Letters From a Century Ago Form the Backbone of a Hanover Resident’s Family History

  • Sheila Harvey Tanzer, of Hanover, N.H. wrote a biography about her parents based on their letters to each other during World War I. Tanzer sits by her mother's desk where some of the letters were found at her home on April 29, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sheila Harvey Tanzer's mother Dorothy Thigpen (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sheila Harvey Tanzer's father Edmund Shea. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Letters written by Sheila Harvey Tanzer's parents Dorothy Thigpen and Edmund Shea. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sharpened pencils used by Sheila Harvey Tanzer for her book about her parents letters sit at her workspace in Hanover, N.H. on April 29, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, June 09, 2017

Sheila Harvey Tanzer used to wonder where she found the strength to weather the many challenges she faced throughout her adult life, among them the long declines of her two husbands.

Then a few years into this new century, she started reading the letters that her Protestant Southern-belle mother wrote to an Irish-Catholic lawyer from Wisconsin during their courtship-by-mail between 1916 and 1920.

In one of dozens of pieces of correspondence, 20-year-old Dorothy Thigpen tells Edmund Shea, a week after the end of World War I, about a message she’d received from her father, an Alabama doctor:

He says in hard and decided English that I shall never marry a Catholic. It is not as hard as it is decided in tone and he goes on to inform me that he is considering my happiness in the matter and advising me for my own good. … I cannot see the solution at the present moment because I do not think he will change, nor would I have you give up your faith even if you would, nor could I oppose him in a matter of this kind — and yet I fully intend to marry you.

While Tanzer came into possession of her father’s letters in 1969, her mother’s came to light more than 30 years later, unearthed by one of Tanzer’s two sisters. Her mother’s words set Tanzer on the path to writing Mingled Souls, a family history published last year, in which she explores her parents lives and, by extension, her own.

“Until then, I didn’t have her voice,” Tanzer, 89, said during a recent interview at her home in Hanover. “I knew then that I had the potential to tell the whole story.”

The reading, the research and the writing had to wait a little longer, as Tanzer’s own family story intervened. But having to wait a little longer to write Mingled Souls turned out for the best.

“I think if I’d had all of it when I was younger, I might not have been ready,” Tanzer said. “I need the time to meditate and reflect, a way to envision my mother and my father. You need some distance to be able to talk about your parents. They’re more alive now. I understand them in ways I never could have before now.”

Dorothy and Edmund met through a Harvard Law School friend of Edmund’s in 1916. After their long courtship, they finally were married in the fall of 1920, at Dorothy’s childhood home in Montgomery, Ala., with the rector of her family’s church presiding.

The wedding followed years of agonizing over the differences in their backgrounds. While Dorothy came from a blue-blooded Alabama family headed by her doctor father and socialite mother, Edmund’s father rose from a hardscrabble rural childhood and early adulthood in the Midwest to become a lawyer.

While the Thigpens and Edmund’s father ultimately relented and reconciled, Edmund’s mother, Nora Shea, was estranged from her son for the rest of her life.

“I remember the scene clearly when news of Nora’s death came,” Tanzer writes in the epilogue to Mingled Souls. “It was 1936, and I was eight years old. We were sitting on the screen porch … and Edmund burst into tears. It was the only time I saw my father cry.”

That’s about as much as Edmund or Dorothy revealed about their courtship and their own trials, until Dorothy died in 1963. A year later, Edmund told Sheila about the many bundles of his letters that he found in Dorothy’s slant-top desk. And not until 1969, after Edmund’s death, did Sheila Harvey get her first look at that set of letters.

By that time, she’d been living in Hanover for almost 15 years, raising four children with first husband, Larry Harvey, a professor of romance languages at Dartmouth, and cultivating friendships around the Upper Valley.

While she set the letters aside to oversee her family, she never forgot them, particularly a message that Edmund wrote from France on Jan. 27, 1918:

I went to church this morning, for the first time since leaving Camp Merritt, and I wished you were there. The two towers loomed up at the end of a long street and when we got near the bells began to chime. They were the most wonderful bells. Then came a view of the building itself, a tremendous Gothic monument of grey stone, crumbling and green with age, flanked with enormous flying buttresses. … The people were mixed — civilians and soldiers. I saw an extraordinary number of women in mourning (and not only at church). Near us were two black soldiers in the Alice blue uniform of France. They looked like good soldiers. All of which made me feel quite religious, and made me think of you. I wonder how you would have been impressed.

The color of warm honey, Dorothy’s desk, in which Edmund found his letters, now sits in a corner of Sheila Tanzer’s living room in Hanover. On a table in the adjoining dining room in late May, months after the printing of Mingled Souls, Tanzer was still sorting through some of the correspondence — all in elegant, slanting cursive — and through the memories.

