I sampled a few letters right away, but mostly just tried to sort 'em, put 'em in some kind of order. Turned out there were letters from my mother to my father, too, and a few letters and cards from other people to my father, plus some papers from his time at ROTC camp---strange typed & carboned schedules for drills and the like.
It seems the correspondence between the two started at Christmas break, 1949--50, at the end of what must have been the semester in which they were set up on a date by mutual friends at the U. of S. Dakota. My father's family, by then, had moved up to the top of North Dakota (Belcourt, near the Canadian border, and not far from Rolla, the town to drive to for most goods); my mother's was still in Bridgewater, in the southeastern corner of S.D. The letters pick up again---and really take off---the following summer. I haven't gotten the order completely correct, as I have to go mainly by postmarks, which are sometimes illegible or partially cut off (my father's mother, I bet, was the one who cut out stamps on many of my mother's letters); the letters themselves are dated "Saturday, just after midnight" or "Friday late" and like that. I'm pretty sure that some letters are missing, whether lost or removed from the collection for some reason---sometimes there'll be weeks with letters from only one of them, even if they refer to letters received from the other.
In the summer of 1950 they were just goofily in love, if showing some restraint (apparently in response to my father's temperament) in avoiding or at least making self-conscious remarks about outright sentimentality. That summer my mother and her folks went up to see my father's family. My mother also had a handful of weddings to go to or be part of; lots of the young women of Bridgewater were getting married that year.
I've been reading the letters, in the rough chronological order I set out, somewhat slowly, as I can handle it (love letters being kind of hard to take when your heart's freshly breaking). It's funny the stuff I'm finding out about the folks. Of course I crave the kinds of details they leave out, as you would things known to both of you, but I enjoy the newsy nonsense too. Turns out cardplaying to get through the winter was all the thing in the Dakotas, as it seems to have been here in Michigan for generations---but in Bridgewater they were playing pinochle, and in ND it was canasta. (There was eventually one night of euchre, anyway.) As of the winter of '50--'51, at least, my parents still hadn't actually had sex, though there are vague references to what they've done so far. That's both funny-funny and funny-strange to be reading.
At one point before she'd visited, my father drew my mom a map of Belcourt, with all the buildings and houses labeled and the road to the lake marked with an arrow; it was so much like something I'd do in a letter---have done---it was almost spooky. (I'd like to take it there some time & check out the place based on it. I'd already known that going to a lake was big entertainment for both families.) There are also funny things like my mother's wondering how on earth this one couple could be happy with each other, and then after a few sentences it turns out the exaggerated disbelief is based entirely on the fact that the woman in the couple was several inches taller than the man. Once my father wrote of being bored with the gang in Belcourt, few of whom were near his age, and how he wanted to go back up to some town to hang with a "Negro fellow" he'd met who was acting as the projectionist for movie nights on the reservation; this guy, it seems, had been places and seen things and could talk about something besides how deep the snow gets in ND.
There are more letters the following Christmas break; that's where I am now. By this point my great aunt Nell, who died the youngest of my grandmother's 8 siblings, in her 60's, had left her abusive husband (of 21 years, I find in the letters) and moved up to live with my father's family. Dad was hanging out with her much of that break. There was a cat named Tinker, or "Tink," and the dog I'd heard of called "Keeper."
Briefly, toward the end of her life, my mother took in a dog, who turned out to be more than she could handle, so she passed him on to another; while she had him, though, she called the dog Keeper, after that old dog of my dad's, whose full name I couldn't remember and have been trying hard to think up. Keeper of the Bridge at Midnight?, I'd think. Bridge Keeper at Sunrise? It was something like that. Some Native American style of name. Now I'm reading letters in which my dad refers to the dog, and I'd come to figure I'd never know the full name, as my brother almost certainly doesn't remember. Just this morning I made peace with that name being lost to time. What the hell, I'll be dead soon enough, and I'm the last one who cares, you know? I just decided I could live with the speculative version.
