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In one Concord attic, an unexpected time capsule

  • Scrapbooks and items belonging to the Billings family, formerly of Concord, are pictured inside the attic where Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal found them. McCrystal returned the keepsakes, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers, to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    Scrapbooks and items belonging to the Billings family, formerly of Concord, are pictured inside the attic where Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal found them. McCrystal returned the keepsakes, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers, to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • Clark Billings of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, reads a letter his mother, Thelma Billings, wrote to his father Lester on V-J Day on September 2, 1945. The letter was included in several scrapbooks returned to Billings by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal. McCrystal found the family keepsakes in her attic, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers belonging to Billings' parents and grandparents.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    Clark Billings of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, reads a letter his mother, Thelma Billings, wrote to his father Lester on V-J Day on September 2, 1945. The letter was included in several scrapbooks returned to Billings by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal. McCrystal found the family keepsakes in her attic, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers belonging to Billings' parents and grandparents.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • Clark Billings of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, looks through family albums returned to him by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal. McCrystal found the family keepsakes in her attic, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers belonging to Billings' parents and grandparents.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    Clark Billings of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, looks through family albums returned to him by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal. McCrystal found the family keepsakes in her attic, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers belonging to Billings' parents and grandparents.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • A letter to Lester Billings from his young son Clark Billings. The letter is among several albums and family keepsakes returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic in Concord.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    A letter to Lester Billings from his young son Clark Billings. The letter is among several albums and family keepsakes returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic in Concord.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • A letter to young Clark Billings from his father Lester Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    A letter to young Clark Billings from his father Lester Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • A postcard from Lester Billings depicts the U.S. Naval Training Station in Sampson, New York. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    A postcard from Lester Billings depicts the U.S. Naval Training Station in Sampson, New York. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • A photo of Lester and Thelma Billings from their wedding album. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    A photo of Lester and Thelma Billings from their wedding album. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • Dried flowers are labelled "Tim's travelling corsage" and "Les' wedding day gardenia" inside the Billings' wedding album. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    Dried flowers are labelled "Tim's travelling corsage" and "Les' wedding day gardenia" inside the Billings' wedding album. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • A photo shows young Clark Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    A photo shows young Clark Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • A photo shows Lester Billings in his Navy uniform. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    A photo shows Lester Billings in his Navy uniform. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • A photo card from the Billings family scrapbooks shows young Clark Billings with his mother Thelma Billings. The family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    A photo card from the Billings family scrapbooks shows young Clark Billings with his mother Thelma Billings. The family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Writing to her husband Lester Billings, Thelma Billings signed with her nickname Tim. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Writing to her husband Lester Billings, Thelma Billings signed with her nickname Tim. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • A birthday card to Lester Billings is signed by his young son Clark Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    A birthday card to Lester Billings is signed by his young son Clark Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.


    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • A photo shows Clark Billings with his father Lester Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

    A photo shows Clark Billings with his father Lester Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.

    (WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

  • Scrapbooks and items belonging to the Billings family, formerly of Concord, are pictured inside the attic where Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal found them. McCrystal returned the keepsakes, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers, to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • Clark Billings of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, reads a letter his mother, Thelma Billings, wrote to his father Lester on V-J Day on September 2, 1945. The letter was included in several scrapbooks returned to Billings by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal. McCrystal found the family keepsakes in her attic, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers belonging to Billings' parents and grandparents.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • Clark Billings of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, looks through family albums returned to him by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal. McCrystal found the family keepsakes in her attic, including postcards, family photos and wedding flowers belonging to Billings' parents and grandparents.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • A letter to Lester Billings from his young son Clark Billings. The letter is among several albums and family keepsakes returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic in Concord.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • A letter to young Clark Billings from his father Lester Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • A postcard from Lester Billings depicts the U.S. Naval Training Station in Sampson, New York. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • A photo of Lester and Thelma Billings from their wedding album. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • Dried flowers are labelled "Tim's travelling corsage" and "Les' wedding day gardenia" inside the Billings' wedding album. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • A photo shows young Clark Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • A photo shows Lester Billings in his Navy uniform. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)
  • A photo card from the Billings family scrapbooks shows young Clark Billings with his mother Thelma Billings. The family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Writing to her husband Lester Billings, Thelma Billings signed with her nickname Tim. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • A birthday card to Lester Billings is signed by his young son Clark Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • A photo shows Clark Billings with his father Lester Billings. Several albums and family keepsakes were returned to Clark Billings, 72, of East Greenwich, RI, by Monitor reporter Laura McCrystal, who found them in her attic.<br/><br/>(WILL PARSON/ Monitor staff)

