A Rose for Miss Louise

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A few of the more colorful selections from my Aunt Louise’s hat collection

I was seventeen when I first read “A Rose For Emily,” William Faulkner’s eerie tale of tribute to a spinster with attitude. I loved it. The story had just the right blend of macabre romance and Southern sensibility to appeal to my teenaged self, at once idealistic and sentimental. What’s more, I felt a whisper of warm recognition, even affection (despite the arsenic), for Emily Grierson and the “big squarish frame house” where she lived alone in early 20th century Mississippi. I knew that close musty air, the heavy walnut bed beneath rose-shaded lights, the Victorian trinkets and the lace doilies on coffee tables and upholstered chairs. In fact, I knew Emily. I once had a spinster of my own, my Aunt Louise, who walked with a cane and wore frumpy dresses, cameo brooches, pearls, and hats. Always a hat, and for Sunday Mass, a netted veil to cover her impish face.

Louise was my father’s aunt, my great aunt, though when I was very young that relationship failed to compute. She was just Weezer (pronounced Wee-za), sometimes “the Weez,” and I loved her the way my friends did the grandmothers they visited on Sundays or shared jello with at Morrison’s Cafeteria or listened to on the phone with half an ear (Yes, Weez, I’ve done my homework and passed a healthy, ahem, stool today).

As I’ve mentioned all too often, my father’s mother died when he was four. In the chaotic aftermath it was Weezer, thirty-something and single, who stepped in to raise him and his brother. A staunch Catholic, by the time I came along she lived three blocks from the cathedral and the parochial elementary school I attended. On afternoons when my mother was off at her book group or shopping, I would sling my book bag over my shoulder and walk those three blocks in my plaid dress and saddle oxfords. Weezer would greet me at the door with a smile (not much of a hug on account of germs), ask me about my day, and dodder off to dish up the snack I was allowed only at her house: Underwood Deviled Ham on Sunbeam bread.

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The Beck and Gregg catalog, 1941, priced for collectors now at $200. I like to think Weezer, a clever writer, had a hand in editing it.

You were expecting Tollhouse cookies? A slice of peach pie or at the very least, homemade fruitcake? Nope, Weezer wasn’t much of a cook. I’m not sure she even owned a mixing bowl. Born the third of four daughters in 1886 in Greensboro, Georgia, Louise Bourne Bickers was a working girl. I’m not sure how she ended up in Atlanta, but I know she and at least two of her three sisters did. For fifty plus years, Weezer worked at the headquarters of Beck and Gregg Hardware downtown. She was good at it. Her obituary mentions that for a time she served as “Mr. Beck’s private secretary.” Early on, Weezer needed the money, the stability to weather the Depression with her adopted sons, but as I sift through some of the letters and memorabilia that migrated from her attic to my mother’s and now, figuratively speaking, to mine, I have to wonder. Did something more keep her on board at Beck and Gregg? Could it be my great aunt kept taking dictation and typing up work orders even as her septuagenarian joints protested, because she, like Faulkner’s Emily, had a dangerous liaison?

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A holiday greeting from the man I knew only as “Mr. Strickland.”

“Dear Louise …” writes one Paul B. Strickland, also late of Beck and Gregg, in a shaky blue script. “Being a poor hand at selecting presents, it is hoped the enclosed will be acceptable as it carries my wish for you the merriest of Christmas greetings … It would be best if you would use it for something you desire for yourself. Very pleasing to me but use it as you wish and I will be happy. Sincerely, with love, Paul. December 25th, 1961.” This is the only missive in which Paul addresses Weezer as Louise. Otherwise, it’s “Miss Bickers,” though tellingly, he signs off Paul, and with love, in each of three I’ve found. A 1962 letter concludes “with a heart full of love to you.”

Family letters as early as the 1930s mention him. In a note from September 1953, my uncle writes from Ohio to make plans for a visit home. “Reckon Paul would let you off Monday afternoon?” he asks. Aha! Paul was the boss. Attagirl, Weez. My father used to joke about catching Weezer and “Mr. Strickland,” as we knew him, together on the living room couch when they were younger. If Mr. Strickland’s arm happened to have found its way around Weezer’s shoulders, he did the quick head-scratch retraction upon my father’s approach, as if they were naughty teenagers. My brothers and sister remember his Sunday afternoon visits in later years. Dressed in coat and tie, he would sit a proper distance from Weez on the dusty glider on her front porch, smile, and say little. By this time, Paul lived alone in the Hotel Georgian Terrace in midtown while Weezer had retired and moved six miles north to that big squarish house. After seeing each other over their second cup every day for decades, they must have felt oceans apart.

