Anna Prillaman was in the attic of her home in Richmond, Va. doing light afternoon cleaning when she suddenly spotted a small door. She had never seen it before, as it was previously covered by a dresser. She opened it, and, to her surprise, it led to a part of her attic she never knew existed.

She peered into the dusty space. “I saw a bunch of junk,” said Prillaman, 40, who lives with her rescue dog, Alfie.

Upon further inspection that January day, she unearthed two boxes filled to the brim with letters, most of which were handwritten in the 1950s. Many of them started the same way: “Hi honey.”

The letters were addressed to a Betty McGhee. Although they were written by several friends and suitors, dozens were penned by a man named Vance Long.

Once she realized the personal nature of the notes, Prillaman, who has lived in her Near West End home since 2017, was hesitant to pry. She fought the urge to read the romantic messages. “I found it too intrusive,” said Prillaman, the director of athletics at Trinity Episcopal School.

She did, however, decide that the mementos would likely be meaningful to someone else, so she sought to return them to their owner.

Advertising

“It was clear that I needed to find the family and get them back to them,” Prillaman said. That evening, she solicited the help of internet sleuths by posting about her poignant find on Facebook. Instantly “everyone put on their Sherlock Holmes hat and gave me names left and right,” she said.

“Even if the two writing one another are no longer with us, I’d love to find the family to pass them on,” Prillaman wrote. “I know I’d cherish these if these were my grandparents corresponding.”

She was overwhelmed by the response, especially from strangers who saw the post and started searching. It showed that “people care about human connections,” Prillaman said. Before long, one person commented: “I spoke to her grandson!” and sent a direct message containing Dalton Long’s contact information. Prillaman promptly reached out. Within half an hour, Dalton, 30, replied: “I would love to have the letters.”

Through connecting with Dalton, Prillaman learned more information about the woman to whom the letters were addressed, as well as her would-be husband, Vance Long. “I got really excited,” she said. Dalton was elated – and grateful – to hear from Prillaman: “She has been a total joy through this, and I really appreciate it,” he said.

His grandparents, Betty McGhee Long and Vance Long, met at John Marshall High School in Richmond, married in 1955 and had one son together, as well as two grandsons, Dalton and Bodhie Long – both of whom now live in Portland.

Betty, who died in 2006, worked for Reynolds Metals Company for 35 years, was the president of the American Business Women’s Association and was one of the founders of the Women’s Bank of Richmond.

Advertising

When she became critically ill later in life, her husband stood by her side: “A lot of my later memories are of my grandfather being there while she battled cancer,” Dalton said. “They always seemed close.”

The Long brothers said their grandfather doted on their grandmother. After she died, Vance got his first and only tattoo: a cartoon of Betty Boop. He did it “to always keep her with him,” Dalton said. “I know that he missed her so much after she passed.”

Three years later, in July 2009, Vance passed away. He was an avid athlete, his grandchildren said, and spent a few years playing minor league baseball until he was drafted into the military. After serving in the army for two years, he went on to become the administrative director for the Virginia Department of Health.

Growing up, Betty (who sometimes went by Betty Sue) lived in Prillaman’s current house with her family, and the home was subsequently passed to Dalton’s father, Randy Long. Like their grandmother, Dalton and his brother, Bodhie, 23, grew up in that house. Betty and Vance moved to another house on the same street.

“The fact that we didn’t find them before Anna was kind of crazy,” Bodhie said of the letters. “They were just sitting in our attic the entire time we were growing up and we had no idea.”

The Long brothers were close with their paternal grandparents – whom they called “B” and “Pop” – mainly because “they lived five doors down,” Bodhie said. “Our grandparents were a huge influence in our lives. We were around them as much as we were around our parents.”

Advertising

Still, they knew little about how their grandparents’ relationship started, as they only witnessed the final 15 years of their marriage, which spanned half-a-century.

“As I age, I have a newfound appreciation for recognizing that my grandparents and the elders in my family have led complete and full lives that I will never fully understand or really know about,” said Dalton. “To be able to get a better glimpse into them, I think that’s really interesting.”

That’s why Prillaman was adamant about reuniting the family with the long-lost heirlooms. “Most of us don’t know the courtship story of our grandparents. It’s just not information we’re privy to,” she said.

The unexpected letter discovery is even more meaningful, the brothers explained, because their father passed away two years ago. “It’s really exciting to be able to reconnect with that side of the family,” said Dalton, who plans to frame some of the notes.

If their grandparents knew they were reading their old love letters, “I think my grandfather would be tickled, and my grandmother would probably be a little mortified,” Dalton said.

Although the brothers have yet to see all the letters, their mother – who still lives part-time in Richmond – picked them up from Prillaman and passed along a few photos to her sons.

Sponsored

“I’m so darn tired and can hardly hold my eyes open, but maybe I can last long enough to scribble down a few lines to the sweetest girl in the world,” one letter read.

“I do love you, Honey, with all my heart,” Vance wrote in another letter. “I am just waiting until I can hold you close again and have that wonderful feeling of walking on a cloud return.”

“I miss you something awful, Betty,” the note continued. “All my love, Vance.”

Prillaman said she felt permitted to peek at some of the swoon-worthy letters after she connected with the couple’s family.

“Me and my sisters had some wine, and we dove in,” said Prillaman, adding that the letters were thoughtful and had impeccable grammar. “His penmanship is beautiful,” she said.

For Prillaman, uncovering the keepsakes has reinforced the true value of letter-writing. “I think I’ll definitely put pen to paper more,” she said.

The Long brothers agreed. “Our grandfather sat down with time and intention and focus and poured his heart out,” Dalton said. “I think we should all do more of that.”