April 29, 2008
Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls. For, thus friends absent speak.
— John Donne, 1572-1631
English poet and preacher
I saw them about this time last year in an antique store near Bangor, Pennsylvania — two packs of letters tied with a gauzy yellow ribbon. I drew them off the shelf, unwrapped one stack, and began to read. The first letter had been mailed (for two cents) from Meshoppen, Pennsylvania, a small town in the northeast corner of the state near the New York border, on January 25, 1922. Miss Vivian Capwell was writing to John (“Jack”) Parkinson in Plainfield, New Jersey, a town about 150 miles east of Meshoppen.
Vivian tells Jack that she has left her job as a companion/housekeeper for an elderly woman in Binghamton, New York to return to her home in Pennsylvania. Her mother and her grandmother have had “a spat,” the grandmother has left her daughter’s home, and there is no one else but Vivian to care for her. Vivian has her own troubles. The man she was in love with, Harold, has been dead for nearly a year. She is trying to reconnect with Jack, who is expected to visit Meshoppen at Easter. “Don’t forget me,” she writes. “I’ve a funny feeling around my heart for you, Jack. Good night dear.” She signs it “Lovingly, your girlie, Vivian.”
What fiction writer could walk away from that! I paid $10 for the lot and took Jack and Vivian home with me.
I didn’t really look at the material until this winter. One gray day in February, needing to put aside my Bread Loaf manuscript for a while, I got out the packets and asked myself, what is it that I have here?
These letters were Jack’s possessions, saved by him for reasons and under circumstances a fiction writer must invent. There are 37 letters from Vivian written between January of 1922 and January of 1923. She writes every few days, telling Jack what’s going on with her family, her decision to pursue some higher education, how she is continuing to grieve Harold and move on with her life. After a year she tells him that although she has social engagements with several young men (Howard, Levi, and Leroy are named), “I have feelings for you that I don’t have for [them].”
There is a rift, though, in July of 1922. Vivian becomes angry over Jack’s relationship with a woman named May and sends back to him a letter he wrote her that contains many references to May and quotations from her letters. She ends their relationship, wishing him success and asking him to destroy her letters. On January 2, 1923, however, she evidently receives a letter from him that seeks reconciliation. She’s enjoying school, working hard at her studies, and playing basketball. “Let’s get back what we had before,” she writes. There are only two more letters after that. The last one, written January 17, asks him what is happening with May, reveals that she has been tutoring Leroy in solid geometry, and ends “Good night dear. May we be happy some day together or apart, whichever may be best. Lots of love, Vivian.”
Tucked in with Vivian’s letters is a single letter from May, written in January of 1922. She is studying at the Folts Mission Institute in Herkimer, New York. The ten-page letter goes on at length about the courses she is taking (psychology, sociology, Acts of the Apostles, Epistles, elocution, church history, kitchen gardening), and devotes four pages to telling Jack how bad smoking is and trying to persuade him to stop.
Clearly Vivian knew about May, but I wonder if she knew about Marian. The second packet includes nine letters from her, written between July and September of 1923. “Oh Jack,” begins the first one. “It does not seem possible that we can be separated much longer. How I wish I was twenty and as near twenty-one as I am eighteen.” She is working in domestic service for a family with several children. The work exhausts her and the children try her patience. In August she writes, “How I wish you could have me in your arms again. I always feel safe and at home there, and hope I always will, because I dearly love you. No one has had me in their arms nor kissed my lips since you left,” including the five-foot-eleven handsome visitor to her employer’s house with whom she was inadvertently left alone. He wanted to hug her, but she told him she had a steady friend.
The last letter is dated mid-September. She thanks Jack for interceding with her mother for permission to enroll in school (probably Mansfield Classical Seminary, now Mansfield University, 75 miles west of Montrose, Marian’s home). She has a room with a family in town for a dollar and a quarter a week. She confesses that she has gone to the movies with someone named James, but insists that she loves only Jack, and signs off, “All my love, your brown-eyed girl.” Like May, she wants him to stop smoking, at least cigarettes and a pipe. She doesn’t much mind cigars.
There isn’t much I can deduce about Jack, except for his smoking, since his letters to the women (except for the one that so irritated Vivian she sent it back) are absent. I know he’s about twenty-three, because Marian makes a reference to his being five years older than she. I don’t know what he does for a living out there in Plainfield, although part way through the correspondence Vivian congratulates him on his “new job” and asks him to tell her about it. In January of 1923 he enrolls in a course of study by correspondence with the Palmer Photoplay Corporation, an outfit that promised to train novices in the lucrative craft of writing screenplays. By April, when he receives a letter from the assistant to the president of Palmer Photoplay explaining the school’s consulting service, he has left Plainfield and is living in Montrose.
Did he marry Marian? Did he remain friends with Vivian? Did he ever write a screenplay? As usual, my fiction work circles back to me. I’ve written in this space about my own letters, those I’ve sent and those I’ve received, particularly love letters. I regret discarding, impulsively and in anger, a set of letters from someone I eventually reconciled with. I have two boxes of letters and cards collected over the years from a number of correspondents, including the charming notes from the eight-year-old Lynn away at church camp, addressed simply “Mommy,” and a few from my niece, who even as an adult now puts only “Aunt Margy” above the address.
From the people dearest to me right now I have e-mails. Most of them are breezy and casual. Communication by telephone is so much easier for us than it was for Jack and Vivian and Marian, so our most intimate and soul-baring communications go unrecorded. I’m on my third computer since I started using e-mail, and some significant notes have been lost in the transitions. In my last upgrade I forwarded to myself a lot of letters from people I expect will be in my life for a long time. They’re not as pretty as the hand-written missives Vivian and Marian wrote on high-quality blue notepaper, but they help me remember how my soul is mingled with the souls of those I love.
And I wonder if there are any Jacks out there who have saved letters, electronic or paper, from me.
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