I wasn’t hunting this book, and I never meant for Eunice Richardson to take over my life for a few days. But as happens, I was looking for a certain book at the public library when this volume jumped out at me. I love true stories and brought it home.
History researcher Martha Hodes became fasciintated with Eunice when she met her in a dusty letter collection of Lois Wise Richardson at Duke University. Here Hodes found stacks of letters from Lois’s daughter Eunice and her other children. This was a family hammered by hard times and living through the changes of the 19th century. The letters captured action from New England to the South to the Cayman Islands and back to New England again.
The first chapter of the book includes the details of letter writing in the times. How it cost three cents to post a letter, and the mail often never arrived or took a long stretch of time to arrive at its destination. Writing tools for the middle class were paper (often hard to come by), pencils, pen, and ink that came in a powder that was mixed with water. Once a page was filled, it was often turned 90 degrees and written over again, new lines covering the first news. Letters were saved for rereading or maybe passed on to another family member.
Eunice lived a hard life, had watched her father desert the family, married a man who could not support her, had a husband who served in the Confederate Army against her Union brothers, lost husband and brother in the war, married a man of color, and died in a hurricane. The story of how this unfolds was gleaned by Hodes from the family letters. It is the story of a family, of an era, of both class and race struggles, and it is a fascinating glimpse into history.
I have to wonder what researchers in another hundred years will find from our own times. Will emails be saved somewhere? Will text messaging develop a new feature for history storage? What will Facebook say about our culture and society…other than playing Farm games was a chosen pastime?
Recently paper and technology combined have given me a chapter in my own family story. I knew two great aunts had been nuns in Missouri. So I wrote to an archives employee of the Sisters of Mercy for help; I wrote by email I confess. He was in North Carolina but went right to work. He found two pages of a personael log and mailed it to me. Oh, what a find! It told me that Sister Mary Teresa and Sister Mary Loretto has been born in Lebanon,Missouri, that their father (my great great great grandfather) had been born in Dublin when I only knew of Ireland and how he spelled his name (I had the wrong version). I learned his wife’s name was Laura Curran, with maybe a middle name of Lavinia. An image of the woman who I had no idea existed began to take shape. I began to see a wee glimpse into Thomas and Laura Lawders’ life.
Another detail was that one of the nuns had worked in St. John’s of Joplin in the 1920s. Amazing…the hospital is once again on the Mercy line. Another worked teaching in a Catholic school in Marshall, Missouri where my good friend comes from. Of course, it was before her time, but I loved the connection anyway. Then one day a lone picture of Sister Loretto came which was a real prize for me. It was in her later years, and she wore a simple and almost non-habit compared to the wimple and rosary tied robe I am sure she must have worn in the 1920s and l930s.
Their nephew (my grandfather) was to marry into a non-Catholic family from Oklahoma but with Missouri roots too. These Brashers were Democrats but so distressed when JFK, a Catholic, was running for president that they changed their political party preference. In time, they would change their attitude some, enough to hang a JFK portrait in the matriarchal home.
Oh, wouldn’t I love to find a box of letters from either or both sides of my family! How I wish I could “hear” their own voices from the page. It is amazing how we come to be who we are…I think a pile of paper letters might help us all!