Oh, The Tales A Scrapbook Can Tell

Susan Page
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Wednesday - June 02, 2010
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I’ve discovered that an old photo album can hold more than just faded pictures from the past.

Just recently I’ve become obsessed with organizing and getting rid of “stuff” - evidently a side effect of getting old, because I remember mother doing the same thing at my age.

But I’m sentimental - especially when it comes to photos.

While cleaning out last week, I came upon an album I’d never laid eyes on. It belonged to my Aunt Mattie Bess “Bit” Roberts and had somehow landed in my pile when my sister and I cleaned out Mom’s and Dad’s (both now deceased) house some years ago.

I actually almost threw it away, but sentimentality - and curiosity - got the best of me, and next thing you know I was turning the fragile pages of the worn, brown-leather album with the words Scrap Book inlaid in gold.


 

The contents, carefully pasted with mounting corners, spanned from late 1943 to 1945. Bit was married to one of my mother’s four brothers, Monroe “Mon” V. Roberts II. I was yet to be born.

The pages held the usual scrap stuff: pressed roses, tickets to special shows, letters, poems and Western Union telegrams.

A childhood disease had affected Uncle Mon’s hearing, so his beloved Marines wouldn’t take him, but he was able to become a proud Seabee in the Navy engineer corps, where he could at least help build landing strips, roads and bridges for the Marines.

Much of Mon’s time in the Pacific war was spent here in Hawaii, evidenced by photos of Diamond Head, Punchbowl and palms.

Aunt Bit was a small-town Texas girl who had been born with a serious heart condition (she had Houston’s first open-heart surgery through her back!). Her scrapbook reflected the ordinary life of a young wife waiting patiently for her man to return from war. It was sweet and unremarkable except in its innocence - a reflection of the era.

But the last page of the album got my attention. There, pasted at the corners, were a telegram and a sealed letter postmarked May 21, 1944. The telegram was from Mon’s mother - my grandmother - succinctly stating “TOBY IS A PRISONER OF WAR IN GERMANY WILL WRITE LATER.”


Mon’s brother, Toby, had been shot down and captured. The letter, left unopened for 66 years, was a four-page cheer-up-the-boys-on-the-front-lines correspondence from Bit to her brother-in-law Toby. The telegram was sent at precisely the same time as the letter, whose envelope bore the stamp “Return to sender” and was signed by a Lt. Dale. Faintly printed were the words “Missing in Action.”

It was as though I’d gone back in time, feeling an unanticipated shock at that returned letter. It felt personal. I don’t regret reading that letter. It deserved appreciative eyes. It also brought me to an understanding of what my mother tried to explain all her life.

Almost every man in my mother’s and grandmother’s family were overseas “for the duration,” not uncommon during World War II. Some they loved came home, some didn’t. Mon’s other brother died in a tank in Germany in 1945. The women worried themselves sick.

Uncle Mon survived the war, but not peacetime, dying in his 60s while Bit, with the heart condition, outlived him by years.

Uncle Toby was released from POW camp at war’s end and only died a month ago at 87. I wish I’d found Bit’s letter and shared it with him before that. It would’ve made his day.

As we continue to honor the sacrifice of our armed forces who fought and still fight in wars across the globe, let’s also honor the sacrifice of those who filled scrapbooks, wrote letters and prayed back home.

Albums aren’t how military spouses preserve memories nowadays, but keeping the history, whether on Facebook or Photo Bucket, is a gift to future generations who, like me, might accidentally discover something important while trying to get organized.

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