A letter written by my mother to an unborn child revealed a secret. Engaged to one man, loved by another, the then 22-year-old graduate student opened her heart to future generations.
There were other letters that filled the young bride's scrapbook. They tell a story about her transition into married life, from graduate studies in social work, to wife and hostess, from the suburbs of Chicago to her new home that was New York City.
We understand some of the challenges she faced as a newly married woman living at a time when the United States was on the cusp of change. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the USA, Nelson Rockefeller was elected Governor of New York, Charles de Gaulle became Prime Minister of France and Sir Edmund Hillary reached the South Pole.
A letter from my mother
Monday nite [sic], August 19, 1957
My daughter my girl, how much there is to tell you, you who do not exist in the Now — strange to lie on my bed, ever-present cigarette for company, with a record of the Chicago Lyric Opera on the hi-fi, a beautiful round engagement diamond winking accusingly at me, and a silly but caressable straw snake sitting by my side. I am 22–1/2 years old, my girl, and have just recently discovered that I am a woman: oh how hard it is to act that way. Undoubtedly you have thought of me as immature, inconsistent, a fat cow, lacking in understanding… and they’re [these thoughts are] probably true. I know, for I thought the same of my own mother at times. But now, tonight, at 22–1/2, with short brown curly hair, greenish eyes into which men read their own feelings, with 123 pounds stacked into a comfortable beddable figure, with a shyness that makes it easier to talk in quiet groups — with all this, try to understand that I too was young and if I don’t understand you now, somewhere long ago in history, on a Monday nite [sic] in 1957, I did understand and know the things you feel.
It’s a good life my daughter — live it to the utmost. My mother has said “You grab hold of every minute by the throat and choke it.” She’s right… and in spite of all my self-made and inflicted traumas, I am so glad it’s true. Your father won’t agree with me, of course. He’s had a pretty rough time with me, especially in the last few weeks.
You see tonight I’m not really sure who your father is, tho’ I’ve a damn good idea.
There was a boy in Cambridge — a student at Harvard Law — and one cold Saturday nite in the middle of March we had our first date, a “blind” one at that.
I lived in an apartment with a circular staircase and he came up the stairs wearing a snowy brownish car coat (in case they’re entirely passé now, they look like three-quarter length Tyrolean coats with hoods, usually thrown back). There I stood in my bathrobe, late per usual, looking down and he stopped on the stairs and crinkled his forehead into pleats, and I couldn’t help but laugh. We drank a lot that nite, and all of a sudden I was graceful dancer. Daughter-mine, if ever there was a klutz til that nite, ’twas me. Another boy went with us for breakfast to an all-nite cafeteria and we laughed and solved the Egyptian-Israeli problems and tried to hide our very sad scrambled eggs under the English muffins. My date drove me home, parked in front of the house, and kissed me oh so gently. And when I told him that, he said, “I think you’re worth being tender with.” Poor English and pretty corny now perhaps, but not ever to me. And so we dated almost every Saturday after that, and somewhere along the line my other dates became very uninteresting and finally nonexistent. And we decided to get married. I went to New York, met his folks briefly, and came home for a long and unhealthy summer of doing nothing. Nothing but think about my most impractical hobby. I had doubts, and as the summer progressed. The doubts became more insistent. Sure, I love him, but do I want to settle down, sit back and watch the world go by, give up all that might be otherwise. And the thought of living in New York doesn’t appeal at all, tho that may just be a rationalization for other doubts. And I don’t feel very comfortable with his family… they’re very nice but I feel like an outsider and try to behave veddy, veddy properly. But this is the man whose ring I’m wearing, whom I love and who will most likely be your father.
But then you don’t know about the boy who said tonite “Come back, Sal… come back to me.” One of the most handsome men I’ve ever known, and one of the most attractive in every way.
A friend introduced us because I wanted someone with whom to “hack around” this summer. He’s 25 and divorced, had a year old daughter whom he adores and in spite of the power in him has been hurt terribly. He’s built up a most lucrative business and is giving it up to start medical school this September because he “has to be a doctor.” And he will — a good one. I went with him only twice before the ring was given me, I’ve seen him three times with my fiancé; we’ve been together I think seven (six is crossed out) times since my fiancé went back East. We met in early July and haven’t been together enuff [sic] to barely know each other. But when that boy talks to me, I listen and I believe. My fiancé said last Friday nite on the phone “I don’t want you to ever see him again.” But Saturday nite we went to the Café de Paris and had duck and wine, we drove his Jaguar all over the north side of Chicago, we went to the Toddle House for coffee and banana cream pie at three in the morning. Sunday we went out on the motor boat that he made himself, we met some kids at the breakwater for cold chicken, we turned our backs on Chicago and headed outwards, we remembered that Missouri was only 400 miles away. If we did ever marry, we’d have to elope: I’d have been engaged two times, he’s divorced — — and social pressure is painful enough without openly courting its displeasure. Tonite my parents took us, all unknowing of what “us” means or could mean, to a benefit party for the Lyric Opera. So I’ve seen him, and I’d have seen him tomorrow if it could have been arranged as he wanted. Dirty-play — — you bet your sweet life it is: I’m an engaged woman going to see her fiancé day after tomorrow, and when a dark-haired, green eyed guy says “I’m scared Sal — I need you. I want you. Please come back to me,” it’s not supposed to matter to me. I’m not supposed to have even let this begin. But it’s begun and it matters terribley [sic]. This man is all my dreams, hopes, needs rolled into one gift package. Why not grab it?
