Opening the musty book a thin piece of paper, delicate as butterfly wings, slips to the table. The tiny script is level and clear across the page, words bleeding through from the other side. Rising from the page I hear the voice of a woman who died long before I was born. A woman revered in our family for generations. These are the hand written words of a beloved maiden aunt mailed to my great-grandfather in 1937 as she departed China while it was under attack.
A Christian missionary, she had been living and teaching in China for several years before war forced her to leave.
I am writing to you and I know you will let all the children know that I am on my way home by the first available steamer. I was in the steamer office today and they said that there nothing available till the 18th.
I don’t know where I shall land because I don’t know what boat I can get on, I may have to take a freighter and come West or some other boat and come East. Anyhow, I fully believe I shall be with you for Thanksgiving.
The letter contains the facts of family legend I’ve heard through oral stories passed down through generations. I’ve always wondered how much was actually true and how much embellished legend. Now I know.
All of it is true.
This tiny woman, my great grandmother’s dear aunt, with a will of steel, writes of her journey, the pain of recent days, and the unknown challenges the lay ahead as she attempts to return to the United States. I am struck by her confident resolve. There is no mention of IF, only WHEN.
Last Thursday the two largest boats on the Yangtze went down to bring all the Americans (about 170) from the Nanking area out. The next trip will be Wuhu and Kuling. In Kuling there are about 1000 Americans and British who must be gotten out through Hankow, Canton, and Hongkong. There is danger every day that the Hankow-Canton Railroad will be cut and no trains can run. I’m glad I’m on this end of the line. All trains and boats around Canton run with lights covered with black cloth. All stores and hotels also have their lights covered with black.
She even causally tells of the bombing of her home that occurred while she was in a nearby town. A woman of faith, I’m certain she would credit God with saving her from injury or even death by encouraging her to journey that day.
I was in Kuling when our home in Nanchang was bombed and burned. I’ve lost almost everything I own.
She ends with a confession, a tiny glimpse behind the veil of strength she offered earlier in her letter.
I’m not exactly nervous but I could use some quiet and rest.
I know she made it safely back and became a surrogate grandmother to my father after his grandmother’s death in 1936, but I wonder if she made it home before the letter or after. I marvel at the fact that this delicate piece of paper traveled in 1937 from China to the United States and has since moved from the hands of my great-grandfather, to the care of his eldest daughter, my grandmother, and upon her passing to my father. Having survived war, an ocean crossing, countless moves and a flood, it is now safely in my hands. A family artifact to be treasured and preserved for generations to come.