The Letter

--by Nancy Hain Saturday morning was turning into a lovely day after a rainy night. It was early June and newlyweds Peter and Amy had just started out on their usual Saturday morning yard sale adventure. They had recently bought a small house on the outskirts of town and were in the process of finding furniture, dish ware and other items. They particularly enjoyed going out into the countryside to the yard sales found at the farmhouses there. But sometimes they explored closer in to town, which was their choice today.

The first two houses they went to had nothing they were interested in but the third house they found was a stately old brick house closer in to the older section of town. As it turned out, the folks running the yard sale were the children of a retired doctor. The doctor had practiced in that town for more than fifty years before finally deciding it was time to retire. He was widowed and was now residing In a nearby retirement community. Amy and Peter began looking through all the furniture, dishes, pictures and other items.

“Amy!” Peter called. “Come look at this desk!”

Amy, holding a box full of glassware, came over to see what Peter had found.

“Look at this beautiful old desk,” Peter exclaimed as he showed Amy the small but practical desk with a single central drawer under the desktop and multiple drawers, cubbyholes and compartments in the back of the desk. The wood was a beautiful, light wood tone with some expected dents and scratches.

“This would be perfect for me to use in the little den,” Peter said. “I could use it to keep accounts, letters and journals”.

“And it doesn’t take up much space which would leave room for the desk with the computer and printer”, Amy replied. “I love It because it seems to have so much character”.

So they agreed to buy the desk with its chair and the box of glassware from the sellers. They managed to fit it into the back of their SUV and headed home with their treasures. After rearranging things a bit in the den, they put the desk in one corner next to a window. Amy went to the kitchen to wash the glassware and find a place in the cupboard for it.

Meanwhile, Peter found a rag and some furniture cleaner to try to clean out the desk and spiff it up a bit. In the main drawer he found some bits of paper clips, staples and scraps of paper, all of which he threw away. The desktop may have had a blotter or other protective pad on it because it was relatively free of dents and scratches. Peter cleaned and polished that as best he could. Then he began to pull out some of the small drawers at the back of the desk and to clean out the cubbyholes and small compartments. There were years of dust and grime in the innermost corners of the compartments but he finally got them clean to his satisfaction. Next he began to work on the drawers, pulling them out one by one, to clean them. When he got to the uppermost drawer, thinking he was almost done, he found a surprise. Peter pulled out the drawer but found crumpled and jammed behind it, a sealed envelope. Uncrumpling it and smoothing it out, he called to Amy. “Hey, Amy, come see what I found!”

Amy, hearing the excitement in his voice, hurried into the den. There they both bent over the envelope to examine it. It was old with a postmark dated September 1955 and a large stamp across it which read, “Return to Sender. Address Unknown”. It was addressed to:

“Mary Appleton 1625 32nd Avenue Smithville, North Carolina”

The return address read: “Thomas Bentley 29 University Boulevard Apt. 9 Harvard, Massachusetts “

Amy and Peter looked at each other and nodded silently to each other in agreement. They went into the kitchen and set the teakettle on the stove to boil while they made some sandwiches for their lunch. Once the kettle was steaming, they carefully held the envelope to the steam. Probably because the adhesive was old and dry, it easily came loose and Amy gently pried it open. She looked again at the address on the envelope In Smithville, which was the town where she and Peter had found the desk. Very carefully Peter slid the letter out and unfolded it.

“You read it, Peter,” Amy said. “It was written by a man so it should be read by a man. It was obviously never read by a woman.”

Peter agreed and he began to read:

“Dearest Mary, I am hoping that this will get to you before you and your family move to your new home, which you said would possibly happen soon. I do not have your new address right now so I hope if this misses you that it will be forwarded. I have something important to ask you that I did not have the opportunity or the courage to ask before I left for medical school so far away.

My late acceptance to Harvard Medical School came so suddenly and the arrival time was so soon that, although I tried to call or stop by, I was unable to contact you. I had to pack very quickly and almost literally jump aboard a train to make it to Harvard in time to begin classes.

We had such a wonderful year together. I am so glad we happened to be taking some of the same classes. And thank you for coming to my graduation. I will do my best to come for yours next Spring although I have no Idea what my course schedule will be and it is such a long distance.

Our time together over the summer months were idyllic and just confirmed my strong feelings for you. I was so hoping to see you before I left for school because I wanted to tell you how much I do love you. I know, or at least I have always felt, that your parents have never liked me although I do not know why. And I know from what you told me, that your father’s job often requires him to move from place to place and at short notice. I was hoping your family would not move before you could finish your degree at the university.

But, dear Mary, the one thing that I truly wanted to tell you is that I love you deeply. I have never been good at expressing my feelings verbally but I will try here. You have been the sunshine in my life all through this past year. I am not sure I would have finished my degree, much less applied to medical school, without your encouragement. You gave me confidence in myself and courage to try for what I wanted.

I do not know your feelings for me but I am hoping you feel as I do about our relationship. Again I will say that I love you with all my heart and soul.

And, dearest Mary, I put all my love for you into this question: Will you please marry me and be my wife? I promise to love you until the end of time.