Still they kept up their visits, and after Weezer lost another sister and a niece in the 1962 Air France crash at Orly, Mr. Strickland was right there by her side. Why did they never marry? Wherein lay the danger in this liaison? Simply in workplace etiquette? Perhaps early on Weezer hesitated to introduce a new father figure into what was already a dysfunctional situation for my father and uncle. Or maybe Mr Strickland was reticent about engaging in that dysfunction, though there’s no evidence of it. But later? Ten, twenty, thirty years later? My mother’s theory, which no doubt trickled down from my father’s clan, was that Weezer was afraid of passing along the TB she contracted as a girl, that even after being cured she vowed never to kiss a man. Hmm. My brother Tom posits that perhaps Mr. Strickland was, God forbid, a Protestant. Might Weezer’s fierce faith have led her to resist his advances, maybe even to use the TB rationale to soften the blow while avoiding a “sinful” entanglement?

The Attic, though teeming with rosaries and relics of the saints, has yet to provide a clear answer. Weezer was a prolific letter writer, or letter-typer, I should say. She tapped away with dry wit on Beck and Gregg letterhead, often annotating and always signing by hand. Two weeks before my parents’ wedding, she needles my father about expensive gifts and potential guests and updates him on a family controversy concerning their write-up for the paper. “When I get ready to announce my engagement …” she writes. “I’m going to write it myself, or get St. Peter to do it.” And handwritten on the reverse is this: “Will there be any question about the priest marrying you in Sara’s back yard? Better see!”

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Letter (misdated 1951 but sent in ’41) Weezer wrote to my father a few weeks before his wedding.

My mother was a Baptist. The logistics of getting them hitched by a proper priest in her small Florida town created many a sleepless night for my father’s kin. Heck, the idea of their marrying at all gave them apoplexy. In this day of destination weddings and bachelorette weekends and TV rose ceremonies, it’s easy to look back and laugh at their anxiety, but to Weezer and her family, marriage was more sacrament, less party. The traditions of the Church mattered to them. A lot. And yet, in the end Weezer gave my parents her blessing. She bent the rules for the man she’d raised and loved like a son. Why not for herself?

I googled Paul B. Strickland/Beck and Gregg the other day, and came up empty. I did a search on Ancestry.com and found a possible match in a man born June of 1883, died August 15, 1970. Makes sense. My clearest memories are of visiting Mr. S in a nursing home. Beyond that, no updates, no ancestry leaf-hints. Who was this man my surrogate grandmother loved? I couldn’t let it go. So I went to the downtown library, wrestled long minutes with the microfiche machine, and found his obituary: “Services for Paul B. Strickland, 87, … will be held at Concord Baptist Church at 3 pm.” Baptist. It was also noted Mr. Strickland had resided in Atlanta and that he’d retired as vice president from Beck and Gregg Hardware seven years prior. Retired, at 80. He was survived, as Weezer would be two years later, only by nieces and nephews.

Late in her spinsterhood, Faulkner’s Emily Grierson finds a sweetheart in Homer Barron, a Yankee foreman on a scalawag-inspired construction project. Some in town are hopeful Emily will marry at last. Others, namely her out-of-town kin, are scandalized by the idea of Emily taking up with a Yankee. Their outrage, perhaps stoked by Emily’s pride, leads to a haunting conclusion some see as a twisted sort of triumph for Emily. Faulkner later said this about his story: “I pitied [Emily], and this was my salute … to a woman you would hand a rose.”

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“Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”

I don’t pity my Aunt Louise. I admire her. She bound together a splintered young family, supported her sisters, cared for her aging parents. In a time when women didn’t much, she built a career for herself and found fulfillment in it. She lost two sisters far too young and outlived a third. And across town–who knows, maybe just where she wanted him–she had a partner through it all. December, 1949: Weezer writes my father to thank him for sending a Christmas card and a photo of my older siblings. “There is a Santa Claus!” she begins, and goes on to describe the scene in her office when she opened the card: “First Man: ‘Who are those children?’ Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.’ First Lady: ‘Whose children, All three so pretty?’ Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.'” This goes on through another Lady and three Men with like responses before Weezer signs off, with love. Then a PS, as if she just can’t hold it in: “Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”

A tip of the hat to your beau, Miss Louise, and a dozen roses to you.