“In my naivete, I didn’t realize all the weeding down I needed to do,” Tanzer recalled. “It was a necessity. It boiled the process down to the essentials. It was hard to let go of so many good ones, but there’s no way you could use all the letters. There were at least 400. It’s a fraction of that in the book.”

In addition to selecting the letters, Tanzer also turned to Dorothy’s diary and researched World War I history to round out the book.

She also enlisted a team of editors and acquaintances to help her build the narrative. Among her collaborators, White River Junction-based writing coach Joni Cole read an early draft and pointed to the need for some pertinent details.

“She said, ‘I’ve been waiting all this time for a wedding to happen,’” Tanzer recalled. “I want a scene from the wedding!’

“Joni was instrumental in motivating me. I couldn’t drive to White River at night for workshops, so she said, ‘OK, I’ll come to you.’ She throws herself into it so much. It’s contagious.”

Cole, in turn, caught the fever of the story — and the storyteller.

“Sheila is a beautiful writer, and the narrative she was creating as context didn’t just draw me into their story,” Cole wrote during an exchange of emails last month. “It also evoked themes of destiny and faith, and raised the compelling question of whether some souls truly are meant to be together.”

Elizabeth Harvey, one of Tanzer’s daughters from her first marriage, flashed back to childhood visits to the Shea house in Milwaukee, overlooking Lake Michigan, while reading both her grandparents’ letters and multiple drafts of Tanzer’s book.

During a recent exchange of emails, Harvey recalled “the beauty and grace of the house and surrounding gardens, the elegance of the parties and dinners, the capacity to explore the lake and the surrounding ravines and gardens, and the strong connections with my grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles.”

And in tracking the trajectories of her grandparents, Harvey grew to understand that her mother had inherited more from Edmund and Dorothy than the desk and the letters.

“Her capacity to survive the many losses and sadnesses of her life and to make something positive from it makes her a model for everyone who knows her,” Harvey wrote. “I think she recognizes her own sense of purpose and determination in her parents, and she’s gotten a double dose from them and cultivated it throughout her life. She was also married to two remarkable men, and she has seen — twice! — the great gift that comes from finding an enduring love with a soulmate. She believes in the mystical love that inspired her parents and continues to inspire her.”

Tanzer also figures that her parents’ example, and the long journey she undertook to share their story, are helping her bounce back from the heart damage she suffered as the result of a virus last August — shortly after she sent her final draft of the book to Back Channel Press in Salem, N.H.

“When I was on a ventilator, I was not at all certain I would survive,” Tanzer recalled, after a pause to close her eyes and consider her words. “But I knew that there were meetings (about the book) in September and October that I wanted to get to. There was a bundle of things to decide and deliberate about: the kind of paper to be used for the pages, the print size, which photos to use.”

To see Mingled Souls through to publication, and to hear and read the reactions of friends, relations and acquaintances, Tanzer started a fitness regimen that now includes walking at least a mile a day.

“I can perhaps get back to where I was,” Tanzer said. “I am almost there. It’s a willingness to say, ‘I will work at this every day.’ It’s the acceptance of the challenge. … It would have been more difficult, I think, if I hadn’t done all it took to put the book together.

“You’re looking at a person whose willingness to say ‘yes’ has always been strong.”

Her willingness to help, without anyone asking, is at least as strong.

“Sheila was my second-grade religion teacher in 1967,” John Colligan, of Hanover, recalled during a tea he hosted for friends and family at the Hanover Inn earlier this spring. “I have vivid memories of Sheila reading from the Bible to our class. In my teenage years, when my dear father was sick and dying, I learned about acts of kindness. Sheila would show up unexpectedly on cold, dark January nights at suppertime with a gift of her baked sourdough bread straight from her oven and still warm.”

Thus did Sheila Harvey thaw some of the Yankee reticence she encountered when she and Larry moved to Hanover in the mid-1950s. “That was very new to me — it’s still new to me,” she said.

After Larry died, in 1980 at the end of a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Sheila co-founded a hospice volunteer program, and later served as a eucharistic minister at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

She remarried, to pioneering plastic surgeon Radford Tanzer, in 1995, and cared for him until his death in 2003, at age 97. And she remained active at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hanover.

“She tells me with great frequency about her wide circle of friends and admirers,” Elizabeth Harvey wrote. “I know many of them. However, that did not prepare me for the generosity of love and support that she received during her illness and convalescence, which was just remarkable.”

For Sheila Harvey Tanzer, uncovering what her parents went through reinforces the lessons they taught as much in deed as in word.

“You try to be loving to people,” Tanzer said. “You try to be kind.

“We don’t have much time.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.