In the attic of a decrepit garage on the old farm I own in Kentucky, Wolf Pen Mill, piles of old paperbacks were found recently, soggy from a leak in the roof; but in a far corner, a decaying box, covered with a crumpled sheet of brown paper, had not been touched by a single drop.
Inside that box I found dozens of letters, spanning the 1930’s to the 1960’s—only the latest in typescript—one from a husband to a wife, regretting her visit to Horse Cave and admitting that even after six years of marriage, he missed her keenly.
Here also I found letter paper from a business in Frankfort that sold lumber of every description, and hand-drawn geometric images that may have served as patterns for pieces of a quilt.
And much more.
Why was this box spared destruction by rain?
I don’t think these letter writers would have been considered, or considered themselves, “important” although they were apparently comfortably off—at least able to provide a young wife with a brief vacation in a country town (where, many decades later, I was part of a group that started an amazing professional theatre: Horse Cave Theatre, now, sadly, defunct.)
The writers of these letters trod this earth, they had their satisfactions and their woes, children were born and grew up more or less satisfactorily, few marriages ended in divorce, and nearly everyone in the family knew where they would be buried.
Hardly to be valued now, if it ever was.
But someone, doubtless a woman, perhaps without much forethought, simply began to save all these letters and documents, including a boldly colored rotogravure section from the Louisville Courier-Journal, published in 1942 and titled, “The History of Kentucky,” with the obligatory bloodcurdling account of depredations by “Redskins.” It would be many years before schoolchildren in the state learned that the Shawnee had claimed the area for their own, hunting, building settlements, and vigorously opposing the settlers coming through Cumberland Gap to take their land and drive them across the Ohio.
These letters would of course detail nothing about this history, but would they in their humble way re-create an era that seems almost as remote as the state’s settlement?
I don’t know.
As in the case of the blue box, on which I based my most recent book, The Blue Box, Three Lives in Letters (Sarabande Books), this box came to me as a complete surprise, handed over by the farm manager, Ben Hassett, who had found it when cleaning out the garage attic before renovations.
And I am grateful.
There is something infinitely touching, to me, in these faded tan envelopes and dark or bleached handwriting; they seem to convey, forcibly, the value of these and all other forgotten lives.
I’m finishing my biography of Doris Duke this month and sending it off to Farrar, Straus & Giroux for publication next year, and my next book, as well as a set of linked short stories, is already beginning in my brain and on paper—and there is another book idea looming beyond that.
But has this box come to me as a necessary interruption, a reminder, as a Zen teacher said, that our plans are never as tasty as reality?