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 flipped through her scrapbook until she came upon the program for Senior Essays. Each student had been required to write and present an essay on a self-selected topic, and the assignment had hung over the girls’ heads for months. First, the class was divided into five groups, each assigned a presentation date. She had been relieved that her group date was February 8, plenty of time to write a thorough essay. The first group – Agatha, Mildred, Helen, Iowa, Fern, and Esther—had moaned and groaned all during autumn about their November date. “How will I ever be ready?” “You lucky ducks! You don’t have your turn for ages!” Yet, once Group One completed their essays, they smugly watched their classmates suffer through their own anxieties and nervousness. The April group, who had first delighted with the luxury of months to plan, eventually complained about having to worry month after month. “If only we could have gone first! We’d be finished and free as birds by now!”
The topics chosen were telling reflections of the authors. Agatha, who alarmed her classmates with strident talk about the rights of women, wrote “The Evolution of the American Girl.” Colletta, ever fashionable, wrote “The Art of Dress-making.” Several had chosen geographical topics: “California, The Land of Beauty”, “The Blue Grass State”, “Our Northern Neighbor.” Gladys’s topic enchanted them all: “The Charm of Mother Goose.”
Kate was pleased that she had taken a religious path for her essay, “Father John Bannister Tabb.” Father Tabb’s poetry, especially the ones with Catholic themes, had come to mean so much to her. Her favorites were about the rosary, providing spiritual insight into her daily recitation. Kate whispered one poem she’d memorized:
” One through Mother Mary, we
With Thy warm humanity;
And through Thee, her only Son,
With our heavenly Father one;
Motherless the world above,
Earth had closer claims of love.”
She sighed as she recalled her father’s remark about modeling herself after the Blessed Mother. His admonition still stung, even though the comment was months old. I do so want to be like our Blessed Mother. But just what exactly does that mean? Maybe more of Father Tabb’s words can guide me.
Kate considered taking out her rosary, but resisted. I’ll get to it later, she assured herself, and continued browsing through her scrapbook.
Ha! Here were a silly drawing from Charlotte, described as “Another masterpiece by the leader of sketch works – Miss Kate Margaret Stubbs Snookums Baby her is here presented in full attire as she was on exhibition in the physics class on March 19, 1914. I trust the onlooker and patient reader will sympathize with the artist. The bad points of the picture are not the fault of the genius but of the spectator – yours in discust, Charlotte A. Glynn.” Kate smiled at her friend’s misspelling and examined her likeness, sitting straight and looking forward, her sailor collar tied in a perfect bow, her feet resting on the rungs of the chair in front of her. Fairly accurate and detailed, she thought. How on earth did Charlotte manage to draw this while she was supposed to be taking notes, and yet still excel in the class?
Another picture was labelled “Kate Ehr, beating back to old N.D. in June.” Her artistic friend depicted her wearing a huge wide-brimmed black hat, its flowers extending skyward. Kate glanced at the simple yellow straw hat, trimmed with tiny daisies, next to her on the train seat. Nowhere near as fashionable as the one Charlotte had imagined, nor am I wearing the tango beads or the tight skirt she sketched. Yet here I am, heading back to N.D., far away from my lively pals. Another sketch titled “Kate next summer” showed her in an elaborately feathered cloche and a hobble skirt topped with a belted, short coat. The costumes in the pictures looked so sophisticated, something a city girl might wear. Could a girl in Minot wear such fashionable clothes?
Kate mentally sorted through her trunk. Her gored skirts in navy and gray, several white cotton blouses, a navy tie or two, a wool Pendleton plaid skirt for the coldest of days, or even her two pastel tea dresses were serviceable, but not as refined as the fashions that graced the pages of The Delineator or Ladies Home Journal. I’m a practical sort, but a plumed hat or one with layers upon layers of flowers might be fun. But what would the families at St. Leo’s say? She eyed her mother, whose own black straw sat on the seat next to her. Mother would not approve, she told herself. Still, Kate envied some of her friends who were going home to big cities – Minneapolis and Milwaukee. She recalled the photograph of a green and red silk dress layered in tulle that she and Olive had admired in a recent issue of The Delineator. Featuring a daring neckline, it was described as a restaurant dress. A restaurant dress in Minot? Surely not! Kate tried to imagine the social occasions for young adults in Minot, but her mind drew a blank.
Mother and Father often invited others into their Valley Street home where Mother served elegant meals in the dining room. At Christmastime, Kate was included in one dinner party. At first she had been excited to be treated as an adult, but as the evening wore on, she could not wait to escape the table. Mr. Svenson, seated at her right, had rambled on about his new automobile, while Mrs. Schmidt, on her left, spoke only of her grandchildren. Kate had made her excuses as soon as she could, grateful to retreat to her room with a novel. If this is what adults call fun, I want no part of it, she’d said to herself.
(To be continued…)