The Green Box

On warm summer days, we had tea parties with lemonade and cookies on the front porch of the farmhouse. Our grandmother would pull out the green box where she kept the letters and photos she treasured and select a letter or two to read to us. There were love letters from her first husband, her true love, wrapped in a blue ribbon, along with the letters her oldest son sent home during WWII, and there were letters from her younger brother, her childhood friend, and companion. 

She came from a storytelling family that enjoyed getting together to share memories, mostly true and always humorous. I remember the warmth of their shared memories, although I don’t remember all the stories. When these get-togethers lasted into the night at the cottage on the lake, I struggled to stay awake to hear more, but I usually found myself waking up on the porch or as I was being dragged out of the back seat of the car and up to bed.

Grandmother’s stories were smaller, magical, romantic, and sometimes scary, for the more immediate audience of her grandchildren. As we grew older, we learned that the love letters were from her first husband, my grandfather, her true love who had died in 1945, and not the man we knew as Grampa Fred, a wonderful companion for her and a fabulous grandfather for us, but not the author of the love letters.

Grandmother’s stories were smaller, magical, romantic, and sometimes scary, for the more immediate audience of her grandchildren.

The letters she kept provide a link to her past and reading them today leads to many intriguing insights and questions. In 1916 her younger brother, Uncle Don, writes and asks “How’s French Louis? Oh! We know all about you.” Who was French Louis? Certainly not my grandfather. Uncle Don indicates that she is at Brant Rock in Marshfield, Massachusetts, with her older sister and a Mr. and Mrs. Lambe. One could assume that Mr. and Mrs. Lambe are the parents of ‘French Louis’. They are never mentioned again so if nothing else, they are.

A year later, in the late summer of 1917, he writes “Ok, by the way, you didn’t need to tell me that your name was still Robertson, because I know that your armour is proof against summer amours, that is, in light of past happenings.” Hmm, the romance of 1916 perhaps. This time my grandmother is now visiting a “beautiful seaside resort (highbrow)” in Onset, Massachusetts, with a friend and her friend’s mother. He then mentions that he got a card from my grandfather, a friend of both of theirs, saying “I got a letter from Mac. You must have told him I called him a reprobate for he used it in his card.” Was her brother trying to lead her to his friend?

My grandfather, the ‘Mac’ referenced above, was a high school classmate of my grandmother’s and a good friend of Uncle Don’s. Somewhere between 1916, when both of my grandparents graduated from Somerville High, and the romance with ‘French Louis’ was being discussed, and the first postcard from my grandfather to my grandmother in 1919, a relationship blossomed. When they married in 1922, Uncle Don was the best man.

That first postcard is from the hotel in Springfield, Massachusetts. He writes “Just so that when you looked on the sideboard for mail you wouldn’t be disappointed.” My grandfather traveled frequently for work before and during their marriage, first as a surveyor and later as an engineer for Stone and Webster Engineering in Boston. He sent letters on hotel stationery after their marriage putting an ‘x’ near the room where he was staying. Both to impress their young sons and to let his wife know where he was and when to expect him home. Apparently, in those days, you found a hotel on arrival rather than booking ahead, and sometimes he ended up at a different hotel than intended. 

On their 10th wedding anniversary, in 1932, he writes “. . . I have not forgotten that tomorrow, Wednesday, Aug. 3, is the tenth anniversary of your marriage. (Your first marriage, I mean.) You have earned a prize of some kind, but due to present economic conditions it will be impossible for me to acknowledge your feat in anything but empty words. However, I do wish to offer my sincere congratulations, & call your attention to the fact that the first hundred years are the hardest.” 

He sent the letter to my grandmother while she is staying at Ocean Bluff in Marshfield, Massachusetts, with their two sons (my uncle and father), as she did for a month each summer. Her parents rented all of most of Mrs. Barrett’s rooming house and invited their 6 children and 24 grandchildren to visit. My grandmother’s older sister, Aunt Mabel, and her younger brother, Uncle Don, also had cottages at Fieldston until the fire in 1941 burned down most of the area.

In other letters, my grandfather indicates that he will be down on Saturday by train and head back on Sunday with someone driving to Boston for the work week. In one letter he’s excited to take the Sunday evening train back to Boston rather than be stuck in traffic with the crowds on the roads returning from the weekend on Cape Cod. He mentions, more than once, that she doesn’t seem to worry about him when she is at the beach. Since he traveled so frequently, I suspect she thought it was only fair that she get away too. And why not go to the beach. 

Then there were the 140 or so WWII era letters from her oldest son who was a member of the 10th Mountain Division. My uncle, Sonny, as he was called at this time, wrote home just about every week chronicling his training, questioning his father on his work, which his father never seems to talk about, which is logical considering the fact that my grandfather was working on a ‘super-secret, project “X”’ that we now know now as the Manhattan Project. At that time my grandfather wasn’t able to talk about the project with family members.  Sonny also asks for news of his friends, the neighbors, the sports scores for local teams, the goings-on in town, and to send food packages as many as possible. He also suggested that my grandmother make wine with the abundance of grapes she’s growing. No wine was made, she apparently made jam and other products with them. Like most servicemen of the time my uncle had more access to sugar, due to rationing, than his mother, so he sends sugar home each time he returns a tin for more food until he’s shipped overseas. The letters also chronicle his younger brother’s, my father, requests for a machete, a Luger, 10th Mountain insignia and regalia, ski equipment such as gaiters, and just about anything war-related. My father also receives unsolicited advice on keeping up his new skis, dating, and not being such a picky eater. The weapons requests are wisely declined, while the insignia is sent home when it’s available.

Sadly, the letters also document the sudden death of my grandfather in July 1945, and chronicle how the family changed after that, giving an eerie prescience to his reference in the 10th-anniversary letter to her first marriage. My grandmother kept every condolence letter and card sent on his death, including letters from folks at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the Boston office of the Tennessee Eastman Corporation. Altogether these letters provide insight into her life and the family. A few photos, cards, and letters from her grandchildren were kept as well, the majority of items are between 1915 and 1946.

After my grandmother’s death in 1976, the box sat in my parent’s attic. We sometimes pulled it out to look at the letters, the Italian Lire that my uncle sent home in his first letter from Italy, the various pictures she kept but, generally, it sat in the attic, waiting. When my parents sold their house and downsized, the box and all its contents came to me, as the one most interested in genealogy.  Again, it sat, waiting, until a few years ago when I pulled out the box and noticed that it smelled, its contents were beginning to smell, and the box was rotting on one side. I organized all the letters by date and author and began the process of picking out details, names, places, and events that provide tantalizing clues to what was going on during that time, and what my grandfather may have been doing on the Manhattan Project. 

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