My parents, Joseph and Mary , met in August 1942. My dad was drafted into the army in November. From November 1942 until February 1946 they wrote every day. They saved all of their letters; I have about 2000 of them, meticulously arranged in chronological order. Slowly I am transcribing them for a blog.
My daughter Rose tell her grandparents’ story:
“In my grandmother’s house, past a stone Mexican statue named Harry, up the front stairs and to the right there is a bedroom. In this bedroom there are a pea green carpet, a bed with yellow and orange flowered sheets, and a cracked blue dresser. This dresser, unlike every other bureau and closet in this house, does not contain any seventies-style ties, old scarves, or early feminist t-shirts. Instead every drawer is filled with letters.
Joe lived in Jamaica, Queens, with his parents and six younger sisters and brothers. His college yearbook said of him, “Even his own brilliance could not fathom the enigma that is Joe.” Mary lived in Queens Village. She was the second child, and the oldest girl, in a family of seven. Her high school yearbook described her as, “Sincerity coupled with bubbling vivacity, scholastic excellence with literary talents, athletic prowess, sparkling wit.” She would not have a college yearbook until many years later, because her father had died without much life insurance when she was seventeen years old. Her father’s brother squeezed together the money for her older brother to continue school at St. John’s, but Mary was just a girl.
Mary and Joe had met the summer of 1942, on a raft at Loon Lake in the Adirondacks. He was 28, she was 21. A week later, back in Queens, he took her to see Bambi. They saw each other often in the three months after Bambi became Prince of the forest, and before Joe was drafted. He kissed her for the first time on the day he left for the army. From November 1942 until he came home in February 1946.
They will get engaged the night before her 22nd birthday in August 1943 and will marry the next March. The wedding will not be fancy, since it was planned in about four days and no one had much money anyway. The reception will be in Mary’s backyard. Joe will go off to war in Europe, though his bad vision will ensure that he never faces combat. They will have their first child while he is away. There will be short letters to Baby Mary Jo, my mother, enclosed with the longer ones to Mary. Then in 1946, when Mary Jo is eight months old, Joe will finally come home and the letters will end.”
For their tenth anniversary, my dad wrote one more letter describing their love story.
“Her name was Mary, of course. She was a blue-eyed, smiling, long-legged, cool looking girl–a trifle naive. A girl with class he thought when he first saw her, but young. A bus seems an awful place for things to start, but there was she on a bus going to church and planning to have a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkelettes. He was going to church too, but she sat in back of him and that was that.
He said hello to her that afternoon or more likely she said hello to him. Again nothing happened–there are lots of shapely girls in blue bathing suits at a lake summer resort. The summer resort was one of those let’s-be-one’big-happy-family sort of places–it even had a social director and a social directrix. Naturally one afternoon there was a baseball game in which all the boys and girls (in those places they’re all boys and girls even if the boys and girls have big boys and girls of their own) were to participate. Well this particular boy and girl were antisocial or mutually social. They sat out the ball game on a raft.
They talked about prosaic things–families and schools; after all he was a shy young man. She wasn’t. Maybe that is why he was sure it happened then. That’s the trouble with shy young men: they are not used to openhearted friendliness. He never knew what she saw in him, but for the rest of the week they were summer friends. He struggled a little bit–an inherent male instinct. Why one rainy afternoon they went to a Bing Crosby movie in separate groups. They had only a week, not even a full one.
However, this time it did happen on a bus. They had made some sort of plan to ride back to New York on the same bus. He from the summer resort, she from Albany where she was visiting. He was positive. She says it couldn’t haven happened then–that soon.
He didn’t know the proper method of courting a girl, not a beautiful one like her. Oh he was quite proper. The movies he took her to were always approved for adults and children. A baseball game, a few football games, a little bowling–that was about all. He didn’t have much time, altogether three months. He then went away as did twelve million other men young and old. Oh yes, he finally kissed her once. He was very proper and very shy and afraid she would say no.
He did have a secret weapon. His job had been writing letters under constricting rules. He now could write letters without rul3s. She claims it was all platonic yet her first letter to him was a sixteen-page affair. Looking back he is smiling at the strategy of the salutation of his letter. First it was a proper Dear Mary–it’s possible to write the same two words so they are less proper but more warm. She should have realized what his plans were right from the very beginning. The first thing he did was change her name,, he first name that is. How could he ever have written letters beginning Dear Marie.
Three months of seeing her, three months of exchanging letters and she was sure too. A little later–less than a year after they first met, it was properly formalized. She got a ring (It was not in a car; it was outside on the sidewalk in front of her house). The ratio was changed. One kiss in three months to how many kisses in two weeks? Not enough, there will never be enough. His heart was just too full–that time was a blur to him. Did it happen to her as it did to him? There was no beginning. It just always was. Just two he and she.
Of course they were going to be engaged for a long time, and it was a long time. Six months and twenty-six days. One could say he was respoinsible. Too much of his heart got into one of his letters and now slipped in. But she was more direct and she knew her hussyness. She met his train and before they got home it was all decided. And then for a week they didn’t see each other, well hardly at all. A girl has a lot to do before here wedding. Some girls take months and months. This girl did it all in a week. Besides he not knowing that (not clear)
Married on Monday. What plain words. Rainbow isn’t a fancy word either. Nor sunris ,nor moonlight. Love and sacrement–a sacrament of love. For this cause shall a man leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two but one flesh.”
The happiness of their marriage is captured in this photo of my mother’s graduation from Hofstra University in June, 1967, the same day I graduated from Fordham. Their six children were then 21, 20, 18, 14, 11, and 9.