Secret Treasures of My Mother’s Heart, 1988
I opened the chest, and the pungent scent of cedar filled my nostrils as I sat cross-legged on the raw wood floor under beams that angled up and held my house together.
I inherited this cedar trunk when my mother died unexpectedly in November, 1985. It was not an unusual or attractive piece of furniture. In fact, it was a plain, old, rectangular, wooden chest that was heavy and bulky. Although my mother never talked about this chest, I knew intuitively that it was meant for me. I sensed the chest was an important tie to my mother’s life, although I really didn’t know why. My husband and brothers moved it from my mother’s house to mine, and even though I was curious about its contents, I stored it in the attic and avoided opening it for three years. The sudden loss of my mother to a heart attack when she was sixty was shocking and painful, and in my grief I was not able to handle her belongings.
It was also a hectic time, and I had other distractions that enriched my life. I was married to a good man and was now a mother, too, and I stayed busy tending to my daughter, age three, named Ruth after my mother, whose name was Ruth Evelyn, and my two-year-old son, Dana, named after my father. I also worked thirty hours a week at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville and created a balance of quality time with my children and family while working outside the home. The days went by in a blur.
On this chilly, fall, Sunday afternoon, I decided I was ready to see what my mother kept in this mystery chest that I knew so little about.
It was half full and held an autograph book from my mother’s teen years and a 1941 East High School annual from her senior year. I sorted through hand-stitched towels, crocheted doilies, and a completed stitched flower design from a crewel embroidery kit, all in perfect condition. In awe, I realized this must be my mother’s hope chest, given to her by her parents when she became engaged to my father in 1944.
1944. The world was deeply entrenched in World War II, and I knew my father was a P-51 pilot stationed in Europe during this time.
Under the handmade items in the trunk were my baby book from 1948 and a framed baby photo of me with hand-painted, soft pink cheeks and a carefully arranged lock of real hair in a curl pasted on my head. I came along three years after the war. I found several pairs of keepsake bronzed baby shoes and two cloth soldier dolls in good condition that belonged to my younger twin brothers. Suddenly, I was filled with a longing for my mother.
At the bottom of the trunk I found three shoe boxes tied neatly with ribbon. The cardboard was worn and had ragged edges. I untied the string around one of the boxes, lifted the lid, and found letters addressed to my mother. Instinctively, I knew who had written them. I lifted the boxes out of the trunk, flipped through a stack, and looked at the return addresses—Flight 17, Keesler Field, Mississippi; Squadron F-2, Nashville, Tennessee; Craig Field, Selma, Alabama; Perry Army Air Field, Perry, Florida. There were two hundred fifty letters in the boxes, all postmarked in the 1940s, all still in good condition as if waiting to be found. My heart skipped because I knew instinctively that they were the words of my father. I picked out a few to read.
Golly, Ev, I wanta see you so darn bad it hurts. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love you in these letters.
11 February 1944
The letters would tell a story of the day my father met my mother at a USO-sponsored dance at the YMCA in Nashville, his journey through flight training, and his travels overseas as a fighter pilot during the war.
I have a secret ambition to fly a P-51 Mustang. Man alive, give me one of those and a couple of good wing men, and lookout Luftwaffe.
23 March 1944
I start night flying tonight, and if I can stay on the beam and not have any accidents I’ll be “in.” Now, if I’m made a Flight Officer, I’ll be just about the happiest guy in the world. Wings and bars, a furlough slip in my pocket and on my way to see the most wonderful gal in the world.
28 February 1944
My intuitions had been correct. This trunk was a very special secret of my mother’s heart that she kept safely hidden away. I began to cry. My mother had kept these letters for over thirty years as a reminder of a love that even death could not end.
I don’t know how I can tell you how much I love you, after having you in my arms just two short ago . . . Golly, baby, I feel like a new man, no kiddin’ . . . I go around telling all the guys I know that I’m engaged . . . to the sweetest girl in the whole world.
15 March 1944
My father trained at different air fields in the South, then was assigned to the 328th Fighter Squadron and the 352nd Fighter Group stationed in England and later Belgium during the war. These letters must have sustained my mother and held her together during the war years and after her husband’s untimely death ten years later.
I think about what I’m going to do after the war. If I make the grade and get my wings and outlive the war, I’m going to try and get a connection with an airline . . . I’d sure like to retire after the war and just love you!
15 March 1944
Cobby was thirty-one years old when he died on June 25, 1955, in a horrific airplane crash while flying on a weekend mission with the Ohio National Guard. He worked as an aeronautical engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and lived with his eyes on the sky. My mother, brothers, and I were visiting my grandparents in St. Albans, West Virginia, that day. I was seven years old, and my twin brothers were barely five, when our mother received that unexpected, life-changing call.
An experienced fighter pilot, my father had survived the terrible war in Europe, which made his death more of an unbelievable shock. The grief settled in my mother’s heart where it stayed tucked away inside.
Life went on. My mother moved her family to her hometown of Nashville to be close to her parents and found a part-time typing job she could do from home. She was not prepared to work outside the home, so the next few years we lived on savings and life insurance payments in a small two-bedroom rental house down the street from my grandparents.
Eventually, my mother remarried, and changes occurred again in our lives, as she tried to carve out a new family that would include a wonderful little sister. But it was clear that my mother married for convenience and financial security for her children, and over the years she focused on raising us, finding satisfaction in volunteer work, and nurturing relationships with a circle of women friends.
I believe the threads of joy found in her memories of love helped sustain her as the years went by, and this love was shared with us in ways other than personal stories and black-and-white photographs. My mother’s eyes sparkled when she talked of our father. I could hear happiness in her laughter as she recalled funny incidents that happened and devotion in her voice as she spoke about Cobby. I could feel the love. My mother savored her memories with my father and often talked of feeling lucky to have found such a great love for eleven wonderful years.
My brothers grew up to be what my mother referred to as a “combination of our father.” Pat had his tall, lanky build, full lips, and fun-loving personality, while twin brother Mike, better known as Moose, was shorter with broad shoulders, our dad’s same blondish hair, sky-blue eyes, a big infectious grin, and joy for living life fully. Both brothers, like our father, grew up knowing that flying airplanes would be part of their future. After college they both joined the U.S. Air Force. Pat flew the F-106 Interceptor for several years, and Mike stayed in for twenty years where he flew his dream plane, the F-15 Eagle, while serving as Operations Officer of the 94th Tactical Fighter Squadron. The love of flying airplanes was in their blood and connected them to the heart of our father and mother.
I didn’t have that connection. But now I had these letters, and I couldn’t wait to tell my brothers.
I moved my treasure boxes from the attic and contemplated what I would do with them. I collected more letters from Cobby’s mother, Fritzi, who had kept newspaper clippings from war time, brochures from flight training sites, and letters her son had written home to her. I organized and sorted all the letters in chronological order. A pattern emerged, and I noticed there were often two or three letters written each week.
I read them all and discovered, to my profound delight, that my father’s letters were straight from the heart and told the story of his life and the times. A story of a nineteen-year-old man who gave up his football scholarship at Miami of Ohio University to join the United States Army Air Corp to fight for his country in World War II. A story about a family and how values of honor and responsibility learned at home were lived out in a war. A story about a man who found true love. This is a story rich with historical events, places, and people that rocked our world, and a remarkable time in history when Americans were united in support of their country. But for me, these letters tell a story that brought my dad to life again. And these letters will give my children—my parents’ namesakes—understanding of the substance of their foundation and will show all the family what we’re built on and what will always hold us tightly together as the generations pass.