Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

My Dearest Angel

© Ohio University Press, 2002

My Dearest Angel

Excerpt:

I turn in the icy cold of my father’s unheated office, closed up now for years, to see one of my brothers slide a dirty yellowed file folder into the big paper-towel carton we’re using for trash. As it falls, letters slide out, scores of them, still in envelopes with big round postmarks and peculiar fancy stamps of blue or mulberry ink, spidery old-fashioned addresses. “What are you doing?” I demand.

My brother raises his eyebrows. “I’m cleaning out this office,” he replies.

“But those letters--” I say, somewhere between disapproval and horror.

And that is how I came to rescue them, -- not one, but three, 3x3x3 cardboard cartons, full of letters, receipts, old photographs, stamps, deeds, bills, more letters, depositions, and more letters. Three generations worth of papers. They had descended to my grandfather, the governor’s youngest, one by one, as the older siblings died. And there they all are.

Katie Paul Letcher and Greenlee Davidson Letcher were my grand-parents, my father’s parents. I am her namesake, a fact which led to our instant bond.

We, Daddy and Mama and I, were in the Marine Corps, living in San Diego when Pearl Harbor was bombed and World War II began. My father, on active duty, believed our west coast might be Japan’s next target. Though he had to go to fight in the Pacific, he didn’t want Mama, me, and my tiny brother, born two days after Pearl Harbor during a blackout of the entire west coast, staying there.

She put off the move as long as she could, for she was not fond of her husband’s parents. She would have chosen to stay in California, for Mother’s father was also on active duty in the Marine Corps, and they lived there. Her sister, married to a Marine, was in California also. Still, after my father shipped overseas with the Third Marine Division, and her family scattered to other posts, we drove our old car across the continent, bringing along a baby nurse for Johnny, to stay with Daddy’s parents until the war was over. Mama really had no other option.

The elder Letchers lived in a drafty, dark, and dirty Victorian house built in the early years of the twentieth century, on top of a hill halfway between Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute, on Letcher Avenue, in the small college town of Lexington, Virginia. The electricity in the house was primitive, the icebox dripped and had to be fortified with ice every day or so, and the coal furnace, when it worked, left a skim of soot over everything. The Letchers had a servant, an ancient and arthritic colored woman named Lizzy Johnson, who did all the cooking on a black wood stove, and minimal cleaning of the house.

My grandmother, raised like other well-bred women of her time, never lifted a hand to a household task, yet of course had no profession of her own. My grandfather, whom I called Andaddy, was a genial and outgoing lawyer. They owned their house, but they never had much money, because my grandfather didn’t think they needed any and was careless about collecting fees. When in 1950 his sister Lizzie’s son, his first cousin, died in New York a pauperized drug addict with a long list of unrepaid loans, Andaddy insisted on paying them all, though his obligation was no more than his own version of moral behavior and family pride. As long as they had food and shelter, he wasn’t concerned about accumulating a fortune. My grandmother had by the time I knew her given up dressing attractively, though early in their marriage she was evidently very interested in clothes.

Though they welcomed us lovingly, sharing their house and lives openly with us, it wasn’t long before my mother chose to move to an apartment that was brighter, and cleaner, where she could do the more “health-conscious” cooking she preferred, raise her children the way she wanted, and share her time with other Lexington women like herself, who had small children and husbands away at war.

I lived uptown with Mama and Johnny in the apartment, but I spent all the time I could downtown with Nainai and Andadddy, staying overnight frequently, because I loved them dearly, adored their greasy and sweet southern meals, cared not a flip about dirt, -- and mostly because they absolutely adored me, and gave me everything I wanted. They welcomed my chums as well. Thus I knew them well (though of course only as a child) from early 1943 until late 1945, when Daddy came home from the War. We were stationed in Norfolk for two years, then in California for a three-month stint during which Buzz Letcher decided to retire from the Marine Corps. In the fall of 1947 Daddy returned home to Lexington to try to find a job (he was only 44). By then my parents had twins as well as Johnny and me. Mama and the other three children stayed with Mama’s parents, by then retired to Norfolk, until Daddy decided what to do. But Daddy brought me along to Lexington because I needed to enter fourth grade.

