My husband’s grandmother, Catherine Ehr Brosnahan, grew up in Minot, North Dakota. She graduated from the Saint Clare Seminary, a preparatory school of the College of St. Theresa in Winona, Minnesota in 1914. Among some family treasures, I recently discovered her scrapbook from her graduation year. The red leather cover is tattered: the gilt edges are worn. But inside the musty pages is a peek at a girl’s life in 1914.
Prologue: September, 1944 — Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Mary, clutching her train case in one hand and her handbag in another, leaned forward, scanning the horizon for the train.
“Don’t see it yet, Mary? It’ll be here soon enough. It’s not due for another ten minutes or so,” said her mother.
“I know, I know. I’m just getting a bit antsy, that’s all,” Mary said. Setting down the train case, she pulled a compact out of her purse and inspected her face the tiny mirror. She straightened her hat, smoothed down her curls. Then she took out a tube of Tangee lipstick and squinted into the mirror so she could add another coat of fire-engine red.
“Mary, you look fine. You really don’t need any more lipstick for a train ride,” said her father, Henry. He checked his pocket watch. “I hope the train is on time, though. As soon as we get you boarded, I’ll drop Mother off back at home, and drive to my meeting in Janesville.”
“Trying to get rid of me, Dad?” Mary teased.
“Of course not! But we certainly can’t have you back home, though. Look at all of these suitcases! Where would we put them?” He pointed to the pile around them, a small trunk, three new Samsonites, and a carry-on train case.
“Oh, Dad,” said Mary. “It’s not so much. After all, I’ll be at St. Theresa’s for the entire school year. I need everything packed here.”
Catherine smiled at the father-daughter banter. Could it be possible that Mary was really leaving for college? It had been so difficult when John, her firstborn, had left for the Navy two years before, but that was an entirely different matter. Duty called, and all young men had to take up the fight against Hitler’s Nazis and the evil Japanese. She was relieved that he was stationed in Norfolk and not on the front. So many young men had been sent into harm’s way in Europe or the Pacific theater, so she was grateful that his assignment had kept him stateside. Still she missed her boy. Now, it was time to send her next child out into the world.
“Mary, you look lovely. Quite smart-looking,” Catherine said, taking in her daughter’s stylish felt breton, her trim suit, and her spectator pumps.
Mary smiled at her mother and gave a bit of a curtsy, opening her navy blue suit jacket a bit. “I love this suit, Mother. Of all the things you’ve made for me, I think it’s my favorite. I only wish I could have bought a real pair of nylon stockings to go with it, “she said, looking down at the back of her calf at the line she’d drawn there with eyebrow pencil. “I’m so tired of these pencil seams. Plus, when I go bare-legged, I get blisters on my heels.”
“Mary, that’s not too big a sacrifice for the war effort, is it?” her father said.
“No, I guess not,” she replied.
The conversation stalled.
“Now, be sure to telegram us as soon as you arrive at the college. We’ll be wondering if you’ve made it to Winona all right. I’m a bit concerned that you might miss your connection in Minneapolis.”
“Mother, we’ve been over this. Please don’t worry. I am an adult, you know, and I’ve been to the train station in Minneapolis a few times, and I understand how to find the track for Winona. Besides, it’s not like when you went to St. Theresa’s. You weren’t in college, only high school. I’m four years older than you were when you went.”
“I know. You’re a bright girl, but it’s just a mother worrying.”
Henry reached into his suitcoat and retrieved his wallet. “Here’s a bit more for the train ride,” he said, handing her a five dollar bill.
“Thanks, Daddy. I really have enough money.” Still, Mary opened her handbag and put the money into her wallet. “But, just in case.”
A porter on the platform called out, “Train’s coming!” and the other passengers moved forward toward the edge of the track. Catherine felt her stomach lurch. This was it. Her oldest daughter was really going. Mary seemed unfazed by the idea of leaving home, but Catherine wondered if her daughter’s stomach might be churning just a little like hers was.
As the train slowed to a stop, Mary turned to her mother and hugged her. “Goodbye, Mother. I will write, I promise.” Then she released her grasp on her mother’s shoulders, and picked up her train case. The porter hoisted the trunk, and Mary and her father managed the suitcases. Henry boarded the train, and Catherine saw Mary through the smeared window, settling into her seat while Henry put the heaviest suitcase in the overhead rack.
In a moment, Henry reappeared on the trackside.
“Well, dear, we’ve launched our first girl,” he said, putting his hand on his wife’s shoulder as he waved at Mary, smiling broadly on the other side of the dust-covered window. Catherine waved, too, her teeth clenched into a smile. Tears threatened, but she blinked them back. It would not do to show tears.
“All aboard!” called the conductor, glancing up and down the length of the train. He waved towards the engineer, and the train started moving. Others who had been on the platform were now heading for their cars, but Catherine didn’t move. She continued waving until she knew it was impossible for Mary to see her.
Even when the train had disappeared, Catherine’s feet seemed stuck to the pavement. Henry took her arm.
“Catherine, let’s be on our way. I’ve got to get to that meeting.”
Numbly, she followed Henry to the car, and they drove home in silence.
In the driveway, Henry stopped the car and leaned over to peck Catherine on the cheek. “I’ll be home in two days. Now, go on in and enjoy the peace and quiet.” Catherine managed a weak smile, and went into the house as Henry backed the car down the driveway and out into the street.
The house was still. The younger girls, Elizabeth and Sue, were at school, and the silence hung over the rooms like a shroud.
I really should get busy, Catherine thought. I still need to finish that party dress for Elizabeth, and Sue was hoping I’d get to knitting that red sweater I’ve promised her. And I need to write a letter to Mother. Ever since Henry had been transferred from Minot to Eau Claire in ’39, she’d written her mother weekly. Yet, she didn’t seem to be able to find the energy to get started on these projects.
Off to college! Her daughter! It was wonderful, really, but how she’d miss Mary. She sat down in the faded rocker in the parlor to replay the last few months. It seemed that for the past year, Mary had begun every sentence with, “When I’m in college…” According to Mary, the state college in town was not even a possibility. “That’s for teachers, Mother. I could not be a teacher.”
Catherine had reluctantly agreed with her. Mary didn’t seem to be cut out for teaching. So, Mary would attend the College of St. Theresa. It was Catherine’s alma mater, although she had only attended the girls’ seminary there, not the college. A solid Catholic education was what she and Henry had hoped for each of their children, and with John’s education interrupted by war, they were ready to see Mary’s education continue.
And now the day had come. Mary was on her way across the state, and here was Catherine, already missing her oldest daughter. With only two children at home now, the dinner table would be quieter. The girls had teased her about cooking huge amounts of potatoes as if John were still at home, and now there would be one less child.
What would college be like for Mary? Times certainly had changed since she’d been a schoolgirl in Winona. The mantle clock chimed eleven, and Catherine reminded herself of the chores that needed her attention. Yet she couldn’t seem to rouse herself and get busy. Her mind drifted back to her last days of school and her last trip home after her high school graduation.
Where is my old scrapbook, Kate wondered. She went upstairs and rummaged through an old trunk. I don’t think I’ve looked in here since we moved from Minot five years ago. Then, under an old Hudson blanket, she found it… a worn red-leather-covered scrapbook, the words Girl Graduate embossed on its cover. Letters and sewing would wait.
Kate returned to the parlor and settled into the Lincoln rocker. She opened the book, now tattered and musty with age. In an instant, she was transported back to a warm summer day thirty years ago.
(To be continued….)