Penmanship has become a cultural artifact. These days most people are uncomfortable writing by hand; we find it clumsy and exhausting. Instead, we keyboard—we type e-mails, type reports, type essays, relying on computer software to correct spelling and grammar mistakes. I read that only 15 percent of SAT essays are written in cursive; the rest are printed in block letters. That’s because students learn to write cursive when they’re in the fourth or fifth grade—if at all—and never use it again; it isn’t required in school and on most jobs, so they forget. Kathryn came from a time when cursive writing was a cornerstone of American education; it wasn’t just taught, it was demanded as evidence of industry, intelligence, and maturity. Yet in her hand, writing with a fountain pen, it became more than a practiced skill. It was an art form. Long, fluid letters, with neat loops and tight flourishes, danced gracefully across the pages with style and grace. It made me embarrassed for the scarcely legible scratches and squiggles bearing only a passing resemblance to the letters of the alphabet that I called handwriting.
Nina and I scooped the letters out of the carton and arranged them in chronological order. We counted seventy-three letters spanning approximately three years. They were written on personalized stationery with Kathryn’s name and her 337 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, address printed at the top. However, she struck out the address and filled in her current location in each letter. We read them to one another, first Nina and then me.
June 24, 1933
Aboard the Carmania somewhere in the Atlantic
I am lying naked in my stateroom aboard the good ship Carmania as I write this, a bucket next to my bed. I am nauseous, my body trembles, and my head aches, yet I do not believe I am suffering from seasickness. The ocean is quite calm, and a fog has engulfed the ship, so we are moving at a sedate pace. No, it is fear that has brought me to this distressed condition. Fear of my uncertain future. I am now a woman alone, a mean and pitiful thing. I long for it to be otherwise, only it is impossible to go back, to return to the comfort of my previous existence. Not after what Brent has done. Not after what I have done. The foghorn blows at regular intervals. My head throbs. Oh, what a wretched thing I have become …
June 26, 1933
Aboard the Carmania
A fine day although overcast as I continue this letter. The fog has lifted, the air is clean and mild, and the sea is still very smooth. It seems everyone is on deck, happy and busy, and when I join them I find I feel happy as well. Remaining a prisoner in my stateroom and feeling sorry for myself will avail me nothing in any case. Yes, I know I sound just like Father. The purser tells me that the ship is making excellent time and we are expected to make Le Havre on schedule. I shall be glad to see land again.
July 1, 1933
Le Havre, France
A beautiful sight as we steam into the harbor. There are old houses on a hill that are very picturesque. It took us a while to anchor, for we were directed around a fleet of battleships. It took even longer before I could sort out my luggage. Porters were very much in demand, and I am afraid Father would be appalled at how much I tipped one of them to help me load my baggage aboard the boat train. After much red tape with passports, visas, and customs, the train left at 11:00 A.M. There were four young American men in our compartment. They were very kind and solicitous and seemed quite concerned when they learned that I was traveling alone. We all had a good lunch in the restaurant car, where two maids and a butler served everyone. One of the young men, I do not recall his name, insisted that he treat me. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit how much I enjoyed their attention. It reminded me of those days before I was married when the boys gathered in our parlor and I left you and Mother to entertain them while I feigned indifference …
3:00 P.M. Reached Paris at last. Great excitement, flurry and noise. Once again everyone scrambling for porters, but my four young men took me in hand and, after some difficulty hailing a taxi, sped me on my way. The taxi drove me to three different hotels, but I had no reservation and each was reluctant to provide me with a room. I wonder if they were concerned, as I am, that I am a woman traveling without escort? Finally, I was referred to a small but comfortable establishment, the Hotel Crystal, on the Rue St. Benoit, where I engaged two rooms. So I have arrived, dear sister, a stranger in a strange land, facing a future I cannot imagine. Give Mother and Father my love, especially Father, for he has been so kind and generous toward me. Please write soon and tell me what St. Paul is saying about my abrupt departure.
Your loving sister,
July 16, 1933