Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In Rubie’s Mailbox

I found a letter to my grandmother among my aunt’s papers, and it looked, from all the details stuffed inside the envelope, like something I ought to save.

It wasn’t a particularly old letter. Written in 1983, it was addressed to the last home where my grandmother lived in Columbus, Ohio.

The envelope was addressed to “Mrs. Jack R. Davis,” which I didn’t find particularly unusual, seeing the letter was coming from Fort Meade, Florida. That old fashioned, proper Southern mode of address—well, except it didn’t strictly include solely initials—still lived on among these old friends.

The letter was from a school chum from so many, many years ago. I had always wondered about this schoolmate’s name, having found it written in my grandmother’s unique hand in her address book.

Tell me: if you had seen a name written like this,

what would you have said that name was?

I was thankful that the woman had sent a previous letter with a return address label, which my grandmother had, thankfully, stuck in the address book right above that mystery name.

The woman’s name was Zemla. Not too many around with a name like that!

In October, 1983, Zemla started her letter off routinely enough. Following a greeting, she shared the latest news with her friend. (Since it’s a recent enough letter to refer to people still living, I’ve omitted that portion of her note.)

One of the first details that made me value the discovery of this letter is that it addressed my grandmother as Rubie, not Ruth. For all her adult life, my grandmother had gone by the first name Ruth. I had never known her by any other name. It was quite a surprise to discover that her parents had named her something other than Ruth, and to actually, here, find an example of her childhood friend calling her by that other name.

                                                         Thurs, Oct. 20th
Dear Rubie,
            You said for me to write before Christmas but I’ve almost waited too late. I’m still at Carl’s in Ft. Meade trying to keep the home fires burning.

But it was what followed that opening section that I thought would be a fun project to share here. Actually, as far as I can figure out, it introduces two such projects. And, if I can get some of these names accounted for, it might be an interesting chance to delve into life in Fort Meade, circa 1912. For, as Zemla continued on the second page of her letter,
I am enclosing some things I thought you would be interested in


  1. I first read Memla but now I see the Z quite clearly. I've never seen such a flourish at the start of a letter - it's usually at the end stroke. I'm glad for return address stickers too -- that's how I learned "Cousin Nell" was named Ellen.

    1. Some handwriting is so clear. Some people's handwriting is downright sloppy. And then there are the outliers...

      Wendy, I would have agreed with your "Memla." That would have been my best guess. I would never have dreamed it started with a "Z."

      However, I met with a friend from my local genealogical society today and happened to show her the writing example. She guessed Zemla right away.

      Well, she was a school teacher, so I've got to hand it to her. She's probably seen every handwriting quirk there is.

      Then she told me her secret: she's been trying to learn the Old German script--you know, the kind no one knows how to read any more? She said my grandmother's "Z" reminded her of the old German script.

      Yeah, I'm with you: those return address stickers can come in handy.

  2. Wow! It really is a good thing that there's a typed return address label on that letter. Otherwise, her name may still be a mystery.

    1. Just think about how many times she had to explain about her own name to others. She probably used those labels out of self-defense!

  3. I'm still trying to digest "Zemla." I've never seen the name before!


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