This is late mostly because we ran errands this morning, and it was more convenient to run them before I sat down.
While I was in Portugal my dad was telling me tales of his youth, including that he used to be the letter writer for men who wanted to ask women to go out.
You see, in a highly segregated society, where “going out together” was a formal thing and only done after the man had met the woman’s parents and asked permission, the process as I understand it went something like this: the man saw the woman somewhere, perhaps several times, and thought that she was someone he would like to date, if not to marry. (A lot of them leaped to thinking she was someone they wanted to marry because people will be people.) He would then approach her, normally via a common friend. If they had no friends in common, the man would discern where she lived and send as persuasive a letter as he could, asking her to allow him to come over, meet her parents and take her out on a date. (First dates tended to be something lame and public, like walking up the street together, in full view of the entire village. Parties and the like came after you were sure and you were an established couple.)
My dad, a poet with a massive vocabulary, was often co-opted into writing these letters, translating his friends’ simple sentiments into high flung stuff with literary allusions. This was all the more important since if the parents were impressed it would be easier for them to give consent.
So he told me on Sunday morning he held “letter writing time” in the field next to my grandmother’s. (This was part of a convoluted story about how he had had to dumb down a letter FOUR TIMES before his friend the construction worker got an answer from this woman he was struck with, who finally agreed to meet him. The higher-dialect letters actually had scared her.) And he said “You don’t remember, I’m sure, that there was a stone ledge near the top of that wall.” And I said, “Of course I remember. My brother took me there, when I was very little, to watch the oxen draw water.” My dad was both pleased and amazed I remembered since the ox-drawn watering system was replaced by a mechanical one when I was five or six. But my brother taking me out, with his friends, to watch this was a high mark in my days.
Yes, this will tell you how deprived of excitement our days were, I guess, that watching oxen go round and round while they drew the water had, I guess, been a pastime of village youths for generations.
It occurs to me that as we get older it’s a enormous relief to find someone who shares our memory, particularly of something more out of the usual. So many of our friends have died or lost their memory or simply gone elsewhere and broken ties, that we’re left sitting there going “What in heck? Did this ever happen? Am I misremembering?” This is particularly true, as I said, of something unusual, like for instance the other day I posted in a private group a picture of my mom’s family and someone said “those are huge soup bowls.” I had to say “Tea bowls.” Tea was drunk in bowls we’d think more appropriate for soup. Not in the higher classes, mind. My best friend who was impoverished high class loved coming to my house and having tea in a bowl because her family wouldn’t allow it.
It’s one of those things, because until the person asked, I, myself, now after 30 years of using cups and mugs for tea had completely forgotten those huge bowls we used to use. Even mom now uses a cup. Fortunately there is photographic evidence of the bowls.
You memory automatically gentrifies your past to match your present, I think.
Beyond that, the idea that people wrote letters to ask someone to date struck me as almost unbearably charming. And at the same time, under the rubric of the past being another country, I wonder what historians who find those letters in family mementos will think. Dad had well above average education, definitely above average intelligence and a natural love for words and playing with words. He wrote letters for his friends who were farmers and farm hands, construction workers, and various other sorts of skilled and unskilled manual trades. Would an historian, finding these letters exquisitely copied in good hand think that everyone back then had a huge vocabulary and easy classical references? I mean there were books of “letters” which furnished patterns on “How to ask a young lady out” but my dad’s are obviously not of those, and if they don’t find the original in my dad’s handwriting (which any half smart swain would have eliminated long before it came to marriage) what will historians think? “There were literary giants among the people in those days, self taught and amazing?”
The other thing that struck me is the thing that I used to envy my parents for and that I suspect my kids would too if they knew it. It’s an Odd thing, I think.
I would have preferred that form of dating to what prevailed in my day, where you could have gone out with a guy a dozen times, and maybe kissed and all, and you still had no idea if you were his girlfriend or “just friends.” In fact, most of the time men took advantage of this to lengthen the “just friends” phase as long as possible and play the field.
Because knowing when you’d crossed that or the “fiance” threshold was a thing of penumbras and emanations and of reading someone else’s expressions and intentions, it often ended in tears (not for me. I found the whole thing annoying and tended to long-distance relationships, where you HAD to know.)
It occurs to me in the old system there were all sorts of protections built in, and not just for us odds. First of all the process of asking someone out was public and involved the whole family, and the first dates involved the neighborhood watching you. The knowing what phase you were at also prevented most (not all. People lie) broken hearts.
I’m not saying “olden days were better” I’m saying they were easier to read and I often wished they’d been like that in my youth, as do my kids, who have a hellish time figuring out when a girl is throwing herself at their (usually just one of them, but… Although there was this one…) heads.
And now that I’ve rambled all over the page, I’m going to take myself to clean the house, so I can write. 🙂 It’s almost unpacked, so I should be able to actually do a weekly cleaning proper.
Have a good weekend. I’ll try to torture Grant some tomorrow.