Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Living in 1922

The rains have stopped and everywhere the wildflowers are coming out. Birds are building their nests (we have swallows this year who think the bookstore building is a good cliff), people come and go, the outer world is full of crisis and opportunity.
And obligatory meetings with politicians, and board meetings, and demonstrations, and free soup for the street folks, and deadlines.

And in all of this, I have been living, in the evenings, back in 1922.

In 1922, in the autumn and winter, it was cold in Wyoming. Rain fell for days on end in Southern California as well. And a 27 year old schoolteacher and a 31 year old house carpenter /small time baseball player were writing to each other almost every day.

The ball player started the correspondence, hoping the schoolmarm would forgive his boldness in doing so. He'd been slapped once for his pains, he writes, and even at a distance the slap still stings a bit--but he's willing to go slow and be politely respectful.

She responded immediately: "your letter surprised me in more ways than one and as for slapping you one, well, I'm still capable of doing it again"

But within a few letters he is declaring his "true and sincere love".

She, however, is being quite nonemotional.

The letters came to my youngest brother in a box from our uncle. Each day my brother scans one into his computer and sends it to me. He's read the whole boxful, which lasts from October 1922 until March 1923--but he says he's not giving away the ending.

I know the ending, however, since in July 1923 these two married, and in spring of the next year my father was born.

I just don't know how they got to that end. Here my grandfather is writing about a great book he's just encountered--the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam. He says it is full of profound philosphy, so deep he has to read only a few quatrains at a time.

She retorts that she is acquainted with that gentleman's book, and thought it was improper--all that "do as you may" stuff, all those dancing women and all that wine.

I think my dear grandfather must have won her over on this one though (they discuss it a bit more some letters later), for when they married one of the gifts was a lithograph that used to hang in their bedroom, Maxfield Parrish's rendition of the Loaf of Bread and Jug of Wine and Thou Beside Me...verse, in which the lovers gaze at each other as they sit beneath a very Southern California oak tree. It was a picture I loved as a child, and which I spent hours staring at. I loved the blue of the sky--Maxfield Parrish blue--and the snowy mountains; the rocks, the enthalled lovers. When I was 18 my grandmother gave it to me, and it hangs now on the wall beside my desk at the shop My partner scorns it as "a picture suited for a bar"; I laugh at him as my grandfather probably chuckled over the school teacher's qualms about the poetry.

He sends her roses from California. It is snowing in Wyoming, and the boarding house fires are small and my grandmother's feet are so cold she practically sticks them into the flames to warm them. The roses last for more than a week, and in each letter from her they are mentioned: still glowing, though the snow has reached blizzard proportions.

"What color do you think the roses were?" I email my little brother. He thinks red, of course. But I picture them in my mind as a huge, carefully packed and sent bundle of the tiny pink roses my grandmother so loved all her life long.

He sends her candy from California. He writes about his ball games, about his carpentry, about all the books he is reading. And every so often he darts in a word of love, and darts out again.

She admits to having friendly feelings towards him "and possibly more". She writes of her students (she has a classroom of 45 children of all ages, and one day marches the whole group down the mainstreet of the little rural town to go see a show "It was as if we made our own parade"), of her spats with her best friend Ruth, of visits to shows, of books, of making fudge.
She is woefully homesick for her mother--such a young 27 year old she seems. He, the youngest of a family of 12, whose father had died during his son's time in the army in the first world war, writes "there would be something wrong if you did not miss your family".

It is so odd, and so sweet, to meet these young lovers through their letters. My grandfather died when I was 13, leaving me some of his books; my grandmother, who missed him every day of her life, survived him for decades. I remember sitting at her feet the day of his funeral, looking at the tears falling down her face, wishing I could say something to her, but simply holding her hand and listening to all the people who came to give condolences.

He quotes poetry at random; he makes silly jokes. She pretends annoyance, and then relents.
Today in 1922 it is nearing Christmas. She will be taking a train to her old homestead, arriving at 4 in the morning. "It will be dark, but I want to surprise them. I will be very bold and pretend to be brave and walk quickly". He is thinking of traveling down to the Mexican border for Christmas. He has just met an old army friend, who has told him some of the old gang have already died. He thinks time is fleeting, and we must live honestly and well while we may.
Like it or not, he says, "this is the real thing, this love I have for you".


Blogger LiVEwiRe said...

I'm captivated! That must be wonderfully special to get the 'prequel', and in written form, no less! I have this soft side of me (shhh, don't tell) and that really speaks to it. I love the fact that it comes across in bits and pieces, too - sort of like it did with them, waiting for letters and such. There's something very comfprting about this post.

Oh, and you are so fortunate to have swallows! I love to watch them in flight and they are so easy to spot with their wings jutting back in a slightly crossed 'V'. They are interesting in the way that they tend to boldly watch over their nests, too.

You've made me smile today, thank you.

11:15 PM, May 09, 2006  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

What a special post...

9:10 AM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger Sarah said...

beautiful post...

4:54 PM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger starry nights said...

Just stopped by. Beautiful post.Its sad that people dont write letters any more,its more of phonecalls and e mails.

7:54 PM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger David said...

It is amazing to have a window into the mind and thoughts of people who are long departed. A few years ago, I read some letters written between my father's father and his father. My great grandfather called my grandpa "Sonny". :) It was obvious they were very close. I hope you will continue to enjoy your journey into the lives and love of your grandparents! :)

9:50 PM, May 10, 2006  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

Rubaiya of Khayam!!! woof! he's an ancient Iranian poet who was also a well-known mathematician of his days. Also a well-known philosopher!! a big surprise to C his name over the pond Jarvenpa!!!?? how did yr grandpa get to know him???

1:54 AM, May 11, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

thanks to all for the nice comments. Dr. O2--I thought it might surprise some of my Iranian readers, but the Rubaiyat was translated into English by some scholars (Fitzgerald did the version most English speakers knew)& became extremely popular back in my grandpa's time--at least amongst people who loved poetry and philosophy. My grandfather loved poetry greatly, and the books he passed on to me include a lot of books of poems, including a nice Rubaiyat.
In the US the current best selling poet, according to some book surveys I have seen, is Rumi--also Persian, I think? Translations of Hafiz are also popular.

11:09 AM, May 11, 2006  
Blogger jac said...

Very stimulating!
I thouroughly loved it... come 1922 !!!

9:18 PM, May 11, 2006  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

In Iran we have 4 MAJOR ENORMOUSLY famous poets including: Hafez & Molavi who are well known for their spiritual poems, Sadi who is the one with most fluency & also morals in his poems & Ferdosi who is well known for saving Persian language from the entering Arabic and well known for his EXCELLENT Shahnameh which includes Iranian Myths. Khayam is also in the same ranks but not spoken abt much these days in the religious environment for he believed we rise from dust & turn into dust agn... He was an exceptional mathematician as well.

10:40 PM, May 11, 2006  
Blogger Nyx said...

it is such a joy to read your words jarvenpa. thank you so much for letting us do so :-)

5:00 PM, May 13, 2006  
Blogger ChittyChittyBangBang! said...

I am hooked too. This post is an absolute gem and it made me feel good about the world again.

1:31 AM, May 15, 2006  
Blogger jac said...

no posts ?

5:38 PM, May 15, 2006  
Blogger Kimia said...

I thought of white roses at first. This is amazing that you can read your grandparents letters. I have no idea how my grand parents talked to each other when they were at my age. Even my parents!
About the Rumi, I think Omid forgot to mention that Rumi is a part of the Molavi's name. His complete name is Molana Jalaleddin Mohammad Balkhi Rumi.

5:12 PM, May 16, 2006  

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