups and downs of every word, she suddenly became a presence in my life."

That's how I found out exactly when my father was arrested. More than I wanted to know, but typical letters: pages and pages about who Dad saw at church or his fears about the upcoming parachute test, followed by sudden flashes of wartime sex.

I can only imagine how my grandparents would react, somewhere in the afterlife, to a grandson reading their mail. My grandmother was a very dignified woman and never let me forget that when I was 12 I forgot to wear a jacket to my uncle's wedding - a June wedding in 30 degree heat (my cousin Meg, who was also 12 at the time) old and I heard that I did not wear pantyhose at the same wedding). Years later, when my little brother didn't respond to the five-dollar birthday check she told him on time, she told him, "If it wasn't for the canceled checks, I'd think you were dead." My father died when I was 10 and I know him mostly from stories and color photos of him playing the banjo at birthdays and Thanksgivings. Still, I can feel him clenching his fists and complaining that…Jesus, Mary and Joseph!– these letters were intended only for her eyes.

Some of my grandparents' letters are four, five or six pages long. Expressions of love are scattered throughout the text - "God only knows how lonely and sad I am without you," writes Nana - and then flow into the final paragraph. However, most of the letters are devoted to the mundane aspects of their day: "Johnny painted the kitchen and bathroom a nice shade of blue," "We were at Peg's for lunch yesterday and Mom's for dinner yesterday." , "Peg goes to buy a new coat. My grandfather writes about the long train ride from Corpus Christi to San Diego, which he spent in a club car with other musicians in uniform and a captain who played a beautiful Irish tenor. In another letter he describes his first sight of The Pacific Ocean and imagines the day when they will be able to see it together. All this has intensified their desperation to share their daily lives with each other. The war has robbed them of many passionate nights, but it has also robbed them of the simple comfort of intimacy, even the pleasant boredom of living together and having nothing. particularly important to work in. With every line they write, they include themselves in their everyday life.

I went through the letters looking for information, but I found two people who still didn't know how their story would end. I only knew them as Nana and Papa, but long before that they were Helen and Pete, and the only name they had for each other wasChild. My grandparents' letters allowed me to eavesdrop on their lives, hear their voices, feel their longing, and see Nana's thoughts racing after a night at the movies ("since you left- what a tear!) to a sincere desire to be together ("It is a great comfort to know that our love is eternal"). In the middle of another letter, my grandfather interrupts his confession of undying love—"you are the first and the last"—to apologize for his uncharacteristically sloppy handwriting: "I'm using one of those USO pens and it's hard to get a handle on!"

Would any of these connections—my grandparents with themselves, me with them—be lost if, instead of handwritten letters, my grandparents left a bunch of e-mails? After all, over the past 15 years, family members in the United States have sent millions of e-mails to soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the world, many with the same intent as my grandparents' letters: to say:it happened today, LubI miss you, LubI want you to come home.Does Helvetica cover the emotions contained in these messages?

My theoretical friends would say that I succumbed to what Walter Benjamin described as "aura— the meaning given to a unique, handcrafted artifact characterized by its own journey through time. If it's true, so be it. The aura - the magic - that surrounds these letters is evidence that Helen and Pete have Helen and Pete's hands, and the way they suggest the emotions that guided those hands at the time of writing the letters - being alone on a train near Chicago, lazy. another day at the base or hastily write one last "I love you" before closing the envelope.

And those kisses! It was my grandmother's mouth, the lips my grandfather had been waiting months to kiss. No heart emoticon could mean so much.

Last summer, my two children went to an overnight camp that strictly prohibited phones and technology. The only contact my wife and I had for the first three weeks was letters. A home email would contain the same information - taco night was a huge hit, our son picked up a serious D&D habit, and our daughter was cast in the camp musical. But I already know that their writing is an indication of a certain moment in their lives. That's what they write and thinkNow, and in a few years there will be evidence of what it is likeonce there waswhen their hands were smaller and the world was just opening up to them. Of course, those letters ended up in a box, and one day someone – our children, their children – will open the envelopes, unfold the letters and discover people waiting to meet.


Roman Brendana MatthewsaThe world of tomorrowis now available from Little, Brown and Company.

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Brendan Mateuš

Brendan Mathews your authorThe world of tomorrow(Little, Brown & Co.), which was shortlisted for the Fiction Center First Novel Award and named an Independent Next Great Read and an Editors' Choice by the New York Times Book Review. Little, Brown and Company have just published their first collection of short stories,This is not a love song. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and four children.


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