Elizabeth was my mother, but I did not inherit her letters directly and not immediately. I am primarily a fiction writer and I wanted to fictionalize her story. In 2010 I decided to write about Elizabeth and went searching for one specific reference: Her meeting Ernest Hemingway.
It has long been part of our Donnellan family history that Elizabeth was someone much admired who contributed to the war effort and did many marvelous things before she died, too early, of a kidney ailment in October, 1958, when I was eleven.
It is also an apocryphal family story that Elizabeth knew she had a serious health problem before she applied to the ARC. She is supposed to have faked a urine test by substituting another’s sample for her own.
I remember her telling me stories about the blitz over London, and I recall being the center of attention as a child when one of her former nurse friends visited us in Southern California where I was born and grew up.
In examining documents for this memoir I located a copy of my parents’ marriage certificate. Elizabeth married my father November 30, 1946, in San Bernardino, CA. I was born August 4, 1947, in Riverside, the first of three sons.
The witness to the marriage was Winifred Brennan whose address is listed as 366 9th Street, presumably in San Bernardino. This may be the same “Winnie” referred to in many of Elizabeth’s letters, who was a good friend of Elizabeth and knew her in college, as is made clear in the letter dated February 10, 1944. Winnie worked, traveled and lived with Elizabeth during the war.
Winnie Sumpter is the name Elizabeth gives as the rifle marksman in her July 20, 1944, letter. Nadine Zimet, daughter of Elizabeth’s best friend Nadine Sachs, recalled a Winifred Cole visiting her mother after the war. Later, Zimet discovered that Winifred Cole was the former Winona Sumter from Oklahoma.
I am convinced one woman who came to see us when I was six or seven was called “Winnie.” I distinctly remember she marveled that I knew how to make hospital corners when I made my bed. I had to demonstrate this while Elizabeth and Winnie watched. Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing which Winnie, the witness at the wedding or the marksman, watched me make my bed.
It was not until I decided it was time to fictionalize what Elizabeth did during the war that I went in search of that specific letter wherein she talked about meeting Hemingway. I also wanted to source and locate the apocryphal family story wherein she dated Joe Kennedy, Jr.
What I found was astonishing and went far beyond my wildest imaginings. I proved both facts true, and I learned where Elizabeth was even though she could not say due to war time self-censorship. I also learned who her best friend was, and then I took a vicarious tour of Ireland like no other — and I’ve been there thrice.
The biggest accidental find occurred mid April, 2010, when I went in search of copies of Elizabeth’s letters. I knew I had a few; I just did not know exactly where I had them nor what they said.
For whatever reason, the first place I looked was the very bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. I found a manila envelope that said on the outside in large handwritten script “Donnellan.” I was sure this came via my step-mother who died in the 1990’s, but I really had no particular recollection of what was in the envelope. I spilled it out and there were photos of me as a baby in my mother’s arms, a couple of me as a two-year-old with the cocker spaniel named Honey, and then a number of images I did not recognize of a stage show including a chorus line and jitter-bug dancers. There were also photos from Paris. That much was clear because one was identified on the back as “View of arch of Triumph (Arc de Triumph) in Paris.” Others, probably taken the same day, showed a military band identified as “Parade in Paris Easter 1945.”
Dad died in 1989. The contents of this envelope was undoubtedly gathered by my half sisters after their mother June, my father’s third wife, passed away. Dad must have kept these pictures in his possession for decades, mementoes of his first wife, my mother Elizabeth.
I opened the second drawer down in the cabinet and located the folder with Xerox copies of fifth generation carbon copies of Elizabeth’s letters. There were a half dozen of them which my cousin Michelle Buckingham, Elizabeth’s niece, sent my brother Kioren in 1995. He forwarded copies of the copies to me in January the following year. Michelle inherited these letters from her mother, Elizabeth’s favorite sister Mary. Obviously, Elizabeth would not have kept letters she wrote: She mailed them out, she didn’t receive them.
The original top copy probably went to Elizabeth’s mother Ellen and carbon copies went to her siblings. In several, Elizabeth asks that someone keep these letters, obviously intending to read and perhaps use them after her tour of duty ended. Elizabeth was a budding essayist. Several of her later attempts at publication survive, and in her letter of September 30, 1944, from France, she reveals she submitted a piece to Red Cross Public Relations which may have been published. However, no record of it has been found.
Nor have all her letters been located. In the first of many from France, on August 19, 1944, she explains, “I’ve written mom, and given her the details of the experience of crossing the Chanel and seeing for myself the equipment strewn along the beaches.” This letter to her mother is not among those included in this memoir because it has never been found. Elizabeth responds to many questions and comments she must have received from siblings and friends, but none of those are included here because they are lost.
I had not read all her letters by the time I wanted to fictionalize her story. I sought the one in particular I remembered in which Elizabeth described meeting Hemingway. Michelle noted which letter that was in her own handwriting on page one of the Xerox copy of the letter dated January 21, 1945. I read that entire first page which talked about a stage play put on by the GI’s at the hospital where Elizabeth worked. She described a chorus line.
Wait a minute. I just saw photographs of a chorus line.
And that’s how I put them together — the photographs of the musical review and the letter in which she described that show. They had been apart for sixty-five years. The photos and the letter had probably never been together, and they certainly had never been seen as complimentary to one another. Ironically, they resided for fifteen years in the same filing cabinet in different drawers.