Friday, June 26, 2009

The Girl Graduate Part II: A Clue Is Found

I continue with my tale. But before I move my story of Evelyn and Friends forward, I must tell you how I found the next and a most important piece of my puzzle.

October in Winona is breathtaking. At that time of year, the bluffs are in full autumn color, so golden and luminous it hurts the eyes to look at them too hard. I had returned. Was it the year after I found the journal? Or was it longer? I can no longer recall. In any event, I was back ostensibly to attend another reunion; but, in reality I wanted to unlock some small part of the mystery it was my mission to solve, to wit: What happened to Evie? What happened to her friends? The Winona Public Library is an imposing, domed building standing at the corner of 5th and Johnson Street, and that is where I began my search.

On the second floor of the library stood a statue of Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, an original work by Antonio Canova. As the cupbearer of the gods on Mount Olympus, Hebe has always personified the beauty of youth. It seemed somehow fitting that she should be standing there, one hand raised high holding a pitcher, the other hand lower, holding a cup. The beauty of youth... and beyond. That was the story I was trying to tell.

Just outside the room where Hebe resided, and tucked under the domed ceiling, was a mural painted by Kenyon Cox called The Light of Learning. As it is described by others, "in the center, robed in the green of eternal youth and wearing a decorative modification of the shield of Minerva, sits Learning, lighting her torches..." To the right sits Romance, to the left Philosophy. History writes on her tablet, and Science holds a globe and compass. The mural was donated by William Hayes as a tribute to his wife. I wondered how many countless times Evie and her friends looked up at that mural and if they had ever considered its meaning.

Viola: Does she really need to go into all of this? Why doesn't she just get on with it?

Evelyn: Viola, be patient and let the child tell the story in her own way. You were always trying to run things.

Viola: Well, at least when I ran things, they ran! Don't forget, I was editor-in-chief of the Hi-News.

Evelyn: Now, how could I possibly forget that.

Grad: Ladies, please hush. It's difficult enough piecing this story together without interruption. You'll just have to trust me.

Evelyn: Go ahead, dear. Continue.

Grad: Now, where was I?

Evelyn: The library, dear

Oh, right. Finding nothing helpful in the library, I wandered back into the rough October afternoon. Dusk was approaching and the light was the kind of steely gray that blooms slowly, then fades into twilight. I walked down to Third Street then toward Main and I saw what I thought might be the little antique store where I had found Evelyn's book a year (or several) before. Tingaling went the little shop bell as I stepped inside. Yes. It was the very same place. And back there was the rack, and down there was the shelf.

The still-dusty shelf contained old magazines, and almanacs, and city directories. The directories might prove helpful, I thought, and I tried to find something dating back to the 1920s. The oldest were from the 70s, and did not contain any of the last names for which I searched. Another dry hole. But...wait. Two odd looking volumes bound in dark green paper, pebbled to resemble faux leather, sat side by side, one shelf up.

Do you believe in destiny? Or fate? Or divine providence? Or perhaps a soft whisper in your ear which you cannot explain, telling you to look here, or look there? As incredible as it sounds, I reached for the first volume and stared in silent disbelief as I read the inscription, "WHS 1924." What I was holding in my hands was the high school annual for the Class of 1924. Evelyn's class.
The owner of the annual had written her name inside on the bookplate. "This is Esther's book," I said softly to myself. I recognized her name from some of the school newspaper articles in the journal. At the top of page 8, I saw my first clear picture of Evelyn. "So this is you." It was a pretty face, oval, with soft eyes. A flip of the page, and there was Viola. Viola - serious, determined and beautiful. A little saying went along with her picture, "To do her best in every way, Keeps Viola busy all the day."

Excitement building, I hastily turned page after page. "They are all here, they are all here!" There's Duffy, Pearl, and Mr. Henry. Here's Lucille dressed as Puck in A Midsummer's Night Dream, and Lucille and Earl leading the Grand March into the prom, "artistically decorated with Japanese lanterns and brightly colored streamers...." Mr. Bowe getting carried down the length of a hall on the shoulders of a group of rooting boys on Jinx Day, and the Buck-Schott trio providing music at the Basket Ball Banquet. I was particularly captivated by Duffy. If I had been a member of the Class of 1924, I would surely have been in love with him. Although the strange thought crossed my mind that, at one and the same time, he was both younger than my children and older than my father.

