Actress and playwright Kim Russell was an adult when she finally got to know her mother, who died when Russell was just two months old. Her father, Bernard Knighten, never spoke of his first wife, Luana.
“He never shared stories, never said I looked like her, unless prompted to by my aunts,” says Russell, author of Tuskegee Love Letters.
Eventually he shared some letters he and Luana exchanged as young newlyweds during World War II. Bernard had been a Tuskegee Airman in the pioneering all-African American flying squadron based in Tuskegee, AL.
Bernard was 23. In letters to Luana and his mother-in-law, he’s cocky, funny and clearly smitten with his beautiful wife. Luana, 21, was a bright and educated stenotypist from St. Louis, discovering a completely foreign way of life in the Deep South.
“This Tuskegee is the dirtiest place in the country,” she wrote to her mother. “You have taught me that everything in the world was nice and clean, or at least being around you, you have made things seem so, and it really hurts to find out that life isn’t really like that.”
Mostly, though, Luana’s letters reveal a brave young bride trying not to worry too much about her husband. Bernard worked to keep his letters light.
“My bed is quite uncomfortable and I can’t sleep, thus I dream of you all night long,” he wrote to Luana. “I miss the sleep but thinking of you is better than whiskey or vitamin pills. Hmm, I’d better change that to just vitamin pills.”
“Growing up, I had a wonderful, loving family, but I felt different, like an orphan or an adopted child, because I never knew my mother,” says Russell. “I am so grateful my father saved all of those letters and I encourage anyone who’s lost a loved one to write their story, save their diaries and letters, blogs or videos. I know my mother now – she was an actress, a photographer, a dreamer – and I absolutely adore her. I see so much of me in her.”