Dear Honey, I just got three letters from you today and your mail sure helps to brighten my day. You will never know how much your letters cheer me up every time I read them.
In 2004, Alfredo Carrion Jr. bought a house on South Queen Street and was cleaning out his third-floor attic when he came across an old barrel. Inside the barrel, he found letters from the 1940s and ’50s. They were written by an American soldier in the Army, who was stationed in Germany.
“Out of curiosity, I started reading them,” Carrion, 40, says. “And I noticed he was writing to his wife. They’re beautifully written; you could tell he was madly in love with his wife.”
Carrion threw away everything else, but he held onto the letters.
“I didn’t have the heart to throw them away,” Carrion says. “I said ,‘OK, these belong to somebody, so maybe I could find who they belong to.’”
For more than 15 years, Carrion tried off and on to find the letters’ owners. He scoured deeds of the house’s previous owners and asked around. He Googled the names on the letters. He never found out anything about the man who wrote the beautiful, loving words to his wife.
On Jan. 18, Carrion was up in the third floor of his home and saw the letters again. It had been eight years since he last tried to track down the owner. He took a picture of the letters and posted them on Facebook.
“Can someone help me with this? I found these letters in my attic a long time ago. Would like to see if I can find the family it belongs to or any living relatives,” Carrion wrote.
Within minutes, Carrion says, his Facebook friends and friends of friends were enthusiastically searching to see if they could help. Then, a friend of a friend realized they used to live beside the family of the man who wrote the letters.
Carrion had a name.
The 98 letters were from Ray Sweigart to his wife, Miriam.
“I’d been trying for years, and within a matter of an hour or two, they found who they belong to,” Carrion says. “Everybody was hanging on to the story the whole day. I let everybody know that we found them and we’re going to try to get the letters to them. People were crying.”
Carrion’s friend contacted the family on his behalf and explained the situation. At first, they were skeptical, but eventually were convinced Carrion had a packet of love letters they never knew existed.
He went to see the Sweigarts’ daughter, Vicki Ellmaker, and granddaughter, Melanie Bachman, at their home in Columbia with a box of the letters and a bouquet of flowers. It was 12 miles between Carrion’s home on South Queen Street and Ellmaker and Bachman’s home in Columbia.
A special delivery
Bachman started crying when she saw Carrion holding his flower bouquet and the package of letters. The women invited Carrion into their home.
“I said, ‘I’m glad I could bring him to you guys. I’d been holding on to these for years,’ ” Carrion says. “They had tears in their eyes, and I started tearing up, and I said, ‘Alright guys, I gotta get outta here.’ ”
Vicki Ellmaker remembers Carrion saying he was sorry that it took him so long to find her.
“To me, it was like God was saving those letters for a time like this because the world is in such turmoil,” Ellmaker says.
Before Carrion Jr. left, he asked for a picture of the family posing with the letters so he could post it to Facebook, and update the many friends who followed him on this journey.
“Every letter, he starts, ‘Dear Honey,’ Bachman says. “And every letter he signs, ‘May God bless you and keep you, love always, Ray.’”
It turned out Miriam’s mother – Vicki Ellmaker’s grandmother – owned the house on South Queen Street and sold it around 1968. The house changed hands a few times before Carrion bought it in 2004, with the letters tucked away in the barrel all the while.
Later, Carrion says, he received a text from Bachman with a picture of Ray and Miriam in front of the flowers he’d brought. She sent another text thanking Carrion again for faithfully hanging on to the letters and tracking down the owners.
“You delivered the best mail ever,” Bachman wrote to him.
It was an extra sweet bit of irony that Carrion delivered the letters to Ellmaker – a retired postal employee of 30 years.
Hearing his voice again
Ray and Miriam Sweigart were married Aug. 23, 1948, and were married for more than 50 years.
When he returned from serving as an intelligence officer in Germany, Ray and Miriam had three kids: Vicki, Keith and Craig. (Keith died in 2006; Craig died in 2008.)
Ray worked various jobs, including heading the picture tube division in RCA’s TV department and teaching courses at Franklin & Marshall College. But his motivation throughout was the same: to provide a good life for his family.
Miriam died May 19, 1999. Ray died 17 years later, on Dec. 3, 2016. He kept a picture of Miriam beside his bed until the day he died.
“He loved my Grandma so much,” Bachman says. “He treated her like a queen.”
And, she says, the letters make it obvious just how much he cared for her.
“He said things like, ‘If I have to work 12-hour shifts, it’s better than being away from you,’” Bachman says. “There were times, my mom said, that he worked three jobs to make sure that she had the life she deserved.”
The letters also contained little bits of history that show the kind of man Ray was. In one letter, Ray tells Miriam he was rooting for the Dodgers in the 1949 World Series because “they do not racially discriminate.”
Bachman says the letters make her feel like she’s able to hear her grandfather’s voice again. They also allow her to show her kids what kind of man he was.
Bachman’s son Eddie, 14, is working on transcribing the letters and might incorporate them into a history project.
Carrion is amazed at how technology helped him track down Ellmaker and Bachman so quickly after all those years of trying to find who the letters belong too.
“We need this kind of story,” Bachman says. “There’s a lot of negative stuff that goes on Facebook and Twitter, but this is social media at its finest.”
Last weekend, Bachman and her family sat down to read from the letters.
“My 12-year-old daughter Emersyn, shared with me, ‘Mommy this has been so special, Pa lived with us my whole life,’” Bachman wrote in an email. “ ‘I was so sad when he left and this has helped me feel better because I can hear his voice and remember him again. I'm so glad Alfredo cared enough to save these for us!’”
It’s a happy ending for Carrion, too.
“You could feel the appreciation, the love,” Carrion says. “They were missing something. I was missing something, too. It felt like the letters made it home.”