My grandmother Helen Dow Hale was smart and funny. She was one of six children, the oldest one in her family. She had loads of friends when she went to college. She was young and vibrant and full of hope and plans for the future. She graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1916. While there, along with studying and joining a sorority Theta of Alpha Phi and making new friends, she fell in love with her chemistry professor, William J. Hale (my grandfather). I have a collection of the letters that they wrote to each other before they married.

Helen’s turquoise parasol

Apparently, the romance became real in her senior year, sometime after Christmas 1915. Were they attracted to each other for a while before this? I don’t know. They were both handsome people. Helen’s father was a scientist which gave her an incentive to study chemistry. Did her friends know she was attracted to her professor? Who spoke first? Was it gradual or instant? We don’t know all the details. But it is fun to speculate.

Their correspondence is available to read. It is not too difficult to piece it together from there what happened. The first letter that I have was written on December 24, 1915. It was a formal note to her professor thanking him for a Christmas card that made her laugh and a box of candy. She calls him Dear Mr. Hale as was proper for addressing her professor. But it is a newsy cheerful letter. It was much more personal than just a formal note of thanks. She talked about decorating the dining room table for Christmas and a dance she was invited to. She mentions a book given to her by some group and that it was tantalizing her because she could not find time to read it. She clearly wanted to keep writing him. She included many things she need not have if it were only a thank you note. She signed it Merry Christmas, Helen Dow.

Written from Detroit

The next letter was written on February 4, 1916. Clearly things had changed within a period a little more than a month. She was definitely flirting now. They must have spent more time alone together because she began to call him Dear Dr. Billy. She told him that was what she had determined to call him. She loved to tell him about what she was doing, and that included trips in a car to Bay City, from Midland where she lived. She told him stories about her siblings and her parents.

Things were soon more intimate and she began her letters “Billy Dear.”She chatted along in her notes to him, mentioning her family, and friends. It is clear that she loved clothes. She mentions sewing a great deal. In one letters she mentions that “I am going to make a dress today.” So it is evident that she made some of her own. But she was also taken to a dressmaker in Bay City to have nicer dresses made for her. If only there were letters that could tell how and when he asked her to marry him and gave her a ring, but they lived in the same town and saw each other constantly. So there are no letters to give up that secret.

However, the romance was in full bloom by May. He had declared his love and given her a ring. We know this because she writes to tell him how she watched her ring sparkle on the way home in the train. Clearly it was new to her. That letter was written on May 27th . She says I sewed most of the way home so that “I could watch my ring sparkle without seeming to be looking at it.” It was a 1 carat diamond solitaire.

I know the stone. It more or less matched my mother’s engagement ring as she requested one “like the one worn by my mother.” when my father asked her to marry him. Later, my father had the two diamonds made into a pair of exquisite earrings surrounded by a halo of smaller diamonds. It made me happy that it was possible to wear my mothers’ and my grandmothers’ engagement rings as part of that pair of earrings. There were given to me on my 21st birthday. Now they belong to my daughter Lilla who wears them to this day.

China dresser set.

Helen Dow graduated in the spring of 1916. Another letter tells how she wore her cap and gown around her house to show her younger siblings. The letters increase markedly because from then on they were separated. He lived in Ann Arbor because he was a professor at the University. Helen went home to Midland where she lived with her parents. From then on the letters continued daily. Sometimes even more than one a day. Lots of space is taken up by worries about catching the mail, stopping by the post office, or special mail that might arrive on Sunday. There is one letter that mentions a phone call but complained that it was almost impossible to understand what was being said due to static on the line.

Helen’s signature in gold

Helen chatted away about her days, trying to bring them alive for him. She often spoke of walking the garden of her parents’ house. She described flowers and mentioned the mosquitos, the wet grass, and how difficult it was to reach the high branches of some flowering trees. She had tiny feet which I know because I used to play “dress up” in a pair of her shoes when I was a little girl. In fact, we have some of her clothes still, in a trunk with the initials H D in gold stamped on top. She mentioned this trunk in a couple of her letters.

She told him about painting china. She promised that when they were married she would be sure not to let the odor of the painting linger, as it was a pungent one. My family and I have many pieces of china she painted. She loved flowers and colors and gilded ribbons. She painted with a deft hand intricate floral designs and steady tiny lines in gold. Her signature was written in gold on nearly every piece. Sometimes she forgot to date them, but most are from her teens. The earliest one I have is from 1908 when she was 14 years old.

And soon the salutations became Billy Dear, then Billy Dearest, later my Lover. You will have to wait to hear more in my next blog post.

Copyright©. 2021 Bonnie B. Matheson

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