The First Group

comments: 51

I'll just start by saying that today was a really weird day. I woke up with a really achy kink in my neck and shoulder that just didn't go away all day and made my whole body feel uncomfortable. My foot, strangely, was also aching — possibly because of the weather, which was hot, hot, hot — and I was just feeling generally out of sorts. I finally turned on the air conditioner around 6 p.m. and started to relax. My mind was awash in names and dates and places and voices.

I read all of the letters yesterday. It took me forever to get them organized because, as I mentioned, they were all split up in different bags. There are around one hundred altogether; the first, written in July 1935, is from a landlord discussing potential rental of a beach cottage ($1 a day, 50 cents extra for electricity). The last is a xeroxed Christmas letter, dated December 1988. The authors are many, the recipients mainly a few members of what looks like two different but related families. Eventually, toward the end of the afternoon, and with a notebook on which I scratched drafts of family trees, I parsed out the relationships and moves — not to mention the handwriting! — that made up their story. Part of their story. It was surprisingly difficult to figure out who was who, actually. Several people used nicknames or middle names, and a whole group of letters was signed "Mother" or "Sis." I read probably twenty letters from Sis, and saw her referred to as "Sis" by her mother another fifty times, before I figured out from one letter only that her real name was Clara. I believe it was she who lived at the house of the estate sale, since some time in the '50s.

The letters were essentially broken into two groups — the first group, from about 1941to 1952, is mostly letters to one family, many from a young man named Ray who writes to his parents in Portland (his mother, I ultimately deduced, was Clara's mother's sister). They start in the spring of 1941, when he is a freshman at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Though he writes again a couple of times while in army training, there are no letters from him while he is overseas; it isn't until he returns to the University of Oregon in 1946 that he writes again to his parents. This first letter, from April, 1941, is a giddy scramble of happiness as he excitedly tells his parents about a visit from some of his Portland friends. It is particularly poignant as it is the only one written before the war:

"Dear Mother and Dad,
     "Boy, and how are you. I am in a very happy mood with reason to be. Guess what! I had the very happy experience of having a whole car load of guests come all the way from Portland, just to see little me. . . . I spent the most enjoyable Sunday that I have spent since I came to college. . . . The crowning glory was the beautiful summery weather that spring term at Oregon is noted for. I was surely glad as anyone of the 6 had never seen the campus before and I wanted them to see it as beautifully as possible, and it most assuredly was. They were so much fun to see. I'm happy in the thought that any of my friends would want to spend 5 hours (both ways) driving in a hot automobile just to see me for a period of 4 hours. No foolin' I'm highly flattered to think that these kids would drive 242 miles just to spend the afternoon with me. Well, maybe they enjoyed the drive.
     "Saturday I got a postcard telling me of their visit. It said, quote, we are coming down to see you . . .
     "Well, I didn't have anything to say to begin with and I have used up an entire page in saying it so please excuse me as I must to bed.
     "As always Your Loving Son,

"P.S. May I again say that I have had few if any happy experiences that could surpass my joy and appreciation of the wonderful time I had today. The only black mark on the entire day was that I only had 2 cents and therefore could not pay any expenses. I owe those kids so much that way in entertainment that I fear I shall never be in a place to return the compliment."

By January 1942, he is at army boot camp in California, and writes to his folks about a dozen times before being shipped out, to where it is not clear.

