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Used to Daydream In That Small Town

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Marjorie, Curtis Sr. and Curtis Jr.

Marjorie, Curtis Sr. and Curtis Jr.

Certain people in the family tree capture my imagination – my husband’s maternal grandmother, Marjorie Barton Townsend Williams is one of those enigmatic people. Born in 1890 in Overbrook, Penn., to prominent blue-blood parents at the cusp of the new century when women were venturing further from Victorian sentiments and sensibilities, she left the enclave of mansions owned by her grandfather, father and uncles to serve as a Red Cross volunteer aid in France during WWI. She arrived as the war ended, tending to those men who were injured and help others transition back to the States. Under these circumstances, Marjorie met her future husband, one-time Minnesota lumberjack, then audacious soldier Curtis G. Williams. Enamored, he followed her back to Philadelphia upon his US Army release to rekindle the romance and finally won her father’s approval to marry her after some months.

From there the newlyweds traveled via train to his natal Minnesota to start their new life. His diary – more a collection of humorous stories than anything – has been passed down to the grandchildren. In it, he describes Marjorie only near the end of these reminisces. Other than this, I can only suppose her reaction to moving half-way across the country to live at first in International Falls (on the boarder to Canada) and later to Duluth.

Main StreetSo when I recently read Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Marjorie grew in my mind to be main character Carol Milford Kennicott. Also a new bride, Carol and husband Dr. Will Kennicott arrive via train in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. She looks out the window at the flat dingy landscape and reacts:

“That one word—home—it terrified her. Had she really bound herself to live, inescapably, in this town called Gopher Prairie? And this thick man beside her, who dared to define her future, he was a stranger! She turned in her seat, stared at him. Who was he? Why was he sitting with her? He wasn’t of her kind! His neck was heavy; his speech was heavy; he was twelve or thirteen years older than she; and about him was none of the magic of shared adventures and eagerness. She could not believe that she had ever slept in his arms. That was one of the dreams which you had but did not officially admit.”

Did Marjorie feel this way?

So much of Lewis’ book deals with Carol’s tilting at windmills – trying to change this town, revolt against what she views as provincialism attempting to bring in culture, refined architecture, educational reforms only to be rebuffed by tradition and complacency.  Carol endeavors by turns to fit into established cliques and then break away to blaze trails of originality and single-minded leadership. Lewis’ social satire about small towns was the first to expose certain narrow attitudes and this bewildered readers who commonly idealized American small towns.

But far more than the town and its inhabitants stifling her, Carol feels most misunderstood by her own husband who though he loves her, cannot understand her restless nature.

Was this Marjorie’s experience too?

Or was her life one of isolation – raising three sons while her husband caroused as though still single?

Of note, the book Main Street was published in 1920, the year Marjorie and Curtis married. The book became a modern best seller, with the exception of some small towns in Minnesota because of the book’s genesis from Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre, Minn.

Did Marjorie read this book? And if she did, what would she have said? — That she identified with Carol? Or that her life shared nothing with a character living in similar time and place?

We do know that she was not happy. Unlike Carol in Main Street who was able to make a peace, eventually, with Gopher Prairie, Marjorie ended her life at age 47 leaving her sons ages 12 to 16 to cope with the loss.

When researching ancestry, even the lives of those who lived not that long ago, mysteries abound. Through literature it’s interesting and instructive to imagine Marjorie’s life as it might have been, how she felt, what she saw and the choices she faced. Reading something that may have mirrored her life has helped me to understand at least some of the undercurrents in a life that was too short.

Bearing An Untold Story

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To impart realism in idiosyncratic detail, authors Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway drew on real people for their enduring World War I characters. In her book One of Ours, Cather took letters from a soldier-cousin to impart real-to-life traits on characters Claude and David who fought the Germans in France. Of course, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is in-part based on his own tour of Italy during that same war and his love of character/nurse Catherine Barkley.

Grandpa Bill on right circa 1917.

So as I read these classics over the summer I thought a lot about my own grandfather, Bill Royle, and my husband’s grandfather, Curtis Williams, who were young volunteer soldiers overseas far from their US homes fighting the Kaiser in France.

Since yesterday was Ancestor Appreciation Day, (I know, there’s a holiday for everything!) they’ve slipped back in my consciousness.

As with the characters in these prize-winning books, Bill and Curtis (who we have no reason to believe ever met, however they joined within two weeks of each other in 1917) came from rural America – Nevada and Minnesota – and like Claude in Cather’s classic, viewed the war as a way to break away from their quiet lives and see other parts of the world. Akin to Hemingway’s Frederic Henry, my grandfather worked on the field of battle in the ambulance corps. While Grandpa Curt, a rough fellow who didn’t garner much love later from his three sons, mirrored Hemingway in that he did actually meet his future wife, Marjorie, in France while she was a Red Cross worker.

