Love in war, then a daughter’s search

Making sense of a thousand letters to ‘Darling Margaret’

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Editor's Note: In the Nov. 9 edition of The Taos News, we ran a story, "Finding 'Darling Margaret'" about a cache of 70-year-old love letters that was found in a Taos grocery store. The Margaret in the letters died earlier this year, but her daughter, a Taos resident who saw the first article, shared the story of her family and the quest to piece together 100 years of history with 1,000 letters.

Robert Potter grew up in Andover, South Dakota. The girl he knew he wanted to marry, Margaret Nickelson, grew up in the next town down the railroad tracks.

Being the son of a store owner in the Great Plains, Robert hated "the water and the ocean and the Navy." But his eyes were too bad for the U.S. Army Air Corps recruiters and like a lot of young men during World War II he was excited and eager to serve.

So one day he was in Aberdeen, a city 30 miles due east of his hometown, and he signed up for the Navy.

"Well, I'm in," Robert wrote to Margaret.

Just before he shipped off to the South Pacific, where he would be stationed for a couple of years and eventually see battle, the two eloped in Virginia. Between 1942 and 1944, they wrote each other every single day.

'Dad's letters'

Michele Potter, the daughter of Margaret and Robert, has lived in Taos and worked as a ski instructor and writing teacher for two decades. It's been an emotional year. First she helped her mom move out of the house in Oregon. Then, in April, Margaret died shortly after having a stroke.

Margaret was "the last man standing" on several sides of the family and by the time she passed away was essentially the family's archivist, holding on to decades-worth of old pictures, papers, trinkets and treasures.

Potter had known about "dad's letters" throughout her life but thought, like most people in the family, they were long gone. But she found them in her mom's house - over 1,000 letters penned by her father and filled, page after page, with love.

"My dearest darling Margaret," one 1944 letter began. "I have to write this darling before another word, because there isn't a thing in all the World that could come before it, loving you as I do."

While thumbing through the cardboard boxes of old letters, the scent of 70 years still barely clinging to thin, military-issue paper, Potter laughed a little.

"My mom told us to just toss them ... they all say the same thing," Potter said. "And they do. Without fail, the first page-and-a-half of every letter is just 'I love you, I love you, I love you'," she said.

What else are you going to do sitting on a minesweeper - a little boat with no more than 30 crewmen - in the middle of an ocean? Potter asked herself out loud.

For Potter, wading through the letters is an exhaustive and revealing task. For one, Robert couldn't spell and apparently wasn't accustomed to using a dictionary, she said.

But more importantly, her dad died when she was just 21. In reading the letters, she's discovered the young man pining away in the South Pacific, endlessly enamored with "darling Margaret," is not the man she knew growing up. Robert would talk at length about military history but never about his service. He wasn't mean, but he wasn't keen on sweet talk either.

"I'm trying to reconnect all [these pieces] all these years later," she said, to figure out "Who the hell was he?"

Her dad isn't the only mystery; so is Margaret.

Potter found almost every letter her dad ever wrote, including the very first sent long before the war and from only 15 miles down the road from her mother. Yet only one letter from her mom to her dad survives. 

"She erased herself ... so typical. Did she burn them? Did she throw them in the trash? Where her letters are is a complete mystery."

Keep the family together

Potter's quest to understand her family isn't aimless.

"I consider myself a historian now," she said. By ending up with all the letters and old newspapers, "I'm the one who's been called upon to bring my mom's and dad's stories together. It's my job at this point in my life."

"They don't know this, they don't know their family," said Potter of her three sons and nieces and nephews.

"We have all these ancestors and we've forgotten about them," Potter said.

Potter has a gray three-ring binder filled with the draft of a book about her family. She's been writing it all summer in coffee shops while carrying around notes and stacks of letters. That's how an employee at Albertsons in Taos ended up with several of the letters a month ago and started a search to return them.

As Potter gets deeper into the story, she has come to understand it's no romantic fantasy.

Years after her dad came home from the war, they moved away from the deeply rooted and branching family in South Dakota. The day they packed up and left for Oregon was Margaret's 40th birthday.

By the time Margaret was 47, she'd lost so many people to death - her own mom and dad, more than one sister and even Robert.

"It was a tragic thing, it really was," Potter said.

Yet over the years and even after she remarried, Margaret managed to "keep the family together." She went back to South Dakota like an annual pilgrimage and even raised some younger members of the extended family. "They had so much resilience," Potter said.

It's that resilience, especially of her mom, that is the heart of the story of people and places that stretch back for more than a century. It's something "other than a perfect love story." But it's her family's story. And as it comes into focus, it seems as perfect as it needs to be.

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