My father was a prolific correspondent as a college student in the 1930’s. Remarkably enough, his letters both to and from his parents survived all of these decades and are now in the archives at Swarthmore College. My favorite exchange concerned a night when my dad and his roommate, having finished their homework, decided to run laps around the track. Upon returning to their dorm around midnight, they each downed a pint of cold milk. My grandmother took exception to this frolic and wrote that, if he felt compelled to repeat it, at least he should warm the milk first.
There are other exchanges, including some after college, that reveal more of family history than I wanted to know. That my grandfather, an avowed pacifist, occasionally berated and beat his children was startling information. It stunned me that my grandmother deemed my father dead, as she wrote in response to the news that he had married my mother, a Catholic. (She later reconciled herself to this union, evidently to claim her grandchildren, and my father was resurrected.) These and other revelations clash with images and relationships my grandparents forged with me and my brothers as we grew up.
My grandmother, born in France en route from Russia to America, graduated from Hunter College and became a school teacher. My memories of her date largely to her retirement years, though I dimly recollect being a visitor to her class one day. I don’t know how I knew she loved me – I never remember her hugging or kissing me – but I believe she did. When I visited their apartment on York Avenue in Manhattan as a very little girl, she would have her cleaning lady wash and iron my dress. This offended my mother deeply, I later learned, but to me it was simply odd. She also braided my hair when it grew long, although I preferred a pony tail. I remember her taking me to Saks for an outfit, complete with commentary that it was not like the kind of stores my mother went to. I understood a slight when I heard one, and felt confused and wounded for my mother’s sake. Grandma also made it clear that her taste for opera was of a higher order than my mother’s taste for musicals.
I had put these experiences together with two stories told by my parents when I was adult, and concluded long before I read her letters that she was a both a snob and a tough cookie, controlling her family like a classroom of students. The story told by my father concerned the first suit he bought for himself when he was 20 – his mother was furious that he had done this without her and sneered at his choice. He was 28 and newly married at the time of the second story. He and my mother sent my grandmother a bouquet of flowers for Thanksgiving. It was delivered to York Avenue from Queens at what was surely great expense. My grandmother refused the flowers and had them sent back to my parents’ home. She knew how to make her point.
My grandfather was a machinist, an immigrant from Hungary with a heavy accent and no high school diploma. He disdained his father for studying as a Torah scholar rather than working with his hands, and blamed him for his mother’s death. Grandfather worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and also acquired a couple of brownstones in Manhattan, that enabled him to buy property in what is now a pricey section of Westchester County. At the time, however, his land was down the road from a pig farm that my brothers and I visited as children, climbing on the plank fences to see the piglets in the mud. My 16th birthday party was held at Grandfather’s farm – although my grandmother lived there too, it was always known as Grandfather’s. He took us apple picking at an abandoned orchard that bordered his land, admonishing us that “you don’t eat apples if you don’t pick apples.”
I don’t remember much else about my grandfather until after his wife’s death when he began baking Hungarian delicacies and lived full time on the farm. He lived to see three of his great grandchildren, and said he thought they were “fine” children, though he had no notion of how to play with them. “Pull your sister’s hair,” he instructed my small son one Sunday when we visited.
My grandfather was not a frequent correspondent – though there is one letter to my father as a freshman, listing all the relatives he should write to. (My father responded in exasperation that his letters home could be shared, but he didn’t have time to write to everyone individually.) His son was on his way into a world unknown to him. He remained an ardent trade unionist and devotee of Eric Hoffer, though he wept – with pride, I’ll presume – when his son was honored for his philanthropy. In my mind, he is a man of principle, unafraid. A man who worked hard physically all his life, loved his land, and sent a telegram that saved his eight siblings from the Nazis. A man who rose from his seat during a newsreel to denounce Hitler.
Some of this history is recorded in the archived letters, some of it only in my mind. Great gaps in both leave unexplored substantial parts of the lives of my father and his family, but the letters are the only hard evidence that purports to tell their stories. What kind of human constructs will researchers make of these letters? So much of the life of a man or woman is lived undocumented. Perhaps it is unfair to archive letters, preserving only the parts of a life that are on paper. What is recorded, after all, is what the writer wanted someone to know at the time. While they often reveal a mindset, relying on letters to reflect the character of the whole person invites distortions. Letters do not reveal what was omitted, intentionally or otherwise, or the relative importance of what was disclosed and what wasn’t.
Letters written to parents and spouses pose a particular trap: knowing what the recipient hopes to hear, the letter writer often provides reassurance or validation. It may be true but it may not be the whole truth, and the rest of the story might cast the writer in a very different light. Letters are also time-sensitive. They freeze a thought, though the writer’s thinking continues to evolve. They don’t purport to do more than that, even if they confess an enduring intent. It is nevertheless tempting to the reader to ascribe a defining character to them, a permanence of attitude that can’t be fairly deduced without other and later corroboration.
I am curious to see what a historian makes of this correspondence, if, indeed, it is read. Whether I will recognize as my father and grandparents the people who emerge from that reading remains to be seen some day.