Used to Daydream In That Small Town


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.

Start with a New Page


New year, new beginnings, new life.

New year, new beginnings, new life.

The days they do fly and here we stand at the third week of the year. That great post I had all written in my head to greet the baby new year — the one that was the overlay of new beginnings brightened by New Year’s weddings because I finished Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding at the dawn, was to be a remembrance of the two New Year’s weddings — 20 years apart — that we’ve been honored to attend. I got bogged down choosing and sizing the art. Oh what a dandy that blog could have been. Too late.

Too late, too, was the comparison between our lives to Gulliver’s Travels as written by Jonathan Swift. Oh how the Lilliputians could so aptly have been compared to our Congress and lawmakers. It was pithy — or at least how I had blogged in my head on the backs of my eyelids while I drifted off to sleep.

My next  was an open letter to all the NFL bystanders — we patient partners who stand by while our TV rooms turn blue with the slang slung at Jim Nance and Joe Buck to quit blatantly  favoring the ref’s call for their perceived favorites. No need to write that one now — our team, the Niners are going all the way with the help of hometown hero Colin Kaepernick. Fist pump all the way!

A reason to cheer in the new year.

A reason to cheer in the new year.

Oh the riotous post about our small grey kitty who habitually spills unwatched beverages and has killed off two electronic devises in two weeks. And yet, by God, we still love that scamp. The theme boiling up was something about this unconditional animal love while trying to comprehend why we struggle to do the same for our fellow human friends and relations. That one was written as I drove to work, never making it to the tips of my fingers and onto the screen.

My next post was gunna be — am I just too old, too work-worn to go through yet another boss?   It’s me railing against change, against new systems or worrying about what the new expectations shall be. Am I “up” for it mentally to read the tea leaves of exactly what’s in the head of a new boss? What if the term out-sourced comes up? When in life do we ever stop having to justify our existence?  My allegory of the new and the old. The beginnings always and yet beginning again. Yep. That one, too, came in the night, when my mind wouldn’t stop racing the clock.

One for the books 2

New reads, new ideas, new worlds to explore.

But it’s One for the Books by Joe Queenan that has me sleeping through the night again. His newly published book about reading (a personal passion of mine) helped me re-set my thoughts. Writing of the state of reading today after examining his own patterns, interviewing 65 of his friends and relations and maligning everyone from book reviewers to English teachers, to some of the authors themselves, mostly he bemoans the time slipping away. Voracious in his reading (he reads up to 150 books a year), he’s yet to get through Eliot’s Middlemarch even while reading up to 40 books simultaneously and he hasn’t washed his windows in 17 years. And for him, that’s OK.

These January blogs will never see the light of day, never be fleshed out completely, but for me, this has been a most positive month. These blogs: I’ve thought them up, one by one; they’ve entertained me and I am not looking back. No, not I.

Constant Companions: Friends and Books

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We’ve known each other longer than I want to say in print – suffice it to say that we met the first week of high school. Since then, we’ve matriculated through college, and one of us grad school; we’ve lived together as roommates, travelled some real and figurative roads together and apart, dated some frogs, broken up, dated again, married, and born children; we’ve talked through teething, teaching, sibling treachery and teens; each of us has buried a parent and weathered life’s disappointments.

Three friends who have lived in other places, again live in the same town, so we set up a book club in order to stay in touch. Like many book clubs, it’s friendship at the core – not the books themselves –that bind us.

We go on stints of meeting every month and then life interferes and we lay off for six months or more. Unlike some formalized clubs that have standing appointments, our troika seldom whips out a calendar to plan the next meeting, let alone the entire year. Why? Because we know it’s gonna happen. One day I’ll look at the phone and there’s a text from S_ with a heads up, or another time it’ll be me putting out the word in an email “Next week?”

Translation by Anthony Briggs.

Are we all on the same page, literarily? Heck no, but we’re all game and I guess that’s one of the reasons it works. For instance, when B_ proposed a couple of years back, “Let’s read War & Peace” I thought she was simply a wackadoodle. Certainly we’d delved into some pretty heady titles, but had our share of Chic-Lit, too. I believed the myths that it was too hard, too long, too many characters. No, B_ convinced us we are stunningly intelligent, capable and tenacious women. And so we took up the W&P challenge. I hefted that baby everywhere I went, reading on airplanes, dance class, beaches and on top of the bed. (Listen, if I get under the covers, it’s all over!) We broke the volume into thirds and met every other month during that time and I fell in love with Leo Tolstoy and his magnum opus. Three cheers for our trio – we did it and celebrated by eating at three different restaurants, French, Ethiopian and German (yeah, we’re a little bereft of Russian food here). Our translation was highly readable and by golly, I actually want to read it all over again. Someday.

Our latest book, the Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, is itself a study of the relationship between women. Hoffman was inspired by a trip to Jerusalem, when she visited a place called Masada, a fortress built by Herod the Great that is situated on top of a large mountain, where a group of nine hundred Jews in the first century CE, who had fled their homelands from the invading Romans converged to escape the slaughter of their people.

The story is told from the points of view of four of the “imagination(fiction)created” women: The Assassin’s daughter-Yael, The Baker’s Wife-Revka, The Warrior’s Beloved-Aziza, and The Witch of Moab-Shirah.

Despite and because of the tragedies that led these four meet at the fortress, they form a familial-like compact.  “Love made you give yourself away; it bound you to this world, and to another’s fate.”

These characters, just like us, don’t always agree about religion, politics, working, or child-rearing, but together they are strong, resourceful, intelligent, sensitive and enduring. The quote after the title page says it all: “Let your burden be your burden and yours be mine.”

Next , we’ll read and talk about Girl Gone. I don’t know if that will become a classic, will elicit intense discussion or if I’ll care at all. While the measure of a good book is what you carry away from it, the measure of our friendship is that it can’t be measured, can’t be quantified, can’t be calibrated. It’s that it fortifies and strengthens my spirit until the next time.