And I will close this letter in the fervent hope that I will receive a favorable reply. With all my love, Tom”

Peter and Amy were both rather overcome by the content of the letter.

“It seems this letter never got to Mary,” Amy said.

“Yes,” Peter responded. “And I wonder why? Had her family already moved by the time the letter had arrived and they left no forwarding address?”

“I wonder if we can find out anything from this Thomas Bentley’s family as to where he is living now. They had mentioned a retirement community nearby when we were at the yard sale.”

“Good idea,” Peter said. “Shall we see if anyone is still at the house?”

Amy nodded and so they slipped the letter back into the envelope, grabbed the car keys and drove back to the yard sale house. They were in luck because some of the family were still there cleaning out the leftovers from the sale.

“Excuse me,” Peter said to a man as he loaded a box into a car, “Could we ask you a question?”

“Certainly,” replied the man.

Peter introduced himself and Amy as having been to the yard sale and having purchased the desk. The man remembered them, introduced himself as Josh Bentley, son of the doctor who had owned the house, and he hoped there wasn’t a problem with the desk.

They reassured him that there wasn’t a problem and then showed him the letter they had found jammed behind the drawer. Josh read it but was totally puzzled by it, never having seen it before or knowing who Mary Appleton was. His mother’s name had been Ellen Bartlet.

Peter and Amy asked if they could have permission to visit his father in the retirement community. Josh was happy to have them visit his father and asked that if they learned anything, to please let him know. After exchanging contact information, Amy and Peter drove to the retirement community, which was only a twenty-minute drive away. They found Dr. Thomas Bentley living in a lovely cottage on a quiet street in the Mountainview Retirement Community. Josh had called ahead to his father so Dr. Bentley greeted them cheerfully at the door. He was a slim, grey-haired , distinguished looking gentleman with a ready smile and laugh lines around his twinkling eyes.

“Oh, please come in, come in! And call me Tom as I am a retired doctor,” he said as Amy and Peter introduced themselves.

He led them into the living room which had obviously been furnished with items from his old house in town. As he sat down, Tom asked Peter and Amy how he could help them. Peter told him how he and Amy had bought the old desk at the yard sale and how, while cleaning it up a bit, an envelope had been found stuck behind one of the drawers. And then Peter pulled out the envelope and set it on the table in front of the doctor.

“This looks like it belonged to you and we apologize for opening it but curiosity got the better of us,” Peter said.

Tom reached out and picked up the envelope. As he read it he gave a small gasp of surprise and gently shook his head .

“My goodness,” he said. “I did not realize this even existed. Do you mind if I take a moment to read it? And while I do, Amy dear, would you go to the kitchen and turn the kettle on? Perhaps we could use some tea.”

So Tom read the letter while Amy and Peter went into the kitchen, put the teakettle on the stove and found some mugs in a cupboard. A container with teabags was on the countertop so Amy put a teabag in each cup and waited for the water to boil. Peter peeked out to the living room and saw Tom reading the letter, then the envelope and then reading them again.

Finally Amy and Peter brought out the mugs of tea, a sugar bowl, some milk and spoons and set them on the table in front of the couch.

“Thank you and I am guessing that you young folks are curious about this,” Tom said as he held up the envelope and letter.

“Yes, sir, we are,” Peter replied, “but only if it is something you care to tell us about. Your son, Josh, was curious as well, since he said his mother’s name was not Mary Appleton.”

Tom put some sugar and milk in his tea and stirred it. Then he took a sip as Amy and Peter prepared theirs.

“Alright,” Tom began, “Here Is the story.”

“I was finishing my bachelor of science degree at Smithville University back in 1954. It was late summer of ‘54 when I met Mary who was signing up for some of the same classes that I was. We seemed to hit it off and soon we began to date. My parents had both died some years earlier in an automobile accident and I had no siblings. I lived in an apartment near campus and Mary, also an only child, lived with her parents in a rented house in town. I was never sure what her father did for a living but Mary had told me that his job caused them to move frequently and at short notice. As you read in the letter, I had received a late acceptance to Harvard medical school at the end of the summer of 1955. I don’t know if someone had dropped out or what but as I wrote in the letter, I barely had time to pack and board the train in order to arrive on time. I hadn’t been able to contact Mary before I left and so I wrote her that letter as soon as I was settled at Harvard but the letter was returned as you can see.”

Tom stopped to take a sip of tea and Amy asked, “Did you ever find out where Mary went or why her family left no forwarding address?”

“No. Once that letter was returned I had no idea how to locate her. As I mentioned in the letter, for some reason I always felt that her folks did not like me. I was quite desolate for some time but I confess that my medical school studies soon overwhelmed me and began to absorb all my time. Back then it was a long and costly train trip back to Smithville and I had no car at that time so I did not return even during summers. I took on part-time jobs as well as my studies so my time was very full.”

Peter was curious, “You eventually returned to North Carolina and Smithville. So did you try to find Mary then?”

Tom looked somewhat abashed and confessed that he had not.

