From Will, With Love

January 24, 1993|By LINDA DEMERS HUMMEL

When he signed his name at the bottom of the pages, he called himself Will. In these letters, she is called Isabella. Years later they would transform into the "Bill and Is" I recognize as my grandparents' names. But in these letters, when they were young, they went by grander titles.

In these fountain-penned words, there is no hint of his belly protruding over his belt, no inkling of the politically incorrect jokes he would tell around the Sunday dinner table a generation later. No arthritic hip yet, no Great Depression oatmeal for dinner. So much lay ahead for him when, at the bottom, he signed -- Love, Will.

My mother has always been the de facto historian of our family. She has the timing of an annalist, sensing when some archive or another should be handed down, careful that snapshots are marked with dates, that nothing of biographical note ever gets tossed away. My brother owns some photographs and our grandfather's tools. Because I am the writer, more and more I seem to be the keeper of our family's written word.

There was an uncomfortable finality to my being given this particular batch of my grandfather's letters. My mother had been mentioning the small gray box for months, having recently come across it in the safe obscurity of her sock drawer, where it had sat since her father's death a decade ago. They were glorious, she told me, and she couldn't wait to give them to me on her next visit.

I found myself wanting no part of them. The reason for the gift was blatantly practical, nonetheless sad. "You're the last one in our family who remembers him," she said. "After you, these letters won't mean anything."

That was the part I disliked, of being the generation in charge. I don't see myself yet as the organizer of the holidays, or the curator of the family memorabilia or holder of its traditions. Ultimately, it will be a role into which I will be pushed. Even then it will seem premature, at best. Still, I thanked her for the box as I knew I should. And late that night I read them all without stopping, as I knew I would.

Will was an electrician by trade. Certainly, he was no poet. Depending on the reader's bent, his letters are either filled with an agonizing slew of run-on sentences or a breathless, abandoned stream of consciousness. They were written summers while Isabella spent two weeks annually with an elderly aunt in Vermont.

The correspondence begins in 1924, before they were married. In these notes, he chides her about her New England suitors, "his rivals." He is spending listless evenings back in New York City with his twin brother, Herman, working long days and missing her. There is a melancholy in the words that does not sound like him at all.

"I haven't heard from you but once, this afternoon I saw a letter in the box and said to myself, 'O boy, a letter from Isabella,' but it was for Herman. I wish I was there with you, I am very lonesome, being all alone is no fun, I guess you feel the same way."

Many of these browned linen envelopes had been hurriedly ripped open by my grandmother, the edges of the paper dry and ragged now, some of the flaps missing completely. Isabella was, I sense, excited to see them waiting for her.

At first that doesn't seem like her at all. In my memory, her hair was always pinned neatly on top of her head. It was always gray. I never saw her in an outfit that didn't include a skirt below her knees, support stockings and low-heeled black shoes. From years of childhood hugging, I know she was never without an indestructible girdle underneath.

Now I think about the other Isabella, the one Will knew. I begin to see her in these early letters -- the softer, long-haired woman he missed. When two weeks in Vermont was too long to be separated and they wrote to tell each other so.

The pages are a portrait of their everyday life -- gentle reminders to make long-gone deadlines; references to what my grandfather euphemistically refers to as "good times"; promises of their life to come. He is alternately sure he will succeed in this world, then suddenly deflated and sure he will not.

By the last letter in 1929, my grandfather sounds a bit like the man I knew. By now he is the father of a young family, counseling his wife on the car problems she encountered on dirt roads on her trip north. He is more business in these, suggesting she have a local repairman check the distributor points, adding that the cost should be no more than $1.50. He tells her, "I am glad you were able to help those people with the ropes, but please don't do any towing yourself, you could damage the clutch or damage you."

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