My grandmother wrote this letter in 1943 to my aunt. Those of you who enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels (recently reissued in a Library of America edition) may be reminded of the eighth novel in the Little House series, These Happy Golden Years, in which Alonzo Wilder courts Laura while she is working as a one-room schoolteacher.
December 22, 1943
If you live to be a hundred you may never get another letter from me written in a hospital.
So, for that, and other reasons, this is going to be unique. No present to send you this year. Tears squeeze out when I think of it. All I can do is write to you and Bill.
I thought in the night of a story to tell you. A romance, if you please. You’ll say, there is nothing in mother’s story could be like me because we are opposites: she was the timid kind and I’m a go-getter. (Hard to write, keep watching the door for the doctor. I’m going to be all relaxed with my eyes shut so he won’t think I’m making too much effort.) Here it is. Your father was the best-looking young man in the Wheelerwood neighborhood. (Neighborhoods were only a few square miles in horse and buggy days.) Father was the tallest, and handsomest, with dark hair like Bill’s, and had dandified ideas of dressing, and a good-looking horse and buggy to drive which was equal to a car nowadays. A lady-killer he was, he’d gone with lots of girls and to dances and everywhere young people went to make big time.
Mostly his whoopee was harmless, but a few times he went too far and was ashamed. I never had a fellow, went once with somebody and the boredom was mutual. That was the way it was when I was 18. I had admired Father from a distance since my first sight of him. He had walked home from Sunday school with us girls once. Sister Olive was the attraction. She was thought to be the prettiest but she had a young man coming from Grinnell to see her, so Father dropped that lead. I was fifteen then. Later, he went with Estella a year or more, off and on. Estella was a good dresser, like she always fixed her own girls. Well, then it happened when I was 18, we had all gone to Wheelerwood S. S. and built a fire and crowded round it to get warm. When the others scattered around the room I stayed by the stove and so did Father. That seemed queer but, to be doing something, I opened the “hot blast” in the top of the stove, “so the fire would burn better.” Dad promptly shut it and told me, “It burns better closed.” He didn’t know any more than I do, I thought stubbornly and reached again. Isn’t that silly, remembering every tiny detail. well, while we lingered there he asked me to go to Fairview church with him that evening and I took the plunge. I was never one to do things on the spur of the moment and to go with Dad was undreamed of. We visited together like two people just made for each other. In all my life I never had talked with anyone like we did. The second time I went with Father he told me I was his girl and we were going to get married. This is long in the telling, isn’t it, Jean, and what I just wrote is a proper ending. But it took three years courting after that. You see I had read many a story of girls who believed and trusted to their sorrow. No gay young man was going to make a fool out of me. So whenever Dad talked getting married (which was every blessed evening we spent together, ambling along country roads behind old Prince or Daisy), I was on my guard. One Friday evening he brought me home from Wilson’s where I boarded and taught school and I had been doing some stern thinking–why does he go to all this trouble, taking me so far in this bitter cold weather (6 or 8 horse miles) every Sunday and Friday? It isn’t possible that he loves me because I’m so dumb and homely. Well, I can’t figure it out but I must say Thank You. I did, just when Dad was putting his coat on after warming in the kitchen. It made him angry and he made me take back that Thank You, incautious whispers so as not to wake the sleeping family. “But I don’t know why you do it,” I told him and he answered, “You do, too, know why I do it” and kissed me and went home. The second Christmas he gave me my ring. I accepted it but with reservations in my own mind. Used to give him back my ring every so often, and then we had to talk and talk for hours, ironing out all the misunderstanding, and then I’d have my ring back and everything was like heaven between us, all but that stubborn doubt I never could quite be rid of. Remember once I planned to settle it, more matter of fact about breaking our engagement, only not give him back the ring at all. Because he used to no pay much attention to what I said, only insist that I must keep wearing my ring. This time he wouldn’t know until later when he found the ring in his breast coat pocket. I got it slipped in there cautiously, and then I got scared for fear he might not find it and it be lost. From somewhere about me I got hold of a safety pin–oh, goodness, was I a silly girl.
Jean, I always meant to tell my daughters about their father and mother, if they cared to listen. But whether you read all this through or not it is a secret between us that I’ve told you. We women ought to stick together.