By Guest Blogger Amanda Howard
“The days go quickly, but just the same it seems ages and ages between the times we are with each other.”
–January 25, 1922
At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic last winter, archives, museums and libraries urged the communities they served to start keeping pandemic diaries. Those institutions themselves began projects to document the experiences of everyone touched by COVID-19, actively collecting oral histories and other materials to reflect a slow-moving tragedy in real time while emphasizing the importance of diverse everyday experience. Additionally, these same organizations spearheaded letter writing campaigns, supplying prompts for people to reflect on and share their lives in quarantine or connecting them with pen pals to alleviate loneliness. The dying art of the handwritten letter was being rediscovered and everyday experience celebrated.
A century before us, just on the other side of another pandemic, Bill (Earl Kennedy) and Mickey (Marie McCarthy) exchanged “specials,” candy, and even Thanksgiving gifts in a long-distance courtship and engagement. Their letters and tokens crisscrossed Ohio, then further, to and from New York City, where Mickey relocated to take a job. Bill’s letters document the mutual loneliness of being apart and the fleeting happiness of weekend visits when he would drive from Findlay to Cleveland to meet Mickey.
It’s too often repeated that history is written by the powerful, but in the couple’s humble correspondence we find details, both dramatic and mundane, of everyday middle-class life in 1920s Ohio. In an anecdote about how he came to take “B” as his middle initial, Bill also drops a quiet bombshell, relating the recent murder of his high school friend, Claire:
“He called me Bill, and as I didn’t know who he was, I called him Bill. After that we were good friends and the name Bill stuck to me until now. In high school I had the prefix B&D. What I’m getting at is that this boy was Claire Kagy who was murdered in Cleveland. I believe the trial is now going on.”
He also describes numerous dances, football games, golf, ‘picture shows,’ and the intricacies of choosing an engagement ring long distance.
“Of course questions concerning your ring aren’t foolish. It’s just your Bill’s so afraid he wouldn’t get what his little girl wanted, so he had to ask questions. Will just have an engraved band and everything.”
Illnesses, injuries, neighbors, meals and work are threaded throughout, and without Mickey’s side of the conversation, we are asked to make the connections that archives demand. We fill in blanks and reflect on the kinds of fleeting moments that filled their lives—and ours—while they waited to be married.
As many of us in the 2020s also wait to be reunited with loved ones, separated by lockdowns and social distancing, absorbing Bill’s words can bring the pangs of recognition of missing someone many miles away. Reading them also reminds us of the creative ways we’ve sustained and forged connections through the written word during this time, whether text, email, or Tweet, and how couples have met virtually and dated by Zoom. We may also feel longing for the normalcy of dancing in a sweaty crowd or sitting in a movie theater, pastimes that the passing of a hundred years hasn’t changed.
Other, more famous long distance, epistolary relationships spring to mind: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and his patron Nadezha von Meck, who communicated only through letters, agreeing never to meet in person. Deep connections with undefinable contours find shape in letters between composers Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms or conservationist Rachel Carson and longtime confidant Dorothy Freeman. Or there are Ernest Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich, who adored each other, but could never quite get their timing right. Their correspondence reflects and suggests their intimacy back to us. The tension between ‘IRL’ and virtual relationships isn’t new.
In archives, we talk a lot about whose stories get told, “gaps in the record,” and marginalized voices. The words of individuals, whether spoken, written or texted, help fill the void in documentation and the voids in our hearts. The stories of average people take on new significance as we seek to understand what everyday life in the past truly looked like–to illuminate histories that have been erased. Letters like these light the way.
Amanda Howard is an oral historian and archivist specializing in audiovisual materials at University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections. A Kansas native, she has an abiding love for the people, places and history of the Midwest.
Further Reading about cultural institutions and letter writing in the time of coronavirus:
A Selection of Covid-19 Archives Projects:
PandemiDiarios, is a microgrant program, funded by the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, to support students, academic professionals, and community-based artists and practitioners in creating works reflecting on the human experience of the COVID-19 pandemic from the Special Collections Library of the University of Arizona.