Early in the year my stepmom sent me a big box of family keepsakes. It was filled with all the things my dad thought were important—photos, military records, Father’s Day cards I gave him. It’s been a slow process, but I finally reached the bottom of the box earlier this week. What I found there delighted me.
A small wooden chest that looked to be close to 100 years old was nestled next to my grandmother’s wedding dress. I’d seen the box before, but had no idea what was inside. I opened it expecting old coins (something my dad enjoyed collecting), but instead discovered the box belonged to his mother. Inside that wooden chest was the story of her and my grandfather in love.
Functioning as a time capsule, the box contained the photos, letters, telegrams and gifts that accompanied their courtship while my grandpa was serving in the United States Navy during World War II.
My grandfather joined the Navy at 17. He gave a non-military-issue photo of himself to grandma before leaving; it was at the top of the box. Apparently, my grandpa had Edward Cullen hair in 1940. A good coif woos the ladies. Can’t help if the man had style.
First were the letters from Austria, where he was working in the infirmary. He wrote about how much he missed her and how often he recalled their last date. Each letter was signed “love and kisses.” He enclosed the quintessential military-at-work photo of him and his friend (who I’ve surmised was named Bill). On the back of every photo he promised his love to her.
In addition to sending photos of himself, there were several packages of photos of the cities he visited. These were sets slightly smaller than baseball cards wrapped in a thick paper envelope bearing the city’s name. I’m sure they were standard tourist fare; the set from Paris started with the Eiffel Tower, for example. Each contained thirty pictures of the city. I’m not familiar enough with the era to know much about them (it was likely the thing to do), but his letters indicated he wanted her to get to see the world. Even if it was something all the guys did, it still felt romantic.
At the end of his service, my grandfather was stationed in Paris. It was here he sent the most romantic letters. Maybe it was the city or perhaps it was the knowledge he was coming home soon.
What’s so delightful about this journey is that I didn’t know my grandparents well. Both passed before I was in elementary school. I remember dancing with my grandmother, who continued to wear ‘40s swing skirts with panache even in the ‘80s. My grandfather I remember as being a gruff man. He clearly loved me—that was always clear—but I remember him as stiff and quiet. Correctly or not. So, it’s a joy to see them both this way and to see what he did to win her over (they were not married yet while he was overseas).
What I think is even more fun is now when I look at photos of them when they were older, I see it. He may not be smiling in the photos, but he was still completely taken by her.
This is them 40 years after that first letter… still in love.