I Thought I Knew Them by Nancy Barnes

Ken Douglas cropped

The Stephenson Ranch

“I think of you every hour and make up reasons to go to town at least two times every day because I cannot wait for your news.”

Betty to Joe, 1935

My mother wrote these words to my father long before I was born. My mother has been dead for almost two decades now, my father for more than twice that long.

I am opening the last boxes of my parents’ personal papers, boxes I’ve carted with me on many moves. At the outset, in the sad exhausting days of clearing out my mother’s apartment, there were other boxes. They were filled with records of family life: $16.48 to replace a window in the old farmhouse where I spent my childhood summers, ancient tax returns guarded against the IRS audits that beset my parents during the McCarthy years, school photos of the great-grandchildren in Minnesota.

I have shed that legacy now, disposed of cartons full of it. But I have not been able to leave behind these last boxes. Nor have I been able to open them and look inside. Until today.

The boxes are filled with letters, loose sheets and envelopes lying helter-skelter: blue onionskin aerograms, heavy parchment-colored sheets of stationary, yellowed Western Union telegrams. The jumbled mess is overwhelming. Small packets are tied with pieces of soft, dirty white string. What’s happened to that kind of string? That was strong string. It made satisfying tight knots. These bundles are the first letters between my mother and my father that I have held in my hands.

I unknot the string on a packet near the top, slide a rusty paperclip ever so carefully off the corner of an envelope, unfold the brittle pages and begin to read. My mother’s handwriting is bold and loopy, almost wild – quite unlike the neat orderly hand I knew all my life.

“I cannot tell you how much I long to see you again. Here at the Stephenson Ranch, we are seven women, not one of whom I would know at home in the city. We walk in the morning before the heat rises, breakfast at a large round table as though we were family. I take every offer of a ride into town, sometimes twice a day, in hopes that I will find a letter from you.”

Betty to Joe, 1935

The Stephenson Ranch? I’ve never heard of it. I never knew that my mother had gone to Reno to get a divorce from her first husband, not until I saw this postmark, much less that she stayed at a place called a “ranch” with strangers, women who must have been there for the same reason she was. (Why were they all women? My partner Claire, a historian, says that divorce was granted only “for cause” in the 1930s; to have the women file for divorce may have been strategic, a means to protect their reputations.)

And my mother at a horse ranch — in Nevada? Betty, my mother, was such an urban person. I cannot picture it. Several of the letters are almost chatty, which is also disconcerting. They describe astonishing scenes: Betty being propositioned by “a native” (a cowhand, I guess), or playing blackjack around the table at night or this, which seemed to delight her,

The ranch is sparkling with well-bred desire to murder. Walt Stephenson took seven or eight girls to a rodeo in California, got a little tight, and crossed the state line 35 minutes late. As a consequence all of them must stay an extra day!

Betty to Joe, 1935

The letters are dated only by the day of the week. Betty opens one “Wednesday” with, “When I came in from riding this morning.” My mother? Horseback riding? I remember her insistence that I take riding lessons when we lived in the Cotswolds in England, the year I turned eleven. Was this why? I used to lie in bed listening to the sounds of the thoroughbreds passing in the lane, hooves clattering on their way to train on the Downs, hills muffled by the dawn mist. She never mentioned her morning rides in the Nevada foothills, or that she had loved them.

Another letter, probably intended to amuse, hints at what my mother was thinking in more sober moments.

I’m happy to report that I capped yesterday with a session of table-tipping in a darkened room in the course of which an emanation of light from my head was seen by a girl who is “psychic,” who followed it by a little automatic spirit writing. Incidentally, the last is pretty interesting when done by someone who believes in it enough to relax and not analyze what she’s doing. The results are revelations and reflections of the conflicts arising from getting a divorce.

Betty to Joe, 1935

I have no doubt that Betty was aware of “the conflicts arising.”

Betty always opens her letters with “Joe, my angel,” or “My beloved.” I cannot conjure up the woman who wrote those words. My mother was a reserved and private person; she never once said “I love you” to me during the decades when we lived closely together, although I knew that she did.

The boxes store hundreds of my father’s letters as well; every missive he sent when they were apart must be here. Did he assemble this archive for her? Did they talk about saving their letters, or look at them together, remembering? Or did my mother gather them only later, after he had died?

I lift a pamphlet from the box, its pages flaking in my fingers. The title is “Conflict in the Far East,” May 1932, published by the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR). I recognize the name; it was a left-wing organization that addressed political and economic issues in Asia. Both my parents worked for the IPR when they were in their twenties. But why is it here, in a carton that my mother labeled “Very Personal Letters?”