It was the first modern war: my mother remembers that her dad’s uniform and gas mask hung in the back closet of her childhood home for years, a silent reminder of his past. Back in the 1970s my gramps gave an oral history about his life and extolled in great detail his times with  family, at various occupations, described friends he had made and lost in his 89 years, but when it came to the war, he outlined just minute facts then summed up, “That’s all I have to say about that.” No amount of asking could make him share his experience. Family lore has it that the dents on his helmet are from bullets and that he had to have killed a couple Germans.  One story he did tell was that he made the effort to see his English relatives, but they turned him away thinking he was there for their food.  Fifty years later, that was still a raw report.

Curtis circa 1921

My grandpa –in-law, on the other hand, had a raucous experience from the time he left Minnesota with his comrades, carousing from ship to shore in Scotland and continuing on to France. His memoir passed through the family details many riotous and unruly times which ultimately had him near-court martialed for leaving his unit that was brought over to clear forests for fighting. He definitely had the Hemingwayesque, brash attitude that he could obliterate the war through binges of alcohol and sex. Somehow the young Curtis seemed to believe in the transformative power of love and viewed Marjorie as his own Catherine, someone who could save him from his past.

Both young men were born after the taming of the American frontier and brought their American restlessness to a frontier far bloodier. They never met Hemingway or Cather and their stories will never be fully told. We don’t know and never will, what they saw, smelled, felt, experienced, only that each man became stoic in his own way and crawled into the bottle a fair amount, perhaps to help themselves forget. The connection between literature and life helps us to know the interior lives of those we love. “Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.”— Willa Cather (One of Ours)

Hello world!

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Welcome to Playful Meanderings, a new WordPress blog to chat about life, books, travel, recreation and whatever else may come up.

Ok, blogging itself has been a longtime coming — but what inspires me to push away from the shore and wade into the blogging surf is that I’m at the halfway point of the year and I’m checking in on my New Year’s Resolution. Year 2012:  read 75 books in one year. Why did I make this goal? Well, after so many years of saying I’d get in shape, lose some lbs and trim back the calories, I thought to myself “You aren’t making the most of your mind.”

It’s so true. I live in this body and I need to take care of it — all of it. My mind needed stimulation outside of the routine. It needed refreshment and the exposure to new ideas, old ideas, points of view and everything that books bring to the reader. Invigorating the sponge upstairs to learn — or re-learn — history, discover the power of deeper thinking, and reshaping my spirit by diving into the written word were among the positive points to taking on this project.

Why 75? The seed got planted by an article a friend sent to me in which the author was expounding on the number of books he had read the previous year. I mistakenly thought my friend had written the article, not just forwarded it to me, and I thought, “He is challenging me! If he can read 75, then I can read 75!”  I made my resolution (and I had to come up with a plan to accomplish this ambitious number) and embarked on the project.

Funny thing is, I brought up his momentous reading to this same friend two months back, and he really didn’t know what I was talking about: “75 books. No,”  he replied. “I’m lucky to read 15.” Turns out I failed to note the author — something I’m bound to do again in this life. But what the heck, that mistake got me to get on with my journey into books.

So, 75 books.

Number one: Sounds expensive. Not so much. Turns out I have at least that many that I’ve never read around my house that I’ve been meaning to read. Also, I have a library card — fancy that —  and the library near my house has many, many more than 75 books that I’ve never read and been meaning to. Speaking of my library, they have a club,  friends of the library, that sells books twice a year- Lots of great books that I’ve been meaning to read. You get the picture. Then there’s this: when I said that I was going to read 75 books —  and only to a few people because what if I don’t do it? — they gave me some books. Folks, I am swimming in books right now!

Number two: Time. I don’t know about you, but I always think of myself as busy. Much too busy to read. Turns out I can bring a book to wherever I am waiting. Yes, I do a fair amount of that, for I am a mother, a worker, a consumer, a patient and a person. I wait for daughters at piano, at guitar, at church, at sporting events. I go to the dentist ( more than I would like) or doctor or places where you wait in line and I get out my book. I just have made it part of the routine to bring the book I’m skipping (or plowing) through currently. Ok, and I’ve given up most of my television watching. That alone created several hours in the week. I also cheat. What? Yes, a few people have called it that, and judge me if you will, but about 1/3 of the books I have read are during my commute. I am read to through the free audiobooks app. They are (http://librivox.org/ ) all books are in the public domain and read by volunteers into my car stereo. More about all of this in a later post, but I don’t call it cheating. I listen, learn and put the time into hearing these “books on tape” just as I would if holding a book in my hand and taking in the words on the printed page. And final note about time. — the more I read, the more I want to read. I’ve been known to read a little later into the night, forgo the morning paper in favor of my book, shoot out the garden door and read my book in the backyard instead of cleaning my house. Oh the joys of reading!

So where am I now on the delicious journey? Books #42 and #43. What? Yes, because I have the power of the app on audiobooks (which is free, by the way) I am always reading two books at once. No, the two books don’t always mesh together, but what the heck, I read two and three books at once when I was in college and I’m an American multitasker at heart.

No, this blog won’t be solely dedicated to books and the goal of reading 75 in one year, but the next few posts will certainly be about  the topic. I welcome your comments, suggestions and humorous stories about your own goals — be they new years resolutions or some other scheme to change your own life in a positive way.