In 2007 I began a vacation during a cold April. I shop for antiques and I told my colleagues that before the bats arrived to nest in the barn, “I was going on a treasure hunt in there.” Maybe, hidden, lay some object worth my next 50 years of expenses.
On a Saturday, crisp and sunny, I started digging through boxes. I found letters written on thin pieces of paper. They were handwritten to Hib? Hib, I did not know that person but some letters were addressed to Barbara. Barbara was my friend and as her family called her, Hib. I knew her well and loved her. I was crushed the day she died in 2000 at the age of 81, a bag of fresh picked beans in her hand, she collapsed 5 feet from her husband’s buried ashes and the place where she went to talk with him. Often placing a stone on a plate above his ashes. When she passed, she left things behind. I found more of the letters, I brought them into the house.
That night, I read the story of Barbara’s family: they lived in Worcester, Massachusetts during World War II; her mother took sick during the war with something, and it was cancer. They suspected her mother knew. The letters were written to Barbara from her father and brother. Barbara was a teacher in the early 1940s and then went to France as a volunteer for the Red Cross.
Her parents loved her, it flowed out of the father’s letters; her brother had a fierce determination to stay positive despite the war; and by the last letter, not only had the mother passed, but so had the father. Reading them felt like travelling in time to the center of Barbara’s narrative. Holding those letters, peering into the lives of people long gone, I drifted to my time with Barbara.
In a letter to a sister named Marnie and dated September 27, 1949, Dick Ballou wrote these lines about the “fun and tugging”pulling things apart at the family home, 81, they called it.
“We cleaned down from top to bottom, readying stuff for the movers…And one could wish that we were doing it all to refurbish it for Charlies and Eva (their parents) to return to enjoy through a decade of the peace and quiet they so well knew how to cultivate and appreciate.”
The last line so eloquent, gave me the roots of Barbara’s statement in the late 1990s. On a warm, late August Sunday we sat outside and she gave us a run down of what people were doing, running here and computing there. Barbara concluded, “You know when I was growing up my father proclaimed it a good Sunday if we read the New York Times all afternoon and enjoyed one of my mother’s dinners.”
I gave the letters to her daughter. I wanted to keep their magic, for the times when I needed to think positive and keep things in perspective. I saw a friend and co-worker, John, one day while I copied them. He asked me about the letters. A few days later, the letters about to be delivered, John arrived with a shoe box full of treasures for me. Vintage post cards and stamps from the 1900s…something to keep, he said, and enjoy. I found my treasures that spring, they just were not what I expected.