Monday, August 24, 2009

The Girl Graduate: And So Adieu

As darkness fell on May 26, 1903, a large and happy crowd gathered at the pleasant little house on Main Street. Lively music drifted out into the cool, spring evening as revelers enjoyed an elaborate wedding supper in honor of John and Estella, just married at St. John's Church. And thus, Evelyn's parents were tendered as a newly wedded couple. They welcomed Evie, their second child, into the world on May 11, 1906.

She was a happy child and a good student. And, although she had a large circle of friends and was actively engaged in outside activities, she was, at heart, a quiet girl. I suspect The Girl Graduate: Her Own Book, was given to her for her 17th birthday, just months before senior year at WHS. In any event, she began her journal in June of 1923, starting with a "Hike To Homer," accompanied by Viola, and Dorthea and someone identified only as "M," during which she collected fern fronds and flower petals, which she later carefully pressed into her little book.

Painstakingly, she chronicled the small and large events of the next year: the wedding announcement of a sister, the marriage of a teacher, the victories and defeats of the basketball and football teams (with numerous photographs of Duffy cut from newspaper accounts of his athletic prowess), the parties, dances, and club events at school. In short, she documented the life of a teenage girl during that most special of years - the year of evolution from child to woman. How impossible it was to read her journal and not be hopeful for her - even fearful for her. And each time I took the book into my hands, I prayed that the promise of youth had been fulfilled in reality. But, unlike Viola, Evie was illusive and ephemeral, and I worried about her.

After crossing the stage to receive her diploma, Evelyn stepped over the threshold of the Winona Opera House into the night, and began her adult life. Although I struggled for several years to find some thread to follow, some clue that would cast me in the right direction, the mystery of what happened to her remained. Whereas Viola actively threw herself into the community following graduation, Evie seemed to have evaporated into memory. The obvious burden I had was to determine whether she had ever married thereby changing her last name. I had limited my search to the 12 years immediately following graduation, the typical marrying years, with no luck. But as I expanded the time line, I was rewarded. On August 17, 1942, the announcement of her marriage to Rex appeared in the Winona Republican-Herald. So, Evelyn had married late in life, and I had her married name.

I wondered about the man who finally wed Evie - where they met, how long they courted, and what he looked like. I assumed she met Rex in her thirties - perhaps at work- and I feared she may have married him only as a recourse from spinsterhood. But, I was wrong. As I was preparing to write about Evie, I took out the 1924 yearbook once again to look at her graduation picture. My eyes wandered down the page, and for the first time I noticed Rex - young, blond, sweet-faced Rex. They had known each other since high school; I wondered what had taken him so long to ask the question.

In July of 1942, Rex sold his interest in a successful implement store (which had doubled its volume in sales steadily since it was started in 1938), and he and Evie moved from Winona to Madison, Wisconsin. Soon afterwards, Rex joined the army and the couple was stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia. It was in Georgia that Evelyn gave birth to her only child, James Emil, in December of 1945. She was nearly 40 years old.

There are no other facts of Evie's life that I can share with you, other than that there is a grave site at St. Mary's Cemetery in Winona with the names of three people inscribed: Rex 1908-1981, followed by James 1945-1991, and finally Evelyn 1906-1993. The dates tell some of the story. They explain why there was no one left to treasure The Girl Graduate, and why it found its way into that little antique store, and ultimately into my hands. It speaks of a mother who outlived her only child, the heartache which must have followed, and - if you believe - a joyous reunion at last. At least, that is what is settled in my own mind.

I choose to believe she enjoyed a full and happy life with Rex, that she found fulfillment in a life quietly lived, and that finding her book was not mere chance. I believe it was a gift.

Evie: Optimism, Viola.

Viola: Optimism, Evie, and a touch of faith.

Grad: Faith and optimism are sometimes all we have, dear hearts. And considering the alternative...

Evie: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! Might as well look on the bright side. Isn't that right, Vi?

Viola: Indeed...yes...indeed! I've always said so. I'm famous for it.

Evie: Yes, of course...but, we are not talking about you at this moment, are we dear?

Viola: W-e-l-l, really Evelyn...

Grad: Come now, don't argue. Oh, I almost forgot about Duffy! Let me them about Duffy.

I must say one last word about Duffy. He went on to receive a degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin. He returned to Winona, raised a family of boisterous sons, and wrote a sports column for the Winona Republican-Herald for many years entitled, appropriately, "The Duffer." I never had any doubt about him.

So, that is all there is to the story I promised you. I ask your forgiveness in the clumsiness of its telling. I hope you understand that it if it had not been for a series of seemingly random events, it would never have been told at all. If there is a lesson to be learned, perhaps it was meant for me alone to decipher. And if there is no lesson? Well, that will be all right too.

Evelyn: Well, what do you think she will do now?

Viola: Perhaps she will put it all away, up in the attic.

Evelyn: Or, perhaps not. We lived in some pretty colorful times when we were young, Viola. It was The Jazz Age, afterall.

Viola: I still think she will box it all up and put it in the attic. What more is there to tell?

Grad: I might and I might not. It seems like a small story, I agree. But, maybe each one of us adds our own story to the one already told. And it becomes a larger story and then it becomes our history. Maybe we must tell our own stories while we are able, rather than leave it to chance? Rather than leave it to someone else from another place and another time....Is that the lesson? Evie?...Vi?

