I can hardly avert my eyes from the present moment.
Today, Beth Alexander to take us back in time, to a past we see through a mother’s fragile scrapbook…
After my mother’s death in 2004, I came across three crumbling scrapbooks she, at age 9, and her little sister, 7, kept in 1935-36 in Heflin, Alabama. My own sister and I were discovering that dad’s dementia was worse than Mom had led us to believe. We were moving dad into an assisted living apartment as we prepared to sell their home of 40 years.
The scrapbooks were dusty, filled with glamour shots of movie stars from that era, a young Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler, Norma Shearer, Jeannette MacDonald and, of course, Shirley. The No. 1 box office draw required no last name. One cursory glance told me I didn’t have the patience to look through soft, yellowed paper containing little girls’ dreams. Later, I promised myself.
Fifteen years later, the scrapbooks resurfaced in our own move, but it took the Covid crisis, our generation’s Depression-like challenge, to make me stop and finally open them with the respect and patience that any little girl’s creative efforts deserved.
Our mother Bubs and her sister Virginia both took dance classes and piano lessons and performed dutifully if the recital programs are reliable. Virginia was a stand-out at dancing, earning a teaser in an article from the Anniston paper about the King Dance Revue. “Miss Owen has appeared a number of times before Anniston audiences,” the blurb read, “and is always well received.”
Bubs excelled at piano, generally performing at the end of recitals. The sisters played a Mendelsohn duet together one year, and in high school they played sisters in “Little Women.” Virginia was Amy, and Bubs was Jo, a character she always loved.
Following a big spread on the death of Will Rogers was another clip, hastily ripped from the Birmingham Age-Herald, dated September 7, 1940. Nobel-prize winning novelist Sigrid Undset was giving up her writing career to move to America because of the chilling changes sweeping across Europe. “Hitler cannot build up an economic entity,” she said. “He will have to turn against Russia and the United States, who rides a tiger and cannot jump off.”
My sister recently sent me a picture of our mother as a little girl, all bright eyes and big dreams, a little girl who did what her parents asked of her. She and Virginia weren’t bothered by the Depression. The knew only to learn their lessons, read Elsie Dinsmore books, visit friends, practice for recitals and plays – and carefully document their lives in scrapbooks.
How I wish I could pull that little girl with the Buster Brown haircut onto my lap, give her a hug and ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. I would read her the book of nursery tales that she read to me and ask her to play her latest piece for me. I long to kiss her cheek and bless her with the benediction she taught me.
At the back of her book, Bubs wrote of her life in the past tense, “Virginia was 7 years old. I was nine years old. My Daddy was a patrolman. I lived in a big two-story house in Heflin. My play mates were: Virginia Turner, Mary Helen Atkins, Annie Laurie Gideon, Dorothy Lanier. My Sunday School teacher was Miss Alice Peterson. I wrote all of this on January, the 26, 1936 on Sunday.”
I didn’t know this little girl, but I was raised by the strong and disciplined woman she became who made sure her daughters had dance classes and piano lessons. I have boxes of mementos from my sons and now from my accomplished daughters-in-law. They may end up in scrapbooks only in my imagination.
Despite the Depression, Bubs embraced life with joy and enormous energy. When I think I’ve had it with the C-virus, power outages and the scavenger hunt for basic necessities, I can feel her encouragement and resilience and am stronger. They survived and prevailed for the next challenge, and we will too.
* * *
For Beth’s review of Anne Tyler’s latest, Redhead by the Side of the Road, click here.
* * *
To my mother, and mother-in-law, and girlfriends who are moms and dog moms and cat moms too…