By Jen Michalski
From: Margaret O____, September 1924, Washington, DC, NE To: Rebecca G___, St. Louis, Mo Dear Rebecca, I am hoping you are the nurse who I worked with at the Officers’ barracks at Camp Humphreys, Virginia, early October 1918. I do not know if you remember me, although I don’t know how any of us can forget those weeks! Anyway, this is the address I took with me back to Washington, and I always thought, if I survived, I would write you and see whether you made it also. I thank the Lord I was spared, although I feel awful for all those soldiers, women, and children who got the Flu. I hope you were lucky also. I think of our time fondly (although I suppose that is awful to say), and I hope that you are well. Sincerely, Your friend Margaret (Maggie) P.S., I had red hair and the freckles on my back. You said my freckles looked like spilt cinnamon. From: Rebecca G___, November 1924, St. Louis To: Margaret O___. Dear Maggie, I am sorry for my delay in responding to your heartwarming letter. I am working at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Of course I remember you and think of you often! I did not think I’d ever hear from you again. Tell me, did you remain a nurse too? I see that you are still in Washington, DC. I remember all the things you used to tell me about the city. Warmly, Rebecca From: Maggie, December 1924 Dear Rebecca, The memories flood back to me now. When I met you, I had just arrived from Poughkeepsie, pretty green! And before that I’d graduated thinking I’d become a school teacher, when all the sudden I was at Vassar Training Camp for Nurses, learning to bandage! Of course you real Nurses at Humphreys looked down at us a little, and I don’t blame you. It was you who had to comfort me in the nurses’ quarters that first night, even though we had been brought down by train to care for the sick nurses! I have never forgotten your kindness. I would love to see you, for I had occasion to visit St. Louis! I await your reply, Maggie From: Rebecca, December 1924 Dear Maggie, Yes, us “real” nurses thought we knew everything, didn’t we? Truth is, we didn’t know much, not much more than you trainees, anyway. Even the doctors didn’t know much. Remember our shifts? So many of the specifics I remember, giving medicines, taking temperatures, ice packs, rubbing the bodies with camphorae, but doesn’t seem very specific when you do it for twelve hours a day! Remember when you said the beds all lined up in rows looked like coffins above the ground? I shushed you when you said it, but I can never forget that—they DID seem an augur. The other nurses called you Melancholy Maggie after that, but I never did myself and always spoke up for you, for I remember the rose water you shared with me that you brought with you from Washington, and the candies, although they did not last long! I also remember the stories you used to tell me at night, about what we would do when the Flu ended, but I was always too tired to stay awake until the end. Kindly, Rebecca From: Maggie, December 1924 Dear Rebecca, I always knew you had fallen asleep before my stories ended. I took much comfort in knowing they helped you rest! And I suppose I told the stories for myself as well, as there was not much in my life back then. My brother, Patrick, the only family, as you know, was overseas with the “Fighting 69th” (and died not from the Flu but to the other terribleness of the War, I regret to update you). I did not have much in positive thought when I arrived at Camp Humphreys, other than to work and pray and get a good sleep every night. Work keeps the mind busy, and faith keeps the heart focused. That was the little I allowed myself to expect when I got to Camp, until I met you, and I am always thankful for that. I am so happy to learn that you are working at the Children’s Hospital! I know how much you want to be a mother, and taking care of those dear, sick children in your arms makes my heart smile. Tell me, did you ever marry? I know how much you talked about it those first few weeks. Write soon, Maggie From: Rebecca, January 1925 Dear Maggie, I hope you had a pleasant Christmas and Happy New Years to You! I am Blessed to have the good fortune to work at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. The facilities are something to behold and not like those barracks, where we had so little of anything, even blankets! (I was happy to share mine with you, tho.) The Doctors are very kind and handsome. I have met a perfect gentleman here, a Heart Doctor, and I do believe he intends to take me for his wife. I hope you have found someone as well, Maggie—I know we always teased you about being more interested in the Flu than the fellas! I think you were more interested in the Flu than the Doctors, even (& I know you were of the intelligence to be one of those Doctors.) I hope you have continued your studies in the District and that the gentlemen are noticing YOU more than the Flu! My very best, Rebecca From: Maggie, February 1925 Dear Rebecca, I am still working at Walter Reed. It’s long, hard work, not as hard as what we did back then – and not so much worrying whether I will get