That time we lived entirely with Andaddy and Nainai, where I’d had my own room ever since the night we arrived from California years before. His name was of course my early attempt at “Grandaddy” and “Nai-nai” was a Chinese word for “Grandmother.” (I was born while my parents were in China, and understood Mandarin before English because I spent more time in the company of my Amah and other servants than my parents.)

At the end of a blissful three months, back with the people I loved most of all, Nainai, just when Mama and the others had arrived from Norfolk to spend Christmas with us, suffered two massive strokes at the supper table, and was dead before dawn on Christmas Eve.

After that, Daddy felt we must stay in the house and look after his father. Also we could not afford to buy a house. With great misgiving, Mama moved the twins and five-year old Johnny from Norfolk to Lexington, Johnny entered first grade, and we all settled in on the second floor of Andaddy’s big house, with our own kitchen, which was the compromise settled on by my parents.

In 1950, at Mama’s insistence, we built a small house in Andaddy’s back yard. At least, Mama felt, life was now on her terms rather than on Andaddy’s, and Daddy could keep an eye on his father. A year or two later, Daddy sold Andaddy’s house to VMI, and brought Andaddy over to live with us. He died in our downstairs guestroom when I was a high school junior in 1954.

*

Forty years later, in 1994, Daddy, Andaddy’s only son, died, and I came into possession of the three cartons of family papers. If I had not offered to take them and catalogue them, they would have been discarded as trash. My siblings were in no position to deal with them. But I still live in Lexington, and had a little different perspective on the importance of the papers. I moved them to a room of the guest house off our back yard.

A year or so after that, I hired a secretary who spent nearly a year sorting out those filthy sooty boxes full of scattered papers, and arranging them in large file cabinets. Thus I became the archivist of what has amounted to more than seventeen linear feet of papers belonging to my family.

Our great-grandfather was the Civil War governor of Virginia. As the governor’s eleven children died, papers and memorabilia passed from attic to attic, with losses at every step, and passed on to my grandfather, the youngest and longest-lived of those children. After he died, they ended up in my father’s woodshed office, whence I rescued them.

The papers with a few exceptions go back no farther than 1864, because in that year the Yankees burnt my great-grandfather’s house to the ground.

But I get ahead of myself. Among these papers were hundreds of hastily penned postals and letters from Greenlee Letcher (1867-1954), my grandfather, youngest son of Virginia’s Civil War Governor John Letcher, to his wife, Katie Paul Letcher (1876-1947). Fortunately, he dated every one, or the collection would have been useless. There were fewer than a dozen letters and a scatter of postcards from my grandmother.

I knew that their relationship was complicated, -- even as a child, I knew Andaddy was the happiest man alive, and I knew Nainai was deeply unhappy. He was friendly and communicative, and she was a brooder. So I wasn’t too surprised to find lots of letters from him, and very few from her.

They were in many ways very different. Andaddy was a slight man, his hair wispy and white and shaggy, for he mostly cut it himself rather than waste money and time on barbers. Always slender and physically tireless, his face was usually red, wind-chapped and wreathed with pleasure. He had no attachment to material things. His clothes were (I suppose I noticed because my mother talked about them) shabby, wrinkled, and dirty. He patched them himself, with thick greasy black thread and a great big needle that left puckery darned lumps. If his ancient belt broke, he used a piece of rope to hold up his trousers --once, according to Nell Paxton, for two years, -- before he got around to replacing the belt. He enjoyed food immensely, without preference or prejudice. Greenlee, fit and optimistic, took on the world cheerfully, excelling at everything he put his hand to. In middle age, after scorning golf as a waste of time, he became a golfing champion. He trekked each day to his downtown office, trudging home up the long hill of Letcher Avenue each night with funny stories from the day, good-natured tears in his eyes from laughing about the foibles of his fellow men, and an embracing sense of good will about the world. His voice had a lilt to it, with lots of inflection, and he was an extremely popular speaker and master of ceremonies. He knew and loved everybody, and apparently everybody knew and loved him. He belonged to a myriad of men’s clubs and service clubs, which he enjoyed enormously, so even when he was home, he was gone usually several nights a week, leaving Ninai alone. When I hugged him, he smelled vaguely oniony.

The reason Greenlee wrote so many letters was that his lawyering frequently took him away from home: he traveled all over Virginia and West Virginia, and as far afield as Oklahoma, Alabama, Niagara Falls NY, Missouri, and Montana, and wrote home enthusiastically about every place he went.