The Power of Stuff … or Here’s to You, Elisabeth

Attic Fans: I’m honored to welcome Laura Schalk as my first guest blogger. I like to think of Laura, a lifelong bookworm raised in Poughkeepsie who now lives and works abroad, as my very own American in Paris. We met a decade ago at a writers’ workshop held not far from Hemingway’s old haunts on the Left Bank. Thanks to the bottomless generosity of one of our workshop members, we and six others from that initial group have continued to gather each summer to work, study, write, eat and laugh together in Bordeaux. (And the local grape, we enjoy a bit of that, too.) Despite the miles that separate us, we have become the best of friends. 

Like me, Laura lost her mother a few years ago. Like my mother, Elisabeth Schalk was a discerning reader who had a flair for fashion and a tendency to hold tight to what she loved, be it a shiny pair of patent heels, a box full of paperbacks, or her beloved family. Laura’s tribute to her mother here is graceful and true.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have. And by the way, Laura writes insightfully hilarious short fiction, too. Be sure to check it out through the Amazon link that follows …

 

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With my mother and her mother, and my brother Peter behind, circa 1970. I still have Mom’s Icelandic sweater. Much to my regret, the groovy shades have vanished.

Martha and I have chatted many times over the years about our mothers: when they were alive and when they were dying, and later as we were coping with their deaths and with the resulting need to plow through the detritus of a beloved and fashionable woman’s years on the planet. Across two continents, we’ve shared the attendant emotions which that particular and at times painful task has stirred up – laughter through the tears and all that jazz.

When I read the first installment of “My Mother’s Attic,” I was jerked through space and time from sitting in a chair in my living room in Paris, to sitting on the floor of my parents’ bedroom in Poughkeepsie, New York, heartsick and hot and dusty. My mom was still alive then but in a nursing home, and far gone with Alzheimer’s. My dad had decided to put the family house up for sale, and I had flown back from France to spend three days going through Mom’s stuff.

Although this had taken place several years before, as I read Martha’s blog post, suddenly there I was on my parents’ bedroom floor again, pulling pair after pair of black size eleven shoes out of the cupboards that lined the baseboard. Black flats, black sandals, black loafers, black half boots – dozens and dozens of pairs, all stretched and worked and bearing the marks of Mom’s dear feet, some emitting puffs of dust and others disgorging dead flies or hornets. (At the Lutheran Care Center, my mother and the other residents on her ward wore white sneakers with Velcro closings, though very few of them walked at all.)

While I worked, my dad holed up in his study downstairs and left me to it. My equipment: a box of extra large black Hefty garbage bags, a marker, post-its, tape. After tossing most of those damn shoes, I dove into closets and drawers full of my mother’s clothes. One of the tics of Alzheimer’s is that people tend to re-buy the same thing, and Mom was no exception. I found stacks of barely worn pastel Eileen Fisher dresses, identical black “agnes b” separates, and bushels of handbags. I shared out a dozen pair of black leather gloves amongst my girlfriends, and returned home with twenty purse-sized bottles of Purell. Dad and I made multiple trips to the Salvation Army in downtown Poughkeepsie, unloading our flotilla of garbage bags from the back seat and trunk. To cheer each other up, we told ourselves that women from the area who were looking for jobs would find their happiness and good luck in interview outfits, courtesy of Mom.

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Mom was an avid reader throughout her life. Here are a few of her best old books, one with her inscription.

Each day during this seemingly endless process, I cooked elaborate meals – magret de canard, frisée salad with lardons, crab salad tucked into beefsteak tomatoes, the mayonnaise homemade. Dad and I brought out the good china and silver and crystal (including glasses Mom never let us use) for both lunch and dinner. Between bouts of cooking and sorting, I meandered through the house putting post-its on chairs, paintings, a desk, that read, “Laura – Paris.” At the time, this seemed a momentous and never ending task and I struggled to see the point of shipping all that stuff home.