sick – but still hard. Do you remember Lilly? I still dream of her often. But work keeps the mind busy, and faith keeps the heart focused. Maggie From: Rebecca, February 1925 Dear Maggie, Of course I could never forget Lilly, or any of the others. To listen to them—a soldier crying in agony for his Wife, or a child for their Mother. To listen to Lilly scream and wail, I shall take to the grave. But you must be strong – you said it yourself – work keeps the mind busy, and faith keeps the heart focused. I know you were always of more intelligence than myself, even if you did not have the training I did, and I know the suffering affected you not only in the way of the heart but also of mind. I remember how I glimpsed you so many evenings while we worked the rounds and I wondered what thoughts pressed so deeply on your delicate brow. You were different from the others, Maggie, but that is what I admired and loved about you. Please do not dwell on the death, on Lilly or the others. Dwell on life, and that you are so young still and so much life to live. And if you do not find a Fella I know you have a deep intellect and it will take you far in life, if you only open up your heart as well. You are a beautiful young woman. With warmth, Rebecca From: Maggie, February 1925 Dearest Rebecca, Your words touch my heart more deeply than my own thoughts. You were different as well – the light of the ward! All the nurses loved and admired you greatly, and I had much competition to earn an encouraging word or praise from you. I mention Lilly not to frighten you. I am not suffering Delirium or the Flu, and no one straps me down in my bed at night like we did poor Lilly. And yet still when I dream it is if I am Lilly, that Lilly is me. That some other sickness has consumed her and the screams she screams in agony are my own screams to rid myself of this terrible weight pressing on me. A weight that has strapped me into myself. It was then I thought to write to you, as you always lifted the weight in me. Fondly, Maggie From: Rebecca, May 1925 Dear Maggie, Sorry I have been so long in responding. Winter found me ill, but I am now feeling more myself, praise be. I am sorry to hear of your heavy heart, it has been on my mind greatly. I know you are very sensitive of mind. I wish I could be near you and hold your hand like you held mine during those evenings I worried I was coming down with Fever. I felt so safe with you, and I knew if Death graced my doorstep he would never enter on your watch! I wish I could make you feel the same. If I could take the warm light that flickers in my heart, like a candle, when I think of you and send it, I don’t think there would be an envelope big enough! You are a beautiful young woman, and you will only be more radiant if you are happy. Please think of everything you love in this world and hold it close to your heart. Let it light the candle and feed the flame. I wish not to draw attention to myself during this difficult time for you, but the Heart Doctor asked me to marry him, and I said yes. I know we are well suited for each other, as we are never far apart at the hospital! I would ask you to come to the wedding but I know that you think it all nonsense and puffery (I can hear you in my head uttering those very words!) I hope it will not change your feelings for me, or for our time together. What we have shared is in the past, and although it is in the past, it means it can never be taken or destroyed. I hold our memories close and dear in my heart. Affectionately, Rebecca From: Maggie, July 1925 Rebecca, Thank you so much for your comforting letter, and I am happy to hear of your nuptials to the Heart Doctor. My own “heart” is much lighter now: I am sorry to unnecessarily burden you with it in my previous letter. And, you are right that I will not be able to travel for your wedding, as you know I am working an awful lot. I will be thinking of you on your blessed day, and may God Bless You. Regards, Maggie. From: Rebecca, September 1925 Dearest Maggie, I write you as Mrs. Jonathan W___! We had a small ceremony, just a few of the other Doctors and Nurses and my sister. But the dancing! I am glad you are feeling a bit more yourself, Maggie, dear. If you are being honest with me, that is. All I want to say is Remember the barracks. So many men, women, children, blue as lake ice, in death’s fingers. But we survived, Maggie, by the grace of God, and that should give us a small joy, a reason to persevere. Please, Maggie, I still hold our memories close and dear in my heart. No one can ever take them away from me. I hope that you hold them close as well. Love, Rebecca From: Rebecca, September 1925 Dear Rebecca, I am happy to hear of your joyful wedding. It sounds like life is treating you well, and I feel better knowing that you’ve made it through okay after those trying weeks at Camp Humphreys! May God Bless you and your family. Kind regards, Maggie From: Rebecca, November 1925 Dear Maggie, My blood ran cold after I finished your last letter. I fear that you will not speak to me again. Please, tell me it isn’t so. I have thought of you often these past years, and I suppose