Now and then, I go through boxes of family letters and photos out of guilt, if nothing else, because I’ve never organized them properly. So much history will disappear if I don’t do something, but the task is daunting.
The envelope above, crisscrossed with post office cancellations, forwards, dates, and addresses, caught my eye the other day. It tells the story of a letter that followed my grandfather to France and back during the last months of World War I and after. It was not written by my grandmother.
My grandmother always told me that she and my grandfather met at an ice cream social on a Sunday afternoon. She was “engaged” to another young man at the time, but my grandfather came along that day in his doughboy uniform, and when she saw him across the room, she knew. He shipped out for France soon after. I have only empty envelopes addressed to him in my grandmother’s hand; I don’t know what happened to those letters. I do know that his ship, the Agamemnon, arrived back in New York Harbor on March 11, 1919, and they were married May 24, 1919. A two-month courtship!
One Story, Many Versions
Back to the letter: the writer’s name was Emma Rudolph of Long Island, New York. Apparently, it was customary for New York families to befriend soldiers caught in the limbo of shipping out or returning home. What must that have been like–a twenty-seven year old man from rural Mississippi in the big city for a few days before he went off to war! He was handsome, blue eyes, blond hair, tall. And from the tone of the letter, I believe Emma was smitten.
I had always believed my grandfather stayed with her family after he returned, but that turns out not to be true. He had met Emma Rudolph before he left for France. In her letter dated November 11, 1918–Armistice Day!–she wrote about celebration in the streets of NYC. “New York is alive,” she wrote. “Our place is closed up for the day. Hurrah for peace . . .” And then she penned these words:
“Write to me, won’t you?”
Her letter went to his APO address and on to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where he had trained, arriving there March 22, 1919–the same month he arrived back in the States—then on to France, postmarked there [date unclear] Avril 1919. It came back to the States and was forwarded, finally, to “Springfield,” Mississippi. My grandfather’s little community was Springville, not Springfield. The date of its arrival in Springville is illegible. (You’re welcome to turn your computer upside down and try to read it!) Were he and my grandmother married by the time he got that letter? Did he ever write to Emma? Did she ever know he was safe, or that her little letter had followed him across the Atlantic and back? (The photos here are a bit larger than its actual size.)
So many what if’s–the makings of a good story. What if he had fallen in love with Emma of Long Island, New York? What if the letter had reached him and he had stopped off to see her on his way home? What happened to her? She says in her letter that she hasn’t heard anything from him since he went away, but the letter has a pleading tone: “If when you come back you are in a camp near enough to come and see me, you are welcome.”
Strange turns of fate, that bring us, and our stories, into being!
Letters–never sent or gone astray–play an important role in my WIP, Spirit Lamp, a work of historical fiction set during World War I. Thank you, Emma Rudolph, whoever you were. And thanks to my maternal grandparents, too. If you hadn’t gotten together . . .
Have family artifacts or stories informed your writing? If so, how? Tell me about it!