Then there are about fifteen letters written to Ray three years later, all over a two month period, and all from his fiancee, Mary, as she eagerly awaits his return home from the war. (Interestingly, Ray's initial letters to his parents do not mention her at all; it is unclear where they met, though they were both from Portland.) Mary begins writing to him at the end of August, 1945, from Lawrence, Kansas, where she works at a plant. Her letters — voluminous and articulate onionskin stacks written in her fast, sketchy hand (very unlike his careful, loopy script) are a remarkable collection of everything from the businesslike and prosaic working out of details (where will they get married, should she take the child-welfare job she's been offered in Eugene while she waits for him to get back, will she be able to find a suitable apartment for them, as housing is very tight) — to the aching loneliness of her longing for his touch — to philosophical ponderings about the war. She is an independent, practical, straightforward person in her letters; clearly she is faced with making many decisions alone and she outlines her thinking for him quite distinctly with regard to each one, rebutting his often abstract reasoning (which we hear when she literally quotes it back to him, saying, in effect, "I don't think so; I'm doing it this way; this is why; I trust you'll come around to agree"). For several letters they seem to debate whether, when he returns, they will live in Portland, where he will get a job with the railroad (and where he apparently would prefer her to take several months off to "keep house" and "get used to married life"), or move back to Eugene so that he can finish school while she works full time, having already graduated. Though she outlines her reasons for needing her own fulfilling job quite succinctly, (they do ultimately return to Eugene), and her response to his uncertainty throughout all her letters is forthright and commanding, interestingly she seems to sometimes betray a sort of "homefront" naivete that he (apparently) no longer shares. She writes:

     ". . . You are quite wise to face so clearly the factors which you feel will be involved in your return to civilian life and jobs. I think you underestimate the effect of the pressure which veterans will have in getting what they want, but that is a little beside the point. Along this line, I have never been able to understand why you had so much question as to your ability to qualify under the education clause of the GI Bill of Rights. If America did not keep faith with the laws which she had enacted, there would not have been much point in any of your fighting. . . ."

In other letters, she muses at length on her clothes, dreaming up outfits she imagines might please him, saying at one point that she knows clothes don't really matter but she doesn't think he will mind if she tries to be as pretty as possible. One very lengthy, rather dreamy letter that I love is written on her train trip from Kansas back to Portland around September 6, 1945. I've ridden this route many times myself, and I can picture her writing this, dreaming of the simple things that one longs for most when away from one's love, filling the thirty or so hours it must have taken with musings — many of her previous letters talk about not really having enough time to write (though she does write every other day or so) so it must have been luxury to sit and "talk" to him at length during that long trip, a trip that would ultimately end with their reunion, and marriage. After much discussion of "showers" (a euphemism they seem to use to discuss, politely, sex), she uses the segue to talk literally though still, somehow, quite provocatively, I think:

     ". . . Perhaps in Oregon, where climatic conditions are more favorable, I will not be so obvious, but I always feel dirty after a day's work. I used to feel pretty drippy when you called for me at the office in Lawrence. Besides if I'm going to be on a fairly heavy schedule, a shower and change of clothes is most refreshing. Thus I'd like to be able to get home and get this done before hubby arrives. It's really not important if you don't mind kissing a dirty face. Anyway, Ruth said I was a pretty speedy cook, so I shouldn't hold supper up too much.
     "Incidentally, you will find that for the most part I like to be dressed — meaning I may wear shorts and halter if it's hot, but I shall not dash about in my slip. Certainly work mornings I would dress before breakfast. Sunday may be a different affair, since I'd like to add fruit juice or coffee to your plan of going back to bed. Maybe we'd both want to have the remainder of our breakfast on a tray in the living room. In which case maybe we could both wear robes. I wonder if you have thought of what you would like me to wear evenings we planned to spend at home before the fireplace. I don't have any quilted lounging pajamas, but they would be warm for sitting on the floor and soft to the touch. There will be a lot of these evenings and I'd like to have your point of view. In line with this, I do hope you like popcorn because it makes a good combination with a fireplace and companionship. . . ."

Lump in throat, once again, and I've read it three times now.

In the same letter she explains her reasons for wanting a charge account at Meier & Frank ("occasionally, sales at M&F result in real savings in needed items. It is an advantage to have an acct. then for this reason. Suppose we want to send a gift to someone. M&F would wrap and deliver. It's a little impersonal but would be an advantage in a pinch. I'm not saying this is a must, but I do think it's worth considering"). She also pushes heartily for an account at the grocery store, for the milk to be delivered, and concludes, "Also, if possible, I'd like the luxury of a telephone." Interestingly, in many of Ray's later letters to his parents from school it's clear he is studying business, and knowledgeably discusses the markets; in many of Mary's letters to Ray she frets over her debt.

