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.


  1. When I got to the bit about the telephone call from the stranger, I said aloud, "No way," knowing the stranger was you, Grad, and I truly feel with you the lost opportunity of the meeting that wasn't to be. Life and death are so funny like that, all those missed chances you aren't aware of sliding by you even as you make tiny decisions from one day to the next. Unbearable, and yet equally exquisite in their way.

  2. Di, Because of drama in my own personal life several years before I discovered Viola was still alive, and where she was, I let my project lapse. Believe me, I've kicked myself many times over. I wrongly assumed they were both surely gone for many years. Vi would have been the first one to laugh at my bold assumptions.

  3. Oh Grad, what a beautiful story! Thank you for sharing it. Even though you never met Viola in person you did speak with her, and I am sure she must have found the whole thing wonderful and amazing.

  4. Stefanie: It really is hard to feel sad about such a beautiful life, so well lived. I think she probably would have told me to stop spending so much time on her life, and live my own to the hilt. At least, that's what I'm going to believe she'd say.

  5. I'm sure you're right, Grad, although ego never ages, and I'm sure she'd be terribly flattered to know you're telling something of her tale (and we're all lapping it up).

  6. Doctordi: So how do I develop this into a novel?

  7. Grad, I'm sad that you didn't get to meet her! But I still think you had an amazing journey through history. There's something powerful about uncovering the past. I think this is a great idea for a book plot!

  8. Janell, many thanks. I'd like to develop it further, but...I love Joan Cusak's line from Working Girl. It goes something like, "I like to sing and dance around the house in my underwear, but that doesn't make me Madonna...never will." I feel that way every time I think I might do a book. Guess I'll never know if I don't try.

  9. Grad, I answered this 'what next' question as best I could back over at DoctorDi, but just in case we cross wires, signing up for a course through your local writers' centre or even university is not a bad start - the centre will be much cheaper. There are lots of 'Year of the Novel' style programs out there, and you should be able to find something that sounds right for you. I've not done one myself, so it may seem odd that I'm recommending it, but the Darklings have all done something along these lines and benefited. I benefited from my PhD - it taught me a lot about discipline and bum-in-seat hard graft and bloody-minded tenacity. Also you'll meet other writers - a very good thing.