Then this afternoon I opened another letter--from my father to my mother. Seems this was the first letter after he'd gotten home for the break:
Hi Honey Potsy,
How's the most super something snooks. I got up about half an hour ago. It's a beautiful day here, sun is shining brightly on fresh snow and it's 30 above. [It'd be down to 42 below later that winter break.] Mom is teaching & Nell & I & the livestock are loafing around.
We got home at 1:30. Left Vermillion right away, went through B-water around 1:30 or :40, stopped in Huron about 3:00, had a lunch and went on. I was in front with my ten sweaters and one of Brownies under me. We were really crowded. Got to Aberdeen at 5:20 and the bus had left at 5:00. So we took off and caught the bus just south of Ellendale, N.D. There were only 10 or so people on the bus and I was in the back all by myself. Got to Jim town at 8:00, Dad was there and after we ate we picked up Mary Miller at the college and took off. It was snowing a little but not bad. Stopped in Devil's Lake for cake and came home. 13 1/2 hours with stops of 1 1/2 hours. Not bad huh? We had real good luck. Dad was real tired & I drove home from Jamestown. What a car. I'm nuts about it. Why girl, it even has the fords beat.
When we got home the cat & dog welcomed me very cordially. I had no idea Keeper was so big. He's bigger & shaggier than the AXA [my mother's sorority] pup. I opened my suitcase to take the packages out and Tink jumped in. What a cat. He's always doing something. Now he's fighting a throw rug. He has an affinity for the package of coasters and he's always tackling it. He gets up on the back of a chair and swipes at the Xmas tree. Oh honey, he's so cuddly & cute. Keeper is real big & beautiful. After I went upstairs they all came up and Keeper came too but he has a deadly fear of stairs and wouldn't go downstairs. He went to the head of the stairs and came running in and jumped on my bed and the mutt weighs more than 100 lbs. He was whimpering and so scared. I had to pick him up and carry him downstairs.
Nell is out walking him now. Oh darlin', you should see this house. Its really wonderful. The fireplace is so pretty and the mantle is covered with Xmas cards. Honey, you'll love it. Really. Its not big or small but seems so cozy. There is a big south window and the sun shines in so brightly. I have a real nice room upstairs and then there's a sort of den with guns and stuff. Real slick.
Nell is back and says the only news is the weather and its different every day. She likes it here and seems to be relaxed. What a character she is. I can just imagine your dad and her together. What a time they would have.
Golly I feel relaxed. I was terribly tired when we got in and slept for 12 or 13 hours without stirring. Then the cat crawled in and woke me up.
Mom was down this afternoon to show her 40 third graders the tree[?] & cat & dog & goldfish. Poor kids. They don't have anything like it.
Hon, I wonder all the time what you are doing. I always imagine you in the kitchen, painting, wrapping packages or something. Your kitchen seems to be the center of life at your house. I couldn't see the moon all of the time because of the clouds but I was trying all the time and wondering if you could see it too. Its so much fun to think about you and I do so much.
Dad is here to mail the letters and so I'll sign off soon. Jeepers potsy, I'm loving you.
Keeper is laying on the floor with his head on a book. Tink is lying on his big tail with his head in Keeps fur. Oh, Keeps name is Elbridge, Keeper at sundown. What a name.
Tink just loves to play with the chain around my neck. [here's there's an outline of 3/4 of an oval with "Tinks Right front foot" written in it]
Oh hon, you'll just have to come up and see this place and the 4-H club animals.
More tomorrow my darling. I love you.
P.S. I Love You
Next up will be letters from the summer of '52---almost all from my mother to my father at ROTC camp. Somehow I don't think they'll be as richly full of affection and innocence, but you never know.
My folks had their challenges in marriage, and in child-rearing, and by the time we moved from Kansas to Maryland in 1972, when I was 10, we were pretty solidly dysfunctional in our way. But they stayed together until my father died. And they did have a few really good years at the end, after my brother and I got the heck out of the house. They had to stick it out through difficult times, and maybe that's not for everybody. I certainly wouldn't advocate it for people in abusive situations. But I reckon it's at least partly because of my folks that it seems to me to be so wrong to give up on a true love without one hell of a fight to save it.