This is the story of an eighty-year-old letter that changed my life.
The letter, penned March 22, 1929, was an appeal from a woman who signed her name as Amy BVD to someone she termed “Dearest Lady.”
In 1969, while a freshman at Louisburg College in North Carolina, I found the letter in an old book I purchased at a thrift shop. Where it had been for the previous forty years remains a mystery. However, for the next forty, this yellowed, tattered letter was in my safekeeping.
Prior to reading Amy’s letter, in which she extols the wonders of travel, I had traveled very little. There were short family trips in Ford station wagons in the 1950s as far north as Pontiac, Mich. and as far south as Tampa. I dreamed of travel, though, and Amy’s description of its enchantments stirred a fever in my soul.
The next year, when I was just nineteen, an opportunity arose for a $199 round-trip airline ticket to London on a charter flight sponsored by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I asked my father for the money and borrowed $300 more from a family friend. That summer of 1970, I traveled alone or with small groups of other students throughout Europe. My parents thought I had lost my mind, but Amy’s seed had been planted.
The years passed, and every spring on the letter’s anniversary, or just when I was feeling a little blue, I would read Amy’s letter. As I grew older and wiser, each time I read the letter I learned something new or had a flash of understanding.
The letter was written on letterhead from The Brownell Tours of Tuscaloosa, Ala., “established 1887.” I assumed that after all these years this agency was no longer in business, so I didn’t even bother to look it up. E.W. Van Deusen was listed as the eastern manager, in Hollis, N.Y. My assumption was that E.W. was Amy’s husband.
In the letter, Amy was trying to persuade her unnamed friend, perhaps from North Carolina, to accompany her on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner cruise followed by a tour of Europe. Amy wrote: “for you see the cruise is such a wonderfully restful twelve days, in a climate not too hot nor yet too cool, and amid such a fairy land of changing beauty, that we all will be bursting with enthusiasm and energy at the end.”
I found myself wondering how “Dearest Lady” could refuse Amy’s invitation: “Spring is in the air, and I feel I must go somewhere and you too probably are wondering what the matter is. The answer is you need a trip.”
By 1985, I had my own business, a specialty food company that was a kitchen table start-up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Sometimes I felt burned out by the everyday stresses of work. I would pull out Amy’s letter, which I kept in my office. She wrote, “Why not follow the philosophy of Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm: ‘When joy and duty clash, let duty go to smash!’” For whatever reason, heeding Amy’s advice seemed to be appropriate. I could always rationalize the need for a trip. At one point, I even made copies of Amy’s letter and mailed it to friends, encouraging them to join me on a cruise!
Whenever an opportunity to travel arose, I had to go. Once a trip was planned, I was already dreaming of the next one. While fishing in southern Chile, I was studying a Thai phrase guide. While riding an elephant in Thailand, a guide book to Holland was in my day pack.
In the mid-1990s, I began to feel that my treasured letter needed to find its way home, to the family of Amy B. Van Deusen. As much as I loved it, how could they not love it, too?
One summer, while in New York City for the Fancy Food Show, I began searching through telephone directories and calling Van Deusens. On one attempt, after earnestly explaining the reason for my call to the lady who had answered, there was a loud and abrupt “click.” I was crushed. Why could I not find the letter’s family? And why did the people whom I called not care?
More years went by, and I removed the aging letter from the thrift shop book to store it in a file folder labeled “1929 Letter.” I dismantled the pages of the faded 1910 book titled “Cheer and Joy Be Thine,” framed some quotes and gave them to friends for Christmas. I placed one particular quote called “My Symphony,” by William Henry Channing, in a small frame on my desk. Whenever I read Channing’s words “to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never,” I reflected on the letter and my goal of getting it into the hands of Amy’s family. With the spirit of Amy’s contagious enthusiasm and positive energy guiding me, I knew the day had to come when I would find her family.
