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#52Ancestors – Beginnings: When Herbie met Peggy

My parents met around January 1934, based on a letter written by my mother, Margaret (Margaret Lilly Lee), called “Peggy,” at the time, to my father, Herbert (Herbert Randell Williams), called “Herbie” by everyone.  My parents met on the New York Subway. Although my father lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, he worked in Manhattan at the U. S. Customs House (not far from “Ground Zero” in 2011). My mother technically lived with her grandmother (Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram), her sister (Elverna Elizabeth Lee), and her uncle (Percy Walter Phillips) in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but she worked for a dressmaker, Charlotte Dietz, in Corona, Queens, New York, with whom she stayed. I’m not sure who was headed where at the time they met. I was always struck by the fact that my mother spoke to a strange man despite always admonishing me strongly to never, ever speak to strangers! I took every opportunity (in jest, of course) to remind her of that.

I don’t think either of them had a private telephone. My father had access to one at his office and I believe my mother had access to the one belonging to Mrs. Dietz when absolutely necessary, but I’m sure my mother was not allowed to “chat” with gentlemen for social reasons. However, my parents did exchange contact information. I asked why she was willing to give a strange man her contact information. She said that they had mutual friends who vouched for him when she checked. I imagine the conversation went something like, “You live in Jersey City? Do you know ‘So and So’?” In this case the answer was “Yes.”

My mother told me she doublechecked with her friend, who told her that my father was 30 (my mother was a couple months shy of 20), worked for U. S. Customs, lived with his sister in Jersey City, and had two young sons from a previous marriage. I’m not sure what facts persuaded my mother to return a letter of overture from my father, but in February of 1934, she wrote a letter to him at his office in the Customs House. As referenced therein, he had contacted her first, but she was slow to respond.

Letter from Margaret Lee, “Peggy,” to Herbert R. Williams, “Herbie.”

“Thursday –

My dear Herbert,

I suppose you’ve given up hopes of my answering your letter. I was at a loss as to whether I should answer your letter.

As for coming to see me, not until I know more about you. I work in a Jewish dress shop and I live with the people I work for so that is why I have to be very careful about visitors. My home is really in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I came out here so as to be near the city as I am seeking a musical career.

I don’t make a habit of speaking to strangers, but I’ll take a chance this once. However, I can see you sometime in the city. I remain –

                             Yours,

Margaret”

Taking a chance “this once” apparently worked out. After a strong campaign of letters by my father (you can read more about those in #52Ancestors-Favorite Discovery), they eloped to Greenwich, Connecticut, where they were married by a Baptist minister on 1 April 1935, just 19 days before my mother turned 21. With that, the musical career was ended before it ever began.

Original Marriage Certificate of Herbert R. Williams and Margaret Lee, 1 April 1935, Greenwich, Connecticut

It was, however, a strong beginning. My parents were married 47 years and one day when my father died from complications due to Congestive Heart Failure, on 2 April 1982. It was a profound loss for my mother. As she explained, she had spent more of her life with him than without him.

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#52Ancestors-Favorite Discovery: Mommy’s End Table

I think all my discoveries have been favorites in one way or another. However, thinking about Valentine’s Day, which occurred this past week and thinking about my parents and their close relationship, I remembered there was a discovery during my childhood that does make me smile. I was about ten years old. This discovery involved my parents’ love story. It was made when I went in my mother’s drawers in her bedroom. No, I wasn’t sneaking. I was looking for something or other that I can’t remember and stumbled on my discovery. No, I was not in any way forbidden to be in her drawers. Nevertheless, somehow, when she learned what I had found, she seemed surprised that it was there.

Mommy & me on Ditmars-Spring 1948-b
My mother, Margaret Lee Williams, holding me in front of our house in New York, 1948

As I said, the discovery was when I was about ten years old. As the title states, my discovery was in my mother’s end table. As I said, I have no recollection what I was really looking for, possibly some photos, because she kept lots of family pictures in her end table. That day, I noticed a blue box tied together by gold, gift-wrapping ribbon. I probably opened the box thinking it held more pictures. It did not. I took the box to my room to further examine the contents. Yes, now I was sneaking, because the box held love letters, love letters from my father to my mother.

Daddy on Ditmars-Spring 1948-c
My father, Herbert Randell Williams, in front of our house, 1948

I don’t know how many letters there were, at least thirty, but I no longer have access to the box, so I cannot check. I’ll get to that in a moment. I began reading the letters. The letters were all from my father to my mother. There were no letters from her to him. I was interested to learn that he called her “Peggy.” Her name was Margaret. I knew that some Margarets were called Peggy. She did have one friend (not a childhood friend), Ethel Valentine, who called her “Peg” occasionally. However, I had never in my whole life heard my father call her “Peggy.” Never, ever, ever.

