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I have a lot of old letters. I haven't read them all. They're not all in one place. Now and then I pick up a stack and browse through them.
What I love about reading old letters is the mystery and the challenge involved in catching on to the meaning of what is being written. A letter is a live fragment of conversation set in a context long gone. Postmarks are clues, addresses are clues, references to people may or may not help.
Here is a good example. A stray page of a letter is numbered "3" and begins mid-sentence with "...'Bettie,' of course, after my mother - and added that if she had been a boy..."
I looked at this page more than once, but I don't know of a Bettie in my family. The letter made no sense to me, so I kept setting it aside.
Then one day not long ago, in the spring of 2004, I was looking at a letter written by my great grandmother to her son, my grandfather, Morton Townsend.
The envelope is lost and the letter, uncharacteristically written on scrap paper, is dated only "Wednesday morning." She is responding to a report that he has had a bad headache, and she worries sympathetically half-way down page two. I almost stopped there. But I was not in a hurry. So I read on.
"I am very much interested about the baby's name," she says. "Pleased, of course, that you even thought of me. But I think it is Mrs. Bryan's right even more than mine. May I tell you a little story in illustration: Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, when the first baby came - a girl - in answering someone who asked what the baby's name was to be, said..." -end of page two.
I sat up. I now knew that the letter was written in February of 1911. My grandfather and his wife, Mrs. Bryan's daughter Elizabeth, have just had their first child, a girl. She is my mother.
Then I had an idea. I quickly searched through some old papers and found page three, where the story about Mrs. Alexander Hamilton continues...
Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, when the first baby came - a girl - in answering someone who asked what the baby's name was to be, said "'Bettie', of course, after my mother" - and added that if she had been a boy, "his name would have to be 'Bettie' - after my mother."
The elder Mrs. Townsend then says, "It always seems to me the right thing to do to name the first girl after the mother's mother. This girl must be Mary Scott Townsend."
But the former Mary Eleonore Orr cannot resist pointing out that on her side, the oldest girl has been named Eleonore for seven generations. She works it out on paper that seven generations, assuming 33 years to a generation, would make it 231 years that Eleonore had been a family name.
And then, just in case, she is particular in pointing out that the correct way to spell her name is E-l-e-o-n-o-r-e.
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