My grandmother Alice left a handwritten note of instruction that was unambiguous: “After my death, please destroy these letters unread – AGJ.”
Instead, I spent the months of pandemic isolation transcribing them.
The letters came into my possession, along with boxes of unlabeled family photos, yellowed obituaries, and other family flotsam, after the death of Alice’s husband, my grandfather George, in 1995. They aged on a shelf in my laundry closet, just one of many legacies for which I wasn’t sure I was grateful.
The novel coronavirus changed my relationship to those legacies like it changed everything else. At age 64 and asthmatic, I didn’t like my odds if I were to contract the virus. Assuming that my three daughters would have enough to do if I died, did I want to leave boxes of unresolved issues for them in every corner of my house? I did not.
Over the COVID summer of 2020, I gradually sorted through the accumulated family trappings. The silk bonnet and dress belonging to my grandfather’s badass Quaker grandmother were welcomed by a historical collection in Pennsylvania. The family Bible went. In brutal fashion, I triaged a stack of ancient photo albums filled with snaps of people I did not know or care about. I kept about ten pictures and gave the rest to my oldest daughter’s creative reuse center in Chicago, for anonymous sale.
That left the letters. The historical collection that took my great-great-grandmother’s black silk dress wanted those as well. But I found I couldn’t hand them over unread—let alone destroy them—despite what Alice professed to want.
Letters as a form of communication are today nearly as obsolete as the clay tablet and the carrier pigeon. Many people under the age of 35 have never written or received a physical letter, handwritten or hand-typed and mailed with a stamp. Logically, therefore, my grandparents’ letters are a scarce commodity that is only becoming scarcer.
Besides, I told myself, if Alice had really wanted the letters destroyed, she had over fifty years of marriage in which to do it herself. My grandfather having been a dealer in fireplaces, there was no shortage of blazes into which she could have thrown the letters. But she did not. At any rate, that’s what I told myself as I began to read and then to transcribe.
In the beginning of the letters—1921—Alice was a wealthy schoolgirl from Manhattan; by the end—the last item is dated 1978—she was a grandmother nearing the end of her life. In between I watched her grow. She begins as a flirtatious, narcissistic girl, who pouted and teased by means of capital letters, underlines, and multiple exclamation points: “I know you won’t believe me when I tell you this,” she writes from Smith College in October 1924, “it’s almost unbelievable! – but it did actually happen [three underlines]!–A letter came from one George Jackson!!!!!!” By the time the two of them were married in 1928, she had matured into a playful, passionate woman who was wildly in love with her husband-to-be, a Quaker from Brooklyn.
Alice and George kept me company over the months of isolation. As I sat in my work room week after week, I read about the sunburn she got when her parents took her to Bermuda to get her away from George. I read about George’s bad dream in which a rival from Princeton had displaced him. I read about the French hotel in which a gigantic wardrobe fell over on Alice’s father (miraculously no one hurt). (How does that even happen?) I admired George’s clever ploy in ordering two subscriptions to the New York Theatre Guild season of 1926–27 (flyer enclosed for Alice’s perusal), so that they could see one another without her parents knowing about it.
George matured to me as truly exceptional lover, at least by today’s standards of the ghosting break-up and FWB emotional remoteness. He was reliable, self-deprecating, and funny. January 5, 1926: “Dear Alice, I have just realized the true mercy of selecting sunrise for hangings, electrocutions, etc. Death holds no terrors and life no hope for me at this time of day; who would pass up the bargain of an eternity of sleep in return for a short dance on the end of a rope; if the proposal were made at 6:20 of a January morning.” He was also ardent and unashamed of his runaway feelings: “Last night after writing you I couldn’t get to sleep for hours, my heart thumped so,” he writes in 1927, when she has been taken to Bermuda once again. “It has been doing so all day and now is even worse. Only you can help it, by letting it beat against yours.”
Like every classic romance, their tale was riveting even when one knew the outcome (e.g. me). In vicarious distress, I lived through their crisis of October 1927. Marriage had been in the air, though Alice’s parents put off setting a date. Then George apparently left an indiscreet letter of hers where her parents found it. A plain envelope among the papers was stuffed with four long letters from George, written between the 17th and the 23rd of that dramatic month, tracing his ordeal. The letters start off defiantly: “Darlingest, To write to you without restraint is an idea that thrills me almost as much as the thought of loving you without restraint. To be alone in our own room and in our own bed, with no one to be afraid of . . .” By mid-week, doubts have set in: “It has been the most terrible week of my life,” he writes, “and I am not forgetting the awful weeks when my brother and sister died. To feel the full responsibility for the suffering which your father and mother and particularly you were experiencing was awful enough, but to be told by you in a hard bitter voice that you must take two weeks to think over whether we should continue to see each other was what made every minute of those long days seem to be the last I could bear.”
Then Alice rebelled against her parents. Within a week, she and George were writing each other about furniture and apartments. An actual wedding date was set. Two years later, my mother was born.
In the process of transcription, which took far longer than I had anticipated, I learned a lot about the 1920s in New York. The filthy air that motivated my great-grandparents to send Alice to school in the suburbs. The jazz-dance competitions in Brooklyn ballrooms. The breathtakingly reliable train system that ran through our country, and a similarly reliable postal service (the two were not unconnected). Slang words like “flivver,” “finner,”and “piggly wiggly.” Not a single mention of radio. Nobody was “cool”; hearts were opened, winner take all.
But it was the companionship of these two lively, adoring young people, whom I had only known as elders, that made the months of quarantine labor worthwhile. In preserving, then reading, then transcribing their letters, I had saved their young lives, not only for myself but for others. Toward the end, with just a few undated scraps left to deal with, I found myself slowing down, savoring their company, even a bit jealous of their crazy passion for one another and their willingness to express it without self-consciousness. Alice to George, April 1927: “To kiss you, and to have your arms around me – I get all fuzzy inside thinking about it, and how happy it will make me.”
But at last it was done. I boxed up the letters, along with a thumb-drive containing my transcriptions. Nearly 100,000 words of loneliness, longing, and love are now in an archive, where people in generations not yet born will find layers of nuance in them that were invisible to me, as they likely were to Alice and George.
I miss them: Alice’s caustic asides, George’s wry humor, the sheer electric power of their love for each other, expressed over and over.
Alice, I did not destroy these letters unread. Sorry, not sorry.
Robin Hazard Ray
Robin Hazard Ray is a freelance writer, crime-fiction author, and editor. Formerly a journalist, she wrote for the Boston Herald, MIT News, and the ephemeral Library of Congress magazine Civilization. She gives tours at Boston’s historic Mount Auburn Cemetery, research for which often takes her into the rich archives of the city. She lives in Somerville, MA, with her husband and two black cats.