Topeka Anxious eyes watched Elroy McDowell as the 94-year-old woman opened the box on Christmas Eve.
It wasn’t a normal present, this bundle of love letters she found inside.
Lost in the 1940s, the brittle papers sent between McDowell and her now-deceased husband were lugged around the country by a stranger for more than 30 years. Now, they were home.
Relatives cried at the thought of this gift. Friends shed tears upon hearing the story. What a miracle, they said.
As McDowell opened the box the night before Christmas, the whole family was excited. Except for McDowell.
“I’ve already read these,” she said.
For the stoic life she lived, it wasn’t a surprising reaction.
McDowell’s father, Roy, always wanted a boy. Instead, he got Elroy.
That didn’t stop her from working with him in the fields in Onaga, pitching hay and riding horses. In their hours together, he spoke only a handful of words.
“He wasn’t real emotional,” McDowell said. “I guess I picked up some of his traits.”
She was 14 when she wrote her first letter to Al McDowell as part of a pen pal program.
He was serving in the military in the late 1920s, and upon reading that first note, the 26-year-old replied, “You could be my little sister.”
They exchanged correspondence for years. At one point Elroy McDowell wrote a letter that read, “We’re done.”
“I decided I liked another guy better,” she said.
Al McDowell, a dreamer who had run away with the circus as a child, was the emotional half of their long-distance relationship. Upon reading that letter, he went off to get drunk before he received her follow-up mail.
She changed her mind. They could stay together.
Al McDowell was eventually discharged, and the pair married and moved to Fort Edward in upstate New York. There, they extended their family, worked the farm and milked the cows.
Then World War II broke out, and factory workers were needed. The two had to leave quickly. They had a patriotic duty. They moved east to Schenectady, N.Y., where for eight hours a day she tested magnets for military equipment at a General Electric plant.
They could only bring so much in the rush out of town. Some things got left behind with neighbors. Inside one forsaken box rested a pile of love letters.
The McDowells went to Oregon, where she helped weld ships for the Navy. Then they moved back to her hometown of Onaga and opened a blacksmith shop.
She welded and he blacksmithed until his death in 1974. She had tried at one point to retrieve the letters from her neighbor but got no response.
“I was disappointed, but what can you do?” she asked.
Meanwhile, across the country in 1976, Mike King was discharged from the military and began helping his sister’s family open a furniture store outside Chicago.
To do this, they wanted wood paneling and found a little barn to buy in their former hometown in upstate New York. The structure was empty except for a chest full of letters. Just out of the armed forces, King was captivated by the love story of a fellow military man, and his background in history whispered to him: Keep these.
‘A gift for the family’
In 1990, King moved from Illinois to New Mexico, where the letters rested in a closet for 14 years. He was working as a curator at a Santa Fe museum when he asked an amateur genealogist in the office, Nancy Hart, to track down the McDowells from the letters.
It didn’t work then. But four years later, in 2008, she tried once more. This time she found Merrie Pinick, McDowell’s daughter.
The letters were alive, and they were returning home. Pinick told all the family, everyone but McDowell. Pinick cried. Her daughter cried. A thousand miles out west, Hart cried.
Pinick watched her mother open the box on Christmas Eve. Medical personnel in the family had placed an oxygen tank in the room. Who knew what excitement might ensue.
Initially, there was just a surprised look. Then, Pinick swears she saw a tear in mother’s eye. Just as quickly, it was gone.
“She controlled herself,” Pinick said.
King said he was just happy McDowell wasn’t upset by dredging up old history. For him, “it was really a gift for the family.”