Last summer, a few years after graduating from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, I decided to pursue one of my favorite pastimes: Postcard hunting.
I locked my tiny apartment and made a beeline to the Corner Emporium, a cluttered antique store in downtown Wichita Falls filled with old furniture, old buckles, old cowboy hats, old toys, old dolls, old bikes, old books, old clothes and other old novelties. People’s cherished possessions, cast off and forgotten, hoping to be rediscovered by bargain hunting strangers.
But none of these curios caught my attention.
My eyes were drawn to a reconstituted card catalogue crammed full of colorful postcards from all over the world – souvenirs of another place, another time. The musty smell of old papers hung in the air as I sorted through the postcards: brightly colored images of well-manicured topiaries, animals, beaches, caverns, cathedrals, restaurants and motels.
My enchantment with postcards grew out of my yen for travel. I’m not a travel junkie (can’t afford the habit), not yet anyway. But I wouldn’t mind becoming one. Whenever I can, I’m on the road or in the air. In recent years, I’ve traveled to New York, the “City of Dreams;” the Walt Disney World Resort, “The Magic Kingdom” in Orlando; and Toronto, “The Queen City” of Canada, to name just a few major cities on my itinerary. Paris, “The City of Lights,” is next up on my bucket list.
So, when I spotted several well-traveled postcards in the antique store – one of the “City of Lights” in 1918, another of the Statue of Liberty, circa 1960, and another with Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom in royal letters across the top of the postcard – I felt compelled to claim them as my own.
“Did you find what you were lookin’ for?” asked RD “Wally” Waller, manager of the Corner Emporium, as I made my way to the counter.
Wally is in his 70s, with only a little bit of grey hair left around the back part of his head. His face is a map of wrinkles set off by rosy pink cheeks, like the sunset over desert earth. He wears a pair of round, thick-rimmed glasses and favors striped polo shirts.
I didn’t know, exactly, what sort of postcards I was looking for. I was just excited to see so many of them. At airport retailers and tourist shops, I discovered that postcard stands were generally relegated to the rear of the stores, and the number and variety of postcards were paltry, at best.
But at the Corner Emporium the card catalogue was overflowing with thousands of alluring, action-packed postcards – with smoking volcanoes belching their fury into the sky to giant horned rabbits (jackalopes) hopping across the Southwest. I felt these postcards were trying to speak to me, to tell me their story. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I began leafing through every postcard, starring at every fading image, every scribbled word.
We’re tired but happy after a very successful day @ Disneyland. It’s all that we expected & more. Mac & I enjoyed it as much as the kids. I rode the Matterhorn with Mark and that about did us in but we rallied in time to drag to everything else there was to ride. We rode a sub, flew with Peter Pan, took a train ride through the “mines,” walked thru the set of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” It’s still a cool 70F.
The woman’s story of their Disneyland adventures was epigrammatic, and full of brio. I wanted to jump on the next plane to Disneyland just to shake hands with these swashbuckling travelers, swept up in the magic of the amusement park. In sharing their adventures in Disneyland with their loved ones back home, they were sharing the deepest meaning of their lives in that moment. And they were teaching me why sharing our special moments in life with our loves ones makes us more human, makes us more fully alive.
Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. Our new age digital gods of communication. Snap a photo of your travel adventures. Text it. Post it on Facebook. Share it with hundreds or thousands of your digital “friends.” Our digital world makes it all so easy to stay in touch. But do we really touch anyone in any meaningful way when we touch the send button on our iPhones?
These digital images and messages flutter across our screens like butterflies in a windstorm, grabbing our attention but not our hearts. Unlike the carefully-crafted postcards of yesteryear, the never-ending deluge of digital messages and photos pouring across “social media” channels today amount to little more than fodder for a satiated, often bored and disconnected society.
As I slide my fingers across the letters, “the Magic Kingdom,” emblazoned on the top of the postcard I’m clutching in my hand, I realize I’m touching the tender memories and written conversations of the most treasured moments in people’s lives – people now gone but not forgotten. All these old postcards aren’t just relics in an antique store. As a storyteller, they’re my means of transport to a more graceful and charming era – a time when people took the time to share the cherished moments of their lives in a meaningful way: by sending a postcard.
“Send us a postcard when you get there,” amounted to an affectionate entreaty to a loved one – to share their memorable travel experiences with the folks back home who truly cared about the traveler’s happiness and safety en route to their destination.
I thanked Wally for his help and left the antique store that day with a 2-inch stack of postcards and no idea what I was going to do with them. I brought them home, and placed them in a box on a bookcase shelf. But the postcards refused to remain silent. They kept filling my head with questions. Who were these people? What happened to them? Are any of them still alive?
A few months later, I moved myself and my box of postcards to Denton in pursuit of a master’s degree in journalism. During my first class, my professor spoke about the art and craft of writing about people – “characters,” he called them. Our job as journalists, he said, is to unveil “the mystery and deepest meaning” of characters we encounter in the world. The professor’s words hit me like a lightning bolt.
