30 July 2018

In August of the year 1918, an assistant lawyer of the government in Munich travelled by railway to F. He was on his way to inspect the new post he had been assigned to as head of the tax authorities.
At the railway station as he turned to walk to the address he had been given, he noticed a young woman setting off by foot in the same direction.
Too soon he stood in front of the tax office.
Upon his return from F. he told his mother that he had seen the woman he intended to marry.
And so it happened that less than one year later, I became his wife.

I don't know when my grandmother wrote this, judging by her handwriting and the paper, maybe early 1950s. I found it taped inside the lid of one of the boxes of letters from my father's (ie her) sitting room chest.

For several weeks now, I have sorted these letters back an forth in various ways, by date, by writer, by recipient, unsure how to proceed. There are several hundred.
In the end, I decided on sorting them by writer and then chronologically. On one of the hottest days so far, I was squatting on the floor of my study surrounded by stacks of brittle paper, afraid to switch on the fan. It was very tempting to just read and read, despite the handwriting (in Sütterlin font) - challenging and in some cases, probably impossible to decipher. My great grandfather, for example, wrote in what looks to me a selection of fine horizontal lines.

The letters from my father's brother, dating from 1930 to 1956, I carefully stored in a large and sturdy document box and sent them by registered mail to my father. They need to be somewhere in Franconia, don't ask me why, just a feeling. He wrote home from boarding school, university, various army postings in Greece, Albania, Croatia, Latvia and after the war from his first postings as a junior judge out in the sticks. I can't even begin to explain how he wrote, the details and the careful omissions to spare his family, the repeated requests for tobacco and news from his favourite football teams. The description of snow capped mountains in Albania on new year's eve 1944 and his coded message for it all to be over soon. 
In his last letters from the early 1950s, now a married father of one, he repeatedly and somewhat exasperatedly suggests to my grandmother weekly phone calls as a much more direct way of communication. This must have taken some persuasion as she again and again stresses in her letters the importance of what she calls the decent habits including her Sunday task of writing at least three letters before dinner.
My father is reading them now and over the phone I can hear there is joy and heartache in his voice. Next week, he will hand them over to his three nephews, his brother's sons.

Today, I have started on my grandmother's letters, one a day I promised myself, just one.  At this rate, it will take me forever and a year. And while this little snipped above is strictly speaking not a letter it is nevertheless the oldest event mentioned and in every way the basis of all of this unexpected treasure that is covering my desk.

Here is the couple, both a bit younger than on that day.




My grandfather was 43 years old when he first spied my grandmother that day. She was 24. WWI was in its final year, the Allied Advance had just begun, the German forces retreating. My grandmother's brothers were still at the front. My grandfather, apparently, was considered too important for the efforts of the government tax office to fight in uniform. Whatever. 

All my life I have been told that this marriage was not a love match, that my grandmother married for status. It certainly fits with her character and the person I got to know. But, well, there is stuff I have been reading that tells me otherwise. I'll never know, it's too easy to come up with a romantic answer. If anything, these two are now even more mysterious to me.

20 comments:

  1. I admire your interest and perseverance. my sister is the historian of our family as well as the one who is into genealogy. I just accept the fruits of her labors. she also has stacks of letters from our parents and too them, letters from friends of my father's in the war (II). I don't know how far back they go, not as far as yours I'm sure. one day she handed over a stack of letters to me, letter's from me to my mother and/or father. they kept every letter I ever sent then from summers away at camp or a relative's or other visits and college and even one I wrote to my father in my mid 20s. I read through some of the early ones. the others I had no interest in reliving whatever anguish or anger I was expressing. 40 year old shit. the flood relieved me of them.

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    1. I am with you on that, I would cringe if someone gave me my teenage letters. It's the ancient stuff - stuff too far to affect my feeble self - that's interesting and apart from my father, these people are long dead, so I am safe.

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  2. Fascinating! I wonder what it was about her that made him so immediately sure she was "the one."

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    1. This is only her story, I wonder if it actually happened that way.

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  3. As with so much in life, the more you know, the less you are sure of things.
    What a treasure trove!

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    1. There are more secrets to be uncovered, I am sure of that.

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  4. Imagine how mysterious we will be to future generations, with so few letters being written any more and few photos printed. The letters and photos you have are certainly a treasure. I find your old family photos to be fascinating.

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    1. We have started writing letters again, my immediate family that is. And I have a few old friends who never made the switch to emails or social media.

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    2. Knowing that your immediate family is writing letters again, I take heart. Two of my oldest friends and I still write letters.

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  5. One letter a day. You know, I have my grandmother's letters to my aunt, and they seemed too overwhelming to approach. But one a day might be exactly the way. Thank you.

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    1. Do it and take a day's rest in between.

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  6. We all want the fairly tale don’t we. But in truth, this world is a scary place, especially for women, and I could see that one had to be smart in order to survive. In addition, she was 24.....here in the old west she would’ve been considered a spinster. I can’t wait to hear some insight on who she was and what her life was like. Thanks for sharing what you have uncovered.

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    1. She was a spinster - albeit a wealthy one - but there also was that war (WWI) which made allowances.
      I have written about her a few times already:

      https://interimarrangements.blogspot.com/2017/01/my-paternal-grandmother-is-sitting-in.html

      https://interimarrangements.blogspot.com/2017/02/grandmother-never-granny.html

      https://interimarrangements.blogspot.com/2017/04/my-grandmother-three-weddings-and-two.html

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    2. Thanks. I’ll go back and check those out

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  7. How amazing and wonderful it is to have all those letters! I was saying to a friend, just the other day, what I'd give to have letters or journals written by my grandparents! They either did not have 'decent habits,' or no-one thought to save their letters for the possibility of me many decades down the road.

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    1. But maybe there are other mementoes? There is nothing in writing from my Irish in-laws but I have toys and dolls and baby things, shoes and coats, they made, for their own and the grandchildren. We all love using them.

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  8. How lucky you are to have such a treasure trove of your family's history. It must be so much work, but the uncovering of details can be so enlightening. I wish we all still wrote letters. I keep a journal, but write no letters to anyone.

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  9. Those are letters worth their weight in gold. :-) Wow, you're so lucky to have this powerful insight into your grandmother's life.

    Greetings from London.

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  10. What an amazing archive of family information! Marrying someone 19 years her senior certainly suggests your grandmother may have been interested in his security and, yes, status -- but as you said, who knows. I think marriages were seen much more practically in those days, and especially in and around wartime.

    I've never heard of Sütterlin. I'm impressed you can read it! It's beautiful, in a purely aesthetic sense.

    My mom used to have a suitcase full of letters written to her by her parents in the 1960s and early '70s. I went through them once, but from what I could tell they contained none of this family history. They were more my grandmother scolding my mom for "not brushing her teeth right," among other things, and my grandfather going on racist rants about inner-city rioting.

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  11. How wonderful! I have short stories that my mother wrote and sent to magazines. None were accepted but a comment on onej'too slight for our use but would like to see more'. I intend to transcribe them so they are more durable. you're inspiring.

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