In early 2009, close to eighty years after the letter had been mailed and forty years since it had come into my possession, I had foot surgery and was confined to my bed or a chair for two weeks. This gave me the opportunity to research some family genealogy. I went to ancestry.com. My husband, intrigued by my work, asked if it was possible to find old friends on the site. “Probably so,” I answered. I thought about the 1929 letter in my filing cabinet at work. Could it be possible to trace Amy through a family tree? When I finally made it out of the house on crutches, the first place I headed was my office at Blue Crab Bay Co. I knew exactly where the letter was, and on the same date of the month that it was originally written, March 22, I carried it back to my home.
In 1929, Amy had written: “So many deaths have come to those near us this last year, that we have come to feel life hangs by a very slender thread, and it is our purpose hence forth to make the most of every minute. Probably just the beginning of old age creeping up, but anyhow, why not?”
I was now 58 years old, and this part of the letter touched me, as I, like others of the baby boomer generation, had started to feel my mortality. I set out, one more time, in search of Amy’s family. Perhaps her daughter Marjorie, a grammar school student when mentioned in the letter, was still alive!
On March 26, 2009, my odyssey to find the letter’s family continued. I signed into ancestry.com and typed in a search for Amy B. Van Deusen. I found no listing but did find a family tree with quite a few Van Deusens on it. I sent off a message to the tree’s owner:
“I am attempting to find someone related to an Amy B. Van Deusen who wrote a letter in 1929 on letterhead from The Brownell Tours in Tuscaloosa, Ala. whose eastern manager was E.W. Van Deusen in Hollis, N.Y.”
The tree’s owner, Peter, responded through ancestry.com the next day: “My Van Deusen roots go deep. I would love to get a copy of this letter and try to figure out who these people were and how they might relate to me.” I scanned the letter and sent it off to Peter, my new research associate in California. That same day, I researched Brownell Tours and discovered that they were still in business. I e-mailed the president and sent along a copy of the letter. He wrote back, “What a treat! I have shared it with all 130 of our colleagues across the USA as a great example of the power of travel to touch lives.”
Days later, I learned that one of those colleagues had, in fact, forwarded the letter to Amy’s grandson in Texas, whom I had yet to find!
On March 29th, Peter wrote back with news that he had found references to Amy’s husband, Edwin Wilkes Van Deusen, along with evidence they had a daughter named Marjorie. He forwarded census reports along with ship passenger manifests showing that Amy apparently traveled to Europe quite a bit in the 1920s. Less than four hours later, Peter found a photograph of Amy from her passport application. At this point he thought he had found all the “easy stuff” and suggested I post a message on ancestry.com’s Van Deusen message boards. I was getting excited, knowing that we must be on the right track. To my surprise, less than thirty minutes later, Peter emailed:
“I think that I just hit the jackpot and found the family online who have posted photos of Edwin and Amy. I am still looking into it at the moment. In the meantime, I have found Edwin’s passport application (attached) for you to see. I will get back to you shortly.”
No sooner had I finished reading Peter’s e-mail than a new one popped in. “I am 99 percent confident that this website is for your Amy and Edwin and their family. The photos are very similar and too much other info matches.” His link was to a site on Flickr, a photo-sharing site. At this point, Peter turned the search over to me.
Nervously, I found the Flickr site, signed up and followed the link he shared. No one can imagine the feelings that came over me as a photograph appeared of Amy, Edwin, and their daughter, Marjorie, on the very cruise Amy wrote about in 1929! I perused the site a few more minutes and found a photograph of Amy in her wedding dress, taken in 1908.
My Amy! My friend for forty years, at last I had a face to go with her letter. I found the link to send a message to the Flickr site owner and wrote:
“I have been trying to track down Amy’s family for forty years. My hands are trembling as I send this message. I have a letter she wrote to a friend dated March 22, 1929, eighty years ago last week. It is the most wonderful letter in the world. I bring it out every year to read and wonder about Amy and her family. The letter is delightful and a testimonial to the joy of travel, which I love to do. Please let me know where you live, I can’t wait to get the letter into the hands of her closest living descendant. I am so happy to see photos of her. I feel like I know her, having hung onto this letter, enjoying her spirit and energy for so long.”
