It was dated June 10, 1927, written from a home no longer standing at Exchange Street in Rochester, to a young woman in Ellicottville named Lola.
“I am not driving taxi now. I quit Sunday night. Monday morning, I went to work again for the Salvation Army. Am not driving truck this time, but am helping on a wagon. I hope to get back on a truck again soon, but I am satisfied to get three square meals a day, and a bed to sleep in.”
Lola, by the way, is my grandmother. The young man struggling to make ends meet at the height of the Roaring ’20s? OK, not hard to figure out: That’s my grandfather Donald. The cursive stretched across both sides of the yellowed, card-size paper, sharing much of the mundanity many of us today might reserve for text messages or a quick phone call while driving home.
“While you were in Buffalo, did you go to any shows, where they had Vitaphone pictures?” my grandfather asks. “In other words, ‘talking movies.’ I saw my first one here at Rochester, and it certainly is wonderful. I go to it nearly every night. There is no reading at all on the screen.”
I found this letter at the bottom of a box of family heirlooms a cousin of mine keeps at her home in Florida, and I was mesmerized. I have very little memory of my paternal grandparents. Lola died when I was still an infant, and Donald when I was in kindergarten.
When I was growing up, my father would share many stories about his relationship with his parents — none of them good. Both would work all day, and at quitting time, they didn’t come home. Instead, they headed to the bar, where they would drown any remaining daylight with booze.
My dad and his siblings were left to fend for themselves, his older sister — by just a year — filling in as caretaker. When either of his parents were home, it was never pleasant. My dad shared how he once saved a bunch of money he earned setting pins at a local bowling alley so he could take an art course. When his mom found the stash of coins, she took it and spent in on a two-tone, brown Easter suit for my dad.
He was so angry, he wore that suit every day — whether it was a formal occasion or he was outside playing. The suit barely made it a month.
My life wasn’t like that at all, thank goodness. My dad never touched alcohol or cigarettes, which might explain why he’s about to turn 90 with the energy and health of a 60-year-old.
My mom worked so hard to provide for my little sister and me — the youngest of the seven children my parents had from previous marriages and their current one. A day for her could include driving a bus and then working at night as a bartender. Both of my parents grew up wanting for many things, and they ensured that their children wanted for nothing.
What I wouldn’t give, however, to see the letters my mom and dad exchanged after they first met at a roller-skating rink. They were hardly the young adults my grandparents were — both already experiencing marriage and divorce, and raising kids as part of it.
Instead, all I have is the memory of the notes they would leave each other every morning. My dad addressed his notes to “Sweetheart” and signed them “Sweetheart,” while my mom opted for “Honey.”
I remember how irritated I would be to see these notes between them. Now, more than 30 years later, I would give anything just to find one of them at the bottom of a box somewhere. They may have been just as mundane as some of the letters between my grandparents, but still, each word is an expression of them. And thus, every note is a vital piece of my parents that I long to have again.
Writing letters — writing notes — has become a lost art in the century since Donald wrote to Lola. But even today, there’s something special — even romantic — about not choosing a keyboard or a touchscreen, and instead picking up a pen and finding a sheet of paper.
I’m glad my grandfather did. And I’m glad my grandmother saved it. Because in those pages, I don’t see the grandparents I only heard about through my father. Instead we get a special glimpse into their hearts.
Michael Hinman is executive editor of Herald Community Newspapers. Comments? email@example.com.