My parents are selling the house that five generations of our family have lived in. It’s a large country house that use to sit in the middle of farm land. Mom and dad want a smaller house closer in to town. I’m the only girl and have two older brothers. Mom said I’m the only one with enough sense to get in out of the rain. Now that all of us are out on our own there is no need for a house this big. There are so many memories and so much love in this old house. Sometimes late at night you could almost hear the voices from the past. When a storm came up and the house creaked that’s what daddy would say “Sarah, this old house is talking to us.”
I am named after my Great Grandmother, Sarah. I am not sure how it started but all the kids called our grandparents by their family position and first name. Her parents were the ones who built the house. Great Grandma passed about 20 years ago. She was beautiful and had this very quiet strength about her. Rather unusual for a woman of that generation. I was only seven when she died.
“Sarah, are you here?”
“Yes mom I’m upstairs.” Mom slowly moved up the stairs, ones she had walked on hundreds of times.
“I have captured so many memories in this house Sarah.”
“I know mom, me too.” Mom’s mood seemed to change as we spoke.
“It’s as if I am losing a part of myself Sarah. My mother was born in the room across the hall.
“Dad and the boys moved all the furniture out of the attic yesterday. The only things left are an old wooden chest and a couple of rugs. My cousin Kathy wants the rugs so drop them off on the way home. I have no idea what’s in the chest because it is locked. Dad said use a screw driver to open it up and see what’s in there, probably just old clothes.” I’m leaving; I have to meet with the real estate agent in 30 minutes.”
“Ok mom I’ll go up to the attic now and take care of that.”
One of my favorite places in the house is the attic. It is really big and has large arched window that bring lots of light in. My mom told me they put the big windows in because there was no electricity to the house when it was built in 1910. As a little girl I would come up to the attic and play when the weather was bad. Walking over toward the chest memories came flooding back. I was thinking that I haven’t seen this thing in years. It’s beautiful with brass fittings and is covered in leather. It belonged to Great Grandma Sarah; her initials are engraved on the front of it.
I gently pried open the latch and pushed up the heavy top. There was a drawer that lifted out revealing the rest of the chest. It was like traveling back in time because it appeared as if the chest had not been opened for a long time. I placed the top drawer on the floor.
There was a cache of dried flowers in the drawer next to a pen, ink bottle and stationary. I also found some jewelry and a beautiful hair comb craved out of whale bone that Grandma Sarah used to hold up her long auburn locks.
Just then an odd sensation came over me, as if there was someone else nearby. I am not sure why but I actually picked up my head and looked around. It sounds so silly.
Looking in to the chest I saw a lovely white dress and lifted it out. I stood up and holding the dress let it fall to the floor. As it opened to its full length I suddenly realized this was Grandma Sarah’s wedding dress.
I stood in front of an old mirror and held the dress against me. She must have looked so beautiful on that day. I folded up the dress and placed it in the top drawer. Looking back in the chest I saw some letters tied together with a red ribbon. Next to them I noticed one letter, addressed, sealed but never mailed. The letter was addressed to a Private with the 42nd Infantry Division in France. Grandma Sarah was corresponding with a World War I soldier, a Doughboy!
I picked up the letters tied with the red ribbon and held them in my hand not knowing what to do. Should I read the letters or just throw them away. What would Grandma Sarah want me to do?
The letters and more importantly, the one who wrote them must have been very special for her to keep her correspondence for all these years. Alone with my thoughts I felt a slight breeze blow across my face and it brought me back into the moment. I paused briefly and again got that feeling of another presence when I realized all the windows were closed.
I decided that Great Grandma Sarah would not mind me reading her letters and pulled the ribbon loose. The letters tumbled from my hand as if they were waiting all this time to tell their story.
There were four letters in total, three from a Pvt. Joshua Clemmons and one from Pvt. William Brooks. The letter that had not been sent was addressed to Joshua Clemmons and had Grandma Sarah’s maiden name above the return address.
