Peter Edge sat down beside me, clicked opened the latches of the tan suitcase and raised its lid. A stale whiff of old papers floated out. It was a scent of a biographical treasure.
The author with the suitcase Peter Edge gave her. Photo courtesy of Rick Smith.
Inside the suitcase—which had belonged to Rosalie Edge--were fat manila packets dated in Peter’s writing noting the time span of the personal letters within each. He handled the packets gingerly and took out a few letters from one of them to show me.
He lifted out the typed manuscript of his mother’s unpublished memoir “Implacable Widow.” He noted the photocopies he had made of family genealogies drawn in the fine penmanship of his grandfather John Wylie Barrow in the 1870s, and gently picked up a flaking brown leather notebook in which Mabel Rosalie had written down her wedding gifts in 1909. He let me leaf through the notebooks in which his mother had kept her bird lists beginning in 1922 but decided he could not part with them. Peter said that in the 30 years since his mother’s death he had read many of the letters. He was not sure they would be “of any interest” to me.
Today I think: What, were you kidding me, Peter? I trust I expressed my gratitude more graciously at the time. He was after all, about to entrust me with more than 300 original letters, memorabilia and family documents, items dating between 1856 and 1959 that intimately concerned the woman I was determined to write about, conservation history’s most inexplicable and overlooked heroine.
“I’ve held on to this material long enough,” he said, sounding like he was about to shed an enormous burden. “I am 77, and see no reason to give it to anyone else. The letters are yours for as long as you need to keep them.” Then he brought up the reason I had first gotten in touch with him. “You will have my written permission to use the letters with complete freedom, along with any others you come across written by my mother,” he said. “I will contact Hawk Mountain Sanctuary to let them know that you must be given access to my mother’s personal papers there, as well.” Rest in peace, J.D. Salinger. If you read Part 2, you know what I mean.
Peter said he would also write to about 20 people who had known his mother best and ask them to cooperate with me. Most were quite old, he warned, so I should speak to them soon.
A sampling of letters mailed from Siberia, China and Japan.
After so much unrestricted generosity he did, however, make one stipulation. “My mother was very proud of the fact that Charles Dickens was her cousin. She insisted that a story be told well,” he said. “I assume she would have felt that way about her own. So bear in mind something she used to often say: ‘Never let the truth spoil a good story.’ ”
Next Time: I read Rosalie Edge’s private letters.
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