After class that evening, I quickly plucked my box of postcards from high up on my bookcase shelf. Each one held an intriguing mystery, a story in search of a storyteller. That storyteller, I now knew, was me. I examined my postcards more carefully, noticing important facts and clues about the people sending and receiving the postcards that I had overlooked in my haste to possess them and bring them home with me last summer.
Suddenly, I realized that the Frannie V. Geyer who received the New York postcard at her home in Topeka, Kansas, was the same “Mrs. F.V. Geyer” who received the Disneyland postcard at her new home in Washington D.C. Through the mystery of my postcards, I felt Frannie was beckoning me to tell her story. Why did she move a thousand miles away from her home in Topeka? I wondered.
I began a frantic search for Frannie’s story. The internet offered some answers. An obituary of Dr. Charles “Mac” Geyer, a radiologist who lived in Wichita Falls, Texas with his wife, Wilda, revealed that Mac died in 2005 at the age of 89. Mac’s mother was the late Frances Groves Geyer. Thanks to Mac’s obituary and the Internet, I located the name and phone number of a relative of Frances Geyer: Shirley Legg, Frannie’s daughter (and Mac’s sister), who lived in Kansas City, Missouri.
I was short of breath and my stomach felt queasy when I dialed the person I hoped would be Frannie’s daughter. A woman with a soft, almost lyrical voice picked up the phone.
“Hi, I’m Jesika Fisher. I’m doing a story about a woman named Frances Geyer. Are you by any chance related to her?”
Her voice was warm, but suspicious.
“Yes, I’m her daughter, Shirley.”
I told Shirley about a New York City postcard I found in an antique store in Wichita Falls that a Don and Emma had sent to her mother. Don and Emma somehow knew about Frannie’s interest in acquiring a Volvo. During their East Coast travels, Don and Emma noted they had spotted a lot of Volvos, and were considering purchasing one for Frannie. “Grandma Special!” Don deadpanned.
Shirley didn’t know Don and Emma, or anything about their offer to buy her mother a Volvo. But she did know that their promise to bring back a Volvo from the East Coast for Frannie wasn’t consummated. Frannie acquired her own Volvo, Shirley said, a sporty white sedan that helped cement her mother’s enduring reputation as “spunky.”
“She was very proud of herself because it was a big deal for someone to buy a Volvo, a ‘Swedish car,’ in those days,” Shirley said.
Talking to Shirley helped resolve at least part of the mystery surrounding Frannie – something about her personality, about her daring do. But I wanted to know so much more about this woman, Frances (not Frannie) V. Geyer, who I first met through a postcard. I asked Shirley to persuade her sister-in-law, Wilda, the author of the Disneyland postcard, to speak to me. Shirley didn’t want to call Wilda. But she said she’d write her a letter urging her to take my call. “Most people don’t do it anymore,” Shirley said. But she and Wilda had been exchanging letters for years.
Like writing postcards, I thought. By writing Wilda a carefully crafted letter, in longhand, you’re letting her know that even though you don’t see her often, you care – deeply – about her.
I thanked Shirley for her help with my story, and I scheduled a date to call her again soon.
A few weeks before I called Shirley, I drove back to Wichita Falls to see if I could find any more postcards written to or from Frannie Geyer. I didn’t find any. When I left the antique store, I asked Wally to give me a call if he came across more postcards with Frances V. Geyer’s name on them but I didn’t really expect to hear from Wally again.
I was wrong. Shortly after talking to Shirley, I got a phone call from the antique store. I recognized Wally’s gravelly voice immediately. “There’s this lady here in the store who was lookin’ at postcards and found two of ‘em with the same name,” Wally said.
“I recognized the name of the lady you were lookin’ for. We got to searchin’ and right now I’m looking at ten (postcards) with Frances V. Geyer’s name on them.”
A few days later I left Denton to drive 101 miles back to the Corner Emporium in Wichita Falls. Wally was on the phone when I stepped through the door. When he saw me, he hung up the phone and reached behind the counter. “I think we found a little more than when I spoke to you,” Wally grinned coyly as he pulled out a stack of postcards about two inches thick.
Gazing at the stack of postcards Wally handed me, I became flabbergasted, almost giddy. What am I holding in my hand? I wondered. The Holy Grail … the postcards that could finally unscramble the great mystery of Frances Geyer … the deepest meaning of her life … the people and places that mattered most to her?
Wally proudly held up a slightly ripped postcard with the illustration of a dark-haired woman riding a horse while firing a pistol into the air. It was addressed to Frances Groves, Frances’ maiden name. The postage mark read 1908.
Wally explained that Smith Walker, the Corner Emporium’s landlord, had purchased the building a few years ago. Smith found the Geyer Family postcards in a box covered with dust on the third floor of his building. Hoping to make some money, he brought the box of postcards to Wally.
I began counting the postcards that had been stuffed inside that shoebox. Ten, twenty, thirty ... I was still flipping when Wally got a hold of Smith on the phone.
