Although my grandfather on my father’s side was a tobacco man by trade — he had his own company in later years and sold to countries in Africa and elsewhere — he was a terrific letter writer.
My father inherited the letter-writing gene from him, and between the two of them, it amounted to something of a sacred trust. Letters were not only to be written but also to be preserved. Many of my grandfather’s letters — and some of my father’s — have been preserved. My grandfather, Joseph W. Fitzpatrick, who was born in New York City and later a resident of Louisville, KY, wrote regularly to his five children. My grandmother, Henriette Lloveras Fitzpatrick, also wrote a lot of letters.
I learned recently from my aunt, Nanette Eckert — the only surviving offspring of Joseph and Henriette — that when my grandfather wrote a letter to one child, he would make four carbon copies and send them to the other children. That practice ensured a panoramic flow of information.
Recently, one of my cousins, Josephine (Josie) Fitzpatrick, who lives in Barcelona, sent me electronic files of a passel of letters, many of which were addressed to her father, Joseph Lloveras Fitzpatrick, who died at age 89 last June. (I was lucky enough to spend a few days with him a month earlier, when I was in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby.)
The letters, typewritten and dating mostly to the early 1940s, are a window into the joys, concerns and daily developments in the lives of the Fitzpatrick family. I think you’ll be interested in some excerpts. The letters I will quote from were written by my grandfather and grandmother to my Uncle Joey, who, at the time, was in the Army Air Corps. He went on to become an outstanding artist and taught art at the college level for many years.
My Uncle Joey was more unpredictable and spontaneous than his two brothers and two sisters. In 1958, for example, he and his girlfriend up and went to New York, where they were married, then traveled to Israel, where they stayed for more than a year.
In the letters, you will see that my grandparents encouraged him and, at the same time, tried to drum personal responsibility into him.
Feb. 15, 1944, from my grandfather…
“You did not tell us anything about your hours of rising and retiring, also recreation. Would be interested to learn, also, how you are standing the strain of regular exercise and discipline. You are going to find it rather tough, I imagine, but if you go with the tide, instead of trying to buck it, you will get along alright.”
Jan. 28, 1946, from my grandmother…
“Much love to you, dear Joey, from everyone here, which means Daddy, Marie, Bobby (my father), Nanette, Johnny and “Quisette” (the family dog). Aren’t you lucky to have so many people thinking of you? Think of the poor kids who have no one to love them, who never get any letters or anything — it is good to feel that someone is with you in thought, praying for you, is it not? God bless you always. Affectionately yours, Mother.”
Feb. 7, 1946, from my grandmother…
“Why on earth did you not telegraph soon after your arrival at Mather Field — even a card or something?????????”
“Since you do not mind at all, I shall write down the words you have mis-spelled in your last letter, with the correct spelling, and I know it will help you to improve…”
Feb. 19, 1946, from my grandmother…
“You write you only have left camp once, and went to San Rafael (CA), and so have little news to give us, yet you do not say anything about San Rafael. It would be interesting to know what it is like and whether you like the place or not — and what is there to see or do.”
“Now, do try to be careful with your spelling, Joey. Study some of the corrections I am enclosing. You have a good memory and certainly next time you use these words you will remember how to spell them correctly…I know you do not mind my saying this, being your mother, and it is for your own good, after all.”
March 10, 1946, from my grandfather…
“My congratulations on your typing, and I wish I could also compliment you on your spelling. You may not realize it, but it is not improving at all. Even in the case of simple words, as for example “recent,” but spelled in two of your letters as “recient.” I don’t know how you are going to overcome this defect in your writing, but if I remember correctly we sent you a pocket dictionary some time back. I know it is very bothersome when writing to stop to look up the spelling of a word, but I am sure if you do so whenever you are in doubt, you will find within a comparatively short time that your spelling will improve greatly.
“Now for the news. The big event was the arrival Monday at 3:30 A.M. of James Carey Fitzpatrick at St. Joseph’s, where Mary Louise (my mother) and he are getting along very well. At first Bobby (my father) was very disappointed with the looks of his offspring, but yesterday he began to realize that after all, his heir is ‘a very nice looking little fellow.’ “
(Editor’s notes: 1. There’s a saying in journalism when a writer fails to put the most important development first, that the writer “buried the lead.” Well, modesty aside, my grandfather buried the lead in putting his concerns about my uncle’s spelling before the birth of his second grandchild — ME! 2. I’m shocked and appalled to learn my father was initially disappointed in my looks. Wisely, he never told me about his initial assessment.)
March 23, 1946, from my grandfather…
“Dear, Joey: Congratulations on your well expressed and typed letter of the 13th, your spelling, and also your unusual promptness in replying to mine of the 10th. Just shows what a man can do when he is put to the test. Keep up the good work, including the use of a dictionary — or did you use one when you were writing?”
After reading these letters, I was feeling a bit sorry for my Uncle Joey for the relentless flogging he took about his spelling. Oddly, in all the writings of his that I saw, I don’t remember a single “mis-spelled” word. Like his father and my father, he was an excellent writer, which means, I suppose, the badgering produced results. Also, I’m sure Uncle Joey — a laid-back sort — took the chiding in good humor, accepting his mother’s assurance, “It is for your own good.”