Evelyn: You're right. That is very odd. You are stuck right in the middle, aren't you, dear? Duffy was the cat's pajamas.

Viola: Duff had very nice looking legs, don't you think, Evie?

Evelyn: Oh, yes. And he was such a lovely dancer; could he cut a rug!

Viola: Do you remember, "Barney Google, with those goo-goo-googely eyes."

Evelyn: (Laughing...and whispering something into Vi's ear.)

Viola: Oh, Ev, you are naughty.

Grad: Ahem, if you please...

The last dozen pages of the yearbook were devoted to advertisements from local businesses, and it was over these pages that Esther's friends wrote notes of congratulations and promises to "always remember the great time we had in short and type class," or "will never forget the fun we had in Pen and Spelling," or "fond memories of those fudge parties in Commercial Club" or the one that made me cry. It began, "Sweetest angel child, I've the whole back page to myself to tell you how much I love you...."

The yearbook had not been Evie's, but it really didn't matter. The other green covered yearbook book was from the Class of 1926. I bought them both (one just never knows). So, at last the friends that populated Evelyn's diary had faces to go with the names; and, what was true for me before was made even more compelling with this new find. I now felt connected to these young men and women. I was sharing their past. I sought their future. I began my search in earnest little knowing how long it would take. There was no turning back.

Now, at last, you have all the background information necessary for me to continue. I am pleased to present to you two people of whom I am most fond. I shall begin with Viola.

Viola: Well, are we there at last? I think perhaps this tale could use some rather ruthless editing. Did I mention I was editor-in-chief of the Hi-News?

Evelyn: Viola, we've been friends all our lives - and then some. So I hope you will not be offended if I ask you to please put a sock in it.

Viola: For your information, I'm perfectly capable of telling my own story. I just hope she gets it right (her hands fluttering in agitation.) (Pause) Did you say beautiful?

Grad: I most certainly did; and, you most certainly were.

Evelyn: (to Grad) Proceed, Oh Troubadour.

Grad: First I have to catch my breath - and pour a nice stiff drink.

I turned my back and heard a definite, "Harumph."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Girl Graduate

It was June of 1924 and a young woman stood poised to step into her future. Nervously awaiting her name to be called, she fidgeted with her bobbed hair and smoothed her gown. When the moment arrived, she carefully walked across the stage of the Winona Opera House to receive her high school diploma. She was just beginning; life was just beginning. Everything was newly formed. Her name was Evelyn. Earlier that school year, she began a journal entitled, The Girl Graduate - Her Own Book, and into the little book she had pressed flowers and a fern leaf, mounted announcements for dances, and a valentine with a delicate cupid in flight, a bow and arrow in his soft hands, beseeching "Be Mine." Three Christmas cards with greetings of the season, one with a glowing fireplace from which hung woolen stockings, were placed artistically on a page. I imagine her going about her task tenderly. With the same care she affixed snapshots to the blue-gray pages using glued on corners - pictures of herself and several of her young friends dressed in "flapper" attire, posing and clowning for the camera. There was a snap of her shorthand/typing ("short and type") teacher standing rakishly on the front steps of the school in an overcoat and hat, peering out from his horn-rimmed glasses, a youthful smile on his handsome face.

So thoroughly did Evie pour herself into the little book, that I came to know her and like her. Across the pages, she and her friends danced and played and studied. Viola, and Lucile, Jimmy, Duffy, and Pearl...and many more. Evelyn was a wonderful historian, carefully clipping articles from the school paper about the basketball team's wins and losses, school play reviews, and Art Club bake sales. Included in the clippings was one from the town newspaper which noted that 27 students had managed to make the Honor Roll, a feat that required an average of 90 percent or above in scholastic ratings over a consecutive three year period. I smiled with satisfaction when I read, "Of the 27, five were boys." They were made of very sturdy stuff, these girls of 1924. The article published the photos of the two top students. I recognized Viola, the valedictorian, from Evelyn's snapshots - taken on a hike in the summer of 1923 with Evie and several other friends. The newspaper picture shows her looking rather pensive and shy. But Lucile, the salutatorian, casts a forthright and steady gaze straight into the lens of the camera, her self confidence almost spilling over.

