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Passion on Paper

A bundle of love letters carries a couple’s story across generations By Cecelia Martinez

Aside from lawnmower storage and the occasional need for a sled on a snowy day, the tool shed behind the East Fishkill home of the Knapp family doesn’t get much use. More than half of the large, cluttered space is filled to the ceiling with cardboard boxes containing the possessions of great-grandmother Anna Lucille Gibbia. She was a product of the Great Depression and a pack rat; the family always assumed that there was little of value hidden among the boxes. They remained untouched for more than 20 years until last October, when the Knapps began the weeklong process of cleaning out the shed.

Nestled among boxes, empty Tic Tac containers, an old joke book, an LP of President Kennedy’s inauguration speech, and a bag of empty used envelopes, the Knapps discovered a small wooden box with the date “April 4, 1925” haphazardly scratched on the lid. This tiny treasure chest had kept its contents safe from the rain and time that had damaged so many of the other items stored beside it.

Inside the box were love letters, more than eight decades old, written to Anna Lucille from her suitor, and eventual husband, James Grazio. Sheaves of hand-penned letters—written between 1925 and 1927 and still in pristine condition—unfold into the story of two young lovers in pre-Great Depression New York.

Dear Miss Gibia,

I must tell you, I certainly enjoyed being in your company last Sunday, and I am looking forward to the day when I may again have the pleasure of your company, which I hope will be real soon. . . . Thinking perhaps I might love you with my writing, I will put the brakes on my pen by extending to you my kindest regards.

Sincerely yours,

James Grazio

 

Twenty-year-old Elizabeth Knapp, a college student living in Albany, went back to East Fishkill one October weekend to help her parents and two younger brothers with the shed excavation. When her parents told her about the newly-discovered letters, her cleaning plans dissolved. She immediately took the box of letters inside and spent the afternoon reading them all, in order, from start to finish.

Knapp never met her great-grandfather; he passed away years before she was born. Aside from yearly visits to Florida, she did not have much opportunity to get close to her great-grandmother. But page by page, in her bedroom—surrounded by the posters and pictures she’d pinned to the walls as she began to learn about love herself—she uncovered the love story of Anna Lucille (who would later be called Gigi), a live-in nanny for the Metz family, and James, an insurance salesman.

It began when Mr. Metz, who worked with James, introduced him to Anna Lucille. James worked and lived in Beacon. Gigi lived in Poughkeepsie, and attended nursing school in Jamaica, Queens, against her father’s wishes. In the early months of their courtship, James traveled often for work. He would visit Gigi at the Metz family home, then drive back home to Beacon, making for long days and late nights.

 

Dear Gigi,

On the way to Poughkeepsie you told me I would be better off coming home alone because I would have no chatterbox beside me, but what do you think of me going to sleep at the wheel on the way home? It did not take long for me to awaken when I felt myself driving into the ditch. I am so tired and lazy that I am writing this lying in bed, which proves to you that even when I am in bed I am thinking of you . . .

Until Niagara Falls,

Your Jim

James, an educated businessman, was not a writer by trade or even hobby. Gigi, however, was adamant that he write her letters while he was away, and James, so early in love, did his best to comply. He sprinkled apologies throughout the letters for what he thought of as a lack of writing ability.

Say young lady, did you know that I am about as handy at writing letters as I am at flying kites, and I can’t even get the string in the air?

 

James would never know this, but years later his great-granddaughter Elizabeth would be a writer. A lover of words and history, she found particular enjoyment not only in the romance of her great-grandparents, but in the glimpses of life in her hometown 80 years ago.

 

Say, our Main Street is about all done and I’ll bet you won’t know the town when you get back. You will think you are on 5th Avenue itself what with the new pavement and the new 10 cent store.

While many of the letters referred to family members that she knew only by name, when Elizabeth reached the final letter, she was pleasantly surprised to read about a person that she knew very well.

 

Now that I am not with you, how are you and the family? You know, even Mrs. Spiro asked me tonight when it was coming, and I told her Santa Clause was to bring it.

The child that Gigi would deliver in December was Elizabeth’s great-aunt Lena Marie. Two years later, the Great Depression would hit. The family would struggle, but survive, and go on to have two more daughters—the youngest of which would be Elizabeth’s own grandmother, Francis Louise.

The love story of James and Gigi would not make for a very exciting movie. There are no star-crossed lovers or love triangles, no shouting from the mountaintops. Their love was honest and simple, with no need for extravagance, but these letters are a glimpse of everyday love, which in itself is wholly miraculous. James and Gigi remained happily married, and although they have both passed away, one can assume that James is still hers—until Niagara falls.


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