A few months ago I went to visit my Uncle in Denver. To greet me was a pile of folders - the contents of my grandfathers personal papers. Some were leases or salary negotiations that had to do with his company in Chicago, Acme Machinery Co. But most were letters from his mistress, Mae, affectionately known as “Wiggie”. Page after page of thin translucent paper was filled with her large cursive script. She was my grandfather Myron’s true love - they had been together for many years before he met my grandmother. In the words of my Aunt Deb, she smoothed all of his edges. I had only learned of her existence a few years ago, and was frankly clueless as to the depth of their relationship.
It is told like a tragic love story: two insurmountable facts stood in the way of their ever being wed. She was a minister's daughter, my grandfather was a Romanian/Palestinian Jewish immigrant. But much more gravely, she was older and could not bear him any children. For a shrewd businessman with five brothers, each pushing to produce the first heir, he could not afford to remain childless. And so his lawyer fixed him up with a beautiful young Holocaust survivor from Romania, my grandmother Lisa. They quickly married and she became pregnant. The year was 1952, the same date as the letters.
Myron and Wiggie continued their relationship throughout the beginning of his marriage to Lisa. She mailed the letters to his office downtown. In them she counseled him on how to be a good husband, the necessity of being assertive with his new wife, and also musing on their relationship. I leafed through letter after letter, bumbling through the cursive and attempting to make sense of the timeline.
In one explosive fifteen page letter dated 4/7/52 it is clear that my grandmother is very much aware of the other woman in her marriage. Wiggie tells him: “She's shouting for justice, but wants it all in her favor. Even if you, (God forbid) would be unjust to your own soul, and grant her every whim she’d have no respect for you. And that’s the worst thing that can happen to a marriage...Some women spend so much time trying to reform their mates that they don't take time to really know them.” And later: “You might tell her, she is sitting on a limb and sawing it off, her ideas have no constructive purpose. She is free as an American. But she should not carry that feeling of hatred she acquired somewhere along the line over into her married life. You might remind her she should enter marriage in a completely grown up way, not as a mental adolescent. Tell her to relax and enjoy marriage, then shake hands. I'm sure, if she is the nice person you say she is, she will feel deep down inside, this man of mine, is incredibly wonderful. I shall never again bring up his past life, but try to make his future a happy one.”
I found myself falling hard for Wiggie, rooting for her. Her passion, wit and intelligence shone through the pages. In a single letter she quotes Shakespeare, Luther Burbank, a Sioux warrior, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Marcus Aurelius. Wow.
Towards the bottom of the pile I found a stack of neatly ripped up pages. They were Myron’s letters! She had circled certain words and sentences, ripped them up and sent them back to him. Here was his voice finally, which I could hear now thanks to Wiggie. For a man who I had always thought of as stoic, he sure used a lot of exclamation marks. “Good night! Sweetheart! I'll be thinking and dreaming of you, Dear! Since it is raining here now, I will say, Buckets of love, Myron.”
I couldn’t manage to piece the letters back together, but it was clear that this signified the inevitable break between single woman and married man. That he kept them all that time, locked away in a desk in his office, is a credit to the significance of their relationship. The mind bending fact that over sixty years later his son and granddaughter would pour over them together was something he surely would never have imagined. Nor could he have foreseen the way my heart would break for my 46 year old grandfather who gave up true love to start a family. Which happened to be my family. And so it goes: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Thank you Wiggie for shedding some light on ours.