Letters from the South Pacific

“I think that I too have lived that day that I returned from Dartmouth over a thousand times…the thought of seeing you again and trying to imagine what it will be like is one of my favorite pastimes. I am afraid my imagination can’t do it justice.

With all my love,

Harlow”

Is this an excerpt from the latest Nicholas Sparks novel? No. It’s an excerpt from the latest letter written by my grandfather Harlow to my grandmother Billie over 70 years ago.

I fold the letter and, careful not to tear the delicate paper, place it back inside its original envelope. I save the document on my computer as “February 22, 1943” in the folder titled “Love Letters.” I still have hundreds of letters left to read.

My grandparents were a part of the golden era of America, the greatest generation. My grandfather was born in 1917, the youngest of four brothers, in Birmingham, Alabama. My grandmother was born several years after him. They met in high school. They fell in love and were married for over 50 years. They were amazing people, soft and wonderful, gave me whole milk instead of skim milk, served me ice cream with Kahlua, and always had a new Calvin and Hobbes compilation waiting for me when I came to visit. I saw them as just that, two old, wrinkly people who I preferred to my parents when it came to the act of babysitting. I didn’t see them for who they really were-two amazing and complex souls with an American romance rivaling any modern novel attempting to tell the tale of love and war.

My grandfather died when I was twelve and when my grandmother passed away three years ago, many of their beautiful stories died along with her. But when my mother and uncle were packing up her house and going through her things for the estate sale, they found a trove of little paper treasures. Stored in my grandmother’s cedar chest were hundreds upon hundreds of love letters, all in US Air Mail envelopes dating 1943-1945 when my grandfather was stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.

I always knew the letters had existed. My mother had spoken about them and how she used to look through the chest when she was a young girl, but I personally had never seen the letters. Because of this, for a long time I romanticized the letters in my head. I thought through the possible correspondences that could have taken place and imagined a scenario that pretty much mimicked the plotline of The Notebook down to the rowboat and the blue dress. The unsupportive parents, the forced separation, the other man, the tortured love and the unanswered letters all fueled by my notion that for love to be true, two people must prove it by overcoming great obstacles.

Last year, my mother finally gave me permission to read their letters. I had graduated from college and was moving to Alabama, the state in which my grandparents had grown up. I brought the letters with me in the hopes that they would inspire some great, romantic novel to emerge from my otherwise uninspired brain, and with the marginal hope that being in the state where their love originated would also bring about further inspiration.

As I read through the letters, I discovered something I initially found disappointing.  My grandparents were depressingly normal. The reality is that there was no great drama. Not every letter was a soliloquy of devotion. They spoke of normal, day-to-day things. He told her whatever he could about his time in the “Friendly Islands”, otherwise known as Tonga, that would pass the censors. Of course, that included telling her his location, so he had to say, “I can’t tell you where I am stationed now, but the people here are very friendly.” He asked her about her health, how their friends were, how his mother was, and how work was for her at the factory.

Some of the hundreds of love letters sent from my grandfather, Harlow, to my grandmother, Billie, during World War II.

Some of the hundreds of love letters sent from my grandfather, Harlow, to my grandmother, Billie, during World War II.

Did she receive that grass skirt he sent?  Had she really gained all that weight she claimed she had in her last letter? If so, he responded, he was sure she was still the “prettiest and sweetest wife in the world.” I discovered that my grandfather got a lot of mileage out of the words “pretty” and “sweet.” Many of the letters I have read so far are surprisingly cavalier, trying, I suppose, to create a sense of normalcy when faced with war and separation.

Even with the lack of drama in the writing, I know their lives weren’t starved for emotional turmoil. I still cannot imagine the fear they both must have held in their hearts. Unwillingly separated for three years, they maintained daily correspondence as made very clear by the boxes upon boxes of letters sitting next to me as I write this. They were just two kids who really loved each other. Their struggle was their separation and the very real possibility of never seeing each other again.

Of the hundreds of letters from my grandfather that my grandmother saved, he was only able to save three that he received from her. He writes in one of the letters to her that he “wore out” several of the letters she had sent him from reading them too many times. I felt very lucky, therefore, to have found a small handful of letters written by her.  In one letter she wrote the word love at least thirty times. Over and over again, “I love you, I love you, I love you so much, darling.” She was charming and vulnerable. She also used his sign off (their sign off, I suppose),  “Be sweet darling, and please don’t forget that I love you more than anything in the whole world.” While it may not be the most eloquent, it is pure, undressed, and true. She didn’t have to say anything else. She didn’t need a dramatic edge, and she didn’t have to talk about the universe, the cosmos, or even time and distance. She just had to tell him that she loved him, as if he would ever forget. But that was enough.

“Billie, please don’t ever forget that I think you are the sweetest wife in the world and I love you more than anything. I think that I too have lived that day that I returned from Dartmouth over a thousand times. I think that seeing you walk through those gates was the most wonderful sight I have ever seen. The thought of seeing you again and trying to imagine what it will be like is one of my favorite pastimes. I am afraid my imagination can’t do it justice.

With all my love,

Harlow”

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