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.
Her mother pulled some yarn out of her bag and began knitting. ‘Katy, when we get home, would you like to join the ladies’ knitting circle? They’d love to have you, and you might meet some of the new young women who’ve settled in town.”
“That would be nice, Mother,” Kate replied, but her heart wasn’t in it. She imagined sitting among a group of middle-aged matrons, feigning interest in their conversations about pie recipes and babies.
Mother continued, “You know Elizabeth Gunderson and Emily Wolf, don’t you? Remember I told you that Elizabeth had married in October to a widower with two small children? She’s become a good mother to them, poor little things. And there’s a summer wedding in the offing for Emily and a nice young farmer from outside of town.”
Kate gave her mother a noncommittal look. Of course, she knew both from her childhood school days. Elizabeth, a year or two older than Kate, was as dull as dishwater and rarely said a word. Emily – she was so flighty, constantly giggling. Spare me from both of them, Kate thought.
As her mother busied herself with her knitting, Kate stared out the window. The rhythmic clacking of the train seemed to say, “Back to Minot, back to Minot.” Kate pictured her hometown, no longer the collection of sod shacks her father often told them about. Yes, now the streets were wood-paved, a hotel or two had sprung up on Main Street, and farmers came to town daily to purchase goods at the local stores. There were grain elevators, churches, a new park along the Mouse River, and even a theater. The Ehr home, with its wide lawn and large porches, was a source of pride to her parents. It was home, but, oh, she would miss St. Clare’s.
I’m seventeen now, so I suppose my youth is behind me. I’m a young woman now, and I must act like one. I’ll do my best, I promise.
Her mother interrupted her reverie. Remember when we first took you to St. Clare’s?” she asked. ”You were so nervous about being away from home. Remember how you cried when your father and I said our goodbyes?”
Kate managed a weak smile. “Yes, I remember, “she admitted. To herself, she said, But that was just so long ago. I was only a child back then. Her mind drifted back to those first days in the dormitory, where she shared a room with three other girls: Charlotte, Olive, and Gladys. The first days had been a whirl of unpacking, attending chapel, learning a long list of regulations. Each night, when she put on her nightgown and crawled into bed, tears she’d been holding back all day leaked out from the corners of her eyes. I want to go home, I want to go home, she said to herself over and over. Why did my parents send me here? Why couldn’t I have stayed in Minot? Of course, she knew why. It had been explained to her over and over.
“It will be a good opportunity for you. You’ll continue learning. There is no school in Minot for girls who have passed eighth grade.”
Yes, she knew all of the reasons, but surely her parents didn’t want her to be miserable. As she stifled her sobs into her pillow, she became aware of the muffled whimpers and sniffles of the girl in the bed near hers. Kate lay still, straining to listen. Was her roommate, Charlotte, crying too?
Yes, there it was again… a muted sob. Who was it? Not Olive or Gladys. Their beds were on the other side of the room, and she could hear a soft snore coming from that direction.
“Charlotte?” she whispered.
“What?” came a quiet reply.
“Are you all right?”
A pause… “Mm-hmm.”
“It sounds like you’re crying.”
Another pause, then a sniffle. “I’m just feeling homesick,” Charlotte whispered back.
Relief washed over Kate. I’m not the only one! “It’s all right. I’m missing home, too,” she said softly. “My mother said that I would become used to St. Clare’s in time, but right now I don’t know if I ever will.”
“My mother said the same thing,” said Charlotte. “I suppose that’s what all mothers say.”
Kate smiled to herself. “Say, would you like to sit near me in chapel tomorrow morning?”
“Yes, let’s,” said Charlotte.
“Good night, Charlotte,” Kate said, feeling a bit more optimistic.
The next day, she and Charlotte walked together to chapel, and then, at breakfast, their conversations went from stilted and awkward to more lively. By the end of the week, it seemed they’d known each other all their lives.The other roommates, Olive and Gladys, joined in their conversations more readily as well, and the bond was formed, just as Mother told her it would. But now, Kate thought, I’m miles away from these friends. Who can I converse with, laugh with, tease with, back home.
(To be continued…)