Betty’s first husband worked for the organization too. He and Betty were married at that time; they traveled to do research in the Philippines and China in the 1920s. My mother once described to me what it was like, listening to classical recordings on a wind-up victrola as she watched over her husband when he had malaria in Chengdu.

Why did she reveal that tender scene? Perhaps it slipped out, catching her unawares. I wish I had caught some others.

I open the crumbling pamphlet with care. Here, on the title page: my father and my mother’s first husband were co-authors of the text. Remarkable, even though I knew that the two men had been friends. Later, in the 1950s, long after my parents had married each other, both men bore the brunt of anti-Communist investigations that targeted the IPR. What can that have been like for the two of them?

One fat pack of letters has a slip of paper tucked under the knotted white string. “1935,” in blurry pencil. My father would have been twenty-eight that year.

I don’t know how I will pass the days without you for six weeks, but I am hard at work or at least I am sitting at my desk. I have only written two stories this week. One is about McGregor, the old Scots Communist who lives above me. Remember we met him coming down the stairs? That was fun — he is a true radical. But I don’t think my editor will like it.

Joe to Betty, 1935

The return address on the blue envelope is West 41st Street in New York City. What address was that? The Herald-Tribune? Had Joe gotten his job at The Trib by then? My father often spoke about the delight he took in being a newspaperman; I believe he wanted me to know that work can give great meaning to one’s life. Yet the letters he wrote to Betty while she was in Nevada show another side of him.

I am determined to grow up through this time. I don’t know how that will happen but I am determined. Those last two weeks in Nyack were confusing but I am happier than I have ever been. There is nothing I want more than for you to figure out what will make you happy. If that can possibly happen, it will be swell. Now I have to rush … to the country. Dad is not doing well, and Mother sounds exhausted. It will be a full weekend so I may not be able to write again.

Joe to Betty, 1935

He did write again, that same May evening.

The daffodils are popping all over the lawn and it would be swell if you were here to see them. I will write a proper letter as soon as my head clears. All I know is that I love you.

As soon as his head clears? What exactly was confusing during those two weeks? There is so much I don’t know. Joe had a place in Nyack? Nyack is a town up the Hudson, but I thought he was working in the city while Betty was away. Why was he living in Nyack?

The details don’t matter. It’s not information that I’m after. But it is a jolt: why don’t I know about this? I am the youngest, trailing my brother by eight years. In certain respects, I was an only child. I got to go on amazing, lengthy trips with my parents; my father’s work took us to Jerusalem and Belgrade and Dar es Salaam. I met their friends, sat through endless evenings of grown-up conversation, heard so many stories. I thought I knew them.

“Oh, you’re trying to discover who your parents were,” a friend commented recently. No, I thought. No, that’s not it. The knowledge I’ve had of my parents has been more than enough. My family has often felt like a burden to me; I have been unable to open the boxes until this moment. The shock comes from the unexpected bits and pieces of who they were, names and dates and addresses flying up like tiny sparks from a fuzzy sweater. And “swell?” “It would be swell if you were here to see the daffodils?” I never heard Joe say that word.


1934 was the year when my parents’ early marriages started to come undone. Or maybe the unraveling had begun earlier. Joe and Betty had known each other for some time, their personal lives entangled far beyond IPR conferences and radical politics. They shared an exciting, dense social world about which I can only speculate.

Joe’s parents, whom I never knew, gathered young people around them in an unending house party: students, travelers from abroad, their own four children, and countless friends. Joe and Betty, not yet married to each other, formed the heart of the group. Joe would have kept the others spellbound with his stories. Betty’s laugh was captivating and infectious. But the romance between them? Their love affair? Never mentioned. The absence did not strike me until I began to read the letters.

I try to sketch that landscape in my mind, and to people it with figures about whom I can only fantasize. The young people assembled throughout their college years at Treetops, as my father’s family called their country home. Luxurious, leisurely summers gave way to weekends and holidays once they had begun their lives in New York, lives of such intensity and promise.

Joe must have taken the train out from the city on Friday afternoons, the train may have stopped in Torrington, the nearest good-sized town. He would have ridden with his college roommate, the same person with whom he worked at the Institute of Pacific Relations, a tall slender fellow with red hair. The two young men had each married by then, and each had an infant daughter.

Joe’s college roommate, the redhead, was married to Betty at that time. I have no memory of how I learned this — I’m quite certain that my parents never mentioned it — but I have known all along that my father and my mother’s first husband were once close friends.

