A Legacy of Letters

Letters from long ago intrigue me. Whether they be written by my pilot, from an alert- shack at a South Vietnam airbase in 1965, or one penned by my grandfather to my grandmother in the 1890s, the writers’ voices bring them back to life better than any other scrapbook could. Photographs talk, but letters shout.  

I’m a saver of old family letters and memorabilia.  My cousin once told me, “Sarajane, every family has an historian, and you’re it, kid.” I never met my maternal grandparents, Bill and Matea Nolan, so it was doubly satisfying to read his love letter to her, when on June 18, 1893, he wrote, “…I am going to a little stag party tonight. There is no pleasure in anything for me anymore except to be by your side. I have a great many more things to talk about but must wait until we meet again which will be soon. Then I am yours, forever. W.I. Nolan, Ergo Amo Te {I Love You}.”

My husband, Bernie, survived the Vietnam War and so did his many, detailed letters. As a 26-year-old fighter pilot, knowing there was a good chance he may not return, he didn’t rein in his emotions as he did later in life. His words spilled out and captured me, and I read them over and over. Just having his latest letter in the pocket of my robe made me feel close to him. One pilot I knew rarely wrote home. His wife seemed fine with it, but this baffled me. Once Bernie and I were together again, there were other ways to communicate. I stowed his letters in a tin box on a basement shelf, and didn’t revisit them until after he died, 47 years later. 

 When I reread Bernie’s war letters, that peppy, 1st Lieutenant came back to me, as did my memories of those turbulent 60s, and our adventurous marriage that began at the beginning of the decade.  I wanted my grandkids to see him as I once did, the grandpa they never knew as a young man, against the backdrop of a war they’d only read about in school.

 Stoked by my war letters, I harnessed my new-found energy onto the page in 2013 and began creating a memoir of our life together. As the recollections began to grow, chapter to chapter, so did my gratitude.  

 Seven years later, my memoir has become a reality, inspired by my pilot’s letters and my desire to soften my grief by creating something of value. 

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