I pulled the first letter out and began to read it……”Darling Sarah,” I was startled, they were love letters to my Great Grandma Sarah but they weren’t from my Great Grandpa! I continued to read “I began missing you the moment we parted. Your gentle embrace and loving kiss bid me a grand bon voyage. I walked away quickly because I could not bare the sight of you crying. I am carrying the silk handkerchief you gave me inside my uniform, close to my heart. We have just arrived in France and are not being told where we are going. All they tell us is we are going to the front. The trip here was dreadful and almost everyone got seasick. Keep me in your thoughts, as Shakespeare wrote, parting is such sweet sorrow.”
Talk about a revelation, what now? I am sure my mother doesn’t know anything about this. That last name sounded familiar.
I ran downstairs and went into the kitchen. I found the local phone listings and searched for the last name Clemmons. The listing showed four people with that last name. Then I remembered how I know that name. My cousin dated a football player named Clemmons. He went to a high school two towns over from us.
I had already read one of the letters and decided that I should read the rest of them before I spoke to my mother. I ran back upstairs and sat down next to the chest. The letters were lying on the floor and I picked them up.
Looking at the post marks I put the letters in the order they arrived. They were all post marked with the year 1918. I pulled out the next letter and began reading again. “Darling Sarah, we were issued new equipment and rifles. Our battalion has a full complement of soldiers and we began training last week. The French are a bit standoffish but friendly none the less. I have made two good friends, William or Bill as he prefers to be called and a fellow from out west named Mathew that only answers to Tex. As misery loves company Billy, Tex and I have become very attached to each other. The hospitals are overflowing with wounded so we will be moving up to the front very soon.”
This letter had a second page. “My last look at your beautiful face stays close in my memory. We have often talked of the future and what we would like it to hold for us. I love you more than I ever imagined I could love anyone. Having you in my life gives me the strength to go on. If I were home now I would get down on one knee when I said, lovely Sarah will you marry me so we can spend the rest of our lives together? Say yes and I shall be the happiest man in the world.”
I began to tremble when I read this. What could have happened that would make Grandma Sarah say no, or did she. Maybe Joshua changed his mind. I know they didn’t get married because Joshua is not my Great Grandpa! My mind was racing now with all the possibilities and the thought that Joshua could have been my Great Grandpa.
Thinking back to a family reunion long ago I remember my mom telling me Great Grandpa was a World War I veteran too, the man Great Grandma Sarah did marry.
As a little girl we visited my Grandmother often and she had a picture of her father in his Army uniform standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. I don’t remember his real first name because everyone called him by his nickname “Buck”. He was a big man with a wide smile who worked as a lawyer and later a county judge for almost forty years.
My hands were shaking slightly as I opened the next letter. Having access to only one side of this ongoing correspondence I could only speculate as to what happened. What was Great Grandma’s response to the marriage proposal? Is the answer in the next letter? I would soon see if my questions are answered.
The letter began “Darling Sarah”. Ok, maybe he had not received her response yet, would it be a plea for her to reconsider? “I opened your letter with great apprehension not knowing what your answer would be. As I followed your words my heart soared when I read that you accepted my proposal and will be my wife.” I did not expect this. Now it truly has become a mystery. They were very much in love when he proposed and my Great Grandma accepted but they never married.
I continued reading, “We will be married as soon as I return and build a house on a hill over looking the town center. I have been given this land by my father. I carry the picture you gave me and speak of you often to Bill and Tex. They were not courting anyone when we left and enjoy hearing of our plans. We arrived at the front a week ago but I am not allowed to tell you where we are. Things are much worse than we could even have imagined. In all places you look there is death. The dead from both sides are everywhere and by the mercy of God they have been delivered from this hell. The air stinks of death and gunpowder from the constant artillery fire. The trenches go on for infinity and provide little cover from the Hun’s machine guns and this miserable weather. Disease and trench foot causes as much causality as combat. The rumor is we will be attacking soon. The alert will go down the line and when our captain blows his whistle we rush over the top. Like little tin soldiers we will line up and charge across no man’s land toward the German machine guns. Pray God we end the day victorious.”
That was the last letter from Joshua to Great Grandma Sarah. How horrible it must have been for our soldiers. There was one letter left to read and I got a very uneasy feeling. It was the letter from Pvt. William Brooks and was also addressed to Great Grandma Sarah.