Because I do love my fiancé. But I wonder, and will do so when you are my age and when your daughter is my age — — I’ll wonder “what if…”
LOVE IS A VERY STRANGE THING, AND IT’S NOT THE ONLY THING TO BE CONSIDERED IN CHOOSING YOUR HUSBAND. THE DREAMS, HOPES AND NEEDS ARE ALL A PART OF YOU. I GUESS THEY MODIFY WHEN THEY’RE SHARED WITH ONE’S HUSBAND. AND SOME, APPARENTLY, MUST BE LEFT AS A PART OF THE GIRLHOOD YOU MUST GROW OUT OF. IT’S HARD, SO VERY HARD TO LEAVE SOME OF IT BEHIND.
Every girl wants to get married. And there are times when you think “he’ll never come, I’ll never find him.” It’s a terrible, horrible feeling. You may go out a lot and have a ball every nite with a different boy, but you still have the feeling that the social circus is the biggest nothing ever.
BUT OH MY DAUGHTER, DON’T EVER COMPROMISE YOURSELF. FALL IN AND OUT OF LOVE IF YOU WANT. BUT WHEN YOU’RE READY TO MARRY, TO BE A PART OF SOMEONE ELSE’S LIFE AND HAVE HIM SHARE YOURS WITH YOU, BE VERY SELFISH. YOU’VE GOT ONLY ONE LIFE THAT WE KNOW OF, AND YOU’RE CHOOSING HOW — WITH WHOM — IT’S GOING TO BE SPENT. KNOW, MY DARLING. BE VERY SURE OF HIM AND MORE SO OF YOURSELF.
Tonite, long before you are born, I think I know, but I wonder too.
There are two men who want little more than to make me happy — — both of them could do it. The vacillating must end in the next few days. Thank God — you never will get born if this little farce isn’t ended soon. But I can’t really think too much about you, or my parents, or anyone but myself. Because it’s my life, and I must be very careful now in deciding what to do with it.
REMEMBER, MY DAUGHTER, THAT WHEN YOU MAKE YOUR DECISION THAT IT’S YOUR VERY OWN. YOU WON’T WANT TO HURT YOUR FATHER OR ME, YOU’LL WANT TO DO WHAT’S BEST FOR EVERYONE CONCERNED. BUT ESSENTIALLY YOU MUST DO WHAT YOU THINK WITH MAKE YOU THE HAPPIEST. IT IS NOT EASY, AND YOU MAY WONDER SOMETIMES ABOUT THE WHAT IF’S…” BUT IF YOU’RE VERY SURE ABOUT THE “WHAT IS…” THEN IT WILL TRULY BE YOUR LIFE AS YOU’VE CHOSEN TO LIVE IT.
It’s nearly three: both this day and this letter have been long ones.
Maybe you and I will be able to talk and understand each other, tho from my own experience it seems rather doubtful. Once in awhile perhaps — but there is an emotional closeness which hinders objectivity and the unguarded relaxation felt in friendship. I’ll try, my daughter, I really will. And you will go thru so many of the same experiences and feelings. The years — pile them up, tho I don’t know which of us then has the advantage: you in seeing them for the first time, or me, in looking back.
But tonite, with so heavy a head and so unsure a heart,
I can understand you, my dear. Because I am trying to decide what to do with my life, and I am 22–1/2 and so deeply loved by two entirely different men, and the things I wonder about are almost as strong as the things I know.
THERE’S A LONG LIFE AHEAD, AND THERE MUSTN’T BE ANY MISTAKE IN WHO WILL SHARE IT. AND HOW DO YOU DECIDE — — AH, THAT IS MY WONDER TONITE. I GUESS YOU MUST KNOW THAT THIS MAN, ABOVE ALL OTHERS, IS YOUR MAN. WHEN I KNOW, THAT IS THE MAN WHO WILL BE YOUR FATHER.
Oh it is so late — — —
Goodnite, God bless you, sweet dreams -
Me — — your mother
Letter written by Sally Roos, transcribed by her daughter Susan Sawyers, bolds, uppercase, italics are for emphasis. They are my own, not my mother's.