By Donald Gates
Have you ever wished that you knew more about your grandparents or great-grandparents and their life experiences? Perhaps you have some heirlooms that you dearly treasure. You may have researched ancestry sites to develop a family tree in order to identify relationships that otherwise would be unknown to you. You may have even have submitted DNA in order to find how your genetic makeup correlates to various ethnic groups and geographic regions. However these techniques, as important as they are as ancestry tools, fail to inform us of the personal nature of our fore-bearers – their personality, loves, fears, ambitions; those characteristics which go beyond descriptive statistics. These techniques in no way can tell us the essence- the substance of the person.
Now what if in your search for ancestry information, you discovered a box containing the diary of your grandmother! You begin reading that diary and the personality of grandma begins to unfold. Day by day, she tells you about her life and you come to know the essence of this person. You may have the family tree of which grandma is a part but now you know grandma and all the personal aspects of her life, much of which, she probably never shared with anyone. How exciting it is to be able to read about the life of a relative in that person’s own handwriting! What a gift that old diary would be to your family history!
I now want to share a story about a similar gift I recently received. It is a blessed gift to be treasured as long as I live and hopefully become a treasured part of family history.
My Father-in-Law Bill Tanner passed away in April at the age of 101. My two children, Greg and Ginger, wanted to put the property they had inherited up for sale and began to collect the items they wanted to keep and that to donate to charity groups. While cleaning out the garage storeroom, under a pile of junk, they discovered an old cedar chest. They opened the chest and were almost overcome with the acrid smell of mothballs. As they inspected the contents of the chest it became apparent that the original purpose of the chest was my wife Lenda’s Hope Chest (young girls back in the day had those things). The left third of the chest contained picture albums, school projects dating back to the second grade, notebooks describing events such as school and church parties and, later, dates with boyfriends. In the middle third of the chest were two of my woolen Army uniform jackets, the Eisenhower type, (the reason for the mothballs) and my Army baseball uniform.
The right third of the chest contained the greatest gift I could wish for! That section contained all of the love letters Lenda and I exchanged over the year we were separated while she was attending the Mississippi University for Women and I at Hinds Junior College. I haven’t counted them yet but there are well over a hundred. Sometimes she wrote two a day. I have not read all of them yet because I limit myself to one a day, wanting to savor the joy of those memories. I find myself alternating between laughing out loud and tearing up as Lenda relates her college experiences and her plans for our future together. Oh, what joy these letters have brought me!
Lenda enrolled for the Fall semester of 1957 and we became engaged a few months later. Our wedding was planned for the following September and we would both transfer to the University of Southern Mississippi for the 1958 Fall Semester. Her letters began to include plans for our wedding and financial plans for the move to Hattiesburg.
We both knew that finances were going to be difficult with both of us going to school on a limited budget. My GI Bill would be increased to $160 a month after we married and I had found a job at a drug store right across from the campus paying 40 cents an hour (Wow!). I qualified for a student work scholarship, which would help with tuition. Being a true home economics major, Lenda started thinking about a budget. She wrote in one of her letters, “What if Papa decides not to pay my tuition?” When I asked her Dad for permission to marry his daughter (another customary thing back in the day) he said, “Okay, but I want you to know that when you marry, she is yours!” He wasn’t disowning Lenda, but telling me that he didn’t intend to support us.
We didn’t want to delay the beginning of our life together and felt with careful budgeting, we could make it. So Lenda worked on our budget and included it in one of her letters, asking me if I thought it was feasible. Of course I did! I wanted to get married! It was a well thought out budget, including just about every category one could think of. After paying for all the necessities, we would have $25 left to splurge! We were young, motivated and deeply in love. We could do it! A P.S. at the end of the letter stated, “Of course if I get pregnant, this budget is shot!”
And of course she did- right away! I shall never forget the day she found out that she was pregnant. We were sitting on the side of the bed and she was worried about getting pregnant so early in our marriage and what it would mean to our education plans. I remember this as if it was yesterday. I put my arm around her shoulders, kissed her on the forehead and said, “Don’t worry Darling. We will make it and this baby will bring us happiness in our old age.” That baby, Ginger and later Greg, did bring us happiness for 46 wonderful years up to Lenda’s passing in 2004 and continues to bring joy to my life.
Lenda and I often relived those early years of courtship and marriage and rejoiced in knowing that the struggles we had to overcome only brought us closer together and enhanced the love we shared for all those wonderful years of our marriage. Lenda is gone but I feel her presence as I read these old letters that rekindle all those long ago happy memories of youthful love. They are truly a legacy of love and I intend to preserve them for future generations of this family so that those who come later may read them and come to understand the true essence of a wonderful love affair.