As it happens, at the same time as I’ve been setting up this website as a home for Dinah—which is how I think of it, not having found her a home anywhere else—I’ve also been reading letters aloud to my father. They’re the ones my mother wrote to him almost every day during World War II, starting not long before their hasty marriage in August 1943, as he was heading out to the Pacific on a sub-chaser, and ending in April 1945, when his sub-chaser came into San Francisco Bay—which adds up to about a thousand letters.
One thing I’ve come to understand over the many months I’ve been reading these letters is that my parents’ love affair was largely epistolary and largely orchestrated by my mother, who took this daily opportunity to convey (and I suspect firm up for herself) her absolute and unambiguous affection for her absent husband, whom she doesn’t actually know very well yet. So now my 96-year-old father lies on his bed and listens, and smiles to hear my mother again and again—since she ends just about every letter this way—declare in theme and variation there’s no one else I want, a refrain she’d never swerve from, as I can bear witness, until the day she died. Who wouldn’t get pleasure from listening to such a thing?
Of course, I also enjoy reading these letters, getting to know my mother as she was then, about the age my youngest daughter is now, following her on her migrations as she makes her intrepid way along the then-vital networks of the political Left from job to job, and home to home—from Springfield, Massachusetts, out to San Pedro, California, then up to San Francisco to wait for her newly minted husband to come back into port from sea duty in the Pacific.
Anyway, these would be delightful letters even without the intimate connection of husband and daughter, full as they are with the spirit and culture, the news, of the time and places in which my mother lived and worked. So we’ve kept reading. We’ve already read through my mother’s letters once—all thirteen binders of them—and then through my father’s written to her over the same period, which I also salvaged and teased into as close to chronological order as I could and put into their own ten binders. And now we’ve started over again with my mother’s, inching towards the day when my father’s sub-chaser will come into San Francisco Bay again for the last time and he will rush up the hill to find my mother at the boarding house at 2029 Vallejo Street run by the inimitable Myrto, and the letters will end. And again I’m finding I’m loathe for that day to come.
So maybe we’ll go back once more. For my father—who grows increasingly forgetful—I’m sure the third time through will be almost as good as the first. And this time—so we can hear the back-and-forth more clearly—I think I’ll try matching her letters with his and reading them in as close as possible to the order in which they exchanged them—though this won’t be perfect, since both comment on how letters are often delayed and arrive out of order or in batches. And this time, I’ll try more rigorously to track down references we can’t place. So, yes, I’m hoping this project will go on for some time to come.
Then there is the other collection of letters which I’ve been reading and trying to put in order, also written by a young wife to a husband away at war. These are the letters my great-great grandmother and namesake, Lucy Hale Todd, wrote to her husband, Joseph Scott Todd, while he was serving as captain of the 48th Massachusetts Brigade of the Union Army from 1860 to 1863. And they too are forthright and affectionate, full of both longing for an absent husband and news from home, which for her was her husband’s homestead in Rowley, where she was living with his mother, tending the farm and caring for her children.
I came upon both these sets of letters over thirty years ago, the summer that my grandmother’s advancing Alzheimer’s forced my mother to take her up to Seaview, the nursing home on the hill behind that same family homestead. We were clearing the place out to put on the market—the house; the courtroom built over the back kitchen when Lucy’s husband, my great-great grandfather, became a judge; and the barn filled to the brim with the excess stuff of generations deemed, at some point, still worth preserving but no longer useful, or wanted, in the house.
My mother had grown up in that house—passed down from Joseph to his eldest son Louis to Louis’ daughter, my grandmother Beth—but when she left for college, she’d vowed never to live in Rowley again. And she’d kept that vow, moving fairly often and sometimes quite far away, although by then she was living just a couple of hours west with my father in Amherst, Massachusetts. And that summer she did return to take up residence with him just long enough to complete the task of readying the house—with its ancient heating system and questionable plumbing—for sale.
At the time, I was living in the Dorchester section of Boston, about an hour south, and I’d come up on weekends to help with the ransacking of all that accumulated stuff. As I’d drive up over the Mystic River, I’d feel the pleasure you get escaping the heat of the city just as it’s setting in—windows down and radio up—as if I too were heading out to spend the day at one of the beaches north of Boston, among the carloads of people who actually were. I was driving an old Army-green Plymouth Duster, whose column gear shift sometimes locked mid-shift so that you had to get out and raise the hood and pry it loose by hand—an awkward move in the middle of traffic on the bridge heading out or heading home in the evening, the car loaded down with all the stuff I’d saved from the dump that day. For that was mainly what we did: load big black trash bags full of stuff. And we’d end each day by driving all we’d gathered to the dump where we’d heave it into the smoldering pit, a cleansing finale, then return for a nip of my grandmother’s sherry which she’d kept, a lone bottle, for years in the cabinet by the stove.
My beat that day—the one I liked best despite the stifling heat and the mosquitoes for which Rowley was famous—was out in the barn. We’d worked our way through most of the junk down below where the stables had been, guided by my mothers’ stern admonition, “When in doubt, throw it out.” And so we had: rusty farm equipment, piles of Life magazines, questionably functional housewares and moth-eaten clothes—all consigned to oblivion. But that afternoon I was up in the sweltering, musty loft alone, and I’d pulled open a sack the size of a large laundry bag, clearly invaded by mice, held closed by a heavy rope woven through sturdy grommets, and seen it was full of letters, all jumbled up, and many written unmistakably in my mother’s hand. I’d shown them to her, and she’d let me know what they were. So in the evening I dropped this sack into a small chest covered in disintegrating silk, along with the other odd artifacts I’d gathered that day—false teeth, ancient eye glasses—and a little wooden Havana-cigar box with the image of Ulysses S. Grant pasted on the outside and more letters and documents inside, and drove them all back over the bridge in my unreliable Duster to Dorchester.
