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.
The train clacked along, and the view from the window seemed unchanging. Wheat, wheat, wheat. Kate replayed some of the late-into-the-night chats she’d had with her classmates. Just a few weeks ago, they had sat on their beds, discussing their futures.
“Looks like the rest of us just might end up being spinsters,” Kate joked.
“I’m certainly not looking for a husband,” Charlotte proclaimed. “I want to be an artist and to travel to all of the great art museums in Europe… the Louvre, the Prada.” Her friends snorted at her.
“Really, Charlotte,” Kate said. “You might as well say that you’d like to travel to the moon. What will your father say to this grand idea?” Kate immediately regretted her remarks when she saw Charlotte’s crestfallen expression.
“I’ll convince him. And when I do, would you like to join me?” Charlotte said.
Traveling to Europe? Her parents had taken her to St. Paul once, to visit relatives. She’d been to Milwaukee, too. The tall buildings, the crowds, the congestion of motor cars took her breath away. It was dizzying, but exciting at the same time. What might Paris be like? Or Madrid? Imagine, Charlotte and I visiting Notre Dame Cathedral or shopping for Parisian fashions. Why, it was just too much to comprehend. But, to encourage her friend’s dream, she’d said, “Mais, oui!”
“See, Kate, you already know French,” Charlotte said, laughing.
As for Olive, she’d announced that she dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
“A lawyer!” Gladys shrieked. “Women aren’t lawyers!”
Olive remained firm. “The suffragette movement is spreading, mark my words. Women will be allowed to be lawyers very soon.”
“You sound just like Agatha, with all of her talk about suffrage and women’s rights,” said Gladys. “My father says that women should be content to fulfill their roles as the heart of every home.”
“Oh, pooh,” was Olive’s response. “Women can do any job that a man can do.”
“I agree,” Kate said, but she was skeptical. Didn’t lawyers have to be certified or something? Would the men lawyers allow a woman to do that? Who would ever choose a lady lawyer? She imagined her own father, scoffing at the idea. At his bank, and the other important businesses in Minot, the only employees were men.
By graduation day, Charlotte had not yet convinced her father to send her off to Europe. She’d packed her bags to return to Whitewater, Wisconsin, still holding out hope that she’d be allowed to experience life abroad. Olive was still talking about becoming a lawyer, but for now, she was on her way home to St. Paul, determined to return to the College of St. Theresa in the fall.
Kate was jolted from her reverie when a white-coated porter strode down the train’s aisle, announcing. “Dinner now served! Dinner now served!” Her father folded his newspaper and stood. “Ladies, shall we head to the dining car?”
“Certainly,” said her mother, and they made their way down the aisle, wobbling with the swaying of the train. The dining car was lovely, its walls covered in a dark green brocade, the tables set with gleaming white china on crisp linen tablecloths. Kate eagerly sat down, ready for an elegant meal. A waiter in a starched white coat presented the menus with a flourish. Kate felt grown-up, even sophisticated, as she took in her surroundings.
“Such interesting dishes,” her mother commented, perusing the menu. “Mountain Trout Au Bleu, Boned Pheasant in Aspic, Chicken Almandine. My goodness!”
“I want to try something I’ve never eaten before,” Kate said. “I’ll have the Curry of Lamb Madras, even though I don’t know exactly what that is.”
Her father smiled. “Good for you, Katy. As for me, plain cooking suits me best. I’ll have the roast beef.”
“As will I,” said her mother.
When the meal arrived, Kate was taken aback by the golden color of the lamb sauce, but she kept her trepidation to herself as she took a bite. “Unusual, but tasty,” she declared.
“Mother, this beef is not as good as yours,” her father commented. “I always prefer home cooking.”
“Why, thank you, John. Still, it’s a treat for me to have my dinner served to me,” Mother replied.
As they ate, Kate’s father began talking about the changes in Minot, a favorite topic of his. Kate knew the whole story of how Minot got its start, as her parents told the story over and over. Her father and his brother had arrived from Minnesota in 1886, had lived in a sod hut for the first year, and had gradually acquired and sold farm land. Her mother’s family had come from Minnesota to farm near Minot.
“The population is nearly 7,000! Imagine it,” her father said.
Katy poked at her lamb – it really tasted rather odd – and barely listened as her father listed what was new in town, but a new flour mill, a new law office, and a plumbing concern didn’t interest her. She busied herself with her meal. Could she hide some of the uneaten meat under the parsley garnish? The green beans were good, tasting like green beans should.
“What about any new clothing stores?” she asked.
“Don’t you enjoy Fauchald’s?” her mother asked. “We found that lovely blue velvet there for your tea dress, remember? And Mr. Fauchald is so kind.”
“Yes, I like Fauchald’s,” Kate said, picturing the store’s worn floors, its tin ceiling, its varnished shelves piled high with bolts of fabric. “But my friend Helen told me about the Marshall Field Store she goes to in Chicago. Helen said there’s a Tiffany glass ceiling, twelve floors of shopping, elevators, marble floors, and even a restaurant called the Walnut Room right inside. Can you imagine?”
‘Óh, my!” said her mother. “Wouldn’t it be fun to see that! I think I’d be overwhelmed. We do have a new shoe store, however. It’s near Woolworth’s.”
She’d already visited the Woolworth’s last summer, and her mother had treated her and her sisters to vanilla phosphates at the soda fountain.
Her mother continued, “Bill bought some new oxfords there, and I bought these.” She pointed at her own plain black shoes, nothing like the colorful, ribboned pumps Kate admired in the latest McCalls. She eyed her mother critically. My mother, she told herself, is not a pretty woman. Her face is too round; her bosom is too large, and her dress is so drab. Kate immediately retreated from her disloyal thoughts. Shame on me! Mother is kind, good, and that’s what matters.
“Maybe you can show me the new store, Mother, and then we could go back to Woolworth’s for a phosphate,” Kate said.
“Now wouldn’t that be nice,” her mother said, reaching out to pat Kate’s arm. “I’m so happy you’ll be back home.”
(To be continued…)