Nainai, in contrast, was a large soft woman with serious black eyes, nearly as tall as her husband and a probably a score of pounds heavier. She’d been honey-blonde as a young woman, but when I knew her she had straight soft white hair with a sebaceous smell that she wore twisted into a bun, and she smelled of lavender water or 4711 Cologne. Her voice had a flat, ironic tone: “Don’t fight nobody, don’t call nobody fool,” she’d say to me, as I sailed out the door on some adventure. She could be sharp, especially about money. She perceived that there wasn’t enough of it. My grandfather wouldn’t worry about such things, and fluffed her off when she did.

Her great, if vague lesson, was, “Don’t let down.” That rule had a wide range of applications: someone who had “let down” might have been getting into the sherry too early in the day. It might label someone whose slip showed when she came to call, or an old acquaintance who had put on too much weight too fast. I was “letting down” if I forgot and asked for a chicken leg, or, Heaven forbid, a chicken breast. You asked for dark meat or white meat. Her attitude towards me generally was one of tolerant amusement, but she scolded Andaddy when he forgot to send out the bills, or wouldn’t dun the renter constantly in arrears who lived above his downtown office. She had distinct food preferences (creamed celery, deep dish cherry pie, oysters in any form but especially fried, cheese sandwiches fried in excessive amounts of butter, grapefruit, and caramel (I call it butterscotch) icecream, are a few I remember), and could not manage to get thin, though she detested her fat body.

The reasons Katie wrote postcards, and occasional letters, were that she spent much time going home to Harrisonburg, sixty-five miles from Lexington, roughly a 4-hour train trip, to visit her family. Also she spent considerable time in hospitals. Katie, frail in health, cultivated no friends beyond her kin. She was practically blind when I knew her, at the end of her life, so the world was difficult to maneuver, and her house must have seemed safer than the outside world.

*

When in 1997 I finally forced and broke open a wooden box on which I’d tried every key I had from the old house, jars and cans full, to no avail, I found my grandmother’s letters to my grandfather all carefully stacked and preserved. Hers were rarely dated, but luckily they’d been returned carefully to their postmarked envelopes.

I was struck by the differences in the tones of his letters and hers. His usually began, “My Beautiful beautiful Angel...” and hers usually began abruptly, often with no greeting at all. His were long and chatty, scribbled urgently, while hers were brief as a rule, in her severely right-slanted and very tall (often over an inch) scrawl, and much more peremptory. She wrote palimpsest, or back over top of what she had already written, the paper turned forty-five degrees.

I arranged Greenlee’s letters chronologically in shoe boxes, dropped Katie’s letters in among his where they belonged -- and began reading them as a fifty-year epistolary conversation.

Realizing that there might be a book here, I applied for and won a residency at the Virginia Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy in Charlottesville, and spent from September to December reading and editing the letters, bringing them home in batches every weekend to be typed.

I think many letters are missing, on the basis that it’s generally the case that letters referred to are missing. For some years there are no letters at all. That could mean the letters were lost, or it could mean that neither of them traveled from home in those years, and thus did not write.

Both writers were educated, literate, even elegant at times. Katie’s letters were dry, witty, sardonic, matter of fact, while Greenlee’s are full of the love and wonder of life and of her. It was much harder for Katie to maintain a sense of worth in the world because she was, whether she imposed it on herself or not, a prisoner. Her angers and anguish, her grievances and her griefs, manifested in bodily illnesses including thyroid problems, recurrent mastoiditis, phlebitis, nervousness, skin cancer, as well as the macular degeneration that took her eyesight.

Life was easier at the beginning of the twentieth century for men in general, but certainly for Greenlee, who enjoyed excellent health, plenty of adulation, and good fellowship in the world beyond their union. He wrote her once, “I wish you could see the world as I can: interesting every minute no matter what happens.” He knew everyone. President McKinley sojourned with them. He was friends with George Catlett Marshall. William Jennings Bryan was a friend of Greenlee’s; he alienated my grandmother permanently while visiting in 1908 by refusing her sherried grapefruit with brown sugar, and delivering a tirade at her dinner table on the evils of alcohol. Typically, my grandfather was always amused to tell that story, and typically, my grandmother always snorted and ruffled her feathers, muttering about Bryan’s rudeness. Andaddy never met anyone he didn’t like, and was constant in his adoration of his “Angel.”