But, I should really start my story from the beginning and tell you how I first met Evelyn. It was around 1995, and I had returned to Winona to attend a college reunion. The lovely, old college had closed, but the beautiful campus continued to be used for educational pursuits, and every year the new owners invited the alumnae association to hold its reunion on campus. I had not been back to Winona since the day I drove away following my own graduation. During a lull in events, a dear college chum and I went to an antique store in town just to rummage around, and I was inevitably drawn to the old books. I was about to leave empty-handed, when on the lowest shelf of the farthest rack I saw a square box with the words, "The Girl Graduate - Her Own Book." Inside the box was nestled a journal with the name "Evelyn" written in a beautiful script across the inside of the front cover.

In my hotel room that night, I turned the little book over in my hands, and carefully began to study each page. But always my thoughts flew to the same question. Who could possibly have parted with this diary and its precious cargo? Who was Evelyn and what happened to her? As time passed, and as I read and re-read the book, I grew equally curious about Viola and Lucile. Where was Duffy, the star athlete? And what of James, whose family owned one the town's department stores?

It began almost at once, my desire to find Evelyn, or her family, and return the diary. What started as a mystery, and developed into a hobby, eventually became a labor of love. And thus began a 12 year journey to find the answers. The story will take a little time, but I will tell you what I know.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I Used To Love You, But It's All Over Now

Well, I'm in one of those befuddled moods again. We had trial earlier this week; coming off a trial always creates a sort of let down. Things get very intense and hectic leading up to the thing, and then it's over, and everyone around here spends the next few days sifting through every little detail (incessantly, I might add) until I want to dive head first off a building. We won, by the way, but the post mortem is still a bore, bore, bore.

Then, there's the house. That blasted house. The Curious Reader was meant to be a bookish place; but, my hours are held captive by that house, and yet all I yearn to do is read. To be honest, I admit I brought this upon myself. I started stripping the wallpaper from the breakfast room and kitchen two weeks ago and have been living in chaos ever since. It has clung to those walls for twenty years and apparently has made up its mind that it will only go kicking and screaming.

One of my favorite haunts on Saturday morning is the Ace Hardware Store that opened (with great fanfare and flourish) on our island a little over a year ago. It's a very friendly place and almost everyone knows me there by now; I bump into a lot of my neighbors at the Ace as well. We kibbutz about rakes, and paint, and charcoal chimney starters. I ran into the guy who lives across the street a couple of weeks ago and was able to give him some advice about applying the grout he was getting (seeing as I am dead clever about grout, having just re-grouted one of my bathrooms. "You learn by doing," Shorty says.) I seem to have wandered off my story. What was I talking about? Oh, yes. The wallpaper. So, I'm in Ace Hardware and Ben, one of the Ace guys, walks up to me and asks if he can be of help. "Ben, I'm trying to remove some very stubborn wallpaper without doing too much damage to the drywall." He had just the ticket, and I walked out with two spray bottles of very expensive blue gel-like liquid, a shiny scraper, and a paper tiger to make holes in the wallpaper so the gel could work. The gel did not work...$20 down that rat hole. But brilliance always shines through. White vinegar can be used for just about anything...itchy bug bites? White vinegar! Calcium build-up in your coffee pot? White vinegar! Water marks on Great Aunt Jane's heirloom cherry coffee table? White vinegar! So, I grabbed the store brand bottle of white vinegar (cost: 56 cents for a quart) from the pantry, put it in a spray bottle with an equal amount of water and Eureka! The entire house smells like a salad, but it is working. Nevertheless, it remains a messy, sticky job, and I see no end in sight...whirr, whirr with the paper tiger, spritz spritz, scrape scrape, up the ladder, down the ladder.

As I'm going through this dance, my mind wanders to the day I picked out this paper. We were building our dream house...well, my dream anyway. I spent so many hours with our builder, going over the blueprints, changing this, moving that. They were happy hours, those nest building hours. The sales person for the builder was a delightful southern belle whose husband was a former Secret Service agent. He was in the motorcade riding with (then) Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in Dallas, TX on November 22, 1963, just in front of President Kennedy's car. He covered Johnson's body with his own when the shots rang out, and wrote a book about it several years later. Well, getting back to the southern belle, she was a hoot. "Come ovah hea, dah-h-lin'" she drawled, "and pick out yo' wa-wa pay-pah." "I get wallpaper??!!" "Oh, dah-h-h-lin'" she oozed, looking very shocked, "We wouldn't let you move inta yo' house without wa-wa pay-pah!" I felt like a heathen, like I just admitted I wasn't wearing any knickers. She may have muttered, "Transplanted Yankee!" under her breath, but of that I cannot be certain.