“It’s that girl who’s writin’ a story about the postcards you’re sellin’,” I heard him say as I counted. It seems I had become a minor celebrity in the shop.
“How many does she have so far? I don’t know, she’s still countin’!”
“Seventy-eight,” I said, catching my breath.
Wally told me that Smith wanted to talk to me. I plunked down sixty dollars on the counter for the postcards and thanked Wally for hunting down the valuable stash of Geyer Family postcards. I just had to show off my trophies from my postcard hunting adventures with someone who I knew would care about my discoveries. That was my mother.
I dashed over to the local hospital where Mom works as a medical coder, and invited her to lunch. I could hardly contain my excitement. Before I could even swallow a bite of my chicken salad, I pulled out a white paper bag stuffed with what was at that moment the most precious property I owned: my postcards.
“Jesika, this is amazing,” my mom gushed.
We spent the rest of our lunch ignoring our salads, totally immersed in a world that, we both felt, seemed more charming, more intimate and more joy-filled than our own. As we said goodbye, I promised Mom I’d come back to Wichita Falls – with my postcards – soon. She said she could hardly wait to see me and my postcards again.
The next day, I called Shirley to tell her about the new trove of postcards about the Geyer Family that Wally found in Wichita Falls. She was just as enthused and surprised as I was. Shirley speculated that Mac had probably taken the postcards with him after they cleaned out Frances’ apartment. But she had no idea how the postcards had ended up in the office building. Maybe Smith Walker would know.
Smith had a throaty voice that sounded like air passing through a Brillo pad. He explained that the office he’d cleaned out had been occupied by a doctor. The family cleaned up his office after the doctor retired, but left the box. “They didn’t want it,” he said.
Most of the postcards in the shoebox circulated in the 1960s. Some of the postcards were dispatched and received over the span of a few days, others took months. I also discovered cards from the 1970s, a few from the 1980s, and one from 1989, six years before Frances’s death.
Some postcards had found their way around the world – from India to Ireland. But most of the cards circulated within the United States. “The family always sent postcards wherever they went,” Shirley told me. “It was just what people did in those days.”
In his postcards Don, Frances’s son-in-law, felt the need to share his life on the road with Frances. Attending a seminar or eating alone in a roadside diner, Don would send Frances a postcard. He often described how much he missed his wife, also named Frances. “My Fran,” he called her.
So I was surprised, and somewhat disappointed, to learn about Don and Fran’s divorce in the early 1970s. “It took her seven years to divorce him,” Shirley said. Don died of a brain tumor in 1977, shortly after the divorce. The divorce and the brain tumor were not the kind of news I wanted to hear as I explored the life and times of Frances and her family.
Through a steady stream of postcards arriving in her mailbox from Mac and Wilda, Frances kept abreast of their many family road trips across the country. “We had a map on the wall in the kitchen in the house in the breakfast room. It was 3x4 feet and framed,” Lisa, Wilda and Mac’s daughter, said. “Dad would take a fountain pen, and draw the highway lines,” she continued, tracing an imaginary path with her fingers.
Almost a year after discovering the postcards in the Wichita Falls antique store, I found myself driving down a tree-lined street in Kansas City, Missouri. As I pulled up to a two-story, white house with dark green shutters, an older woman with short white hair and a blue button up shirt came out to greet me. Shirley had moved into the house two years after her marriage in 1961. She was now 88.
We spent the day reminiscing, flipping through my postcards and her photo albums until we came to a series of photos in black and white and color of a tropical paradise, complete with an ocean blue lagoon and a pyramid. In one photo, Shirley’s wearing a sky blue dress.
“Is this during your honeymoon?”
I’d discovered a postcard Shirley had sent them among the pile that mentioned their trip to the pyramids.
Shirley’s husband, Bob, strolled into the room and shook my hand. He wore a long sleeved, red and black plaid shirt. His closely-cropped, dirty blond hair that I’d seen in the photo albums Shirley showed me had all but disappeared.
I showed him the postcard that Shirley had sent her mother about her honeymoon. Bob was unable to read the faded writing, and asked Shirley to do it.
“Do you remember that, Bob?” Shirley asked.
“Nope,” Bob replied.
“I remember those hats,” Shirley said, pointing to matching hats they were wearing. “They were so itchy.”
I imagined Frances living vicariously through her children’s travels, remembering each trip by re-reading every word. No wonder Frances kept her postcards until her death in 1995. She had moved those 1,000 miles from Topeka to Washington, D.C. to be closer to her daughter, I discovered.
I realize, of course, that postcards are a dying medium, mementos from days gone by that live on inside boxes in attics, basements, or antique stores now, their once bright and shiny technicolor pictures of landmarks and attractions slowly fading with time.
But for me, my box of postcards is a cherished form of communication. I’ll need them now, more than ever, to remind me of the magic of travel, of the intimacy of family, and of the most primal need we humans share: to stay in touch. If I ever stop feeling the wonder of walking through Disneyland or driving across the Brooklyn Bridge in a snow-white Volvo, I’ll know where to recapture that magic: in my box of postcards.