The photo above shows the Wininger family children, circa. 1915. From left, Doris (born in 1909); Llewellyn (born in 1906); Tom (born in 1902); and Ella (born in 1900). Eighty-five years after this photo was taken, in March 2000, I met 90-year-old Doris Wininger Harkins at her apartment on Crown Street in Meriden, Connecticut. I visited Doris with Fran Jenkins, age 70, the daughter of Philip Edwards’ best friend John Simmons. It’s a meeting I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I sat across from Doris, she in her comfortable upholstered chair, and asked her if she could tell me anything about her sister Ella’s relationship with Phil. She paused for a second, and then said, “I don’t know if I should tell you this.” Time stood still for an instant in that quaint little apartment. I sensed Doris’s memory was so sharp that she could easily take us right back to 1915 — if she were willing. Doris gazed at me with her blue eyes once again and repeated, “I don’t know if I should tell you this.” By this time, I was on the edge of my seat. And then, after a moment of reflection, almost as if she sensed Philip Edwards himself was sitting before her and had posed the question, she spoke from her heart.
“Phil was my sister’s true love,” Doris said. “She thought of him nearly every day until the day that she died. Before he went off to war, Phil gave Ella a locket that she kept his photo in. She wore that locket all the time. After Phil was killed in France in World War I it took three years before his body was returned to the United States. He was buried in Grove Cemetery in Naugatuck. I would go there with my sister often, just to stand by his marker and remember Phil.” Doris was quiet for a moment and then her memory seemed to take her further back. “When I was a little girl,” she said, “I remember Phil coming to our house. He delivered groceries for the local market by horse-drawn wagon. When he asked for my sister, I was so shy that I hid behind the door.” I told Doris that my grandmother Mildred Edwards had mentioned similar stories of Phil making deliveries in that wagon. How the children from the neighborhood would chase after him. He’d pick them up, one at a time, seat them beside him on the wagon, and tell them stories until they reached the next house. Doris had similar memories and recalled how much the children in the neighborhood loved and admired Phil.
Doris told me a few other interesting facts. She mentioned that Ella never completed high school — she went to work in a woolen mill on Church Street in Naugatuck after she finished the 9th grade. Doris also noted that Ella had brown eyes, a love of pond lilies, and was crazy for horses. She asked me if I would like to see a photo of her sister. I responded with an enthusiastic “yes,” excited to see a picture of the girl Phil had left behind when he went off to fight in World War I. Doris got up from her comfortable chair and walked into the next room. In a short time she returned holding a photo of Ella in her hands. “This was taken in 1921, when Ella became a nurse,” she said. It was truly a beautiful photo, even signed “Lovingly Ella” at the bottom. I asked Doris if I might borrow the photo to scan it so it could appear in my upcoming book. Doris said that she was so touched that I was remembering her sister through my story that she insisted I keep the photo. I was really moved by her gesture. Before Fran and I left, I had a final request for Doris. I wondered, when time allowed, if she might look to she if she had a photo of Phil and Ella together. Doris said she would check and let me know.
The day after I visited with Doris, I sent her a lovely bouquet of flowers with a note thanking her for taking the time to meet with me and for giving me the photo of Ella. About five days after sending the flowers, I received a wonderful handwritten letter from Doris. In it she told me something she forgot to mention in our meeting. The farewell letter that Phil wrote to his parents on July 19, 1918 wasn’t the only one he penned that day. He wrote one to her sister too. Although that letter has been lost to time, I’ll always wonder what Phil wrote to Ella that kept her feelings of love for him alive until she passed away some 70 years later. Doris also noted that she had not located any “old snaps” (snapshots) of Ella, Phil, John, and Ethel but if she did she’d send them to me. When One April in Boston: The Gift of the Spyglass was released several months after our meeting, two of the first copies went to Fran and Doris. They also received copies of the audio book in 2001.
That memorable March day in 2000 was the only time I had the pleasure of speaking with Doris. She passed away in September 2004 at the age of 95 and is buried in Grove Cemetery in Naugatuck, Connecticut. This is the same cemetery where her sister Ella rests and where, together, they would visit the marker of Philip Edwards. Less than two years after her passing, something remarkable happened at Grove Cemetery that led to the discovery of a photo of Phil and Ella together. I like to think that Doris somehow played a role in getting this snapshot to me, keeping the promise she had made in her letter. More on the events that unfolded in my next blog post called, “Audio Book Left at Marker Leads to Treasured Photo.”