Gretchen Wood Williams – known to her family as “Big Gretchen,” the younger sister of Lt. Philip Wood and one of the “Dear Girls” to whom he addressed every letter he wrote while in the service, passed away in late August. She had been ill for some time, but the news and realization that she is actually gone has come as a shock to our family. Gretchen was always there, a funny, vivacious presence who (as far as we East Coasters could tell) was the immortal champion of California. And yet, she knew her time had come, and in true Gretchen style met it with a quip and a loving family surrounding her. She was ninety one years old.
I learned the news via Facebook post forty-five minutes before the first family email was sent. I walked out of my office and across the Brooklyn Bridge; city living and careers in advertising being the strongest bond between my cousin (first, twice removed) and myself, this seemed appropriate. I wasn’t really paying attention, it just felt like the right thing to do. And naturally, I suppose, I wound up at 120 East 19th Street. This was the address Phil directed his letters to; this was where Gretchen and her mother had lived during the war. I had visited a few times, mostly on Phil’s anniversaries, but it wasn’t really his home. It was Gretchen’s, if only for a few years. She spent the hardest and most traumatic years of her life in that building. I couldn’t imagine she cared for it much. I couldn’t remember asking her. And that’s when I really realized she was gone.
This website – this entire project, the stories it has told, the connections it has inspired or rekindled, the memories of every Marine and every family it touches, are all thanks to Gretchen. She saved her brother Phil’s letters; she loving transcribed his lopsided scrawl over many nights with a typewriter, she passed them around the family to make sure they wouldn’t forget. She sent me, quite unexpectedly, a package several years ago; in it was a letter (beginning “Sit down, baby, because this is going to be a long one”) and an album of mementoes – not just the photographs of Phil that appear on this website, but documents about her parents as well, and their early lives in the American Field Service hospital corps in the Great War. She graciously agreed to be filmed for the documentary New York Goes to War, which featured the very letters and photographs she preserved. A wonderful and witty storyteller, she later wrote nearly two hundred pages of memoirs, which are carefully kept in a binder on my desk awaiting some sort of organization. (Soon, Big Gretchen, I promise.)
As much as she was guardian of her brother’s memory, Gretchen lived a full and incredible life of her own. She inherited her father Philip Wood Senior’s ability to win over a crowd with any story she chose; when Phil Senior died suddenly of pneumonia in 1940, it was Gretchen who helped her devastated mother carry on. When Phil Junior was killed on Saipan, Gretchen was forced to leave school to help support her mother; her incredible artistic talents helped her secure a graphic design job and she worked her way up the ladder to become an art director for several print publications. (This is no small accomplishment as the webmaster, who works in the design industry as a writer, will fully attest.) She met, impressed, and married a handsome Air Corps lieutenant named Tom Williams, saw him through Harvard Business School, and moved with him to California where they spent 57 married years and raised children and grandchildren. For most of her life, Gretchen continued to work as a graphic artist; her hand-painted cards were anticipated every Christmas, and several hang in frames on the walls of my childhood home.
It’s difficult to admit to feeling that I’ve learned more about Gretchen in the days since she passed than I did in the thirty years we shared the planet. Or possibly, that I really understand how remarkable a person she was now that it’s too late. I was lucky enough to meet her on a few occasions, and have always been sorry that there were not more (we live on opposite ends of the country). I’m glad that we corresponded as much as we did, and will always be sorry about the things I promised to send the following day, and then didn’t, because I somehow believed there would always be a following day, and then one day there wasn’t. I have my own few memories of a great lady who made me laugh and listen, who was striking to behold, and whose innate creative skills I admired from the day we met. She was my hero’s little sister, and she’s the reason that branch of the family survives. Having that strength makes her a hero, too. It’s a trait the women in my family possess – especially my own younger sister, who carries on Gretchen’s name.
Last week, I got an email from Gretchen Williams. She was following the website, she said. She was “hugely impressed” but “can only read a little, when a curious moisture occurs in my eyes, and I have to quit, to continue a little later.” About my trip to the Punchbowl to visit Phil, she was “without words,” but wanted me to know he was in “good company” because Ernie Pyle is buried a few feet away.
The email was dated September 1, 2014. Gretchen died on August 27.
There may have been a glitch somewhere in the email service; maybe a family member sent out her last remaining draft emails. I don’t know. But I hope she knows I got the message, even though I couldn’t write back. And I hope she knows how proud I am to count myself among her family.
This website and this project, to which I have dedicated the past eight years and many more to come, have always been dedicated to the memory of Philip Wood. Now, for whatever it may be worth, I want to dedicate my work to “Dear Girl” Gretchen, without whom none of this would be possible.
We miss you both, but we’re glad you’re together again.