you of me as well, since you reached out in your first letter. Those were strange days, the Humphrey days. You used to talk about the electricity in the air, that anything could happen. Most times, we joked about it being the bad things that would happen. But some good things happened, too, Maggie. The time we spent together. It was so little, when I think back on it – a Thimble of soup to someone who was starving – but it was so much, much more than I could have ever hoped for. When I think about seeing you again, I feel the same electricity, but the days are no longer strange. I know it could never be. Still, your letters bring me such pleasure, knowing that you are alive, breathing, in the world. Will you give me that one small joy and tell me how you’re getting along? Tell me what you’re doing in DC. What you think about when you’ve a quiet moment. With great affection, Rebecca PS, I am sorry I am now just responding to your letter. It was not a lack of interest or desire, as I had a bout of feeling under the weather. I am now at home, resting mostly peacefully. From: Maggie, November 1925 My dear Rebecca, Thank you for your letter, and I am so relieved to hear that you are on the mend! What was it that ailed you? I hope nothing too serious. If I am to be honest, I thought you would not write me back. I thought it for the best, for you and your new life. I am sorry my words have been short. When you said a few letters past you wished you could make me feel as I did you, you do make me feel the way. It is not in the past. Sometimes I wake before dawn in a sweat. I Know I have dreamt about Lilly in the Barracks, so out of her mind with Fever. I remember I would sit close to her bed and try to make sense of what she moaned and cried through the night. I thought I could help her, if I only knew what she wanted—a glass of water, a rub of camphorae, an ice pack. But I know when I wake up it is me, not Lilly, and I know the words that are trapped in me. With affection, Maggie P.S., I am traveling to Kansas City after the holidays. Do you think it will be possible to see me if I take the train on to St. Louis? From: Rebecca, December 1925 Dear Maggie, Goodness you will be close! May I telegram you as the time draws closer, for I am still feeling a bit under the weather still. Although it warms my heart to know I may see you after this passing of years. There is so much I want to tell you, as you know I am a terrible correspondent and these letters do not do my feelings justice. Faithfully yours, Rebecca P.S., I wrote you a letter once in which I attempted to explain but I could not bring myself to send it. Even though I will see you soon and speak my own words aloud, when you come, I will give it to you. From: Maggie, January 1926 Dear Rebecca, The time draws near, and there is so much I yearn to tell you as well. Please telegram so that I may make arrangements. Always, Maggie 09 JAN 1926 DEAR MAGGIE -(STOP)- PLEASE COME SOON AS YOU CAN STOP -(STOP)- REBECCA April 1926, Washington, DC, NE To: Johnathan W, St. Louis, Mo Dear Jonathan, I wanted to thank you for your hospitality during my recent visit. Again, I must offer my sincerest condolences about Rebecca. I did not know she had remained so ill and did not know even that the telegram was from you. To be completely honest with you, Sir, I am not sure I would have come had I known that Rebecca had already passed away when you sent it. But I suppose you only thought it best, with Rebecca’s urging. You asked me to think it over once more and I have. I am sorry to turn down your proposal of marriage, even if you say that’s what Rebecca had wanted. It was not something she mentioned in her letters, although I suppose she was a woman of great discretion. Again, I offer my sincerest condolences, Rebecca was an Amazing woman and good Christian and friend. May you find comfort during this time in your work. As I have minded in my own life, Work keeps the mind busy, and Faith keeps the heart focused. May God Bless You, Maggie PS, I forgot to remind you that if you come across the letter if you could please forward it to me? It wasn’t among Rebecca’s things you set aside, but I remain hopeful. March 1956, St Louis, Mo To: Margaret O____, Washington, DC Dear Ms. O___, I found this letter hidden in a picture frame I purchased from an antique store on Cherokee Street in St. Louis, addressed to you from a Mrs. Rebecca G, dated September 1925. It has not been opened or tampered with in any way. At any rate, I hope you are still at this address. Happy reading! Cordially, Mrs. Eugene Blackburn Mrs. Eugene Blackburn St Louis, Mo RETURN TO SENDER: ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water, The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press), a couplet of novellas entitled Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction, including The Company of Strangers (forthcoming, 2022, Braddock Avenue Books). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers, The Washington Post, and the Literary Hub, and she’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. She lives in Carlsbad, California, with her partner and dog.