“My own sweet darling,” the letter began, scrawled in blue ink on delicate white stationery.

It was Sept. 2, 1945, when Thelma Billings wrote to her husband Lester from their home in Concord.

“Oh honey, this day seems to bring you even closer than just another day nearer home – because the document is signed and V-J Day is now official.”

The letter to Lester, who was stationed as a Navy storekeeper in Bermuda, goes on to describe life at home.

She wrote of the couple’s 4-year-old son Clark, who declared he did not want to go to kindergarten. She wrote of listening to radio coverage of Japan’s surrender. She wrote of working on her scrapbooks.

The letter’s pages, still in the original envelope, made it into one of those scrapbooks after Lester returned home. There, with the letter tucked inside the back cover with a stack of other papers, the story ended.

Or at least it appeared to end.

Nearly 70 years later, I stumbled into these strangers’ lives when I found the albums on an attic shelf in my Concord apartment.

I knew one thing: The living Billingses, wherever they were, had to see these items.

There were flowers preserved in an album from Lester and Thelma’s wedding day in 1937. There were Lester’s Navy patches, dog tags and letters he sent and received during the war. There were postcards addressed to Lester’s parents, Mary and Harry Billings, dated as early as 1906.

Who were the Billingses? What happened to them? Why did they leave behind their family treasures?

City property records showed Lester and Thelma Billings owned the home where I now live until 1999. A newspaper archive search revealed Lester died on Christmas Day in 2005. Thelma died in 1995. An internet search suggested their son Clark grew up to become a professor and city councilor in North Adams, Mass. A news article mentioned Clark’s plans to retire in Rhode Island.

I called him there one Saturday afternoon.

A week later, the old family scrapbooks were spread on the table before him at Mozzarella’s, an Italian restaurant in his Rhode Island town of East Greenwich.

Clark, now 72, sat in blue jeans and a black turtleneck, adjusted his glasses and squinted at the pages.

“Oh there he is!” he exclaimed, turning one album page to find a photo of himself in a sailor suit.

He was 3 or 4 years old, standing in his family’s yard on School Street. In others, he wore suspenders and posed on a tricycle, stood between snowbanks in his snowsuit and mittens or held his father’s hand as they stood in matching sailor’s suits.

In one photo of Clark’s mother Thelma, buildings and a church steeple make the background easily recognizable as downtown Concord.

“I’ll tell you, this is so fantastic,” Clark said.

He does not have many memories of his father’s time away at war. Born in 1940, Clark was just 4 years old while Lester was away.

“But you can tell how many times he sent me a card,” he said, flipping through an entire scrapbook of postcards addressed to him.

First, they came from Sampson, N.Y., where Lester trained at a naval base. Then a few from Boston, and finally, from Bermuda. Each has colorful illustrations – ships, sailors, flags, flowers. The same four words – “Love and kisses, Daddy” – came at the end of nearly every card.

“Dear son,

“I don’t suppose this picture will mean anything to you. Anyway, this is a picture of the men who steer a great big boat. They use these boats to sink Jap boats. When we’ve sunk all the Jap boats the war will be over and your daddy will be home again all the time.

“Love and a big kiss,

“Daddy.”

It was one of the cards 72-year-old Clark chose at random to pull from the album as he pored over it.

“Oh dad,” he exclaimed. “How un-PC.”

