The process of transcribing the "vernacular letters" from the huge cache of one family's correspondence dating back to the 1870's that I found in an old box at a flea market has mostly been one of reclaiming the innocence of the lost art of epistolary writing, as Janet wrote in her last comment.
The letters themselves, handwritten, often focused on mundane or prosaic details of everyday life, or on the writer or readers dependence on getting and sending letters as a way to connect, often seem like the very artifacts of innocence.
Today's letter is dated from April 1951, and is written from Houston, Texas by Rosena, and her casual approving reference to her new country club's policy of not admitting Jews, while hardly startling coming from that part of the country and that time and place, certainly jumped out at me as I was deciphering her text. There was something so throwaway about the remark, something that made it seem so utterly unremarkable for the writer to write or the reader to read in the comfortable honesty of this private correspondence, that it had an impact on me, a loss of innocence.
And of course made me question my own moral complicity, or loss of innocence, in making this old private correspondence public and airing this unflattering bit of prejudice.
April 27, 1951
Dear Mother and Margie,
We always start worrying enough to write on the same day and our letters cross. I didn’t mean to let it go so long either.
We have had wonderful cool weather up to now and are just getting into summer cottons and shorts. I packed the blankets away twice and had to drag them out but guess they are away now till next December.
We would love to have you both come down to visit any time you can – it will be hot as you know and we probably won’t have as much free time as we used to but this summer we belong to a lovely club with a swimming pool so maybe that would make up for the heat, etc. We hope to spend a lot of time there – weekends anyway, and we know you would enjoy that. We will doubtless have our noses to the grindstone all summer.
Last night we had a truck stolen and last week the warehouse was broken into and robbed – it was a mess. We are so tired of all of this trouble – it will almost have to end soon because just about everything that could happen – has happened. Some days we just don’t know what to worry about first – we have such a wide choice!
The girls are fine and so is the Little Colonel. School is out in six weeks.
I don’t know what Chloe wants for her birthday. She is very much a little girl and likes most everything. She is doing real well in school – gets much better marks than Susan did – all B’s with a few A’s.
Sue is going to a boy and girl party Saturday night at 7:30 and they are going to waltz. Sue says “Aren’t they going to do anything else?” She is mostly interested in baseball, hopscotch and her precious dolls right now.
We have gone out a few times lately, mostly to the dances at the club, but we can’t seem to get our old carefree attitude back when we are supposed to be having fun. We are going to a dinner dance this coming Friday so I have been concocting a summer dance dress – white organdy skirt, black linen top. It may be real snappy. Elaine and I bought the skirts last summer on sale and I never got around to wearing mine mostly because it had to be shortened and have a full stiff half-step under it. All the stores have been having sales this week so I spent my birthday money on a beautiful big black straw cartwheel to go with my one snazzy outfit for the season – a two piece black linen dress. Now everything I have is black. But with the black skirt I’m going to wear that beautiful tucked natural linen blouse I got last summer. I also got natural linen shoes + hat so I’m all fixed in linen and then some. The rest of the time I wear shorts & go barefooted as you know.
Have you seen Helen? Have had a letter or two from her but haven’t written.
Ronnie just flew back from Police Dept. + found our truck had been stolen by three boys who used it to rob a grocery store of a safe containing $4,000. Police picked up the boys + our truck at 1 a.m. and we didn’t even know it had been stolen until 7 a.m. this morning so they had the thieves and truck when Ronnie called this a.m. However it has to be repaired, glass broken, etc.
Do hope you can both come down – if you feel summer is impossible, th fall is lovely. The heat doesn’t bother me too much any more and with the pool to look forward to anytime we want to go it won’t seem quite so bad.
We are awfully happy with our club – it is new – started about a year ago with a lovely building, beautiful pool – all new and very nice people – family club + no Jews. Our doctor and one of Ronnie’s River Oaks fraternity brothers proposed our names + we were taken in last fall shortly before “The Mess” started so we have not felt like nor had time to be out there much though there is something to do all the time. They have a fine dining room, so whenever we go out for dinner it is usually there, but we sure haven’t done much of that lately either.
This is a long letter for me. Promised the family strawberry short cake tonight so have to do the Friday shopping early.
I was supposed to have the week off from the office to get our summer clothes in shape, clean closets, put stuff in mothballs and I haven’t done a darn thing except get all the cottons out + pack the woolies away – took a day because it all has to be done at once – no room for both sets anyplace. I haven’t ever got my Jungle planted. I did my shopping though.
Let us know when you are coming!
Lots of love,
Her description of the club scene, her daughter's waltz parties, and the great detail in which she describes her winter and summer wardrobe for some reason evoked a mental image for me of the country club that Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack and Dorothy Maguire attend in Douglas Sirk's Texas-set 1950's masterpiece "Written on the Wind".
I wonder if those characters were given a chance to be honest in the context of that melodrama, what they would have said about allowing Jews in their club?
Of course upon further reflection, today there is so much bigotry right out in the open on proud public display that perhaps this letter and that remark seem quaint, if not innocent, after all?
What do you think?