They had all gone to Harvard: Joe, and his brother, and the redheaded fellow, and the rest of the boys in the group. The young women went to Radcliffe and Bryn Mawr. They lived in a privileged world of high expectations and accomplishments. It was a small world, viewed from my perspective, now, but they were not small people.

They gravitated to that lovely remote corner of Connecticut, sitting out on the grass under the big maples. Joe’s father joined them for an hour or two whenever he was at home. His mother came and went, managing the house and the meals and the gardens. (I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf.) Who cared for the babies, I wonder, the two little girls, my half-sisters, during the long afternoons, the hours of conversation and drinking well into the evening, ideas and books and politics.

And talking – of course, they were talking. I suppose they discussed the Longshoremen’s strike in California and Mao’s Long March, and whatever play they had just seen in the city and whether to travel next to Paris or Berlin. From time to time, one of them might rise and walk to the garden to twist a warm ripe tomato off the vine, carrying the scent of summer back to the others, or wander off to admire the banks of tiger lilies that had burst into bloom. (Joe’s mother was a legendary gardener.) Or perhaps someone said, “Let’s go find the black cat” and they traipsed off, those fledgling intellectuals, to play with the new litter of kittens.

I have a picture of their circle, whether or not it is accurate: rings of friendship spinning around the large family at the center. These young men and women had been gently reared and favored, educated to care passionately about the state of the world.

But I haven’t an inkling of how or when either of my parents might have recognized that their early marriages were ending. I believe that Joe went first — I’ve run my finger along the embossed Spanish script on his divorce decree from Mexico City, buried at the bottom of one of the boxes. Was he falling in love with Betty before his divorce? Did my mother know how he felt? Did anyone else know? And when were they ever alone together? When did they kiss?

The Letter from Joe’s Father

1934 was the year Joe’s father Earl wrote to him. The letter is four pages long. Each sheet is filled with a painstaking cursive, black ink, neat straight lines on the unlined stationery. I have read Earl’s words again and again.

I have always admired Betty. She is perhaps the most attractive woman in your group, the group that has come to the house for weekends over so many years. I have no trouble understanding what you feel for her, I feel great affection for her myself.

Passion I understand as well, and the desire to be happy. I must tell you, however, that if you and Betty do decide to go ahead with your plans to be together and to marry, nothing good will come of it. I have attempted to draw up a list of the possible good outcomes of this decision, and I cannot come up with one.

Joe’s father to Joe, 1934

Not one good outcome? I recognize this man, my father’s father, even though he died long before I was born. There is a small oil painting that shows him full face: snowy white hair, round wire glasses, a brushy white mustache, and a stern look. This man was a professor at Stanford until he took up with one of his students, an undergraduate. They had an affair, evidently, and he was asked to leave. He abandoned his wife and married the very young woman, my father’s mother. My grandmother.

He says that he understands passion. He doesn’t say that his passionate involvement had cost him his academic position, forced him to become an itinerant lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit, away traveling more nights than he was home. Nor does he mention the cost to the woman he married, who managed their two houses and raised the four children they had together. No mention either that one child had polio when she was barely six and required constant care: steaming hot compresses that had to be boiled and wrung out in a mangle before they were carried up several flights of stairs, then wrapped and rewrapped around the little girl’s limbs.

The list of dire outcomes, should Joe and Betty decide “to be together and to marry,” appears on page two:

Heartbreak for your wife, for which you will be responsible, as Betty will for her husband’s. They will get over it, I know you may say. How can you say that when you believe that you and Betty will never get over it if you are not able to be together? Tragic maladjustment for the infants that each of you has brought into this world. This is pure selfishness, this choice.

These do sound like the judgments of the stern gentleman in the painting. But what about the fine-looking professor who took up with the prettiest girl in his class? Such shaming is beyond my grasp.

The most ominous of the consequences on Earl’s list comes next: “You will never reclaim your career.” Future accomplishments were supremely important to this family, which is also mine. (Other parents, I’m told, say that all they want is for their children to be happy. My family does not say that.) The loss of his career was a terrible prediction to make to Joe, the man I knew as my father.

You would have to live elsewhere. Yet neither in Siberia nor in the Gobi Desert can you escape the past. Going off with her would place you both under ostracism and neither of you knows the terror that lurks in that word. …Your associates will shun you.

Joe’s father to Joe, 1934

I sit holding this document in my hands in the cool autumn air. Eighty years have passed. It is awful, simply awful, to realize that his father wrote this to Joe, the one of whom he also said in the same letter, “You have more promise than any father should be allowed in a son.” Joe was not yet thirty when he received that letter, from the father he so admired. How did he withstand the threats? Endure the disgrace?

