The Struggles of Charles and Laura Lawrence

The sixth post by Deana Thomas in the From the Archive blog series. Check back on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month for more from this series!

The Charles C. Lawrence, Jr., scrapbook collection consists of 220 letters, primarily written by Charles to his wife Laura McGaha Lawrence between 1942-1945. Charles wrote most of the letters while he was deployed to Panama and the Galapagos during World War II. The couple, who met and married 5-6 months before he was deployed, used their time apart writing constantly. Unfortunately, Laura’s letters are not in the collection, so, her voice is mainly heard in the letters by way of her husband’s responses. However, in one letter, written on May 25, 1944, Laura’s words are quoted by Charles. For this and reasons that will be obvious later, the letter is the standout in this collection.

“I got the sweetest letters you have ever written me,…”

By the time the letter was written, the couple had been apart for about 18 months and wouldn’t be reunited for another 8 months. They had discussed a wide range of topics and had even begun to write “love” letters. But on May 25, Charles wrote his longest and perhaps most emotional letter. The opening sentence of the letter is, “I got one of the sweetest letters you have ever written me, the other day.” This is a surprising beginning given how the letter will ultimately end. By page three of the seven-page letter, the tone changed.

Charles wrote, “One of your letters caught up with me today, and it upset me so much I couldn’t even got [sic] to [work] this afternoon, I just got my pen and paper and walked off, I’ll probably catch hell for it but I couldn’t [work] I’m so nervous.”

For the remainder of the letter, Charles would quote a passage from

“one of your letters caught up with me today…”

Laura’s letter and then respond. He continued, “This next thing has come up time and again and even though you know how I feel about it you keep bringing it up; [from Laura’s letter] ‘You’re really not being fair about me joining up, and if you’re coming home why should I stay here?… Womens place is in the home but I don’t have a home with you scooting around by air I won’t have a husband either pretty soon.’”1

In response, Charles wrote, “Laura if you are planning on joining any of those groups of army or navy whores, yes that’s what they are, I will feel that the vows we took when we were married meant nothing to you.”

In this exchange, the couple is dealing with what seems to be a core issue they had. Essentially, it seems that Laura was restless at home and wanted to join the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in order to see new places and meet new people.2 Charles, on the other hand, wanted Laura to be at home (initially home meant Charles’ home in Frankfort, Kentucky. Laura moved there in mid-1943. However, she returned to her home in Oakland, California, after about 5-6 months in Kentucky. Apparently, Laura did not enjoy living with Charles’ parents in Frankfort).

Another core issue for the couple is best encapsulated by the following exchange. Laura wrote “Did you get broken down to Pvt. yet? Seems you mentioned that possibility in one of your letters. Hope you have a good time doing it—better find a gay place to do it before yout [sic] get among the billy goats, they don’t [neck] but they do butt…I’ll tell you why someday when I see you three years from now, and I’m a little bit tight from drinking turpentine and wood alcohol. [illegible] well this is all for now ‘Rocky’.

Charles responded, “Laura, I’ll be dead if I don’t get home to see you in one year much less three. You know I’ve often wondered why you didn’t have a baby after I left, now I know, if you pick up any babies while your husband is away a shot of turpentine and wood alcohol will get rid of them all right.“

Charles never seemed to understand Laura’s angst. Conversely, Laura seemed to hold Charles’ deployment against him, which was unfair and beyond his control. Charles ended the letter with, “…make up your mind if you still love me or not, if you do for heaven’s sake, and mine too, write me a letter that a husband should get from his wife.”

“What did you think of my last letter?”

I desperately wish Laura’s response to this letter was in the collection. How did the couple resolve their differences? Did she apologize for some of the hurtful things she wrote? The same day he wrote the aforementioned letter, Charles wrote another letter probably after cooling down a bit.

In the second letter, Charles wrote, “What did you think of my last letter? don’t answer that question, but just remember that when you write such awfull [sic] letters you will receive some that are just as bad…God, Laura if you only realized how much I love you and want to be with you…When this is over, I’ll never leave you again until I die, or if you go first you won’t have long to wait until I’ll be with you…I guess that saying about a person hurting the things they love is really true, at least we have done good job of it in our letters, haven’t we?”

Ultimately, the couple seem to patch things up fairly quickly; by June 1, 1944 the tone of the letters returns to normal. Charles wrote, “I hope Snooky keeps on writing such loving letters as the last ones, so I’ll stay in this happy mood.”

The aforementioned letters capture the struggles of Charles and Laura’s relationship. The couple is thousands of miles away from one another, in their early twenties and newly married. They are struggling to reconcile their different hopes and dreams. On top of that, the world is at war. The amount of uncertainty when they were writing these letters must have been off the charts. (Ironically, a feeling that many of us felt throughout 2020). In times of uncertainty, some people may want to maintain as normal a routine/life as possible; some people take the uncertainty as a chance to follow their dreams and radically change their lives. In this case, I think Charles wanted to almost suspend life; he wanted normalcy and Laura wanted to seize the day. Knowing how things turned out for Laura, it’s even more heartbreaking that she did not get a chance to live her life, not on hold.

Notes

[1] In a letter written on May 31, 1944 Charles writes that Laura failed to pass her examination, so the issue of Laura joining the WAVES becomes moot.

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