And yet, as I prepared the other weekend for a dinner party, I set the table in my flat on Rue de la Chine with my parents’ wedding silver. I put tapers in some candlesticks that used to grace the dining room table of my youth. I didn’t serve my friends anything as refined as the meals Mom would spend a day preparing (Julia Child’s coq au vin, lemon-lime soufflé), but I felt joyful carving my basic roast chicken on a lovely old Willowware china platter. And when my friend Nadia had a recent dinner party of her own, I brought a few things along … we ate Berber chickpea stew (a recipe from Nadia’s mum), served on my parents’ pink linen placemats with matching napkins. I’m sure my mother, ever the expert and gracious hostess, would smile to see her old treasures being used in other’s homes, and used again.

It may be reductive and even ridiculous to state that my mother is dead but lives on through her wool coat, her books, or the much-mended eight foot long white linen tablecloth she rescued from the dissolution of her own parents’ home. But still, to this day I can’t leave the house without wearing or taking along some item of Mom’s: a ring, a bracelet, a slippery Hermes scarf that I never can tie with her Seven Sisters’ insouciance. And when some months ago, the chain to one of Mom’s necklaces broke as I was getting dressed and the pendant dropped to the floor and rolled from sight, I wept. I crawled around on all fours searching until, already late to my meeting, I had no choice but to give up. I shoved one of her rings on my finger, reapplied mascara and left the flat.

As time passes, I continue to muse about the lingering power of objects that have been owned, held, chosen, worn by our loved ones. Is it unhealthy, superstitious to confer such mojo on material things? Perhaps. Probably. And yet, in amongst the clutter my mother left behind, there were multiple potent talismans, enough to buoy her daughter, to propel her through the days ahead.

POSTSCRIPT: As I prepped for the Women’s March in Paris last week, I was sure to wear the t-shirt my father gave me years ago, one which sadly is now more relevant than ever, and says, “Women’s rights are human rights! Stop the Republican war on women!” But I also gave full reign to my mania for talismans and wore or carried a panoply of objects from beloved women and men in my life: bracelets, a necklace, earrings, a pin, a flask and Dop kit and a handkerchief. Before I headed out, I tucked a water bottle bearing photos of my nephews in my knapsack and slipped my mother’s wedding ring on my finger, a thick gold band whose inscription is still visible: “Amor vincit Omnia.”

–Laura Schalk                                                                                                                                        

Laura’s short fiction is anthologized in “That’s Paris: An Anthology of Life, Love, and Sarcasm in the City of Light” and “Christmas, Actually: A Holiday Collection.” You can find both at http://amzn.to/2jL4Oun.   

Stardust Memories

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My father in his Army Dress, circa 1943

Meet my father–orphan, teetotaler, puller-up of bootstraps. WWII Veteran, Laundromat owner, Roman Catholic, one-eyed tennis ace. Successful man of business, devotee of Big Band music, swing dancer, and apparently, a closet romantic.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, it seemed high time I opened a few of the hundreds of letters we’ve found stashed willy-nilly in rotting cardboard under the attic eaves. There’s quite an array–notes from my grandparents to my mother, my mother to my aunt, my father to his aunt, my sister to my mother and my brothers and me and vice versa, my best friends to me and my cousin to my mother and back to their father. Then, take all these fine folks and shuffle them in whatever permutation you like, and I’d bet a crisp dollar my mother’s attic houses some sort of missive between them. It’s overwhelming, the reams of yellowed paper and the lines and lines of grimy print, overwhelming and dear and on some other day, I’ll fret over how sad it is to think our grandchildren won’t even know what they’re missing. Or will they? Maybe they’ll get a hankering to jet through cyberspace in search of our late children’s texts and Instagrams. At least their hands will stay dust-free, carpal-tunnel notwithstanding.

My Parents' Wartime Correspondence
My Parents’ Wartime Correspondence
May 15, 1940, from the Hotel General Forrest in Rome, GA, to Agnes Scott College
May 15, 1940, from the Hotel General Forrest in Rome, GA, to my mother at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta

Where was I? Looking for love, actually, and for better or worse, I found it. It’s a little strange, in a mostly good way, to discover the people our parents were before we existed. For me as the youngest of six, born when my father was 46 and my mother 41, reading letters they exchanged in their twenties is a little dizzying. By the time I grew old enough to consider them a couple, my parents seemed like genial companions, loving with us and caring with each other but never showy. No PDA in our house! My sister, their first-born, confirms that though devoted to each other, they were reserved even in their youth. So imagine my surprise to read this letter my father penned six weeks before his wedding day, from The Eagle Hotel in Concord, New Hampshire, where he was on business with the Coca Cola Company–

In case you didn’t know–I’m in love with you, Young Lady! There’s something in my heart that keeps saying, Sara, Sara! I want to have you as my own, to make you happy, to love you the rest of my days! That voice rules me. I’m helpless under its spell–and terribly happy in being so!