The paper I selected was a thinly-striped beige, blue, and a tiny hint of cranberry. The matching border paper was a floral blue. Then there was the joy of picking the carpet, the floor tile, the counter tops, the wa-wa paper for bathrooms, and dining room, the lighting, the paint, the trim, the shelving. As the building progressed, I tried to visit the work site as often as possible without getting on the workmen's nerves. The trim man's name was Boise, and he was decidedly unfriendly, but he was a master craftsman. Since I was to live with his double crown molding, and judge's paneling, and chair railing, and bookshelves, day in and day out for years - maybe a lifetime -I wanted him to like me, thinking he would be spurred on to do his best and most artistic work. I tried my best. I was as sweet as pie, and always referred to him as "MR. Boise." I even started bringing freshly baked cookies, hoping they would have a salubrious effect on old Boise's disposition. They never did...Boise showed zero signs of liking me. The trim work turned out, and remains, gorgeous notwithstanding. When I walked into that finished house for the first time, I really could not believe I lived there. I wanted to wrap the whole thing up in my arms and kiss it full on the lips.

So here I am, twenty years later, undoing things. Looking at the house with a jaundiced eye. The dream did not last, dreams being the ephemeral creatures they are. need to travel down that path I guess. Sigh. I loved that wallpaper once. Now, I can't get rid of it soon enough. Love is fickle, is it not?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Solid...really solid.

I got into the elevator at the courthouse yesterday. Since I was the person closest to the buttons, I was the unofficial button puncher, "Floors?" I asked the assembled crowd. In the opposite corner stood a nice-looking young man, dressed in a uniform with his name on it, obviously a technician working on the electricity or air conditioning or something else in the building that needed fixing. I have great admiration for people who can fix things, especially machines...the same sort of respect I have for mathematicians or anyone, for that matter, whose job requires technical skill. All Greek to me. I glanced over at him to get his floor number, and that's when he said it! "Do me a solid, and press 6." Do me a solid? Did he just say, "" What is "a solid?" Okay, sure, I understood what he meant. Press the button for 6. Right. I got it. What intrigued me was why he didn't just say, "Please press 6," or "Do me a favor and press 6," or just plain "6." So, "Do me a solid" wasn't a time saver. What was he really saying?

Did the nice fellow on the elevator even realize what "do me a solid" sounds like? "Come on, sweetie. Do a solid for Mommy," the young mother urged her child during potty training. Or, "Darling, please change the baby. I think he just did us a solid."

He was in the elevator, in a very conservative setting, with a bunch of old fogies, myself included, who probably never expected they would ever be called upon to "do a solid." A quick glance at the graying, paunchy, teetering old folks wearing uncomfortable suits and comfortable shoes, standing shoulder to shoulder in the elevator, would be a dead giveaway to even the most casual observer that not one of these doddering relics had ever in their entire lives done anyone a solid. Had we been alone, I would have asked this nice young man, "Why the lingo?" (Do we still use the word, lingo?) Granted, English is a difficult language. For instance, why do we pronounce iron i'-ern, but pronounce ironic i-ron'-ik? It doesn't make much sense, does it? It is, nevertheless, a beautiful language. The language of Dickens, and of Shakespeare, and most of all of Dr. Seuss...I mean, seriously, you can't beat, "Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You." Had I asked him, he might have said he was just being "himmer than him." Is it too much to ask that the Mother Tongue be preserved - somehow?

When I was young, my mother tried to keep me from using "dirty" words by telling me that people who used swear words were showing that they didn't have a better one in their vocabulary. I don't really buy that anymore. Although I use cussing sparingly, there are times when the profane word is the perfect one for the situation. But what about slang? And why does it bother me so much? I cannot imagine the young man in the elevator going to a job interview and asking a prospective employer to "do him a solid" and expecting a favorable outcome. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe I am the one who is out of step. Perhaps I should have just smiled and said to him, "I'm bout it, dude. Fo shizzle."