If you do decide to break up your families, you will become nothing more than an idler and a common gangster.

Joe’s father to Joe, 1934

An idler and a common gangster? My father?  

I am overcome by how it must have felt to receive this message. Joe always made me feel special, as though my life were filled with what Earl called promise. Yet he never spoke of his father to me, not one word, not that I can recall. Now, perhaps I know why.

My father died at sixty-two. I was twenty-three. There is so much that happened to him, volumes that I will never be able to read. Worse, I will never know what he thought about this central chapter, the story of Joe and Betty. It is lost to me.

Questions don’t become less insistent simply because a child is grown. But how much does anyone ever know about the experiences that shaped her parents? And why does this trouble me now, at the far end of my own life? I was, after all, raised by these private people. I certainly don’t feel it is my right to know. Why, then?

I wasn’t neglected when I was a little girl. Not at all. Yet it’s true that I was an observer, a listener, seated off to the side. My parents’ attention was a magnetic force that impelled them towards each other. Always.

I’ve heard myself say that my parents had a great love affair: in my efforts to understand myself, or to account for what happened to my sisters, the two little girls. The love affair does explain things, in a sense. But now, reading the letters, it seems that I scarcely grasped what I was saying. I simply did not know.

Full Circle

How grateful Betty must have been, and Joe as well, for the note his mother sent shortly after his father’s dreadful communication. Her note is brief.

I would like nothing better than to have you bring Betty home as your wife. I have thought things through and while I believe all life is a matter of choice, with responsibilities attached, I also feel that your life is your own and should be directed as intelligently as you are capable of doing.

As for your decision being detrimental to your career or to your acceptance by people you care to know, as Dad thinks, I do not agree.

Joe’s mother to Joe, 1934

She signed off as always: “Devotedly, your loving Mother.”

I will hold close the letters that Joe’s parents wrote to him. Digging into the box one more time, I pull out a piece of lined notebook paper. From Betty to Joe, it must have come soon after they married in 1936; that marriage lasted until my father’s death in 1970. But why were they separated so soon, required to communicate by post? Had my father traveled ahead to Moscow? Moscow was where they lived — Joe was a foreign correspondent — until he was reassigned to Berlin as ominous events unrolled across Europe: the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and Hitler on the move. But all of that was yet to come. It was a tumultuous period, personal history is hard to discern.

The only date of which I am confident is November 1936. That was when my parents were married.

In April 2016 my partner Claire and I were married at City Hall in New York City after thirty years together. We come from the generations in which gay marriage was unthinkable; many gay and lesbian relationships echoed with disapproval and rejection, secrecy and shame. That April was a happy time for us, scarcely a year after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergfell v. Hodges that the right to same-sex marriage is protected by the Constitution.

We sent out an announcement with a photo of us standing together at the Marriage Bureau, beaming. A family friend who knew my parents well wrote back instantly: “How wonderful that you had the ceremony in exactly the same place where Joe and Betty were married.” I was astonished. I had never known.

This morning I hold in my hand the last sheet of notebook paper saved from the carton. It’s a hasty note from my mother to my father. The date is “Thanksgiving, 1936.”

Unexpected people have heard about our marriage and stop me to say something very nice. I like it.  …  It was very swell indeed to be handed a letter from you addressed to Mrs. Joseph Barnes. Like so many things in the past week, little things that no rational person would think important, it made me feel soft and very excited.… The news from abroad is so disquieting, and I want at least a little while to live peacefully, to fulfill hopes—I have so many, such simple, undemanding ones.

Betty to Joe, 1936

It is time for me to stop. Knotting the soft, dirty white string that safeguards the packets of letters, 1934, 1935, a few from 1936, I understand that I’ve come full circle. I have returned to where I began: I thought I knew them. It is time, now, to close up the boxes, to allow the letters to shift and settle, intimate and undisturbed.


Meet the Contributor

nancy barnesNancy Barnes is a college teacher and anthropologist whose work has taken her from Myanmar to South Africa and into the public high schools of NYC. To her surprise, this essay has taken her back into the realm of family history. Her writing has been published in Public Seminar, Harpur Palate, Evening Street Review, and Persimmon Tree. She and her partner divide their time between New York City and Northampton, Massachusetts.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Ken Douglas

  2 comments for “I Thought I Knew Them by Nancy Barnes

Leave a Reply to Wasserman Joanne Cancel reply