Clark wrote to his father while he was at war, too. The back of one store-bought “Happy Birthday Daddy” greeting card is covered with pencil. Between the lines of Clark’s scribbles, his mother’s pen translated:

“Dear Daddy – I love you very much. But I love you like a little old teapot – but I am going to be a fireman just the same. I love you awful much. Maybe when the war is over you can come home.”

Lester did come home, but Clark did not become a firefighter.

He credits his father with sparking his interest in naval history. Clark studied at Dartmouth for a year before transferring to the University of New Hampshire. He went on to graduate school, and moved to Massachusetts for a job as a history professor at North Adams State College. He has two grown sons, and now lives in Rhode Island with his wife, Janice, who is one of his former students.

Concord has changed since Clark moved away in the 1960s. He was surprised to learn that there is a shopping mall off Loudon Road, and that the Monitor publishes a Sunday edition.

But Clark still calls himself “a New Hampshire boy,” and proudly sifted through evidence of his Concord childhood.

Many of the postcards reference Concord. One from his father depicts a park in Geneva, N.Y.

“It is a very pretty park, but I think I like Whites Park better,” Lester wrote.

In a letter to Lester from Thelma, she writes of going to The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Star Theater on Pleasant Street. She went with two friends – Bill and Gert.

“Then we went into the Puritan and had chicken sandwiches and coffee,” Thelma wrote.

The cards trigger Clark’s memories of growing up in Concord. He walked to Kimball School – now the site of the Christa McAuliffe School – as a young boy. As a teenager, he played basketball at the Concord Family YMCA and afterward went with friends to eat at Star Hot Dog.

Memories from his earlier years are not as clear.

“I have a few every now and then they must be flashbacks but once in a while something pops into my head,” Clark said.

As he turned one page of his father’s letters, something clicked. Staring back at him were a series of tiny cards, black-and-white images of airplanes.

“I remember these pictures, I remember these,” he said “I think they came in a little packet. I was fascinated with them.”

Clark has one vivid memory of the war era. It plays over in his mind like a slow-motion scene from a movie.

He and his mother were staying with friends at a rental cottage in York Beach, Maine. His father was gone for Navy training, but came for a visit.

“And I remember he was walking up the long road ... to where the cottage was,” he said. “It was one of those things, they were running toward each other and he had his uniform on. I remember that.”

His parents’ love is clear in their letters. Thelma called Lester “my darling,” and signed her nickname, “Tim.”

Lester and Thelma met while working for the National Youth Administration. Lester graduated from Dartmouth in 1931, during the Great Depression.

“Of course that’s a hell of a time to come out of college with a business degree,” his son said. “And he ultimately got a job in a New Deal agency and that’s where he met my mother. ... We’re all figuratively children of the New Deal ... but I am literally a child of the New Deal.”

Thelma asked Lester out first. They married on Sept. 18, 1937.

One of the forgotten albums documents their wedding day. Black and white photographs of the newlyweds, surrounded by their family. A carefully handwritten list of their wedding gifts. A clip of their wedding announcement that ran in the Monitor. And, pressed between the brown album pages, preserved flowers.

Labeled in small handwriting, two bunches of flowers underneath a thin sheet of plastic are “Les’ wedding day gardenia” and “Tim’s travelling corsage” made of roses and Lilies of the Valley.

“Oooh,” Clark said as he came across the flowers. “They held up pretty well.”

The page with the flowers also documents his parents’ honeymoon. They visited Alexandria, the White Mountains and Portland before stopping in Hanover for the opening game of the Dartmouth football season.

Lester gave Thelma gifts when they returned home, which she listed on another album page: one dozen American Beauty roses; a box of Fanny Farmer candy; a box of Fanny Farmer nuts; and stationery with her new initials, TPB. A few of those dozen roses are pressed dry and still on the page.

Thelma and Lester had Clark, their only child, three years after they were married. They raised him at 53 School St., in a home that has since been torn down. The property is now a state-owned parking lot across from the Concord police station.

