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Letter Writing: Found Letters

Learning about love and the tenderness of difficult times from letters written long ago.

In 1978, my husband and I took bad advice and bought the house next door. My only pleasant memory of this difficult experience was a box of letters we found in the old house. They were written 85 years earlier by a young couple much like ourselves. Though we had never met the couple, we knew their tender love story by the time we reached the bottom of the box.

The letter writers were unable to see each other because “a great distance” – about 15 miles – and mountains of snow separated them. For the young man, the letters and a single photograph were filaments of hope for a better time. I still remember his words: “I keep your photo in a prominent place. I receive quite agreeable comments from all who see it. I am hopeful that weather will allow me to call on you soon.”

I was jealous of the paper love shared by a young couple in another time.

Several years later, we found another set of letters, this time at an auction. I don’t remember what we bought, but with it came a box of miscellaneous things. At the bottom, we found a bundle of letters. In one, an Oklahoma woman described in detail small bits of precious food that kept a young family alive and expressed hope for a time when they might join family members in more prosperous Iowa. The dust had been blowing for weeks, she added, and just the previous day, their last chicken blew away. Though we laughed at the image this conjured up, we knew we had found another connection to a cruel, yet tender, time.

When both my parents passed away, I had the task of closing down the family home in Ottumwa, Iowa. After the last kitchen utensil was sold at a yard sale, a box of letters remained—the only evidence that Dorothy and Rex met at a dance in 1934, fell in love, married and were separated by World War II. Their war letters expressed hope for peace and a future together.

Letters are often fragile conveyors of hope for the future—but in retrospect, the letter-writing years are the truly memorable ones. In time, only words on paper remain, but their messages remind us that these are the good old days.

The AARP Bulletin's "What I Really Know" column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit short personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Kristi Paxton is a reader from Cedar Falls, Iowa.

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