A bookseller is always either making decisions or postponing them.
About five years ago I attended an auction and acquired a station wagon load of books and ephemera. This would not be an auction that would fade from memory. I bought someone else’s memories and I still have some of them.
Even before I drove down the driveway, I acquired another memory that also won’t go away. I stuffed my little wagon and could not fit it all in. I had to make decisions about what to leave behind. I sorted and resorted then told the auctioneer I had to abandon six boxes. The staff was nearly ready to leave, rain was starting, and I made the mistake of looking out the side view mirror to see a helper heave the boxes in a dumpster. This auction was held in the ‘suburbs of a small town.’ How would any salvager know to look there? If found and I hadn’t sorted carefully, someone else could profit or enjoy. But, this probably wasn’t a road frequented by curious dumpster-peekers and the approaching clouds were black. Those rejects weren’t even going to make it to the dump. It was very hard on a recycler.
I took all the ephemera. In the following weeks, I started going through the books, then the ephemera with the letters last. I had already learned that the father in the family manufactured a product of relevance and held patents. He must have been important in this town — he was an employer. He was able to travel to Washington, correspond with some politicians, and attend an Inaugural. The town was also home to a very famous American who was not hyped by the auctioneers so I wasn’t expecting anything, but I hoped I would come across something. All I found was an envelope with the famous person’s name on it.
Instead, I became fascinated by a letter from a soldier to a home town girl, a daughter in the family (or the daughter in the family). I read another, then another, then sorted every letter from him to her. There were all kinds of other letters and all were easy to toss. Not his. I saved his. I couldn’t explain my actions.
The time period was in the 1950’s. I knew some of those years well. Crinolines, carefully ironed blouses with little collars, hair close to the head and sometimes held with bobby pins. There was an obsession with the social life of the school and post-graduation theorizing about what was going to happen to everyone and sustained gossip. I shouldn’t have been interested in these letters as I hold turn-of-the century and up through the thirties interests, but there was something about his letters that chronicled his attempts to correspond and the hope he held of winning her interest. He was lovesick. She didn’t seem to return the sickness, but kept writing to him.
I tied the letters together and found an appropriate box.
While I was reading, I started wondering if a publisher might find them interesting. They were one-way letters. There were only hints of what she wrote to him. And no hints of what she said to him while he was home on leave and before the letters started up again when he returned to his base. It appeared there were some not-so-frequent get-togethers while he was home.
I remember the letters were light on news about his military life and more focused on her. Wouldn’t any girl like the attention even if he wasn’t a candidate?
I thought there must be all kinds of little stacks and boxes of letters of so little importance all over the country. Why would a publisher be interested? There was no hero. The damsel wasn’t in distress. But, if I was fascinated, why wouldn’t someone else be?
About the time I was getting ready to move I came across the letters and knew I was going to have to decide if I would bring them along. I thought I’d check the internet to see if either of their names came up. I think I found him living in a larger sized town not that far from his hometown.
I had very little time to devote to the decision, but in the time I did take before the move, I wondered what permissions would be required to attempt to publish them. I thought about camouflage. I wondered whether the dates, names, and the locale could be changed. I somehow knew that changing anything would ruin it. Though this young guy graduated from high school, he must have been off fishing in his head during grammar classes. No one should correct the errors. All the names were just right; no one should substitute any. The circumstances and happenings were just right, no one could improve on the simplicity.
I thought about what might happen if I contacted him for permission. Would he be stunned? Would he stare? Would he be suspicious? Would he remember writing them? Would he be uncomfortable? He would certainly ask me how the heck I got them. He might be silent and I could leave not knowing anything. Would I get stuck listening to stories? Or would I listen and not call it stuck?
I thought about searching her out. I was sure the auctioneer would remember the auction and provide a clue. I could check civic records. Any older person would remember the family, there might even be brothers and sisters around.
I thought about who the letters belonged to? She had owned them, now I owned them.
He only wrote the letters. They were only his words. It was only his heart.
Then I thought, what if he had kept all her letters to him?
Next, I thought what if…what if…she was living in the same larger town…with him? Married for forty plus years?
I thought I would check out all the legalities when I had time. I wasn’t fired up to contact him. I wasn’t fired up to throw them away. I didn’t have time to do any further research. The letters moved with me.
What I will do now is reread all the letters in time and in sequence to see if they still hold appeal.
All I know is that she saved them. Now, for some reason, I’m saving them.
In using the ‘free legal opinions of the internet’, it appears permission is required to publish letters and heirs must be found and contacted if the principals are no longer living.
By: Kathleen Gonzalez firstname.lastname@example.org