Reaching for something to keep him occupied during the early days of the pandemic, Thomas Schwendler stumbled upon a bigger project than he anticipated.
The Glenville resident was cleaning out his basement when he came across a suitcase full of letters from his late uncle, William Ross, to his then-girlfriend, Anne Marie Standish.
“When my uncle passed away a few years ago, he left behind hundreds of love letters that had been stored unseen for decades in an old suitcase,” Schwendler said. “The pandemic afforded me the time to finally open the suitcase and read the letters. He was a ‘small-town boy’ in Savannah [New York] in a long-distance relationship with a ‘big city girl’ in Buffalo. I just felt inspired to share their story, and reflections on relationships and marriage.”
Schwendler decided to do just that via “Love in a Suitcase,” a succinct book packed with marriage advice that includes and builds off his aunt and uncle’s letters.
Ross was born in 1917 and, at a relatively young age, opened a parlor and later a tavern and restaurant in his hometown of Savannah in Wayne County. He went on to serve in World War II, for which he was recognized with a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government. Ross met Standish in the late 1940s, and while they lived 130-some miles apart, they made it work.
Standish was born in Buffalo in 1919. and early in her career she worked in the engineering department for a local General Motors/Chevrolet plant. After marrying Ross, she moved to Savannah to help with his restaurant business.
Growing up, Schwendler was close to them both. His aunt wrote him letters as he struggled with homesickness in his first year at Marquette University, and after he landed his first job writing for the Buffalo Courier-Express his uncle encouraged him to write a book.
But Schwendler wasn’t sure what to write about and working in the newspaper business kept him busy. He later moved on to work at the Syracuse Post Standard before taking a job with General Electric, where he worked as a public relations manager for nearly 33 years before retiring in 2017. Since then, he’s become an ordained minister and spends retirement designing customized wedding ceremonies.
Decades later and in the middle of a pandemic, Schwendler finally took his uncle’s advice. He read through the hundreds of letters a few times and found sound relationship advice that he felt couples could use today. After many rounds of drafts and edits, he published “Love in a Suitcase” earlier this year.
The book is divided into themes such as finances, faith, family and perhaps the most prominent, communication.
“It’s intended to really get people thinking about relationships and what’s important. So I spent a fair amount of time on communication, because I think that was a really important piece of what was expressed in these letters,” Schwendler said.
He encourages couples to write each other letters and to take time to think through exactly what they want to say.
While it may not be as common a practice today, consistent letter writing was how Ross and Standish kept their relationship alive.
“They were diligent about writing back and forth. They relied on the letters to communicate. They didn’t do a lot of phone calling because back then long-distance phone calls were expensive. . . . Mailing a letter was three cents, so they did the letter exchanges. And as part of that, besides being more thoughtful in what you say in your letters, there’s that anticipation of, “Did I get a letter today?’ ” Schwendler said.
Quotes and images from the letters are included in the book, providing readers a peek inside the suitcase.
“We’re so lucky so much more than most people and we’re going to have something because it’s us. Not you or I but us and we are trying now as well as later,” wrote Ross in one letter.
“What’s the good of having any secrets from one another? What’s the good of having a girlfriend or boyfriend if they can’t share each other’s joys and sorrows? We’ve just got to be honest with one another,” wrote Anne in another.
While writing the book and reading through their letters, Schwendler said, he reconnected with them both.
“I knew them well. They were very close to me, and I think my aunt was like a second mother to me. But you know, I really didn’t know their backstory that well, so the letters filled in a lot of gaps for me. It added a lot of color,” Schwendler said. “One of the things I did in preparing for writing was I read a book by Stephen King . . . called ‘On Writing.’ It’s a great book, and I think one of the things he writes [is that] when you read a novel it’s like you’re getting into the author’s head. When I was reading these letters I was getting into the heads of Anne and Bill. I could hear them conversing on paper. . . . It felt good to be reconnected.”
“Love in a Suitcase” is available at the Open Door Bookstore as well as Tough Traveler in Schenectady.
“I hope couples that do read it find it’s an easy book to read, that there’s some good advice in there from a couple who had a very successful marriage and relationship, and would probably be very proud to see other people listening,” Schwendler said.
For information, visit revtomschwendler.com.