Fishing through the myriad of boxes and folders that contain family history, I’ve come upon several letters written to my parents. They bear the dates of 1937 and 1938. At that time my parents had been married less than ten years.
Brown and faded, the letters are written in pencil, as pens were a luxury only afforded by the few. But the three-cent stamps and the post office stamp with date, time, and place are indelible.
The first is from my grandmother who lived a simple life in South Mississippi with her husband, a store keeper. Grandfather Mitchell had built a one-room store across the road from the house and corn mill. So much bartering went on in those days that money seemed to be used for extras, as what Grandmother sent to her daughter, Annie, my mother. At the time my grandparents had two daughters living in the Jackson, Miss. area. Her name was Wilmouth; everyone called her Will.
The short note was written on lined paper, within a 5” x 8 tablet. The kind you bought in a country store. The paper has browned considerably with age. In the 1930’s loose-leaf paper was a thing of dreams. The envelope is dated May, 1938; I doubt this envelope contained the letter at all, since the contents tell a different time:
Dear Annie. Enclosed your will find a check for four dollars. You have it cashed an give will one dollar & Elsie (her daughter) one you keep one give viv a fifty cts Hubert fifty cts [sig] this is your Christmas Presant. Buy any thing you all want. Love, Dad and Mother.
Despite their offspring receiving high school and college educations, these humble folk never had the opportunity past the fourth grade. Just enough to write notes and add and subtract.
The second letter received by my parents was from a couple who had lived in the neighborhood and had moved out west. Only a portion of this letter is repeated, just to inform the reader of life in this California city in August, 1937. This time the letter is on unlined paper from a similar tablet, but also written in pencil.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. W: guess you folks think we’ve forgotten you, but really we’ve been so much on the go since leaving you all. This is a beautiful country. Nothing like it anywhere. We’ve been in this town two weeks, stayed a week in San Francisco. We are 48 miles from there now. This town is surrounded by mountains. With all kinds of orchids growing right up the sides of them (mountains). Four of us drove up Mount Hamilton after dinner and coming back we coasted 19 miles. The top of it is 4200 feet above sea level.
Most of the work here is controlled by the union. It’s a wonderful thing. Snooks (the wife) is making $18 a week and $1 to $1.25 in tips daily. It cost here $5 to join the union and $1.25 a month dues. My pay is $7 per hour for 8 hours, and I paid $25 to join and five dollars a day dues. Grocery stores and markets open at 9 a. m. and close promptly at 6 p.m. --Saturdays, too. We have a swell five room apart. for $35 a month.
This is the home of Edmund Lowe, Fatty Arbuckle, Jackie Cooper, Janet Gaynor and a number of other stars. The population is about 80,000 people. Expenses are not much more than in Jackson. Jobs are not as plentiful as expected but when you do get on you get well paid.
Oh, I forgot to tell you about the desert. There is about 300 miles and hot as fire. We bought ice and dry ice too, and then almost died.
We are going to get us a large Kodak and make some pictures and send some to you. This is just like you see in the Wild West pictures. You sure can enjoy picture shows after you have seen this country. P. S. This town is pronounced San o-zay.
This letter must have set my parents to thinking about their future travels. By 1945 we family of four climbed into a packed Ford station wagon (with real wood panels on the sides, as Ford advertised) and take a similar trip to California following Route 66.
When our daughter, who had lived west for a few years, moved to the Boston area, one of her many letters home reminisced also about California in the 1980s.
California felt more open, long, flat stretches of land against mountains. There seemed to be little in between. I think, though, that it's probably different the more north you go. Outside of San Francisco the weather was hot, dry, windy -- more desert like. It was interesting to see the different flora --the pines, the eucalyptus, fruit trees, berry bushes, flowers, like the pictures in (the magazine) Arizona Highways, only up close, real life."
A note dated May 25, 1947 reminded me of my camping days. It was sent to Mother from the camp leaders before my sister and I departed for a summer session for the second time. It read:
Janet, Susan and I are so happy Vivian and Glenda will be with us at Camp Montreat (NC) again. We can hardly wait for the time to arrive. I will meet the girls at the (train) station Tuesday, June l7 any time after 7 p.m. in Memphis. Te train leaves at 7:40 p.m. We are all thrilled over the special Pullman.
Camping high up in Montreat, NC was a special treat for my sister and me. Mother let us stay the entire two months to escape the hot summers of Mississippi. I was 15 years old and Sis was nine. We never forgot the beauty of the thick woods, steep mountain paths, and the rolling water over rocks near our camp.