This past Christmas season, my husband, two daughters and I traveled to Spencer, West Virginia, to visit my parents. During this visit, I decided to explore their attic. They have lived in their home in the mountains since 1953, so investigating the attic was a trip down memory lane for me.
I pulled down the folding steps and climbed the unstable ladder to the dusty, cold, wood-planked third floor. I looked around and noticed a very old, barrel-shaped covered basket in the corner. I seemed to remember that this basket was filled with old letters my parents wrote to each other during World War II. I opened the lid of the basket, and there they were, letters piled high, faded and dirty-untouched since the day they'd been tossed there.
It seemed a shame to leave them that way. Deciding to read and organize them by day and month, I asked Mother and Daddy if I could take the letters back to my Illinois home. They agreed, and soon after returning, I started my little project. As I opened each letter, all of them delicate with age, I discovered a new and previously unrevealed page in this private chapter of my parents' lives.
My father served in the Army as a first lieutenant, 117th Infantry in the 30th Division. His letters were full of frontline accounts of landing on Omaha Beach, and they continued all the way through the Battle of the Bulge. He wrote about his daily experiences with civilians, German POWs, refugees, foxholes, helmet baths and more. I was drawn to these letters like a magnet. Each of my mother's letters was sealed with her 1944 magenta lipstick kiss. Daddy wrote that he sealed his return letters by rekissing her lipstick kiss. I thought to myself, Oh, how they missed each other! This ritual filled a void in their lonely, war-torn lives.
I finished reading six months of the letters and discovered there were at least eleven months missing. Where could they be? My mother couldn't remember-perhaps, she said, they had been left in her childhood home; she had lived there with her mother while Daddy was overseas. If so, that meant they were lost forever.
Just six weeks after our Christmas visit, Daddy became very ill and was hospitalized. This time, he was fighting a different kind of war. A new prescription for arthritis had been introduced to his system, and it had almost killed him. He was scheduled for kidney dialysis when I decided to fly down to West Virginia to visit him. As I sat by his bedside, we discussed the letters. He told me how much receiving those lipstick-kissed letters had meant to him when he had been so far from home.
As I left, the thought raced through my mind that tomorrow was Valentine's Day. But I quickly dismissed this thought. My father wasn't in any kind of shape to shop for a valentine. My parents had been married for fifty-six years. My mother would understand that her valentine would just have to be skipped this year.
Later that evening, Mother and I revisited the attic in search of the lost letters. "Perhaps they are in my oldcollege trunk," my mother said as she quickly located the keys. She unlocked the large sixty-year-old trunk. Lying on top were old tattered clothes from years gone by. We started digging, and toward the bottom, we discovered an unmarked gold cardboard box. Mother said she had no clue what was inside. We both held our breath as I slowly lifted off the top. Yes! Here were the long-lost letters! They were all separated by month, tightly bundled in aged cotton twine.
We took the letters downstairs, and I began looking through them. Lying separate, on top of the bundled letters, was a large envelope. I opened it up. It was the valentine card my father had sent Mother in 1944!
The next day, Mother and I visited Daddy in the hospital. At his bedside, I joked with him, saying softly, "Today is Valentine's Day, and I know you have been a little busy lately, but I've got you covered." His curiosity was further aroused when I handed him the old envelope. He carefully opened the card, and when he recognized it, his eyes filled with tears.
There was nothing lacking that Valentine's Day after all. My father, in a voice quavering with emotion, read the loving message he'd sent to my mother fifty-six years earlier. And this time, he could read it to her in person.