Katie stayed home. Life was cruel to her: her degenerating eyesight prevented reading, her only hobby, increasingly from her twenties on. I recall her slowly perusing line after line, left to right, with a huge magnifier, the page right up in her face.

Their story is by turns uplifting, sad, informative, funny, and heartbreaking.

*

For many years, reading antique diaries, especially of women, has been a hobby of mine. I am gratified that these letters have answered so many questions that the diaries consistently fail to: were you happy? did you even have a concept of happiness? did you feel mis-understood? did you even feel a need to be understood? did you expect love in your marriage? how did you feel being housebound, with little or nothing in the way of choice? what did you feel about the crowding in of unmarried relatives? what about sex? did you resent the children who kept coming? did you hold back affection from infants because you knew so many of them died in the first year?

In the majority of married couples I know, women seem to be the more emotionally dependent partner; in their relationship, the opposite was true: Greenlee functioned fine when Katie loved him, and fell to pieces when she was cold. For Greenlee, love was his keel, and allowed him to steer his ship through the many shoals upon which Katie’s ship jammed and cracked. He was honest and more direct for the time about his needs than I imagine most men were, and his needs scared and repelled her.

If most women of that day got what they wanted by cunning or by sexual wiles, Katie got what she wanted by cold fierceness. As Suzanne Lebsock has observed, the widest blind spot (in the American past) concerns sexuality and fertility. Probably the habit of restraint was so deep in Victorian society that any other reaction would have been unthinkable. Yet, surprisingly, there are in these letters many references to sexuality.

Greenlee adored Katie. Being adored was to Katie intolerable. She absolutely functioned better when her husband was elsewhere. Even before marriage, she subtly criticized his clothes by saying she didn’t mind how terribly he dressed, and she tossed him a backhand compliment by remarking, “I hope you never have any more sense than you do now.” Only occasionally, he chastized her for some outburst, begging her to be nice. When he wrote to her that she’d been dunned for dues for the church women’s circle, and to let him know who the circle secretary was so he could pay her dues for her, she replied that she didn’t know who it was, and didn’t even know she was a member -- and left it at that.

Greenlee, a social creature if ever there was one, went out alone, to dinners, to meetings, to business, to crowded events. When he wasn’t going, Greenlee invited people to dinner all the time, and Katie had to play reluctant hostess to his childhood schoolmates, his “brother rats” (classmates) from VMI, their children and friends, Gov’s political cronies, clients, and even to strangers he met on the train and dragged home. The only people Katie ever invited to visit were her family. One of her themes was how boring other women were.

Commonly, he reported his trips as “pleasant” and “interesting” while she reported hers as “tiresome.”

Katie was not conventionally religious, so she was denied the comfort and camaraderie that belonging to a church affords. Greenlee probably is best described as a deist, yet I think he mostly enjoyed the exercise of going to church and speaking to everyone.

She wouldn’t play docile wife: when he wrote her to send some flowers to Lexington for Decoration Day from the bigger city of Harrisonburg where her family lived, and where she was staying, she apparently wrote him back to do it himself, for the next letter from him says, “Oh, you’re right, of course, I’m perfectly capable of getting them myself.”

Katie Paul Letcher may have been among the original feminists. It had to have been ultimately frustrating to her that Greenlee refused to acknowledge her piques, her rages, her “unladylike” aspects. She simply (in his mind) could not, in Nancy Miller’s words, “mean or want what [men] have always been assured [women] could not possibly mean or want.” (quoted in Heilbrun, p. 18)

Yet these letters show Katie’s underlying rage, and Greenlee’s determination not to see it. Not surprisingly, in the teens of the century, Katie took up the cause of women’s suffrage, the first step towards feminism. This shy housebound woman became the local chairman of the Suffragettes --although I know this from sources other than the letters. Though motives are always difficult territory, perhaps she did that to get even with her convivial husband, whose power was all the more frustrating for being so pleasant. There is every indication that, for the most part, he ignored her anger, perhaps not admitting it even to himself. When forced to notice, he responded with deep hurt and sadness, panic, and, once, even a veiled threat. The only other organizations Katie belonged to were the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She continued to ignore church circles, as well as church.

