Her name is Theresa and I knew her a lifetime ago. In that lifetime she was the beautiful matriarch of a loving family full of exceptionally bright, kind and creative children and I was dating her youngest son—we were both each other’s first loves—a talented musician/filmmaker. What struck me most about Theresa was that no matter the occasion—a casual drop by, a barbecue, or holiday fête—she was the quintessential hostess. It was as if she’d stepped right off the pages of Amy Vanderbilt’s Book of Etiquette.
Although I’ve stayed in close contact with her son, my contact with Theresa over the last 27 years has unfortunately been minimal. Naturally, certain memories of her have receded while others have remained in the forefront. Nonetheless, she was the first person I thought of when I decided to explore the art and impact of love letters. I remembered years ago that there was mention of a box of love letters that Theresa and her husband, Michael, had written back and forth while they were courting and he was overseas, training to be an army intelligence officer. She was 17 and he was 20 and supposedly they wrote to each other every single day for three years.
“Could the love letters have survived 50-plus years?” I wondered. I doubted it since there had been a fire at Theresa’s house years ago and she’s endured a few moves and more than her fair share of the ups and downs of life. I was half-afraid to ask about the love letters for fear of discovering they had not survived or perhaps had not really existed. Love letters represent the last vestiges of a more romantic era. A life before emails, texting, and forced courtship via reality television. To think there was a time when one had to take pen to paper to express one’s thoughts, sans spell check, then seal those thoughts on paper in an envelope only to release it, waiting days for the other person to receive it. . . When I found out recently that Theresa had just moved from the bay area down to La Jolla, I decided it was time to see her and ask about the love letters.
Theresa is now in her eighties, but stepping into her warm home and embrace, it was as if a day had not passed since the first day we had met. As soon as we let go of each other, she gestured to a clump of boxes in her living room and announced, “They survived.” She was referring to the love letters. They were not one box full, but four. It turns out they had miraculously survived the fire, although some had smoke stains and burnt edges. I resisted the urge to dive right into them. I realized there must be more to the context of the letters than I had gleaned from a rumor of their existence and I wanted to know the inciting incidents before I read the letters. Otherwise it was like seeing the middle of a romantic film before seeing how the couple met. So, she served us tea and we sat down for a three-hour talk about the love story that lead to the love letters.
This is Theresa’s story in her own words…
I easily remember the day Michael & I met. The year was 1956 and I was 17 years old. I remember all the feelings that went along with that first meeting, too. I was the pianist on stage during a rehearsal for a school drama production. Because we were an all-girls school, we had to reach out to boys at other schools to play the male parts. On that particular day, Michael Halloran walked in. I’d never seen him before and he’d never seen me before. From across the auditorium, I watched as he immediately spotted me playing at the piano. And, out of the corner of my eye, I could see that he was walking right in my direction. Without a word or gesture to anyone, he sat down on my piano bench next to me and just started to turn the pages of my song book as I kept playing. I had instant butterflies. In hindsight, I realize I had fallen in love in that moment. We didn’t say a word to each other. Even when the song ended we just glanced at each other, me with a shy smile and he with a sheepish grin. Afterall, it was a different time back then and the nuns and the drama director were keeping an eye on us.
That week, Michael asked if I’d go on a date with him, which meant he had to ask my parents for their permission. I remember that day fondly because it was one of the first times I glimpsed his trademark sense of humor and cleverness. He came to the chicken ranch we lived on and worked at and when my mother asked how many children were in his family, he replied “Seven and 8/9ths.” It turned out his mother, Billee Halloran, was in her last month of pregnancy with her latest child. This made my parents laugh and they approved us going out on a date.
However, I was still casually dating another fellow (the first boy I had ever dated). It wasn’t serious, but at school, it was clear even the nuns were rooting for Michael. One day, our Mother Superior pulled me aside and said, “Theresa, I’d like to talk to you about your choice of boyfriends. You know, Michael Halloran comes from a very respected and devoutly religious family. His mother owns a religious store, his older brother is in training to be a priest. He would be a good choice for a husband for you and you should consider dating him seriously.”
I did not need her to tell me this because I already felt like Michael was “the one,” but Michael never talked about me dating the other fellow although it was clear he wanted to be more serious. After I finished high school, Michael suddenly informed me that he had enrolled in the army and that he was going to be shipped off to Boston to be trained to intercept secret communications from Russia, and then shipped off to Europe. I think he did this because he thought I might like the other guy better and I had not made a clear choice. Before he left he suggested that I become a stewardess. I, in fact, needed to find something to do with myself now that I had graduated, so I applied and was surprised when United Airlines took me. To be a stewardess back then you had to be “pretty,” could not be engaged or married and you had to weigh in every week! I think Michael cleverly knew that by being a stewardess it increased the odds that I could afford to visit him while he was in Europe.
After he left for Europe I missed him immediately and we started to write letters to each other while he was gone. We wrote them every day and I could barely wait to read his. Mail was not completely reliable back then, so some times I might go three days without a letter and on other days three would arrive at once. When I look back, the letters were really our way of getting to know each other. They were the way we courted. When I had to put in a request for which city I would like to be my hub with United Airlines, I requested Boston. My mother asked why I would want to be so far from home and everyone I knew. I never told her, but Boston was the closest United Airlines hub to NYC and that was the city from which all the military mail from and to Europe was shipped. Being in Boston would mean I might get Michael’s letters a day or two earlier than if I lived in California and that was important to me.
