Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
In 1988, my father shared with me some of the letters that Francis Bailey wrote to his brother–my great-grandfather–from 1863 to 1899. My reaction? it would be incredibly cool to research the events to which Francis referred and figure out the whole story. Twelve years later, I discovered more raw material that my great-grandfather had saved and began my quest, awed by the fact that my grandfather had preserved the collection when his father died in 1900. Then, when he died in late 1942, my grandmother preserved the collection. After she died in 1963, my father inherited the collection–and finally began looking at the papers twenty-five years later.
History repeats itself. As I have previously posted, my father, too, saved diaries and hundreds of letters, spanning the years 1928-1975. When he died in January 1994, I knew that my sister had all his papers. But it was only nine months ago–eighteen years after he died–that I began to study this archive.
Now the letters are organized . Before email and texting, before Skype and unlimited long distance phone calls, people used snail-mail to keep in touch. Before television, they had time for thinking and writing. In addition to the four spiral notebook diaries from West Point (1936-1938), my father saved letters from his parents, sister, and brother. He also saved both sides of the correspondence between him and my mother from December 1940–when it appears that their relationship became “serious”–until they married on Dec. 28, 1941, three weeks after Pearl Harbor. Literary references, similar to but even more oblique than those in his diaries, appear frequently in the letters. It seems that my father wanted to depict himself as the protagonist of a late 19th century Russian novel.
My father was sent to Guam in March 1945, leaving me and my pregnant mother with her mother. This separation lasted fifteen seemingly interminable months. They numbered their letters. She saved only three of his 368 letters. He saved all 241 of hers–as well as letters from his sister, his mother, and my mother’s mother. It’s entertaining to read descriptions of me as a three-year-old; but I am much more interested in the deeper, more convoluted layers hinted at in these hundreds of thousands of words.
Why do I write? Hmmm…