Lester spent most of his career as a state employee. When he retired in 1975, he was director of the state Bureau of Hospital Services. He later became a chapter president of the Retired State Employees, served on a number of other boards and was active in local Baptist church groups.

One of the forgotten albums is a window into Lester’s childhood, and the lives of his parents. Mary and Harry Billings lived in Allenstown, where Lester was born in 1910. But the postcards date to before his parents’ wedding; some are addressed to Mary with her maiden name, Knox.

Most the postcards to Mary and Harry in Suncook are from friends living as far away as Indiana, Oklahoma, Florida, Mississippi and Kansas. But a few came from closer to home, signs of a day when a distance of a few miles felt much farther away.

A postcard sent from to Suncook in 1912 depicted downtown Penacook, with a view of Washington Street as an open dirt road.

“This is one of Penacook’s pretty views,” stated the letter, mailed to Suncook. “I live on the right hand side of the street, third house up. Am having a lovely time. ... How are all the folks? Decided not to go to the beach. Too many attractions here, at present to go anywhere. Would like to hear from you.”

The writer’s signature is illegible; the book of century-old cards are the most difficult to decipher.

“Actually, I’m going to have to go get myself a magnifying glass,” Clark said as he leaned forward to squint at the pages.

Another postcard, to Mary Knox in 1906, came from Contoocook: “I thought you would like a postcard of the place I am living in,” it read.

The oldest album proves people have sent photos of their children as Christmas cards for more than a century: A postcard to Mary and Harry Billings in 1911, when Lester was 1 year old, features a picture of two children on the beach: “Merry Xmas + Happy New Year. Am real sorry to hear Lester is sick and hope he will be better when Santa Claus comes.”

A forgotten treasure

The albums moved with Lester and Thelma Billings to North Spring Street in the 1960s. That’s where I found the artifacts decades later, while gripping a flashlight and cleaning out a crowded storage area.

Lester and Thelma lived on the first floor. Clark’s Aunt Bea, Thelma’s sister, lived above them and continued to climb the steep stairway to my own apartment until close to her death at age 100.

The albums must have been lost when Clark helped his father sell the home and move in 1999. Clark did not know the attic space, a spacious but unfinished storage area on the second floor, existed.

Lester moved to Havenwood-Heritage Heights after selling the house. He died on Christmas Day in 2005 at the age of 95.

“I saw him a few days before that and kissed him on the forehead because he was asleep, somewhat comatose,” Clark recalled. “I kissed him on the forehead and said, ‘Dad you can let it go now.’

“And he had told one of the nurses that – it was probably the day before he died – that he wanted to be with my mother on Christmas Day.”

A service was held at Bennett Funeral Home a few days later, according to his obituary, and he was buried in Franklin the following spring.

Clark has not returned to Concord since.

He certainly never expected a phone call from a reporter.

“This is a wow,” he said, while sitting at a restaurant table last week, sipping Ketel One vodka on the rocks. “This is certainly a wow.”

The waitresses at Mozzarella’s know Clark; he comes often to pick up takeout meals for himself and his wife. He showed them his father’s dog tags and his “oodles of postcards.” They said Lester was a handsome sailor.

Clark continued to scan his parents’ letters for long-lost memories. He already has some albums and boxes that belonged to his mother and grandmother. He never knew others had been lost. He never knew they existed.

Finally, in one of the last letters he opened, he found a clue in the words his mother wrote to his father on V-J Day.

“On this one she says that morning my mother and I ... worked on our albums and scrapbooks,” he said. “So I must have had something to do with some of these.”

Clark left the restaurant that afternoon, his new box of memories safe in the trunk of his car, eager to share the treasures with his wife and mother-in-law.

His parents and grandparents are gone, but their legacies have a new life. Their story is not over. Now, it is back in the right hands.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

Legacy Comments4

This is a great story.

Heart-warming, well told story. Thank you.

A lovely story, nicely written and very well presented in the print edition. I am very impressed.

I knew Lester Billings and he was a wonderful man - so happy you were able to give these things back to his family

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