Through the letters our love and commitment to each other seemed to grow, but the true test would be a visit to see each other face to face. So, when Michael had a scheduled 3 weeks off, I used my stewardess discount and bought a ticket to see him in Europe. We would borrow a friend’s black Volkswagen bug (later in life Michael would collect VW Bugs) and traipse through Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland. It was a bit risqué for an unmarried couple to do this back then, but the letters had fueled our desire to be with each other and we embraced the opportunity.
he trip was a dream and, at least to me, I was feeling like it sealed our love for each other. At the end of the trip, being a good catholic boy and girl, we visited The Vatican. And, on Easter we went to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy to say a prayer. The Basilica was beautiful, with spring sunlight streaming through stained-glass windows and the history of the place pulsing through it. We were both knelt down in prayer when Michael grabbed my hand and he slipped off the friendship ring he had given me months before then replaced it with a diamond ring, obviously an engagement ring and said, “Theresa, will you marry me?”
Most of their courtship and engagement took place through their love letters and, in the following entries, they excitedly plan their engagement, including the approval of their wedding bands rings, while Theresa is stationed in Boston as a stewardess and Michael is stationed in Germany…
February 12th, 1958
No matter where we might be or under what circumstances, I can’t possibly imagine the happiness we’ll realize by knowing we’ll never have to part. No goodnights on doorsteps, no separations, just unbounded love, sharing the fun, making joys out of sacrifices, smiling through sorrows… and knowing, no matter what, neither of us will ever be alone again. I love you darling. And, I can’t wait for the day to come…
Good night my love, Michael
February 13, 1958
WOW!!!!!!! I got good ‘ole [letter] #27 + + + + the ring. Remember how I told you in Palm Springs that when I like something I’ll like it at first glance, but the longer I look at it the better I like it until I am crazy about it? That’s it. I liked this [ring] the moment they took it out of the case and all this time I pictured how beautiful it really was, but upon seeing it [again] my heart almost burst. I was shaking like a leaf. When I read you were sending me the ring I flew down to the mailroom and there it was. I was shaking so much. You wrap a beautiful package as it is and when I opened it I saw that fabulous little box so neatly set in the big one and then pulled it out and saw that beautiful case… to open the case and see that fabulous wonderful exquisite ring setting… something like heaven itself. I pretty near died… I’m going to wait ‘til tomorrow, Valentines Day, to put it on and have myself a [pretend] ceremony.
Goodnight my love, Michael
MARCH 2, 1958
…Mike, my darling… I won’t say it’s only a week tomorrow [until we are together again], or that my writing indicates my mood (excited and my heart running away with itself) or that my heart is flipping—because you know darn well it is. Good night, my only love.
See you soon to say – “I love you!” Theresa
After going back and forth for months on whether to elope in Europe or have a big or modest wedding they start to resolve matters, realizing that they both really care about the same things most: family, humbleness, and being together.
January 4th, 1959
Darling, your letter today left me with my mouth agape. The letter I wrote you last night and mailed upon arrival in Boston today had the same conclusion… two great minds on the same channel—we must be in love… To know we have the same interests and feelings at hand and want only the happiness of each other! I feel sure we have chosen the best way darling… Somebody up there likes us. Now it’s up to us to prove ourselves worthy of it all. I know we won’t disappoint…I love you, Terry.
February 7th, 1959
Oh, darling, everything has to work out. My every waking moment is filled with wonderful thoughts of our soon to be togetherness. I am so tickled this is happening… it’s been a long 14 months away from you. But, God willing, our happiness will be as before and always. I love you, Terry.
February 10, 1959
There’s no end to the trouble I’d go through just to work out every little detail. For your love I pledge my life, darling… Michael
By 1966, Theresa and Michael’s courtship resulted in a beautiful marriage and four amazing children. Once they were reunited in the states and married, the love letters naturally lessened due to the demands of career and family life, but the letters remained an influential presence for Michael, their children, and, especially for Theresa. In 1975, during a “rough patch,” the couple was asked in marriage counseling to pull out their old love letters, which Theresa had saved, and read them.
“Seeing the letters in pencil and in pen,” remembers Theresa, “it really struck me. I thought ‘this is your husband’s handwriting and he really did feel that way. It’s proof of love. A reminder’.” The love letters got them through the rough patch and back to a happy loving place. Years later, when a fire overtook their home, Theresa was relieved to find that the love letters had (mostly) survived, albeit with smoke damage and some burnt edges. Theresa still held onto the letters.
They remained in the attic of their home in the bay area, untouched until they were needed again. As life would have it, after nearly five decades of marriage, Michael Halloran sadly passed away after a brief illness. Theresa spent the few years after his death, figuring out the logistics of a life without the love of her life, and overcoming the challenges of being a widow on her own, which included several painful spinal surgeries. When she had to downsize her belongings and make the move from the Bay area to a condominium in La Jolla, she got rid of many of her possessions. But she kept the four boxes of love letters.
A couple of years after Michael’s death, Theresa experienced a profound depression and found herself going through the letters one more time. Through tears, she read Michael’s declarations of love for her and traipsed through the memories and experiences that created the foundation for their lifetime together. It was as if he were still there with her. The experience got her through the depression.
She hadn’t touched the love letters again until recently when I asked her to unearth them for this post. She shared her lovely thoughts on re-reading the letters in a note:
“My heart beat faster when I looked at his familiar handwriting, touching the paper he had sent me. Tears came to my eyes as I saw the picture of me holding the daisy in the VW Bug in Germany, and remembered him, standing near the tree, taking it…. I am re-living our young, carefree, healthy lives! That 'space in time' before we began our family and all the responsibilities that came along with our four lovely children. Such joy and happiness, I am experiencing…
I hope that Theresa’s story and her love letters inspire you to take pen to paper and indulge in expressing your passion for another. Her journey is a testament that the world needs more love letters.