The post reminded me of a post from a couple of months ago by Bookworm, about finding a book in which her grandmother’s friends at her finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, wrote her farewell letters when she graduated and moved back to Belgium in 1913:
As befitted a young woman of her class back in the day before WWI began, my grandmother was multilingual, so the messages in her book were in French, German, Dutch, and English. The young ladies all included their home addresses — in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, America, Scotland, England, Wales, Romania, and Persia (Tehran). Each inscription was written in beautiful copperplate and the girls all drew exquisite little flags reflecting each girl’s country of origin.
Since I, unlike my grandmother (and my parents), am not multilingual, I was able to read only the inscriptions from my grandmother’s English-speaking friends. I have no word for how charming these little missives were. An American girl wrote about the irony that she and my grandmother hated each other at first sight, only to become close friends by the end of their time together. An English girl wrote about the “jolly good times” they had going to concerts with “modern” music consisting of one note, played so low no one could hear it. Another girl wrote about the disappointment of endless dinners consisting of macaroni and disappointingly watery “chocolate creme.”
And Bookworm’s post, when I first read it, reminded me of a passage in the memoirs of British general Edward Spears, close friend of Churchill and emissary to France during the campaign of 1940. Spears had grown up in France, and in the 1960s he returned to the house he had lived in. There, he found a picnic basket filled with his grandmother’s old letters:
The next letters I opened dropped me back two generations into a land of other people’s memories but with an occasional sharp glint as they recalled things I had heard of as a child. They were the letters of a poor sick young woman written to her absent husband whilst she was immobilised awaiting her first and only child, my mother.
I never imagined my grandmother other than I had known her, white haired, stout, and dignified. The picture painted in these letters of a girl frantic with loneliness and longing, exasperated at the threat of a miscarriage which kept her lying on her back, begging her husband to come to her, all told in the reserved language of that day, filled me with a kind of fond protective amusement. It was so unexpected. Time, so long imprisoned in these boxes, was revealing itself in an entirely new guise, oscillating quite regardless of years from one generation to the next or back again–more, it was taking me, an elderly man in the 1960s, and leading me back to the year 1864, there to watch over, with infinite tenderness, a young woman I had never known, my grandmother as a young wife…
Another time-travel experience, albeit of a less directly personal nature than the above three ventures back in time, can be found in this set of photographs: 1910–The Summer of our Content.