This is a story that I have long been trying to figure out how to write about. Several years back, my brother decided to hold a yard sale of sorts since when my mom moved into assisted living, he ended up with lots of stuff. And for me, having to pack up a house several years earlier, I did not want to have more stuff. So, as I circled the table in my brother’s basement, there was really nothing that I really wanted. I spied two mixing bowls that I remember using to bake with my Grandmother, so I did grab something to help take a few things off my brother’s load.
But there was one other thing that caught my eye. There was an old box sitting there. Curiously, I opened the musty box to find a box of envelopes. They were all addressed to my grandmother. I asked my mother and she said her father had written them all. I opened one and could not read most of the cursive. Interesting, but they weren’t interesting enough for me to bring them home with me. I took my bowls and was happy the I didn’t come home with more stuff that would sit in my cellar.
However, on the ride home and over the next several days, I kept thinking about those letters. While my grandmother, Artena, had played a big role in my life, I never knew my grandfather Joseph as he died ten years before I was born. Perhaps these letters would provide me with a glimpse of who he was. So, with that in mind, I called my brother and said I would take the letters. At the next family gathering, he handed me the musty box.
At first, I just tried to read the letters. The cursive handwriting was really difficult for me to decipher. I noticed that all the letters were written on hotel letterhead, which was interesting. From what I could decipher, a lot of the letters were about how much my grandfather was missing my grandmother. I almost felt like I was intruding into their relationship. The only thing I thought about doing was ordering the letters into smaller boxes by years, so I did that. The letters ran from 1929 to 1940. And then, they sat on the top shelf of my closet of my office.
Over the next year, I kept thinking what to do with these letters. On the last time I saw my Aunt Betsy before she died, she thought I should write a book. I asked her if she knew what my grandfather did. Betsy thought he sold alcohol but that didn’t make sense to me since some of the years was during Prohibition. So, still, I didn’t know what to do with these letters. So, in the closet they sat.
I thought maybe I could make some sort of collage with the letters. Maybe do something with maps. I wasn’t sure about the story aspect – in some of the letters he called my grandmother “Tee” and signed the letter “Davey”. That might make a good title, but I was’t sure there was enough substance to write a whole story. I thought about doing something with the hotels. I looked up a few and found that they either didn’t exist anymore or I couldn’t find anything about them. So, in the closet they sat.
Fast forward to April 2019. I was recovering from bunion surgery, so I got to spend a lot of quality time on the couch. This couch time allowed me to contemplate lots of different things. I missed doing some type of research. Not being associated with a higher education facility any longer, I felt like I was not going to be able to do the scholarly research that I had done with my doctoral studies. The second main item that I thought about was what to do for a vacation this year. Since being divorced, my vacations have mainly involved (and I am not complaining, I love these!) spending time with the boys at their new locations or with friends who live out of state. For my upcoming milestone birthday, I had thought about doing the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I felt like I needed to start to push myself to do some different things by myself. What could I do for this coming summer to push myself out of my comfort zone a tad. And the third main topic of thinking centered on those darn letters. Finally, I had an epiphany moment. It was 2019. The first set of letters between my grandfather and my grandmother were in 1929, 90 years ago. I hobbled upstairs and grabbed that box off the closet shelf and looked at where he traveled that year. Providence, New Bedford, Fall River, Houlton, Presque Isle, Edmunston, Fort Kent, Concord, Manchester, Springfield, Pittsfield, North Adams, Wilmington, Greenfield, Gardner, Fitchburg were the addresses on the envelopes. I thought to myself, how about if I visited these places to see where my grandfather traveled 90 years ago. And hence, my recreated 1929 road trip story was born.
I tried testing out the idea on my friends and colleagues. At dinner one night with my friends, when I told them about this idea, my friend Karen, a librarian, excitedly told me that she had a collection of books that might help with this trip. During the Depression, the Federal Writers Project wrote a book about each state. I thought this was cool but once I opened it up, I found it was even cooler because in the book, there were descriptions of various “tours” all over the state. Since in 1929, there were no big interstate highways like we have now, I had already decided that these trips would be done on “by-ways” versus “highways” (which also were much better suited to my style). And these books provided great actual routes that I could use. Another friend thought this might be a great article for regional magazines. Everyone I told about this project thought it sounded really cool. I kept reading the letters over and over again and got better at deciphering the cursive. I found a “travel log” that provided me with the name of the company that my grandfather worked for. Turns out it was a Richmond Virginia based tobacco company. Research doesn’t need to involve qualitative and quantitative measures. I could research about the towns, the hotels, the routes, about the life of salesmen during the Depression. I put together four different road trips, ranging from two day trips to one overnight trip to a multi-day trip and got the dates on the calendar.
So, tomorrow the quest begins. The quest to do a little research. The quest to push myself out of my comfort zone. The quest to retrace my grandfather’s footsteps from 90 years ago.
You will be able to follow my travels on this blog as well as on Facebook and on Instagram – 1929roadtrips