All summer of 1916 Helen wrote Billy Hale every day except on the days when they saw each other. While he was absent she spent a lot of time painting china. He visited her in Midland, which was a company town, with little else to offer the visitor.
She writes of longing to see him, to kiss him, but not too much. She is clearly passionate about him, but circumspect in her writing about this part. They were still chaste and careful of the proprieties. Young people today will not be able to relate. However, it appears to me that young people who are intimate too soon, or too easily, miss that sweet longing about which Helen writes in each and every letter. You can feel it in the words she has put on paper, in the pauses, and in the little circles she draws to equal “hugs”. Usually, she adds four or more, but sometimes she added many, many more. “Oh if only you were here!” She exclaims in nearly every letter. “I am lonesome. I am so lonesome!”
But they just wanted to be with each other. Helen hated hot weather and mosquitos and longed for winter weather when she and he could sit by the fire. It is amusing to read how often she mentions being too hot to write, too hot to have any “pep” and too hot to imagine going out in the sun. She does mention being on the porch. Did they have electric fans? She never mentioned one of those. Since she was missing him all the time it probably seemed warmer to her than it actually was.
The days dragged by and she counted each one until the next visit to Ann Arbor which she always wrote A2. The 2 was a small one perched to the right of a capital A. I suspect this was my grandfather’s way of abbreviating the name of the town where he lived and worked at the University of Michigan. As a scientist, he loved short methods of combing things. He wrote in a tiny hand, much harder to read than Helen’s. Curiously I find her handwriting fairly easy to read because it reminds me of my own handwriting from years ago. It gives me a connection to her that I cherish. She was such a cheerful, lighthearted girl. She adored her family and respected and loved her parents. There did not appear to be any strife among the siblings of close age. The little younger girls played tricks on Helen and her sister Ruth. But they admired the older girls very much.
By October Helen was mentioning her future with Billy Hale more than at first. She looks forward to living in Ann Arbor with him. Wonders what the neighbors will think of them and she has some expectations and desires. In one letter she asks about the house he is renting. She requests him to explain how it is laid out and the size of the rooms. She hopes at least one bedroom will be blue. Blue is her favorite color. Apparently, Billy’s sister planned to give them a dining room table. There are several mentions of the table, and how Helens’ mother Grace A. Dow covets it. Antiques were interesting to her. She was careful of finances though and frugal.
Yet, she chastises Billy for buying her flowers so often and candy, too. She says at least one of their future neighbors considered it strange that he was still buying these things for her now that they were engaged. And they had more telephone calls. Helen says she never knows what to say when confronted with the actual live presence on the other end of the telephone. She forgot her prepared phrases and could not think what to say. Her description of trying to talk on the telephone reminded me of my first attempts to speak into an answering machine. I would become completely tongue-tied. It seemed so unnatural to speak to “no one”. I remember hanging up in confusion the first time I was confronted with an automatic pick-up by a machine when trying to make a hair appointment. That was 1961 right after my marriage. However, today everyone speaks volumes into answering devices without feeling self-conscious.
For Helen, letters were her preferred method of communication. She could gather her thoughts and take her time. If she really made a mess of it, she could tear the paper up and begin again. That was not the case on the telephone. There she became confused and flustered easily. She compliments “Dearest Billy” on having steady nerves. She delights in his equanimity and good sense. Of course, she is still very young 22, while he was a full professor and he would turn 40 years old a month before their wedding.
One of the funniest things she says in her letters was about sleeping with a dog. Apparently, she was irritated with her family dog whose name was Ted. She complained that he was never calm. When he was sleeping she was happy. But when he woke up she worried about what he would chew up or track dirty feet upon. So in one letter, she mentions that if Billy was going to get a dog he must take care of it, himself. And she said she “I will not sleep with him either, so there!”
The reason this struck me as being so ironic and funny is that my mother always slept with her dogs and encouraged all of us to do the same. And to this day my sister and I have several of them in our beds. We would not be happy any other way. Then there is the story of how my mother got her boyfriend (later 2nd husband) to sleep with her dogs.
Helen speaks of going to the dressmaker and talking about her wedding dress. She was surprised to be talking about it so soon. And yet this was October 1916 and the wedding was to be in February 1917. Compared to today’s brides she was very relaxed. Of course, the wedding was planned to be small. She speaks of having a dress made for her sister, Ruth. She wanted it to be blue, her favorite color. But she speculates about what people would think if she were to have a blue wedding. I suspect that in those days the color meant something more somber than pink or yellow or pale green. Helen imagined Ruths’ dress of net (we might call it tulle) and not a very pale blue, but vibrant. The dress should be decorated with rose-colored beads. And her sisters’ bouquet would be of pink roses, sweet peas, and forget-me-nots.
The one thing she had her heart set upon was a long veil. She wrote that she had always imagined this for her wedding. And she says “ I intend to have it now, if possible.” It is wonderful that she got her wish. I have the photos to prove it. If you want to read more about “the Veil” follow this link. There is still a lot of time and letters between the late part of October and the wedding in February. There is more to read before describing it. In the meantime enjoy getting to know Helen and Billy through her letters to him. I have some from Billy to Helen during this time up to the last month before they wed.
That will have to wait for next week to post.
Copyright©. 2021 Bonnie B. Matheson