Surprisingly, given the fairly genial tenor of Ray's early letters to his parents, it was strange to hear their discussions about his not wanting their parents at their wedding, which Mary frenetically arranges for the day of his return. At some point, she encourages him to have a more "mature attitude" and allow their parents and a couple of close friends access to their ceremony, which she schedules at an Episcopal chapel downtown, though neither or them shares that faith, and she admits she is nervous that the minister might balk because she is not baptized. She is surprisingly unromantic about their wedding plans; it's amazing to me that they are desperate to get married the actual day of his return. Throughout the letters there is also reference to a private ceremony to they've arranged to have occur between the two of them the night of the wedding, and she searches for a place with a view for them to go to. She concludes that there are no buildings tall enough in Portland to provide the setting for what they have planned, and suggests the Columbia Gorge Hotel. She winds up leaving her parents' home in Portland after a month and going to Eugene on October 5, 1945, to start the job that's being held for her, and to wait for Ray — there seem to be many delays in his return — and the last letter is really just a note forwarding him Mary's address: "Son grab a cab and come out if you have time. I'll pay the cabbie both ways. Lots love, Mother."

No letter follows this until July of 1946, when Ray, now married, writes to his parents again from the library at the University of Oregon. Notes that follow, always addressed to his parents, come both from Mary and Ray but they are short, and usually thank-you notes for something that has been received. One particularly poignant one is the second to last, from December, 1946, which rattles along with the usual, vaguely shallow chit-chat about school; but this same envelope also includes a separate note from Ray to his mother, discussing his knowledge of his father's illness, and encouraging her not to become distressed. The next and second-to-last letter from Ray is addressed to his mother alone, in July of 1947, and explains that Mary is pregnant. In April of 1948 there follows a strangely comical letter written from the perspective of Mary and Ray's then-two-month-old twins. Lastly, in February, 1951, there is a long letter to his mother outlining the furniture arrangements in their new house in Sweet Home, Oregon.

The second group (remember Clara?) I'll save for tomorrow. It's 10 p.m. I'm completely exhausted but I had to write it down before I lost track of what I was thinking. I've already decided I won't be keeping these letters. I wish you could see them in real life, too. Okay, gotta go to bed.


Around 100 letters? No wonder your head is spinning!

Great detective work, Nancy Drew! That would be thrilling to come to the conclusion that Sis was Clara. Hurrah for that one key letter.

You studied Ray and Mary's very clever of you!

What an extraordinary opportunity for you to hear from Mary's own hand what married life was likely to be for a woman in those days. It seems to me that you get more of a *feel* of it than you would get from the history books. And all because they were separated by war.

Her letters must have meant so much to him, with the promise of homey comfort and a feminine touch ...a far cry from what he must've been going through in the war.

.....sigh.....and here we are writing our own letters in a different form, to a community of friends that would have our grandmothers shaking their heads in confusion.

Different times....

Thanks for sharing your wonderful discovery with us :)

I am so glad you have those, thank you for sharing them with us - what an incredible insight into a different time

Sounds like quite the fascinating read! Thanks for sharing what you've discovered. :)

What an amazing discovery. You tell their story in such a lovely manner. It must be have been magical to stumble into someone else's life, and from so long ago, like this. Why won't you be keeping the letters?

Thank you so much for sharing the story in these letters. It sounds fascinating! Why won't you be keeping them? And what will you do with them if you won't keep them.

Do you think it would be at all possible to find any of the authors or those who recieved the letters?

Wow - here I sit half a world away, reading the letters from half a century ago - and I want to hear what happens/happened next. Thanks for sharing them - really lovely. I am interested as to why you won't keep them - imagine passing them on to another generation....maybe some local museum might be interesting for the local history achives.

Thank-you so much for sharing these with us. Beautiful, really moving.