By then, my mother had bequeathed on me the title of family archivist, pleased not to be burdened with it herself but glad, I think, for my interest. And what she’d told me was that the sack I’d found was my father’s sea bag from the Second World War, and that inside were the letters she had written him and some of those he’d written back. And when I opened up the little wooden box with Ulysses Grant pasted on the side, and then the littler cardboard box inside still partially covered in green and red floral paper, I realized here were the ones that my great-great grandmother Lucy had written to her husband, and a few he too had written back, during the Civil War. At the time, I promised myself I’d read through them all someday and order them, but it hadn’t happened by 1999 when I moved with my husband and daughters to share a two-family house with my parents in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. And for a decade and more after that they sat there, in our shared household, along with the other documents and artifacts I’d gathered, now mostly over on my parents’ side up on the third floor where people rarely went.
Not until last year, seven years after my mother’s death, did I finally get around to opening up that sack and sorting her letters and putting them in binders with the help of a friend, Jonah Quinn, in as close to chronological order as we could figure out. A very few had been gnawed or folded or spilled on too badly to fully read, and there was a musty slightly rank odor to the whole assortment, which had helped keep the task at bay. But the vast majority of the letters, whether hand-written or typed, turned out to be easy to read, and as I say, at least to my father and me highly entertaining.
Then, since my father and I were getting so much pleasure reading through these letters from the Second World War, why not take another look at my great-great grandmother Lucy’s from the Civil War? And so I did, sorting them too as best I could in chronological order, and seeing what I could make out of what she wrote. And this spring, I got a small grant from the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at MIT and the welcome assistance of Jim Connolly, an editor at the Massachusetts Historical Society, to help transcribe them. And now they too have emerged as true to the originals and as well-ordered as we can discern.
Now as I’ve been reading these two sets of letters, written by two young wives to their beloved husbands away at war, I’ve been intrigued by the refrains echoing across the century between their writing—my reading made more poignant, I am sure, by the knowledge that my mother grew up in the very house and community from which her great grandmother had been writing eighty years before, and by my own memory of finding both women’s letters in the barn out back of that house on that sweltering afternoon so many years ago. But I’ve also found it intriguing to contemplate the shift between these two writers’ wartime experiences and sensibilities—the contrast between my mother, a recent graduate (and full scholarship student) from Radcliffe, a feminist and radical, and her great grandmother, a bright and lively woman who conveys her daily life, thoughts, and sentiments clearly but within much more restricted circumstances and without much formal education.
And so I’ve decided to post a few of their letters, Jane’s and Lucy’s, on this website, giving them a home alongside Dinah, that very ancient ancestress in a long lineage of women whose voices have not been so well heard. Because really, can’t the phrase Speak, Wood; Stone, Whisper embrace these two women’s words, salvaged at the last minute from my ancestors’ barn, as well?
And then how could I leave out my other forbearer, my grandmother going eight “greats” back, most famous, or infamous, of the lineage of Rowley women from whom I descend? Margaret Stephenson Scott, hanged at Salem on September 22, 1692. I first heard of her, and that she had been accused of being a witch, when I was a child. But why? I wanted to know. The answer my grandmother gave was that one afternoon she had warned a group of farmers that rain was coming—pointing to the clouds gathering in the sky—and told them not to dally, to bring in the hay. They’d scoffed at her and gone on drinking. And then the clouds had opened and the hay was spoiled and she was blamed. Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed this was a story my grandmother preferred not to tell, quickly answering me and leaving it aside as if in it there were a family’s shame. And that, I think, made it even more intriguing to me. So, in my first effort at a novel, Margaret’s was the story that I wanted to tell, a story that kept growing to include the Wampanoag “King Phillip” who led the war against the English invaders, and the Puritan minister Cotton Mather who endorsed the witchcraft trials, as I read my way into a wider and wider spread of the colonial New England that surrounded my ancestor and her hanging.
And it was in order to tell this story more truly that I first came upon Dinah. For how could I understand the sensibilities of Puritan New England with so little knowledge of the Bible? But then I took up the story of Dinah, and left aside that first novel, now grown so unwieldy, for another time.
Then in 1992, my mother and I were in Rowley visiting a relative. On a whim, we decided to stop by the Rowley Historical Society, and my mother struck up a conversation with Doris Fryberg, who was serving as docent that day. An historian and vice president of the Society, she told us of plans for an event to be held on the three hundredth anniversary of Margaret’s hanging. And to my dismay, my mother told her in return about my project and offered me as speaker, which to my even greater dismay Doris enthusiastically took up.
So, largely to avoid that public speaking assignment, I decided to write a play that would tell a distilled version of Margaret’s story using what I had learned through my research and imagining. On September 19, 1992, we put on that play, The Devil Be Familiar, at the First Congregational Church of Rowley. Afterwards the actors and audience all walked down for the ceremony in which Rowley’s state representative read Governor Weld’s proclamation “pardoning” the accused witches, and the Scott Memorial Stone across the street from the Rowley Historical Society was unveiled. (The Massachusetts Review published an excerpt from The Devil Be Familiar in its Fall 2012 issue.)
An old woman who, even after one of her fellow accused was brought down by stones, refused to confess though confessing would have saved her, and so was hanged from a tree—Speak, Wood; Stone, Whisper seems apt evocation for her too. So here I’m including the full script of The Devil Be Familiar.