It was a mass of yellowed, frail tulle and satin that had been stored inside my grandmother’s hope chest for the last several decades. But when my grandmother pulled out her wedding dress and held it up against her 84-year-old body, she gasped, fingering the seams, the hand-sewn stitches she sewed herself in 1952.
“My sister Lois and I spent the summer before the wedding making this dress,” she said, her voice trailing off.
Since my sister is engaged, my grandmother thought it would be good timing to open her hope chest with me, my mother and sister to show us its contents, in case there was something my sister could use. Inside the smooth, wooden chest were my great-grandmother’s wedding dress from 1915, baby clothes that my grandmother and mother once wore, even a bonnet that my great-great grandmother wore more than a century ago when she was the wife of a Midwestern farmer. It looked like something from “Little House on the Prairie.”
Carefully pinned to each item was a handwritten note on aged paper detailing what it was and who it originally belonged to. It was like an archaeological dig through my family history.
But as we got to my grandmother’s wedding items, her tone changed. There was the satin ring bearer pillow, the same pillow used in my parents’ wedding and then my wedding nine years ago. There was a ceramic bell cake topper that sat in its original jewelry store box. Even my grandmother’s bouquet was entombed in the hope chest.
Underneath, there was a stack of letters, bound together: love letters between my grandfather and grandmother when they were engaged and planning their wedding. They spent the summer apart since my grandfather was studying at the University of Minnesota and my grandmother went home to northern Minnesota for the summer. They didn’t call each other because it was just too expensive. So instead they wrote, sometimes every other day, my grandmother explained. Her voice choked as she fumbled the pile of stacked envelopes.
She and my grandfather were married 49 years, until his death four years ago during the Thanksgiving holidays. He was a quiet man, the type of person who never seemed to have much to say. But he always listened intently and mulled things over before he spoke up. The idea of him being a young man in love, writing love letters by hand seemed out of character. It was a peek into a different time, a private look at a young man who I only knew in old age. It was like having a piece of my grandfather back, a piece of a man who we’ve desperately missed.
“I’m going to read these and then I’m going to throw them out,” my grandmother said, visibly upset.
We begged her not to. But because my grandfather died during the Thanksgiving holidays, I also knew it was a sensitive time of year for her.
“Read them and take time to decide what you want to do,” my mother said.
And so my grandmother did. She read them over and over, and talked about details of her engagement she had forgotten, little details of what was going on in their young lives. The grief and heaviness that seems to surround the holidays lifted when she talked about those letters. My grandma called recently to tell me that she decided to keep the letters, explaining that we can read them one day after she’s gone. I’m glad, even relieved. Because this holiday season, those letters brought my granddad back. In a way, they brought Grandma back too.
Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News. Reach her at lydia.seabolavant@tuscaloosanews.com. Visit www.tuscmoms.com to read her blog, meet other moms in West Alabama and to share photos, videos and more.