Usually when I find personal letters at an estate sale, I ask the people holding the sale if they are sure they want to sell them. These folks said they had been friends of the old man who had lived in the house; he only had distant relatives on the other side of the country, and none of them was interested in the contents of his estate after he died.
The people holding the estate sale then gave me a paper grocery bag and told me to fill it with the things I wanted, so I added the letters and postcards to my bag and went to look at old books and magazines from the same estate. When I got home, I looked at the four postcards first.
All four cards had been sent from Paris in 1909 and 1910, written and addressed in the fine, careful hand of one R.D., or R. Dox. He had sent the postcards to other people with the same last name, so they must have been related.
He didn't have much to say. He put an "X" over his room in a picture of one building.
He commented on the weather in the other three postcards; it was raining.
A few minutes' online research told me that R. Dox was Ralph W. Dox, and the recipients of his postcards were his parents. R. Dox was from upstate New York. He graduated from Columbia University and worked at the US Embassy in Paris. An online copy of the school's yearbook even had a picture of him:
The yearbook went on to describe Ralph Dox as "eccentric." "Boring" might have been more like it, I thought, judging from the contents of his postcards home to Mom and Dad.
I didn't think about the postcards or their abrupt messages for many months. Then I ran across a Facebook post from a group of French history buffs. The photo they posted showed the Gare D'Orsay (train station then, fantastic art museum now) under several feet of floodwater from heavy rains in January 1910.
Rain. In Paris. In 1910. The postcards from R. Dox.
Time to do some more online research. It turns out that it usually rains in Paris in January, and some flooding is not uncommon. But in January 1910 there was so much rain that the Seine River flowed into the sewers and tunnels, flooding the city. Outside Paris, the Seine overflowed its banks, swamping the suburbs. Because the water rose rather slowly, there were no fatalities, but the damage estimate was 400 million francs -- $1.5 billion in today's US dollars. As you might expect, there are videos of the flood damage on YouTube:
Ralph Dox's parents must have known about the Great Paris Flood of 1910, and they were probably worried about their son. I got out the postcards again and studied them. He'd sent a postcard home on New Year's Eve 1909 showing them his flat high above the city streets, then three in rapid succession May 10, 11 and 12, 1910, all commenting on the weather.
It's raining here today. Perhaps Halley's Comet is the source of all this rotten weather. They tell me, however, that it is sometimes this way here.
The eccentric young American diplomat had run into typical French understatement.
Now when I look at the postcards, I wonder if this was his way of reassuring his folks that all would be well. Or were the short messages on the backs of his postcards, examples of dry wit that his parents recognized? Further online research provided me with a copy of a newspaper clipping that said that R. Dox and other American diplomats had fled France after the outbreak of World War I. He returned to New York State and practiced law.
Perhaps there were more postcards or letters from R. Dox to his parents in New York in the packet I'd found at the same sale? I wondered. But no, at least not in the items I brought home from the estate sale. Almost all of the letters I found there were from three women in Van Nuys, California to the same young sailor during World War II, and none of them had the last name Dox.
I looked again at the contents of the estate sale grocery bag. Some greeting cards; some books; an owner's manual for a 1951 Hudson. A school workbook owned by a young woman with the last name Gehring, who was studying French in 1928:
And there, as I leafed through the pages of the workbook, I saw again the precise, careful, tiny handwriting of Mr. R. Dox.
Why were the postcards from R. Dox in this estate, and what was his relationship to the Miss Gehring who was learning French? I'm afraid most of their story has been lost to time. But I'll tell you what I was able to discover, in future blog posts. Stay tuned.