But they were gone. Perhaps there was a bridge game or a newcomer who needed to be eased through the first pangs of homesickness.

"They could have at least said good-bye," I thought, a little disappointed. I would have liked the chance to say good-bye - or hello.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Girl Graduate: Part V: Viola In Bloom

Viola sat at her bedroom window wistfully watching the falling snow. The wind was catching small sections of it, creating little frosty cyclones. Oh, how she wished she was outside to feel both wind and snow upon her face! There would be no chance of that - none whatsoever, unless she was lucky enough to get to the front door without anyone taking notice. As she gleefully pondered how she would pull off her great escape, she settled back into her chair and closed her eyes. In just a few weeks, she would celebrate her 100th Christmas. Notwithstanding the big fuss made over her last birthday, she was not certain that crossing the century mark was all it was cracked up to be.

Viola: I was not a hot house plant, after all. Surely a little cold air and a romp in the snow would have done no harm.

Grad: I imagine they just wanted to protect you, Viola. You could have caught cold, or fallen on ice and...

Viola: And what? What is there to fear at that age?

Grad: You've got a point there, Vi.

In her reverie, Viola thought about the telephone call from the stranger - something about Evie's little graduation book. She might forget what she had for lunch yesterday; but, she had no trouble at all in remembering fine details of the long-ago past. The faces of the Class of 1924 remained crystal clear to Viola; they never aged. The old woman who stared back at her from the mirror this morning was the one she could not recognize. Was it really 83 years ago that she delivered her valedictory address, she mused? She could still recite portions of it by heart.

Anyone entering Viola's room at that moment would have thought she was napping. Why did people assume that the ancient did nothing but doze, she fussed inwardly. In point of fact, she was wide awake, and young once more. It was another December - the winter of 1925. Once again she was in charge of planning an event - the annual reunion ball. Her mission was to arrange a program that would be in keeping with the "spirit of the occasion for renewing old memories of life at Old W.H.S." to be held on January 1. When she walked into the ballroom, even she was enthralled with the elaborate decorations. Viola had never felt more beautiful. She had selected a dark green silk frock with long sleeves that ended in a ruffle at each wrist. The drop waist skirt consisted of three soft tiers which, she rightly imagined, would float beautifully around her slim figure as she danced. As the strains of "I'll See You In My Dreams" filled the hall, she and a handsome young man (who I do not believe was Joseph) took to the floor - they danced all night. "If I live to be one hundred," she thought, "I will never forget how happy I am tonight." She never did forget.

As I reported previously, Viola and Joseph got "quietly married" in 1931. He became a successful lawyer; she stayed at home and raised the children which, I have no doubt, brought her satisfaction and joy. I do not know how she filled her days, but knowing Viola as I do, I am confident she filled them well. Joseph died suddenly when Viola was 57. For the first time in her life, she charted her course according to her own compass.

She would later tell her granddaughter that her life did not begin until Joseph died. She would always laugh when she said it; nevertheless, there was truth behind the wink. Joseph left her financially comfortable, and no one would have been surprised if his widow had decided to live out her days gardening and attending the theater. But such a life was not for our Viola - most definitely not.

Instead, Vi went to work. First, as an administrative secretary (apparently still utilizing what she learned in "short and type" class). And then, after attending college and receiving her four-year degree in business administration at the age of 70, as an accountant. By the way, Viola graduated from college with Honors (No surprise there, Vi), and became a charter member of the External Studies Honor Society at Winona State. Her late-in-life accomplishments continue to be a great source of pride to her family.

Viola did not retire until after she turned 80, and lived on her own until she was 95. From newsletters published by the retirement home to which she moved, it is apparent that she remained in the thick of things. Viola breathed deeply of every minute she was given.

I had planned on visiting Viola after the holidays in January 2007. I was to pack up Evie's little book, and the yearbooks. I had so many questions for her; however, I found myself in an odd situation. Whereas, by that time she was a friend to me, I was merely a stranger to her. I wasn't certain how I would ask the questions for which I wanted answers: whether all the girls had a crush on Duffie (as I surely did), whether she had learned about her paternal grandfather's suicide, her thoughts on marriage and careers, what she would have done differently. Finally I decided I'd just say hello and tell her about my journey back in time. I'd let her lead the way, and the rest would fall into place. Nevertheless, I still had to explain what I was doing there, and I was very nervous. She might find the whole project a ghastly waste of time. But I was also certain that if our roles were reversed, she would press on. So press on it was.

Viola died on January 11, 2007; we never had our meeting.

I was stunned and saddened and angry at myself for not searching harder. I could have found her a full year earlier; I could have traveled during the holiday.

Viola: Well, don't feel too badly, my dear, it could have been worse. You might have come to call when a Vikings game was on, and I would have been too busy to see you then. You would have had to wait until half time.

Grad: I was fore-warned that you were quite a Vike's fan.

Viola: Rabid, Grad, rabid.

Grad: (In a whisper so soft it could only be heard by dogs) Go, Bears.

I wish I had had the chance to tell Viola how greatly I admired her and what an inspiration she was and continues to be - how much I miss her even though we never met. I'll try to remember to breathe deeply, Vi, especially when the wind is blowing and the snow is falling and the seas are too rough to be safe. I'll try to remember to breathe deeply especially then.