I’ve been reading letters between a husband and a wife who lived half of their marriage apart. Letters that span over four decades, letters I found over three years ago in a cardboard box in the attic of the home that I inherited (see my old post: The Gift). Right away, I read dozens in a frenzy of new discovery, then quickly grew overwhelmed with how many there were, not to mention the tiny, hard-to-read cursive script. So I ordered them by date, then grouped them by year and sealed them in plastic bags which I stacked in a big blue bin to save for later. Now, in the last couple months, I’ve returned to them, and made it through two decades so far —the 1950s and 1960s.
Els and Frank wrote to each other as often as every other day, and were apart for as much as half the year. Frank was a merchant marine and spent much of his time delivering and picking up goods from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines, as well as ports in South America. For several summers he also fished for salmon up in Alaska, outside of Cordova or in Bristol Bay. Els stayed at home, saving and investing the money he earned. Sometimes she worked part-time as a secretary or an interior designer, but mostly she was good at being frugal and working on their home. She vigilantly planted and weeded; she picked and de-wormed hundreds of apples to make sauce or freeze slices for pies for when her husband returned; she scrubbed and waxed the floors, washed the walls, and scoured the toilet more than I’ll ever hope to do; she sewed her own clothes, baked her own bread and hung loads of laundry up to dry. She diligently reported to her husband how much she saved on used goods or home repairs, and how much she went without so that they could save his hard-earned money for when they were together. For, after all, she once said, let us not forget that money is the reason we are apart.
Sometimes, Frank came home for only a couple months, just enough time to be properly fed and made love to by his wife, before setting off again in the company of sailors. But other times, they’d have whole winters or summers together where they would take long road trips, for up to six months. A few years in a row they drove down to Mexico, camping in the back of their white Ford station wagon at R.V. parks on bluffs overlooking the sea, staying for months within communities of expats, mostly couples or families with young kids. Frank contented himself with reading, walking, and whittling at wood. Els would go to the market and haggle for local prices on produce and meat, then cook hearty, locally-inspired meals on their camp stove like pescado veracruz or beans, tortillas, and rice. Both of them loved to read, and Els loved to write. They collected pre-Colombian artifacts and read up on local history. Many of the things in their home probably came from Mexico—old brass candlesticks, stirrups, pottery, and blankets. They also collected arrowheads, awls, and other old Indian tools at favorite spots up and down the West coast. In the early sixties they started spending whole summers on their new sailboat (a converted Bristol Bay fishing vessel which Frank put a cabin on), the Hoko. From the Canadian shores of the Inside Passage they collected artifacts—old trading beads, tools, and baskets.
Els was a thirty-some-year-old housewife in the 1950s with no children and with a husband at sea. The older she grew, and the more time she spent alone, the more “out there” to many she became. She was interested in psychology, art therapy, classical music, Chinese art and poetry, the mind, belief systems, alternatives to religion. Ever since she was a child, she’d rejected her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and some of her letters hint at a history of mental illness, as well as emotional abuse, in her family. As she grew older, she wrote more poetry and started to paint. She grew interested in transcendental meditation and local politics, even starting her own campaign against smoking in public places. In the absence of a career, close friends, or family, she reached out to join or spearhead various causes, causes that later might have become obsessions, obsessions that existed in her mind.
Frank also loved art and literature, but was less interested in philosophy and causes. It was what it was. If he would have been interested in philosophy, he might have realized just how Zen he was—but he wasn’t. The older they grew, the more it seems he simply tolerated Els’s interests, but did little to try and share them with her. If I had not known Frank in real life and had to judge him solely on his letters, I would find him rather dull. Els wrote long, intricate letters, sometimes filled with gossip and petty remarks, but always vivid with details, dreams, frustrations, hopes, and the wanderings of her mind. Frank rarely responded to the specific things she said unless it was of a practical nature; instead he mostly just stated where he was, what port they’d be in next and for how long, how he’d look for whatever items that she’d requested (stereo equipment, straw matting, Japanese bowls), and how she should feel free to spend money or invest as she saw fit. Then he’d apologize for his lack of verbosity and thank her for her many good letters. Sometimes he might profess his love or his increasing longing for her and would speak of how she was the center of his life. But just as often his letters felt distant and cold, a few hurried scribbles in contrast to her long, diary-like accounts. If I were Els, I would have grown frustrated with his brevity. After all, they had no email and made no phone calls while he was away; all they had was this air mail correspondence. Letters took about a week to get from Seattle to the many far-flung ports. They lived years of their lives in this staggered time, one week apart in their news.
I can only read so many letters at once before I get burnt out and need to take a break. I read quickly, flying past the mundane details about people I don’t know, seeking out passages that hint at the inner fabric of their marriage—why they never had children, how they convinced themselves this was the best arrangement, how they related to their parents and siblings, how they related to each other as emotional, spiritual, and sexual beings. I also search for clues about the house—what repairs did they make or plan to make, when did they plant certain bushes or trees that are now thirty feet high, what was the neighborhood like at that time, how did they enjoy or bemoan this space that I now call my home.
I am surprised to read how from the year they moved in, Els wanted to build an addition and finish the basement. Fifty-some years at this house, and they never accomplished either. She complained of how dark, dusty, and damp the house was, how there was a lack of storage space, and how the basement was filled with mold—the same complaints we have now. In latter years, they had plenty of money from investments to spend on these improvements, but it seems they barely put a dime into the cabin besides whatever repairs they could jimmy-rig on their own. Having grown up in the Depression, they were models of thrift and resourcefulness, but it’s still hard for me to believe that they never put more into their home—which may also represent what went neglected in their marriage.
It’s understandable that the cabin was not a priority to Frank, with him at sea for half of the year, and with them both away during the summers, cruising the Inside Passage from the 60s to 80s. Frank was a wanderer at heart, and Els, at least at first, was a willing and wonderful companion. If I lived alone in this house year after year with no career, and no close friends nor family nearby, without even the Internet to keep me company, I too would surely jump at the chance to pack up and get away into nature for the summer with my only lover and best friend.
As a child and as an adult, I looked at Els and Frank’s lifestyle with admiration and respect. Here were two adults, older than my parents’ generation, who bucked traditional societal roles and lived simply in a small cabin or otherwise traveled and followed their heart’s content. Here were two elders I was privileged to know who modeled so many things that I value in life: a love for literature and art; thrift and a homemade do-it-yourself aesthetic; healthy organic cooking, gardening, canning, and baking; a philosophical mind that questioned the status quo and so-called reality; and most of all, a love for the outdoors, for camping, sailing, and world travel.
All of this is still true—I still admire Els and Frank for who they were and for the life they led. But now, with access to this intimate window into their life through their letters, I have another view of them and their marriage. I see a woman who was incredibly lonely, grasping for purpose, and troubled by her past. I see a man who loved his wife, but who could be distant and inaccessible, and who for whatever reasons chose to be apart from her for half of the year. True, sailing was his bread and butter, but I can’t help but think that if he wanted to, if he loved her companionship more than he loved his capacity to be away, he wouldn’t have stayed at sea for so long.
Unfortunately, I don’t have as many records from the times they were traveling together, the times when they were probably the happiest. Instead, I’ve been left with a record of their gaps and distances, of their accumulated loneliness and longing. I’ve been left with a huge box full of letters, a testimony to a union that was tested, and to a love and loyalty proven yet stretched apart.