In a china dish that belonged to my English grandfather, I have a treasured letter he wrote to congratulate Mom on the birth of her first grandchild, Jennifer, our daughter, who now has children of her own. The letter is written on blue airmail stationery, the type Mom and Grandpa used back then — the least expensive to post.

I thought about the letter over the weekend, while I perused the “Mail Call” exhibit that just opened at Washington Public Library. To go along with the exhibit the library has other programs planned. One is a “Letter-Writing Challenge,” in which we’re encouraged to write six letters to family members or friends in the nine weeks that “Mail Call” is on display.

Those who participate can log their letters on a form supplied by the library and when complete will receive a “Love My Library” pen. The real prize, however, will be sending a letter, and perhaps getting one back — a heartfelt exchange that used to be central to our lives.

A Wonderful Opportunity

When you enter the library, a separate display on the lower level has photographs of library staff members’ relatives who have served, or are serving, in the Armed Forces. It’s a touching way to make “Mail Call” more personal and connect it to our community.

Among the stories the Smithsonian exhibit has embellished is one from Missy Frankenberg, a clerk at the library, who’s been in touch with her 94-year-old grandmother, Lois Paradee, in California, to talk about letters her grandparents exchanged during World War II. Missy knew about this previously, but the exhibit promoted further dialog, and the details she discovered might have been lost without the impetus provided by the exhibit.

Five Years of Letters

In 1940, Missy’s grandmother lived in Detroit and had a friend whose beau was serving in Hawaii. He had an Army buddy who wanted to write a girl while he was in the service, and asked if the man’s girlfriend might know of someone. That’s how a courtship in letters began between Missy’s grandparents, Elmer Hearn, and Lois Paradee — correspondence that went on for five years, while Elmer saw action in various places in the Pacific.

Initially their letters were sporadic, but after a couple of months, they arrived weekly, and then daily. The end result was three bushel baskets full of letters to Lois, which she’s since weeded out, saving only the really special ones. Elmer even proposed to Lois in a letter, written six to eight months before he returned to the States.

When the proposal arrived, Lois’ mother asked her daughter what she was going to do. She would accept, Lois said, and when he got home if she felt the relationship wasn’t right she’d tell him so. Elmer had to wait two weeks to get Lois’ reply, “the longest two weeks of his life,” he later told her.

A Happy Ending

It didn’t take the couple long to get hitched. Lois was outside on the balcony of the family home one day when she saw a cab pull up. She knew it was Elmer. Two weeks later, on July 28, 1945, they were married in a small ceremony in Michigan. Their long-distance courtship led to 54 years of marriage and the birth of three sons. Elmer Hearn passed away in 1999.

“There were no surprises when he got home,” Lois told Missy. “We had poured our hearts out to each other in letters.”

More stories like Missy’s are sure to come to light because of “Mail Call.” Perhaps one of the letters we should send should be to the library staff thanking them for all their hard work in getting the exhibit here, and setting it up, with a special nod to Ruth McGinnis, our children’s librarian, for being so tenacious in her efforts.

This meaningful exhibit is a gift to our community.