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.
Kate considered what life in Minot might be like for her now that she was a graduate. Several of her circle were hoping to become engaged to a special someone soon after graduation, and there was much talk about wedding dresses and china patterns. But Kate couldn’t yet imagine herself as a wife or a mother. Running a household? Taking care of a husband and children? It seemed much too grown up right now. Besides, what eligible young men belonged to her family’s church, St. Leo’s? She sighed and mentally scanned the church pews. A grizzled old bachelor or two, and a young man with dirt under his fingernails. I’ll only marry a devout Catholic, of course, but I also want a refined husband who reads newspapers and books and whose shoes are polished.
But if she didn’t marry? Although she was fond of her teachers, their path was not for her. She turned to their photograph. The Misses Augusta and Elizabeth Sweeney, Miss Edwina Hurlbut, Miss Madeline McDonald, Miss Victoria Laramer, Miss Anna Madden stood together on the teachers’ boarding house lawn, squinting in the sun. Just how old were they, Kate wondered. She inspected Miss Sweeney’s gray hair, Miss Hurlbut’s gaunt, sallow cheeks, Miss Laramar’s wrinkled, dowdy skirt. They really are quite old, maybe even forty, she told herself. Miss Hurlbut was devoted to the study of physics, Miss McDonald’s loved classic literature, Miss Laramar taught exacting lessons on elocution. I couldn’t imagine devoting my life to teaching silly girls year after year. Suddenly, she felt a bit guilty for the jokes she and her friends had made at the expense of these women. It’s rather sad, she thought, living a life of spinsterhood with no marriage prospects. She shuddered.
At Christmastime, Kate had mentioned to her father that she might wish to continue her schooling. After all, the school was a College now, and her favorite teacher, Miss Anna Madden, had encouraged her to continue. Three young women had graduated from the college this year, and several were scheduled to graduate next year.
“You’re a bright, girl, Kate,” Miss Madden had said. “You have a head for learning.”
Kate had been flattered, but her father dismissed the idea.
“You’ve received more education than most girls,” her father had said. “Your brother Bill is attending college, but it’s time for you to return home and then marry someday. You know that your sister Betty will head for St. Clare’s next year, and Gert two years after. Model yourself after the Blessed Mother, Kate.”
Kate knew better than to argue with her father. He loved his three daughters, but Bill, his firstborn and a male child, was favored above all three girls combined. The gilt-framed image hanging on the stairway wall was a symbol of the superiority of her brother. In the original photograph, little Kate and her older brother Bill stood with the family dog, Sport. But when the photograph was oil-painted, Father directed that Kate’s image be painted over, and only Bill and Sport remained visible, a tribute to his only son “to carry on the family name.” Kate often stuck out her tongue at the picture when she walked past this ever-present reminder of Bill’s supremacy in the Ehr household.
Why was Bill so special? He’s really a scoundrel. She mentally catalogued years of injustices he’d put upon her and Gert and Betty – teasing, reporting her to her mother when she failed to complete a chore, weaseling out of chores assigned to him.
In December, she’d been glad when she’d overheard a snippet of an angry conversation between her father and Bill. When she’d heard her father say, “Bill, I need to speak to you in the dining room immediately”, Kate had feigned reading a book in the parlor in order to eavesdrop. “You must stop this carousing,” her father had shouted at Bill. Just what exactly was carousing, Kate wondered. She had a fairly good idea, and Bill’s sheepish expression as he slunk from the dining room and headed upstairs made it clear that he had taken the chastisement to heart, at least temporarily. Still, it wasn’t fair that she, who wanted to learn more, must stay home while Bill, in spite of his bad behavior, continued in college.
Her mother had suggested that she might help serve at the many teas the ladies of Minot attended. And of course, there was church work to do; laundering and ironing the priests’ vestments and the altar linens, arranging flowers, baking for funerals. My days might be full, she thought, but where was the fun? The pleasure of learning?
(To be continued…)