Afterward I let Peter know the message had been sent, and he responded, “Awesome! I am soooo happy to be a part of this. Let me know what happens.” And I did. Early on the morning of March 30, I emailed, “Not a peep yet.” That evening I wrote, “The waiting is killin’ me! No response! You think they’re on a cruise or something???” I carefully studied the photograph of Amy, Edwin and Marjorie on the cruise and wrote to Peter: “Check out the JOY on her daughter Marjorie’s face, it is overwhelming.”
I fantasized that perhaps Marjorie was still alive and I could personally place her mother’s letter in her hands. I e-mailed Peter, “I believe Amy and I have something in common and that’s why her letter moved me forty years ago and has ever since, our spirits and enthusiasm are somehow connected.” Peter replied, “My guess is they have to log into their Flickr account to see that you contacted them. I hope you still have fingernails left by the time they respond.”
Meanwhile, Peter went into Google maps and entered the Hollis, N.Y. address from the letterhead. He then went to the street view option and found the house as it looks today. He e-mailed, “I compared it to the photo in the Flickr album to identify it. That was fun. It was also a great feeling to match up the faces from the passport photos with those on the Flickr site and know that we have a positive match.”
On March 31, still waiting to hear from the family, I let Peter know I had tried a different route. As a result of accessing the Flickr site, I had found the surname Edwards. I located someone on ancestry.com with this same Edwards on his family tree and sent him a message. From his tree, I sorrowfully learned that daughter Marjorie had passed away at age ninety, just two years earlier. I had missed my chance to give her the letter from her mother. However, the Edwards family tree had revealed more clues for my search, including the fact that Amy had four living grandchildren.
I spent hours on Google and discovered that one of Amy’s grandsons was a professor of government at a major university in Texas. He had published an article that mentioned his parents’ names! I e-mailed the university, as well as a woman who had collaborated with him on several books. No response. Somewhere in the searching, I ran across an article written by the professor’s son about environmental sustainability. From this tidbit, I was able to track down Amy’s great-grandson John on LinkedIn, a social and business networking site. I was so excited!
At 9:47 p.m. on March 31, I posted a message: “Hi John, I found you on LinkedIn and I believe the letter I have was written by your great-grandmother?” To that message I attached the lengthier e-mail I had sent to staff at the university. Barely seven minutes later, a reply from John’s co-worker popped onto my screen: “That’s crazy.”
I was devastated! How could they not care? Was I being “hung up on” yet again?
I went to bed and wallowed in my disappointment. Ever the optimist, I thought to myself, “Maybe I took that the wrong way. This is obviously a young person, and maybe ‘that’s crazy’ means instead ‘that’s wild.’” I hobbled out of bed, still on crutches from surgery, and e-mailed back, “Can you get the e-mail to John? I really would like to get this letter back into the family’s possession.” The next morning, April 1, I received word that the e-mail had been forwarded to John. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Just a few minutes later, I heard from John himself: “It is so inspiring and phenomenal to be a part of such a precious find. What an amazing journey this letter has taken, I’m glad it was able to brighten your life. I forwarded it to my dad and told him the story over the phone, he’s very excited to hear about it. How cool.” Later, John told me the Flickr account had been set up by his aunts, Jan and Barb. Barb, he told me, was the master of the family’s history. “She’ll be so delighted, you have no idea! Thanks so much for your persistence and not giving up on finding us!”
I went back to waiting. Finding John and making contact was satisfying, but I longed to hear from one of Amy’s grandchildren. On April 3, I e-mailed Peter: “Still waiting, patience was never one of my virtues.” Later that day I received an e-mail from the fellow I had contacted through ancestry.com, who had Van Deusens and Edwardses listed on his tree. He was now living in Bolivia and wrote, “One of the nice things about the internet is you find people or they find you.” Marjorie was his aunt. He gave me e-mail addresses for all four of the grandchildren.
On Sunday, April 5, just one week since I had found Peter through ancestry.com, and probably one of the longest weeks of my life, my dream came true. I received an e-mail from Barb, Amy’s oldest granddaughter and the keeper of the family history. Barb e-mailed, “I am SO glad you found us! I just received a copy of Amy’s 1929 letter from my brother Dave. It’s fantastic! It has shown us some things about our grandmother that we didn’t know before. We knew she loved to travel, and we have many memories from her trips, but this letter says so much more. How wonderful it is that the mystery in your life is no longer a mystery!”
