Though I definitely did some secondary research about WWII, most of what I used in Keeping the Lights on for Ike came from primary sources handed down to me directly from my mother. I don’t remember exactly when I realized my mom had kept all the letters my dad wrote to her from overseas during the war, but I suspect it was some time after his death. Sharing them was one of her ways to remember the love of her life. As a widow myself, I now understand the desire to revisit the words of one’s spouse, lost much too soon, and I only wish my husband had occasion to write to me more often when he was alive, though I certainly wouldn’t have wished to experience a world war to make that happen.
Mom told me once that during the 1950s, some of her friends who were also military wives had seriously discussed destroying their letters. She didn’t say exactly why, but as I worked more with the letters in preparing the book, I started to suspect that there could have been a couple of different reasons. Perhaps the letters reminded the women of a terrible time in their lives that they’d rather forget, and they found the memories of wartime depressing. Or perhaps the letters were simply too intimate to be shared with their children and extended families. But Mom did tell me she was glad that she never went through with destroying them, though some of her friends apparently did so. She started sending me an occasional war letter tucked in with her own newsy correspondence when I took a job in northern New York and left the west coast for good in the early 1990s. What she never told me directly, at least not that I remember, was that she had kept so much more than just the letters from those war years.
My father had always been an avid photographer. In fact, many of the images of him in family albums were shots of him taking a photo of a plant of some kind. He loved photographing nature in all its details, both large landscapes and small closeup details of individual plants. My mom was no slouch when it came to photography, either, and the pairs of images (her photo of him bending over to photograph an interesting plant paired with his photo of the plant itself) were always fun to look at. Mom was an amateur mycologist, and among the slides was a remarkable collection of mushroom images that both of them had taken, which I eventually donated to my university’s Biology Department. After Dad’s death at age 57 in 1972, Mom started asking me to join her in looking at slide shows of his photos; they were often family photos of my childhood, but there were lots of other images as well, some of them historically significant. I eventually donated their slides of the Vanport flood of 1948 to the Oregon Historical Society. It was through this activity of looking at random slides with Mom, I also realized that among the hundreds of slides she kept in a large wooden cabinet in the dining room were many images Dad had taken during the war. Because she had kept them out of the light and only viewed them occasionally, when they finally came my way after she had to move out of her house and into assisted living, they were in remarkably good condition for their age; the wartime slides were by then over 60 years old.
The biggest surprise I discovered in packing up the contents of Mom’s house was that she had kept lots of other memorabilia from the war years in addition to the letters and the slides. In fact, I often tell people that Mom scrapbooked the war. Finding those scrapbooks in a drawer in her bedroom when I was cleaning out her house before the place was sold was like finding some kind of treasure trove of history. The scrapbooks were full of newspaper articles, photos that I presume Dad had sent to her from time to time with his letters, postcards, ration books and coupons, matchbook covers, airline tickets, and other fascinating memorabilia from those years.
Perhaps knowing her tendency to save words and images about the war, her younger sister had saved Mom’s letters home from Dad’s basic training and subsequent assignments at Fort Leonard Wood in the spring and summer of 1942, and she had given them to Mom to add to her collection at some point when they were both much older. So, in spite of the fact that Mom’s end of the correspondence when he was overseas didn’t survive, I was able to get a good sense of what she thought about their early Army life before he was shipped off to Europe in the fall of ‘42. In addition to the scrapbooks, that same bureau had another drawer full of Mom’s own writings, mostly from various creative writing classes she had taken at the local senior center when she was in her late 70s and early 80s. She had been an aspiring journalist in her youth, and the urge to write about all kinds of things never left her. Many of those stories were about her own childhood, some about the adventures of her kids (me and/or my brother), but some were also about her thoughts on the war and its impact on the lives of those who lived through it.
After I brought the slides and scrapbooks home with me and realized how many images there were and their value as visual illustrations to go with the letters in some as yet undecided way, I applied for and received generous support from my employer, St. Lawrence University, in the form of a technology grant to digitize the best of the hundreds of slides and to scan images from the scrapbooks, as well as to hire a student worker to clean up the scratches and dings on the digitized images. At this point, I wasn’t sure yet what I might do with these images and was still thinking they might become projections in some kind of theatrical presentation, but I knew for certain I wanted to use them somehow.
Next time, I’ll share the challenges of transcribing over 200 letters and how I figured out what I wanted to do with them once I finished the transcriptions. Look for that entry at the end of March.