I carefully slid the letter out of the envelope and began reading. “Sarah, I have heard so much about you from Josh that I feel like I know you. In such times as this when the Army needs to convey information about a soldier it is done by contacting only their wife if married or parents if not. Others must get the news second hand. Josh and I became as close as brothers since we entered the Army and I did not want you to get the news I must give you in that manner. I am writing this letter from our battalion field hospital.” A chill ran through me and I couldn’t continue. I was afraid to finish reading the letter and began crying. Oh god, please don’t let it be.
I wanted to call mom but thought better of it. I knew I had to finish this letter. “Our battalion was ordered to charge the German trenches shortly after dawn. Josh, Tex and I stayed close to each other when we heard the whistle to charge. Josh was promoted to corporal three days ago and led our squad in the charge. The smoke made it as dark as night, we were moving fast and suddenly broke out in to the daylight fifty yards from the German machine guns. Josh killed two Germans nearby and we all went after the machine gun shooting at us. I got shot in the leg and fell while Josh continued to the machine gun bunker. Josh killed two more Germans before he was mortally wounded. We arrived at the field hospital together. Josh was on the stretcher next to me and knew he was going to die. He asked me to visit his parents and you. Josh wanted you know he loved you very much and was sorry that the dreams you both talked of would not come true. I share your feeling of grief and will visit with Josh’s family when I return.”
Although I was far removed from this tragedy I still felt a sense of loss and couldn’t imagine the sorrow Great Grandma Sarah was experiencing. Now I know why two young people so much in love didn’t get married.
Later in the evening I spoke with my mother who was overwhelmed by story and she was not aware the letters even existed. I asked mom about how Great Grandma Sarah met Great Grandpa Buck.
Mom said over the years she heard bits and pieces but if I really wanted to know all the details to ask my Grandma Jessie, Great Grandma Sarah’s daughter. The next day I planned to do that.
First thing in the morning I went over to Grandma Jessie’s house and told her all about my experience from yesterday.
Grandma Jessie said “Oh Sarah, I don’t know where to start. I haven’t talked about all that since before you where born.” Grandma Jessie said she knew her mom kept the letters from Joshua in the chest but she never read them. “Sarah I was going to have this conversation with you some day so it might as well be today.”
I had so many questions and was talking so fast Grandma Jessie said “Slow down Sarah, I can only answer one question at a time. My grandmother told me than when my mom found out Joshua was killed in France she was devastated.
Mom didn’t leave the house for weeks and just sort of stopped living. Everybody in the family was worried about her and didn’t know what do. I asked her how Great Grandma met Great Grandpa Buck. “I’ll get to that part if you give me a chance.”
“You would never have been able to figure out what I am about to tell you from reading those letters. The last letter she got was from Bill Brooks telling mom that Joshua had been killed.”
I said, “Yes I read that letter. He promised to visit Great Grandma Sarah when he returned home from the war.”
Grandma replied “Well he did but let me clear something up for you so this all makes sense. Brooks was Bill’s mother’s maiden name. His daddy’s last name was Thompson.”
I said to Grandma Jessie “Now I am really confused because Thompson was Great Grandma Sarah’s married name.”
Grandma Jessie chuckled “Yes dear and it’s my maiden name.”
Grandma Jessie told me the rest of the story. “Bill was the last male in his family that could carry on the family name. Because of that the Army wouldn’t take him. They had a rule about that.
Well Bill saw all his friends join the Army to go fight the war and that wasn’t sitting well with him. Bill was a big strong young man who worked on a horse ranch and was not going to sit still for any nonsense. So he went and visited a cousin that lived in Ohio and joined the Army under his mother’s maiden name.
Back then there were no computers to check information. My goodness most people were delivered at home by a midwife or doctor and lucky if they got a birth certificate. Working on the horse ranch he got the nickname ‘Buck’ after getting tossed off a horse.”
“Grandma, Great Grandpa Buck was the best friend that Joshua talked about in the letter?”
“Yes dear, one and the same. My dad kept his promise and visited my mom. Joshua had talked to my dad about mom a lot. They had both shared the tragic lose of someone very important in their life.
When dad visited mom they got close. My parents said Buck saved your Great Grandma Sarah from dying of a broken heart.” They got married about a year later and were married 52 years when dad passed away.”