A Letter Home
Sometimes, a chance find can lead you on an incredibly meaningful journey. My journey's story started at the unlikely place of the annual Community Garage Sale at the Mennen Arena in Morris Township on April 29, 2017. I took the kids and a few dollars to see what we could find. In the past we've scored by finding an uncut sheet of baseball cards from the mid-80's (which now hangs in my son's room) and an entire tub of Keva blocks for $5. We thought our success at the Community Garage Sale had dried up, especially since we hadn't found any treasures and had just learned that my daughter's softball practice was moved up by half and hour. As we raced through the final tables, we came across one with dusty old craft supplies and tattered stuffed animals. Among these pieces were three random yellowed letters, all addresses to different places.
One plastic bag with a letter and postcard caught my eye. Both were addressed to Maple Avenue, Madison. Since I know several people who live on that street, though not the person who lives in that house, I figured I'd get them and pass them along to the person who lives at that address now as a nice keepsake for them.
When we returned home, we examined the letter and postcard more carefully. I hadn't realized it before, but the postcard was mailed from Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 27, 1917. Goosebumps rose up my spine. It had been mailed almost exactly 100 years to the day I was reading it. It is possible that the person to whom it was addressed had received it exactly 100 years ago. The letter was postmarked two months later.
Inside, the letter revealed a glimpse into the daily life of a young Harvard student, Henry Ferriss (age 18 or 19). He wrote to his mother about his classes, the ROTC (this was right in the middle of World War 1), and the things he has purchased (khakis, lunches, and a list of phonograph records, at $1.25 to $1.50 each--"I suppose the latter was an extravagance, but I heard them and liked them very much. Perhaps some of the rest will hear them sometime.") One of my favorite lines was the second one in the letter, which he underlined for emphasis: "Please have Father send six $5.00 checks at once." The postscript was "P.S. Please send $5.00 benevolence money also."
Who was this Henry Ferriss? Had he gone to the war? Did he survive the war? What started for me as a simple purchase at a garage sale, was leading me into our town's local history. I did a quick Google search, and found a Madison census report from 1940 which listed Henry, age 42, and his family (wife, and two children, Gregory--age 15--and Lincoln--age 8) as living on Brittan Street. Calculating that his children would now be 92 and 85, I decided to do a White Pages search on the younger son. His name came up just a few towns away, so I thought I'd give it a try to contact him. I copied the letter and postcard, and wrote a long note explaining who I was, where I got the letters, and that I would happily send him the originals if he would like them since I wanted to confirm that this was the right person I was contacting.
That weekend, I received a call from Lincoln's wife Theresa. She introduced herself and said that receiving the letters had made their day, their year, even. She then put Lincoln on the phone. We chatted for about 15 minutes, all about his grandparents' house on Maple Ave, how his family loved spending time outdoors and camping, how he and his brother both graduated from Madison High School (which is now Madison Junior School), that he raised his three children in Madison, and how excited his brother (age 92) would be when he tells him about the letter. It was a beautiful conversation full of happy memories.
Before sending the letter off to him the next week, I made three color copies. One for me to keep, one for the Madison Historical Society (Lincoln was very pleased that they would be getting a copy.), and one for the current owner of the house on Maple Avenue. I told the owner the whole story of how I found the letter at the garage sale, was sending the original to the son of the man who wrote the letter, and how I felt a copy should return to the home where it was originally addressed. We both marveled at how special it was to have this small view of life a century ago, speculated how the letter ended up at the garage sale, and wondered about the story of where it had been for the past 100 years. We both agreed about how precious it was to have the letter returning home, to the family and the house, once again.