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.
Then Kate studied the photographs. The first one she’d glued in was her favorite. She and Gladys, Corine, Charlotte, and Frances had been enjoying a warm day on the campus lawn when someone said, “Wouldn’t it be grand if we could have some ice cream?” The others agreed, but they didn’t have permission to walk off campus. Besides, no one among them had leftover spending money for the treats. Who thought to paint the silly message on the bottoms of their shoes? Kate couldn’t remember, but there in the photograph, she and her four friends sat on the grass, huddled together, the soles of their shoes facing the camera. Each sole bore a letter and together their sentence read, “WE ARE BROKE.” As the train headed west, Kate looked down at her soles, smiling at the now-scuffed, faded letters R and O.
She’d affixed several tennis pictures in her book. In one, she stood courtside, in her navy blue gored skirt, white shirtwaist and tie, racket in hand, and standing with three of her competitors. Would anyone in Minot play tennis? Last summer, she’d tried to convince her sisters Gert and Betty to play on the lawn of their home. She loved the thwack of hitting the ball just so, the grace of a perfect serve, the thrill of a well-played victory, and hoped that tennis wouldn’t disappear from her life.
Winter in Winona was almost as frigid as in Minot. It was nearly impossible to identify who was who in photos of girls in heavy woolen hats, their faces shadowed by wide brims. Each girl held a thick fur muff and wore long, fur-trimmed coat. In this stifling train car, Kate could barely imagine the need for such heavy clothing, but knew that summer days were fleeting. Before long, her woolen coat and muff, now folded away in her trunk, would be mainstays. But the winter wouldn’t be spent studying. No more lectures, no more readings of the classics, no more mandatory chapel services. What would fill her time instead? She did not know.
Tucked in the book were dance programs. Such festive occasions! This year, there was an especially lovely evening to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. The committee had renamed the traditional tunes to fit the occasion: “The Post Exam Rye Waltz”, “The Standing Senior Waltz”, and some livelier numbers, “Our Last free Day Schottische”, “The Lincoln Two-Step”, “The Honorable Junior Two-Step”. Of course, the dance lacked any gentlemen needed for a night when Cupid traditionally shoots his arrow, so the young ladies were left to dance with one another. Well, it was still an enjoyable evening with friends, dressed in their prettiest tea dresses. Hers, now folded in tissue paper in her trunk, was pale blue velvet, edged in ecru lace. She skimmed her dance card… Frances, Marg, Mary, Beatrice, Cecelia.
A stick of White’s Yucatan Chewing Gum, gift-wrapped in tissue and tied in a blue ribbon, made her grin. She did love chewing gum, and her friends never let her hear the end of it. “A young lady does not chew gum,” they teased. One friend had even composed a poem: “Apostrophe to the Gum Chewer.” It read :
Chew on, thou brave and valent person —chew;
Ten thousand times a day you’re told to quit.
The others in despair have gone – but you
No one can scare: – and hard you’re hit
With every slam – but still the gum remains
In every class your fame some increase gains.
You’re made stand up in “convo” every day
But yet you chew on in your very noisy way
And go around among us all
Still happy and still gay.”
Yet Kate had continued her gum habit, surreptitiously enjoying a piece while attending a lecture and delighting in her infamy among friends. She vowed to keep the gum and the poem forever in her red book, along with a typed admonition she’d removed from the notice board in the dormitory. Kindly notice: The students are asked not to pick the blossoms from the fruit trees and shrubbery. Mother Superior had not discovered just which girls were the culprits. All harmless mischief, anyway, Kate told herself.
(To be continued…)