Dad had a rough childhood. He lost his mother at four to the 1918 flu epidemic. His father, a sweet man when sober but mean when not (which was all too often) wasn’t up to raising three kids. Dad’s baby sister was sent to a convent, my father and his older brother to an orphanage, until the day his spinster aunt stepped in to adopt them, making do on her secretarial salary even through the Depression years, which hit, and hard, when Dad was a teenager. Yet somehow, my father emerged level-headed, steady as she goes, bound and determined to build his American dream, along with the stable family he never had.

But gushing with love?!? No, not him! And yet …

October 4th, 1941, five weeks shy of the wedding, from the Stratfield Hotel in Bridgeport, Connecticut–

I can see myself racing to catch the train. Everyone will wonder why I appear so excited. They would be, too, if they were going home to make final arrangements for marrying the loveliest, the sweetest, the grandest, the most wonderful girl in the world! (Pardon my exuberance–you see, I’m in love!). My mind will be glued on one thing–you–on the vision of your face, the sound of your voice, as you whisper in my ear that you love me! When I drive in at 207 Helvenston Street, you had better watch me! I’ll be so happy at seeing you I might sweep you in my arms and kiss you right there in broad daylight!

In seventeen four-page letters over the course of six weeks, often two in one day, my father thus expounded, with great urgency, on the attributes of true love (the fruits of life-long cooperation, finding the path to true happiness in each other …) My mother, oldest daughter of a small-town dentist, was home with her parents in north Florida, busy planning their big day. He addressed her as her My Sweetie and My Dearest and Bright Eyes (that one stuck), and he signed off as Matty, or Your Own Devoted, Ed. My mother answered, in more practical and compact prose, by confirming her devotion then moving quickly to the details of the ceremony. In fact, there’s an anxiety between the lines in these letters, one that had to do mostly with religion.

My mother was raised Southern Baptist, my father, Catholic. They met at a fraternity dance in Atlanta, Mom a freshman at Agnes Scott when Dad was a junior at Georgia Tech (he worked for three “gap” years to pay his way). My mother loved the city and the social life. She dated lots of boys, and danced with even more, but my father was the smartest of them all. “I knew I’d never be bored with him,” she used to say.

One of Mom's Dance Cards, April 8, 1938
One of Mom’s Dance Cards, April 8, 1938
And the line-up … Frank seemed a bit smitten. She kept a few of his letters, too.
And the line-up … This Frank was a bit smitten. She kept a few of his letters, too.

Though my Baptist grandparents liked my father, they didn’t cotton to Protestant and Catholic commingling. They would eventually come around, but thornier problems arose. There was no Catholic Church for miles. This was the Bible Belt. An itinerant Catholic priest made his rounds through town maybe once a month, but he was less than dependable and say they could get him there–where was there? Would they marry in the high school auditorium? The courthouse? The local 4H? Or maybe outdoors? The wedding date was set for November 8th, the announcements ordered, but this was north Florida. You couldn’t trust the weather.

My father, who loved little better than a clear blue day, wasn’t worried.

November 1st, 1941, from his aunt’s apartment in Atlanta—It looks like I was a bit off in my prediction about the full moon. Tonight, old man moon is almost full. He will have grown to his full size by Wednesday night, but he will still be pretty Saturday night, even if he does get up later. More important than the moon is the weather in general! We can very well sacrifice the moon for two beautiful days Friday and Saturday!

Well, like my father and his moon, I’ve waxed on far too long today. I mean, you know the ending, right? So go take a spin around the dance floor this Valentine’s Day Eve, and feel free to tune in tomorrow to learn how ol’ Matty manages to win his best girl.

Sara Lee and her gaggle of guys
And with a gaggle of guys, all not my father
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Mom on the right, beaming up at a chap named Billy Paxton
Dad with someone not my mother!
Dad holding his own