Is it okay to read a parent’s intimate correspondence that they never shared while alive?
It’s suddenly a question I must ask. I still haven’t managed to finally finish sorting through and disposing of the papers that followed my parents to the ends of their very long lives. Endless photos, letters, Christmas cards, handwritten notes, newspaper clips, obits of friends…the variety is endless. I’ve managed to cull the “What in the world should I do with this?” category to just a few boxes that are safely in storage while I wait for the psychological energy to return to the task.
But now there’s a new task at hand…another round of sorting, this time going through my sister’s stuff, since it’s unlikely that she’ll be able to do it herself, given her current health challenges.
Today I opened a box in her bedroom, and recognized an old wooden box that had belonged to our father. I lifted the lid, and found a stack of handwritten letters from an old girlfriend of his. The first letter I picked up was penned in 1933, and scolded him for taking so long to reply to an earlier missive. I don’t know how many letters there are. The stack is maybe four inches high. My sister must have taken them from his room after my dad died, but never mentioned them to me.
The letters are from Betty Peabody, a Michigan woman my dad met, probably just after graduating from high school. My sister recalls my mother saying “that woman’s picture” hung on the wall in my parents’ bedroom for several years, even after they were married. I’ve found several snapshots that I believe are of Peabody, only one with my dad’s handwritten note identifying her.
He sometimes talked about hitchhiking across the country to see the 1933 Worlds Fair in Chicago, and then spend time at the Peabody family’s farm in Birmingham, Michigan. But he never spoke to me directly about Peabody or their relationship.
From the bits and pieces, I think Peabody had spent time–a summer, perhaps?–with a relative in Long Beach, California. They met and, I now know, corresponded for years afterwards. She graduated from high school in 1933, and later earned a degree in Home Economics from Michigan State University. A copy of her graduation program was among his papers when he died, along with photos indicating he had attended the graduation ceremony.
Peabody has always been a special and mysterious figure in my dad’s life. Mysterious to my sister and I, that is.
Now I’ll retrieve the box and the letters. I intend to read to through them, although it makes me feel like I’m violating their privacy by digging into things my dad never talked about. And the other hand, he kept these letters for nearly nearly 80 years, and I want to know why. Perhaps it’s because they might tell me something more about my dad as a person, not as a father figure, but just as a guy just starting what turned out to be a long, long life.
And if I do read them, then what? Perhaps I’ll return them to her surviving family members. I’ve already searched online and found an obituary that identifies her relatives. Perhaps that’s the best I can do, and just let them decide whether the letters are worth saving.