These letters allow us as intimate a view as I think anyone could have of one marriage. Their relationship lasted from Christmas night of 1895 until her death on Christmas Eve 1947 with all her family around her (husband, son, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren). Carolyn Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman’s Life, notes how rare is the true story of marriages, with both voices speaking their truths. In this correspondence is the truth, however elusive, however oblique.

Historians warn us not to underestimate the vast differences between life a century ago and life today, and of course they are right. The circumscription of a woman’s life then is nearly unbelievable today. At the same time, so very much in these letters is familiar; the emotional minefields of marriage have not changed.

These opposing views provide for me all the reason I need to feel that these letters should and must be preserved. Love and its varieties, the horror of a child’s dying, the pains and joys of being human and in a relationship, the problem of what to do when the passion of early marriage subsides into domesticity, -- all glimpses into the reassuring samenesses and the curious differences of other lives, are timeless themes. In these letters is an entire world, fascinating and curious, ofttimes amusing, often deeply, wrenchingly sad, that a reader can enter and live in awhile.

This book completes a kind of unintentional trilogy. Since 1982, I have taught among other Elderhostel courses at several colleges and universities, a course called Save Your Life (It’s about how to write interesting autobiographies to leave your descendants). Eventually out of teaching that course came my own childhood memoir about the years I lived with my grandparents, and about my lifelong interesting and difficult relationship with my father, When the Fighting is All Over (Longstreet, 1997).

Finding among all those papers my father’s letters home to his parents while he and my mother at the time of my birth were living an exotic life in China, led me to edit those letters with Dr. Roger Jeans, a Chinese scholar at Washington and Lee University, for the book Goodbye to Old Peking (Ohio University Press, 1998), which reveal my father’s thoughts and observations as a young Marine officer living in the Orient on the brink of World War II, with a wife and a child and eleven servants. The book you now hold reveals another time, another place. The three books should be mutually enhancing.

*

You will meet other characters as well as Katie and Greenlee. I found I needed to enhance the conversation with letters from other family members and friends; thus they become characters in the story, their voices also distinctive -- from the irrepressible Idge to the thoughtfully kind Dr. Frank Smith. A drawback in reading any letters is that, since there was no sense of a larger audience, there was no need to explain things --thus writing this book has been a process of trying to figure out the unsaid things and the many puzzling references. For instance, Greenlee omits all but the slightest references to business details, for Katie already knows what he’s talking about. As the papers from his “downtown” office were destroyed after his death, I can only refer generally to the kinds of legal work he was doing.

I’ve filled in the blanks from speeches my grandfather made, local newspaper articles, others’ letters and letters Katie and Greenlee wrote to others than each other that reveal something of their lives, VMI records, and local history sources, both written and oral.

Since beginning this project, I have been determined to let my grandparents speak for themselves as much as possible, so although this book is a biography of them, I wanted readers to see and hear these two remarkable people -- their idiom, their concerns, in their own words.

It wasn’t feasible to publish just the letters (edited or unedited): first, there were far too many of his, and too few of hers (with the exception of World War I); second, there are too many gaps in continuity if I used their letters alone; third, they were quite repetitive; and fourth, as nothing was explained, commentary was absolutely necessary. Finally, the typescript of all the letters ran to more than 1500 pages.

Thousands of people are mentioned by name: I have of necessity identified only major characters. I have used brackets for brief explanations, and footnotes (as sparely as possible) for longer ones. Often I’ve felt torn in regard to these aids: shall I risk insulting readers’ intelligence by reminding them who someone is, or shall I help the reader by noting (again) who a person is? Or shall I assume that the reader remembers who someone identified fifty pages before is? I hope the reader will forgive if I have erred either way. I have corrected the very few spelling errors without notice; if a word was clearly misspelled on purpose, I’ve let it stand. I’ve left the punctuation pretty much as it is in the letters, on the theory that unless it’s confusing, I ought not to change it.

Finally, I have allowed the few cases of political incorrectness to stand; I don’t judge my Celtic ancestors for practicing human sacrifice, nor my Southern ones for owning slaves, nor my grandparents for being insensitive about Negroes; I trust that future historians will not judge me for whatever in my life and behavior they will undoubtedly find to consider egregious.

Katie Letcher Lyle, January 2000

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