At the recent 109th Annual Hartle Reunion a family member presented me with a letter dated November 17, 1909. It was written by my grandfather, Thomas Purl, to a man who would soon be a relative. Unlike the one postmark used today, this letter is stamped by five postal services beginning at Fort Monroe, Virginia, before reaching its destination. Six red two-cent stamps with George Washington’s profile are atop a beautifully written ‘Special Delivery’. No street address or zip code, just:
A previous blog explained Purl’s circumstances. He lived in various family homes after his parents died. He lost his inheritance shortly after getting it, and joined the army. His seven siblings, including Mary, safely guarded their inheritances.
His war record is sketchy due to the July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center that destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files, so I didn’t know about his brief stay at Fort Monroe, Virginia, that first year.; or, that he’d gotten any leave that early in his military career. This would have been a great letter to to include in Yours in a Hurry. It describes Purl's situation at the time well.
I was glad to get one of his early letters. Even in later years, people marveled at his beautiful script (at right). He was supposedly an impulsive child, but he and all his siblings were well taught. Their older sister, Anna, was a school teacher. Purl worked as a railroad depot clerk until he retired. I’m sure they appreciated his 19th century calligraphy.
Have you ever uncovered a surprising letter from the past? What did it tell you?
"A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Looking at a family photo can give hints as to why some things turn out the way they do. Body language and facial expression tell a lot. In this photo of my mother and her siblings circa 1926 (right), William, standing at left, looks disturbed about something. Suddenly, memories of the siblings later in life come back to me.
The twins are around three at the time. I’m pretty sure that my mother, Edith, is the one looking at the camera. Ellen, who went by Jane, was always looking for fun and taking greater risks. They were a surprise to grandma who had them when she was 42. Financially it was a burden. Now grandpa was a clerk for the railroad depot with six children. And grandma couldn’t say no when any neighbor or passer-by was on hard times and needed something. She was a dedicated member of the Pilgrim Holiness church down the street, and the children belonged until they were old enough to make their own decisions. At that point, they left. But that meant that the teen-aged twins had to sneak out of the house to go to the movies or wear make-up. As a child, I wasn’t permitted to wear shorts to grandma’s. She didn’t approve.
The girls married ex-service men and had families. Edith moved out of town and always missed the family.
Addison, Alma and Robert
Addison (middle rear in photo) and Robert (front right) served in World War 2, and then came home and raised families. Ruby (back right) had a mental disability. Back then she was labeled ‘slow’. She was grandma's special child. She may have been slow, but she could memorize the Bible. Everyone in the family loved her. She died young of leukemia. My mother always had a special place in her heart for those with disabilities because of Ruby.
William’s story is different- and heartbreaking for his mother. He was described as stubborn and moody. Grandma was the only one he cared for. He married shortly before going to war. His wife had a baby, and the family became close to little Patty. His wife worked at a bank, became involved with her boss, moved to the big city, divorced William, and married the banker.
Rumor has it that William started drinking when he lost his wife and child—but it could have been earlier. Grandma didn’t believe in divorce, and he knew he’d let her down. He’d never gotten along with grandpa who was very loyal to grandma. After this, he and grandpa never spoke. William moved out west and never told anyone where he was. Every few years he’d slip back home to see his mother.
I only saw him once. When I was about three, I was sleeping on my grandparent’s living room floor late at night and can remember the front door opening. I woke up, startled, but not afraid. A tall, thin man was equally as startled seeing me. He didn’t smile or speak, merely walked toward the back of the house. Shortly, my mother came and took me upstairs. I didn't see him again; he was gone the next morning.
The family had difficulty tracking him down after grandma died. They only knew that he was working as a migrant farmer in Washington state. His then-current partner convinced him to respond to a registered letter that finally reached him. William said he didn’t want anything from the family, and never wanted contact with them again. I found his death on Ancestry.com many years later.
I’ve often wished I’d known more of William’s early story. But the family rarely spoke of him. What or who was he looking at in the photo? Was it his father? Maybe he just didn't want to be in the photo. Why? The family loved William’s first wife and child, so I can understand his need to get away from that situation for a while, but his life decision was drastic.
Someone is missing from the photo. My mother was always sad that grandpa never included Alma in family photos. She remembered Alma always standing off to the side. Grandma was a widow when she married grandpa, and Alma was her daughter from the first marriage. Grandma was older than grandpa, and Alma was older than the siblings. Maybe that’s why. A few years later, Alma had a daughter out of wedlock. Grandma knew that Alma had a harder time than the others, so she made sure that the family came together and embraced the daughter, who became one of the most loved family members until she died a few years ago. We have photos of her when she was young. It would have been nice to have photos of Alma when she was younger.
Care to share?
Have you ever looked at a photo and wondered what was going on in that instant? If you have and would like to share, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post them via this website or on my Yours in a Hurry Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/YoursinaHurry/.