“I did not return until around 1959 after I had finished school, an internship and gotten some experience under my belt. And then I decided to set up my own practice here in what I considered my home town. In fact, my office was at the back of the house where you found the desk. One charming young nurse I had hired, Ellen, I soon fell In love with and married. She passed away five years ago. And, of course, you met Josh and there is also a daughter and three grandchildren. I can’t Imagine why I kept that letter but I am assuming that when I first returned to Smithville I had plans to search for Mary. And then life took over. I must have stuck it In that drawer years ago when I first bought the desk for my office.”

After visiting a little while longer, Peter asked if they could keep the letter. Tom chuckled and said that would be fine. It was the past and gone as far as he was concerned. But he asked them both to come and visit again. Amy said, “Certainly. It would be our pleasure.”

As the young couple drove home, they began to talk about the letter and its history. Peter, who was a research assistant at the university, suggested that in his free time he might see what he could find out about Mary Appleton and where she might be now.

Several weeks passed before Tom heard from Peter and Amy who called to arrange for a visit.

“How lovely to see you both!” Tom exclaimed as he opened the door for the couple when they arrived at his cottage. “Shall we have some lemonade as we visit on the patio?”

“Yes, thank you,” Amy replied. “That would be lovely.”

Once they were settled on the patio, Tom began to ask them questions about themselves; where they lived, what they did for a living, etc. So for awhile they chatted, exchanged information and had some laughs.

But then during a lull in the conversation, Peter said, “Tom, you know now that I am a research assistant and I do a lot of my research using the Internet. When you know how to use it, it can be very helpful.”

“Yes, Peter found something very interesting, Tom,” interrupted Amy. “We would like to share it with you.”

And so as Tom listened, Peter told him what he had found out about Mary Appleton:

Mary’s family had moved just about the time Tom was preparing to leave for Harvard. Since they were renting the house it was a quick departure. Peter wasn’t sure but he assumed that Mary’s father worked for the government and that was why they left no forwarding address.

Mary, however, had returned to school at the university and had graduated. Peter had found photos and records of the graduation. He also learned that she taught school in a town about an hour south of Smithville. And she had eventually married a fellow teacher, Gary Cantrell. Peter had found an obituary from about ten years ago that Gary had died of cancer. Mary and Gary had three children and four grandchildren. Peter had also found records of the sale of Mary’s house about three years ago and motor vehicle records showing her change of address.

At that point Peter stopped and looked over to Amy. They smiled and turned back to smile at Tom. Tom recognized something different in their smiles, almost conspiratorial.

“What?” he asked, looking from Peter to Amy and back again. “Is there something else?”

“Oh indeed there is, Tom,” Amy answered. “Would you like to know her present address?”

After a moment, Tom nodded slowly.

“Okay then,” Peter said. “She lives right here in Mountainview Retirement Community. She lives in one of the duplexes down the hill from you.”

“What!” Tom exclaimed. “How did I not know? I must have seen her, perhaps even met her. How did she not know me or recognize my name?”

“Only she can tell you that, Tom,” Amy said. “Would you like to see her and talk to her?”

“I don’t know. I am not sure,” Tom stammered.

“We understand what a surprise this must be, but keep in mind, you have only been here a couple of months so it is possible that your paths have just not crossed. This Is a large community,” offered Peter. “I think we will go now but we are going to leave Mary’s address and phone number here on the table. We have really enjoyed getting to know you and, hopefully, we can visit again soon.”

Peter and Amy saw themselves out, leaving Tom sitting in his chair, gazing into the distance.

It was about two weeks later that Amy answered the phone and heard Tom’s cheerful greeting.

“Hello, Amy,” Tom said. “I am wondering if you and Peter would like to join me for lunch this Saturday at the restaurant here in the retirement community?”

Amy replied that they would love to and a time was arranged.

Peter and Amy arrived at the entrance to the restaurant and found Tom waiting on a bench outside. They greeted each other with handshakes and hugs and then went inside to a table Tom had reserved. And there, already seated, was a lovely, white-haired woman with a beautiful smile on her face. After they all sat down and settled themselves, Tom said to the young couple, “I would like to introduce you two to Mary Cantrell, or as I knew her long ago, Mary Appleton. It took me several days but I finally got up enough courage to call Mary. We have had some wonderful conversations, catching up on all the years that have passed.”

“It is lovely to meet you both,” Mary said. “Thank you so much for the research Tom said you did in order to find me and get us reconnected. And who would imagine that we would end up living here in the same community!”

“I told her about the letter you found in the desk,” Tom continued, “And we have had some tears and laughter but both agree that our lives progressed as they were meant to. We both had wonderful careers and marriages, have super children and grandchildren and now fate has brought us together again. So we will enjoy each other’s company here and we hope you will both visit us as often as you can. And perhaps one day we can introduce you to our families!”

Later, after Peter and Amy arrived back home, they both went into the small den where the old desk sat. Peter took the envelope and the letter and set them on the desktop.

“I think we should frame these and hang them on the wall near the desk,” Amy said. “What do you think?”

“I agree,” Peter replied. “They belong with the desk. They are history and tell a story that now has a wonderful ending.”

The couple embraced, realizing that they, too, would someday have a history together and a beautiful story to tell.

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