Later that evening, Barb, a retired educator, sent me a family history document she had assembled six years earlier entitled “Marjorie VanDeusen’s Trip Abroad in 1929.” At some point, her grandfather had changed the spelling of the family name to one word, VanDeusen. This eight page biography featured photos of young Marjorie on the cruise with her parents as well as touring Europe and riding camels in Egypt, supplemented by menus, poetry, and passenger lists. Little did I know that the letter was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of VanDeusen family memorabilia.
The next day, Barb and her sister, Jan, invited my husband and me to join them in Pennsylvania in May for a “reunion” with Amy’s four grandchildren prior to their own VanDeusen family reunion. We gratefully accepted. Meanwhile, I carefully packaged my precious 1929 letter and mailed it to Barb in Michigan. Not long after, I heard from Jan, a reference librarian and archivist in Pennsylvania. “It is such an astonishing story you bring to our family, too amazing a story to be believed. What an incredible piece of detective work! My husband and I have been driving down the Delmarva peninsula to the Outer Banks for the past 15 years.” Yes, I thought, passing right by my business, Blue Crab Bay Co., where her grandmother’s letter was safe in my filing cabinet. So close!
Jan continued, “I’m so glad you persevered in spite of being told this was crazy, but it is wonderfully crazy, which I’m sure is what John’s friend meant in the e-mail. Did my sister tell you that our mother left us with over 50 boxes of family history stuff?”
A few weeks later, a mysterious package arrived for me at work. It was addressed to my husband and me. I waited for him so we could open it together. Were we surprised! Several small boxes were filled with Amy’s travel mementos and notes: a brooch from Norway, a sterling plate from the historic cruise ship the Stella Polaris (1930), a black lace butterfly, a 1953 photo of the four grandchildren with Amy and her husband, and last but not least, two sterling silver baby spoons engraved with V and a note, “Now you are both honorary VanDeusens!”
On May 30, 2009, my husband and I drove up to Media, Pa. for our own private VanDeusen reunion. I carried with me four pages of quotes from the book that had held the letter for so many years, now framed as gifts. For two days and nights we were warmly entertained by Amy’s grandchildren – David, Barb, Steve, and Jan. Boxloads of family memorabilia were stacked by the dining table in Jan’s home. We spent hours going through Amy’s photos of her trips to Europe in the early 1900s and reading her letters to young Marjorie, who was born in 1919 and usually stayed behind with a relative.
I learned that Marjorie’s parents first met on the S.S. Caronia in 1905, a few years after Edwin had graduated from Yale. As a teacher, Edwin had the summers off. Because both he and Amy loved to travel, soon after their marriage they began leading tours to Europe.
We visited the gravesite of Marjorie and her husband, Earle, and in the evening were joined by Steve’s children for a larger reunion. Barb brought lots of her grandparents’ travel mementos and jewelry and decorated a table with them. Before we left, everyone was encouraged to take something by which to remember Amy. I selected a small sterling brooch, one that to me signified unity and to my husband a “tree of life.”
Returning to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, we heard from Steve, Amy’s youngest grandson and now a grandfather himself:
“Thanks for the incredible role you have played in all of our lives in recent months. I’m still at a loss to put it into words. It’s like a dream – with the only negative hint being the fact that my mother Marjorie didn’t quite make it long enough to participate. She would have had the time of her life. But I think we did well in her stead.” Steve ended his e-mail with, “I don’t know where we go from here, but for now, we have plenty to ponder and be pleased with, mostly thanks to you.”
In my office, I read the framed quote from Channing, the one taken from the 1910 book: “await occasions, hurry never.” Forty years after buying that book and finding the letter enclosed, my occasion had arrived. The letter’s journey home was complete. I could never in a million years imagine that it would receive such a homecoming! How rich my life has been thanks to Amy’s spirit.
This is the story of an eighty-year-old letter that changed my life.