Mommy-Aunt Ethel & Me on Ditmars Stpring 1948-a
L-R: Me (Margo Willimas), “Auntie” Ethel Rose Valentine, & my mother, Margaret Lee Williams, 1948

It seemed all the letters were written while my father was at work. Writing them in the evening before leaving for the day or at lunch. It made sense because he worked at the US Customs House in lower Manhattan where there was a post office in the building. My father was declaring his undying love as well as expressing how much he felt she showed him love. Apparently, they had taken a vacation together in Atlantic City. I was surprised. My parents had talked often about their vacations to Atlantic City. They usually spent two weeks. My mother packed a steamer trunk that I had seen in the basement. She used it for out of season clothes storage. She told me how hot the sand was, that it could be painful walking from one’s towel to the water’s edge on a truly hot day. She said unlike the sand on the beaches on Long Island that we frequented in my childhood, the sand in Atlantic City was not white, but dark. She described it as black. Having since visited black sand beaches in Hawaii as well as the beach in Atlantic City, I would say dark. I recognize that my mother did not have that frame of reference. As I said, those trips were made after they married. I was reading about their trip before they married. Yes, I was quite surprised, but that wasn’t my only surprise in the letters.

It seemed my father was in competition for my mother’s affections. It’s not that I thought she had never been interested in another man, I just didn’t realize she was dating someone else at the same time she was dating my father. In his letters, my father was begging and pleading for her to drop her other suitor—Willard. Willard? Who was that? No one had ever told me about a Willard. He was not one of our current family friends. On the other hand, I don’t think I had met many friends of either of my parents from their youth. There was a family we visited frequently who lived in Summit, New Jersey (we lived in New York City), named Marrow. I was also acquainted with a family who lived near us in New York, named Dietz. I did know that my mother lived with them before she married my father. She worked for the wife who had her own dressmaking business. The Dietzes were more than employers, however. My mother and their daughter, Dorothy, were close in age. They were friends, good friends. In fact, they called each other “sister.” I called the parents “Grandma” and “Grandpa” Dietz. They treated me like one of their grandchildren. That was it. Those were the few friends from before my parents’ marriage that I knew. Never, ever, had I heard of Willard. I was quite intrigued by the idea that my mother was dating someone else besides my father, someone he seemed to think was a threat. Here my dad was, begging her to marry him, not the mysterious Willard.

I went to a small private school growing up. There was a total of thirteen students in my class most years, five girls and eight boys. We were a close group. Those four other girls were my best friends. Oh, we had our squabbles, but we were like sisters. So, what did I do? I took the box of letters to school to show my “sisters!” Everyone was fascinated. They all read them. We all wondered about the mysterious Willard. We giggled over the fact that my father called my mother his little “Peggy.”

5 girls from Foxwood
L-R: Marel d’Orbessan, Maxine Wilchfort, Corlee Abbott, Me, & Betty Grigalauskas, ca 1958

I don’t remember exactly where I had hidden the box once back home from school. I had not returned it to its resting place in the end table. It might have been in one of the compartments of my bookcase headboard or maybe it was in my schoolbag, because she did realize I had it at school. Needless to say, my mother was not pleased. It’s funny because I don’t remember being punished. I do remember feeling bad that she was so upset. She put the box high on a shelf in a closet and admonished me to never touch it. It was her private business she told me and not to be shared with my friends. That was the end of that.

Bookcase Headboard (2)
My Bookcase Headboard in the house where I grew up in New York City

I was in my teens, maybe even college age before I brought it up one day at the kitchen table with my father present. My mother was not thrilled, but grudgingly joined the conversation. My father loved the idea that he got to tease her about Willard. According to him, he caught her one evening after taking her home, going back out to ostensibly meet with Willard. She swore that was not what happened. It was interesting watching them each try to advance their version of the past rivalry.

Years after that, I asked my mother to retrieve the box. I said it would be nice to read the letters together, assuring her that they represented a beautiful time when she did, in fact, choose my father. She went to the closet to retrieve the box, but there was no box. She swore she didn’t know what happened to the box. She seemed to look in several other places, but the box was nowhere to be found. We never did find the box. I think she threw it away. I used to think she put it where she couldn’t remember, but over the years, I have looked everywhere I could, especially after she died, and I was dismantling the house to sell it. The box never made an appearance again. I’m sad because I think it would have made a nice book to give my daughter about her grandparents, my parents, especially since my father died before she was born.

Although I no longer have the letters, what I do have is the memory of my parents’ marriage. Indeed, my father did win my mother’s heart, vanquishing the mysterious Willard. My parents had a long, loving, and sometimes boisterous, marriage, that lasted from 1935 to 1982, totaling 47 years and one day when my father died, leaving my mother brokenhearted.

me, Mommy & Daddy at Aunt Mellie's-1
L-R: Me, my mother (Margaret Lee Williams) & my father (Herbert Randell Williams), , ca 1950