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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.

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Hunger in the Heart

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I get all manner of calls as a marketing coordinator for the Food Bank. Primarily I field calls from businesses and organizations who are interested in staging a food drive in the region to help those in need. It’s a positive role I have — helping people to help other people. After three-plus years of working with various groups, the call a couple of weeks ago was quite different.

Michael began, “I have quite of bit of food to donate. Cans of food. Health foods. Some long-term meals ready to eat.”

Now, we do get these calls: someone is moving and they don’t want to take their food. They are cleaning out their cupboards to start fresh. They know their food will soon expire and want it to go to use. For these people, for various reasons, we ask them to pack up the food and drop it to one of the many places that partner with us for us to pick up on our scheduled routes. We are delighted they think of us and we certainly distribute all the food we get.

Still, this seemed different. Michael continued, “My son was a bit of a survivalist.”  We talked some more about this and that and I said I would get back to him.

I talked to my co-worker and then to my husband and I called back, made an arrangement to pick up the food in two days’ time using our SUV and my husband’s brawn. I felt we needed to reach out to this gentleman, not for his food, not to shore up our own resources, but because we are ultimately a part of the fabric of our region as a caring place.

Michael stood in the midst of chaos in the rented condo that son Chris had lived in for about five years. The small space was filled with boxes of clothes, food, cleaning supplies, cast-off golf clubs and art leaning against walls to be carted off, and soon. In fact, the realtor waited outside to show the place to a client wanting to move in ASAP.

Chris was a health nut. Exercise fiend. Employed, but working from home as a Computer Tech. He loved the mountains and the desert. Chris had political beliefs that caused him to collect food that would help him survive for long periods of time. No one knows yet why Chris died at 42. People saw him the day before and he seemed well and in good spirits. The coroner has the case, but that will take some time.

Now Chris’ Dad was trying to make sense of it all. “People will tell you that losing your child is the worst pain you can ever feel. I think they’re right. And for me, I don’t even know why he died and what I could have done to make it different.”

He talked. I listened We gathered the food. Discussed it all. We made decisions about what the food bank could use and what we had to leave. Then he opened the freezer and we found a large coffee can-like container. The outside indicated it was filled with seeds. Non-hybrid vegetable seeds. Chris never got to plant those. He never got to see them bloom.

canned seeds

It’s a small thing, I know, with all that this gentle man is going through — but perhaps it will help — I’ll send him a photo of the vegetables in the garden this summer so that he will know that Chris is feeding others and helping people who need food assistance right here in the place he loved so much.

Ignorance is a Cure for Nothing

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I cried in my car today. I was alone, tears streaming down my cheeks creating rivers in my morning makeup.

No, the cause was not familial – the kids, husband, home and hearth are fine. I am still employed – all is well on that front. I am in good health.

So what caused said downpour? It stemmed from The Souls of White Folk, by scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois. The Souls ...is a collection of essays written in-part from an academic point of view on race and being African American in America at the turn of the 20thcentury.

I say in-part because of Du Bois’ personal story in Chapter 11.  The previous ten chapters lay the foundation of his thesis that Negros, as they were called then, of the South need the right to vote, education, and to be treated as equals in order to strengthen the people and the nation. Du Bois uses the metaphor of the veil. He shows the reader how all African-Americans wear it because their view of the world and its potential economic, political, and social opportunities is so vastly different from that of white people. The veil is a visual manifestation of the color line.

A white woman in the West, 110 years after it was first published, I understand the premise, hear the history, value the heritage, and enjoy the research and approach. I’m cognizant that time, strife, determination and sheer will have brought about changes in our culture. Things are different – many things better – but race relations still evolve. Prejudice is pervasive.

Through the Libravox audiobooks app I eagerly paced through Du Bois’ seminal work the past week or so. The writing style is both descriptive and didactic. Due to his narrative I see the red earth of Georgia, the sweat of the sharecropper, the expanse of the color line. Each chapter begins with a classical quotation followed by several measures of an African American spiritual or tune to lay the foundation of the them of the chapter.

So Chapter 11 begins (you can listen here, and I recommend it because the narration is very good):

O sister, sister, thy first–begotten, The hands that cling and the feet that follow, The voice of the child’s blood crying yet, WHO HATH REMEMBERED ME? WHO HATH FORGOTTEN? Thou hast forgotten, O summer swallow, But the world shall end when I forget.” (Poem by Swinburne)

The song is the spiritual:  “I Hope My Mother Will Be There.”

Until this point, Du Bois is narrator and traveler through the south telling the reader what he has witnessed and solutions he recommends, but here he bears his soul.

Unto you a child is born,” sang the bit of yellow paper that fluttered into my room one brown October morning. Then the fear of fatherhood mingled wildly with the joy of creation; I wondered how it looked and how it felt–what were its eyes, and how its hair curled and crumpled itself.

This beautifully written soliloquy to his son, Burghardt, so personal, so filled with wonder, disappointment and heartbreak. He shares feelings for his own life, the south, a futile life of being born under the veil of racism in a crescendo of sorrow after losing his firstborn. I felt his sadness and rage as he plead to God for just this one bit of happiness in this life. He asked to save this one innocent human being, his son.

I am not any of the things that Du Bois was: sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan Africanist, author and editor. But a thing we do share lo these years apart is the love of a child. It’s universal. It’s colorblind.

Ignorance is a cure for nothing, says Du Bois. This is why he wrote and why we read. Books – be they non-fiction or fiction – when written with humanity, help us to have a shared experience. Thank you W.E.B. Du Bois for teaching me today.

Care to read other books by African Americans? Here is a list of 50 to get you started.