It is said that the art of letter writing is dead.
A pity. The age of instant electric communication has robbed us of one of the most touching ways to express the heartache — the exquisite pain — of a love who is out of reach.
Just over 60 years ago, there was a time when only a letter (or a then-expensive telegram) made any contact possible with one’s far-away love.
Such was the case during World War II for my parents.
Spouses in a marriage that ages well tend to retain very fond memories of their early days together. Whenever I see a new couple in marital therapy, I always ask them how they happened to meet and what drew each to the other. If the relationship still has “life,” these questions invariably warm the conversation. The partners have enkindling memories of the “honeymoon” period. The spark of that early time — “the days of wine and roses” — continues to fuel the relationship they have today.
My father entered the U.S. Army on December 12, 1943 and was honorably discharged in March, 1946. Most of that time was spent overseas, in places like England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. The day that he and my mom received the news of his inevitable departure to wartime Europe, she was attending the wedding of her cousin. The tears that everyone thought reflected her response to the marriage ceremony were about something else entirely.
I don’t have any of my mother’s letters to my dad, but only some of those he sent to her, mostly as World War II was dying down. They married late in 1940, so their relationship was still very fresh when he left for the European theater. His April 1, 1945 letter to her still includes a dried out daisy that he picked for her in Paris. His words surely reflected the thoughts of many that day:
My Adorable Sweetie Pie,
This is Easter Sunday and everywhere in this world people have gone to church to pray that this terrible war will soon be over. I, too, hope so for many reasons, but mainly that I can return to you and stay, and that (my brothers) Eddie and Harry need not be exposed to any more danger. Do the folks know about Harry being wounded? I hope not…
Do you know, sweetie, that I’m simply wild about you. Gosh, I love you so. Great big kisses and hugs from the lonely husband who loves you.
My dad’s letters frequently tried to cheer up my mother. She lived with her parents for part of this time and they were no love-match. Many people thought that the war would go on for years more. My mother’s only brother was eventually drafted and put in training for the invasion of Japan. That event never occurred, of course, as the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs.
Stateside it was well-known that many of the U.S. soldiers were not faithful to the girlfriend or wife back home. My mother must have expressed concerns in a letter to which my father responded on April 4, 1945:
You signed this ‘Your Best Sweetie,’ but it should have said ‘Your Best and Only Sweetie,’ because that is what you are. Does that answer your question? And now to answer your air mail of March 13th. It started with that gorgeous poem about Spring and, gosh sweetie, it gave me goose bumps to know that ‘the day I return will be your Spring.’
Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945, but my father would remain there until late February of the following year. The time passed slowly for both my parents-to-be, as noted in his missive of June 18, 1945:
I know I could perk up your morale if I came home, but they won’t let me just now. I know, too, how much your heart and body ache for me because I am undergoing the same each and every minute. You are vital to my complete happiness.
My mother suffered from tuberculosis before my folks were married. It would recur again in the 1950s. My dad was mindful of the fragile state of my mother’s health:
Sweetie, you are working much too hard for a little girl who isn’t well and you must cut it out. Gee, I wish I was around to protect you and snuggle you in the thunder and darkness of the rain.
Poor darling, you even talk to my picture, begging me to come home, and how I wish I could answer that I’ll be home in a few hours or days or weeks. But it will be a while yet and we must just be patient and hope and pray it will be very soon. The good God above must see how hungry and helpless we are without each other and I am sure He will answer our prayers soon…
All my love belongs to you, sweetheart, every drop of it.
Dad’s letters talk of many different things: day-to-day life in the army, the problem with officers, places he has seen, family matters, army food and the much better food they sometimes had after Germany’s defeat, gifts and money he was sending mom, the progress of the war, the first Bastille Day after Paris was liberated (at which celebration my father was present), and even references to the children they hoped to have together.
On July 9, 1945 my dad sent mom a page from the Army’s magazine Stars and Stripes. That portion of the magazine displayed pencil drawings of the beautiful women at the Folies Bergere, a famous Parisian show that included popular entertainment and scantily clad female performers. On it he wrote the following:
This will give you an idea of what the Folies Bergere is like. I’d rather look at you, though.
Not everything my father witnessed brought a smile, however. This comes from October 19, 1945:
We have two colored boys in our convoy, who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper here in Germany, the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent had made it a rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was by now a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.
So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.
On February 14, 1946 the end of the seemingly endless wait to return home was close at hand. By now dad had been 11 days in La Havre, not yet assigned to a ship for his cross-Atlantic voyage:
Well, at least I will be with you soon and I know ‘wonderful you’ are waiting with all the love and devotion a guy could ask for. I love you, sweetie.
On February 26th, after 12 more days in La Havre, he was headed home.
In the mid-1980s, 40 years after these events, I asked my dad what it was like the first time he saw my mother again. His most moving recollection wasn’t their actual reunion, rather it was the first time he heard her voice when he called her on the telephone, just after his arrival in New York. His voice cracked as he remembered that moment and tears came to his eyes.
Soon after that call, he must have written her this post card:
My last letter to you. From now on I’ll tell you in person. Gosh, it will all be so wonderful soon.
My father would have been 100 years old this week.
*This was originally posted last year. I have repeated it (hence the Italian phrase “da capo” or “from the top”) in honor of the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth. Until I posted it, I didn’t realize that it also honors his service in World War II in a week that includes Veteran’s Day.