I was wondering what you are going to do with them too.

I loved how Mary could think through and detail romantic scenarios, clothing choices. We all could use a little more reflection and deliberation in our lives. It makes me want to write my husband a love letter...

Very poignant.What will happen to the letters then?

Thank you for sharing these, I don't usually comment but I wanted to let you know how absorbing I found this. Looking forward to hearing more ...

Very interesting. What are you going to do with them? Sounds like there could be a book in there somewhere. Quite a look into another time. Can't wait for the next installment.

wow - thank you for that! i'm impressed that you spent that much time sorting and figuring out the 'plot' of those letters! my dad made books of my grandfather's letters home during WWII for all of the grandkids and i love reading it - how different life was like then!
clara is funny - so preoccupied about clothes, but her letters sound so formal!
can't wait for the next installment!

I can totally relate to your excitment over these letters. I have my own grandma and grandpa's letters when they were dating and she was working as a nanny in Long Island waiting for my grandpa to come back from the war and get married in Upstate NY. It really brought me closer to them and understood another side to the grandparents I knew.
On the other hand I have around 50 or so handwritten poetry books my mother wrote in high school and throughout her 20's. They are one of my prized possessions and will give them to my daughter when she gets older.
It's too bad in this world of email that people don't write letters more often. What a beautiful piece of yourself to give to someone.

*I can't wait to read the rest of your story!

Wow, those are amazing! I'm sad that none of their family members felt like preserving them anymore, but I'm thankful you were able to share them with us. What a great story.

Just chiming in to say thanks for sharing. I am loving this little window into the past you've given us, my how things have changed today!

What a beautiful story - looking forward to more. It's one of those things you don't want to end - you want to know how everything turned out for all of them now that you've had this little peek into their lives. What a treasure - thanks for piecing it together and sharing.

This is so fascinating. Thank you for sharing them.

Truly amazing and overwhelming! Alicia, you are clearly an archivist and historian at heart.

What I really love about old correspondence is how poetic and detailed it often was. Living in a world of "C U soon" and "OMG" and the like, it's such a nice reminder to slow down and enjoy the beauty of language.

I wish I could put my hands on the information right now, but there was an organization that was collecting war-time letters (WWII). I'll let you know if I can find it.
I have a trunk of letters that my grandmother saved -- all of the letters my own father wrote home during his years in the service. It is my hope to include them in a book I've been working on. They are notable as much for what they do not say (could not say) as for what is written. So much of them are written in vague references to events that could not be written of with directness. I have to draw some pretty strong conclusions about what was really happening.

oh my goodness alicia, this is so wonderful! thank you for sharing this with us and taking all the time to sort this story out. i have to do a lot of archival research for my job and i know how easy it is to get sucked into a very specific story of the past. i have a feeling ray and mary will stay in your thoughts for many many years.

This makes me want to write letters and mail them to my friends and family. So much of our correspondance is now e-mail and of course none of that is saved. It will be a shame not to document life in the forms of letters.
I pulled out my old copy of Alexandra Stoddards "Gift of A Letter" and am re-reading it.

WOW....wouldn't it be amazing if you could find a family member on a genealogy web sharing site to give these to. Amazing. I would love to find something like that about one of my ancestors. Good for you, saving them from the recycle bin!

Dear Alicia, you write so well. Have you considered these letters as inspiration for writing your first novel? I think you'd do great.

alicia, your telling of their story is so beautiful. a passion of mine is genealogy and i would give my right leg to have letters like that from my family - even of a distant relative. i suspect that you will be finding a good home for them, either local genealogical societies or the family. it is amazing how people you have never met can get into your head and stay, isn't it?

Alicia, I'm so excited to hear the stories from your letters. This kind of thing is "right up my alley" and like another writer says, something I'd like to find of my own family. As I'm reading your post, I'm following along in my head the greatest images as if from a movie! I can not wait to see what happens with Clara. It makes me very sad to think that there was no family member who wanted this, their own family history. Thanks again!

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at