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.

Dust to Digital

The ancestors live on ...
The ancestors live on …

About a month ago, our middle son returned after a year of work/travel abroad. He’s an easygoing sort, as comfortable nestled in a sleeping bag in the highlands of New Zealand as he is on a ratty basement couch. A good thing this. While he was off with the Kiwis, I was feathering his old nest in vintage Attic style. Out with the bunk beds and Pink Floyd posters, in with the Colonial end table, the Empire rocking chair, the spool-turned, “three quarters” bed. Matt, who stands at just under six foot two, must stretch out diagonally to comfortably sleep. Moreover, he wakes each morning to see his great grandfather’s Dental License hanging on one wall and opposite, a series of ancient family crests, all of which I’ve been meaning to re-frame but well, haven’t. A squirt of Windex and a firm swipe and they’re (almost) mildew-free.

Matt (full name Mattingly Payne … see how that noble crest makes the room his own?) is a good sport about his Attic-inspired digs. (Does he have a choice as he deliberates his future while working three part-time jobs?) He’s such a good sport that he’s agreed to help out with The Attic Project, Phase Two (part-time job number four!). At long last I’ve begun to sort through the mangy boxes and bins I dragged last spring from my mother’s house to mine, and somehow I’m now a little less enamored with, for example, the non-functional travel iron, the stained taffeta trousseau dress, the broken down high chair and my old Easy Bake Oven.

My school lunch box, circa 1968. No reason to save this, right? Then again ...
My school lunch box, circa 1968. No reason to save this, right? Then again …
“Will not Heat.” Good to know, Mom!

What in the heck do I do with all this stuff? The temptation to heft it straight up to my own attic is strong. This has become my husband’s greatest wish. Never has he been so eager … I can carry those boxes on up for you. There’s plenty of room up there! I refuse him. I know myself too well. As long as these treasures remain close at hand, stacked and gathering dust in plain view, I will eventually make myself organize and properly store them. Once it’s all out of sight? No dice.

We begin with the letters. Hundreds of letters. Include the sundry Christmas/Valentine’s/Anniversary cards, and it’s a clean thousand. Cross my heart. Matt reminds me he’s a bit of an expert at archiving, having worked just out of college for a company called “Dust to Digital,” where he scanned and preserved papers and albums left behind by forgotten folk artists. Parfait! So I’ll take the old fashioned tasks and he’ll digitize. Armed with new acid-free, archivally-safe sleeves, I open out yellowed missive number one, June 1938, penned by my mother, still single, a 19 year-old Agnes Scott student, to my father, a recent Georgia Tech grad who’d taken a sales job with National Theatre Supply Company in Albany, NY. I slide the pages and their matching envelope into the sleeve, tag it by date, and move on. Only I don’t move on. I stop to read the letter. And the next one, and one more, and soon I realize Matt is scanning and documenting at a rate of about five to my one.

A small sampling of the notes, cards, letters saved.
A small sampling of the notes, cards, letters saved.

Ah, to be young and efficient again. But look here … after a summer and autumn of bi- or tri-monthly letters sometimes mundane but often flirtatious, my mother one January day pauses, mid-letter, to announce: “Ed, I feel that I must tell you something right now …” Uh-oh. “… Above all, a person must always be true to himself …” Mother! “What I’m trying to say is this–I am in love with someone in Florida. You told me last fall that I must tell you whenever I fell. Well, on New Years’ Eve I suddenly realized that it had happened to me. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s the dentist.”

The dentist?!? A love interest kind of dentist? I’m so intrigued I read the letter aloud, even the part where Sara begs Ed to remain her friend (!). “It would hurt me terribly if I thought you didn’t understand … You are one of the finest people I know. Don’t ever change your big ideals!” And she signs off not “Love,” as previously, but “Always, Sara.”

By now, my youngest has joined us in the kitchen … “That’s so weird Mom,” he says. “I know!” I say. “A Dear John letter!” “No …” he says. “I mean, the way they wrote back then. So weee-ird.” Well, yes. They used pen and paper. And full sentences! Punctuation even!! But I know what he means. There’s a strange and somehow innocent formality to my parents’ correspondence. It’s still there later, after my father–who wasn’t about to give up the fight–invites my mother to come up and visit the 1939 Worlds’ Fair. After much fretting that my grandfather couldn’t afford the train fare, she tagged along on a friend’s road trip. By this time, sweet Sara was sending Ed her love again and flirting right along. Two weeks after the Worlds’ Fair weekend, she writes, “This afternoon I was putting a few things in my scrapbook and what memories they brought back. Ed, it all seems like a dream now! Will you ever forget the Waldorf Astoria? The other night I listened to Guy Lombardo’s orchestra and pretended we were dancing together again …”

Letter my mother wrote the evening my father returned to Albany after their outing to the 1939 Worlds' Fair.
Letter my mother wrote the evening my father returned to Albany after their outing to the 1939 Worlds’ Fair.

A year and a half later, they were married (see Stardust Memories, Parts I and II, there in the sidebar, just a click away!). Today, November 8th, would have been their 74th anniversary. I look around at my house strewn with papers and odd souvenirs (and archival sleeves!) and decide, yeah, it’s worth it. Thanks to Matt, my brothers and sister, my nieces and nephews, my children and (yikes) grandchildren, will be able to enjoy this little slice of family history. Maybe they’ll think, “Hmmm. Weird.” But they might smile while they’re at it, the way I can’t stop doing myself.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad, no thanks to the Florida dentist!Fancy Joe and Pop

PS! You might notice I’ve tinkered with my blog’s layout. I may totally rework it soon … comments and suggestions welcome!

Stardust Memories, Part II

From Mom, a week pre-wedding–“I begin to wonder if I am going to disappoint you. But then all at once I think about our love …”.

4:20 PM, November 8th, 1941. As my father predicted, it’s a mild, breezy afternoon. In my grandmother’s verdant back yard, there’s a hint of sulfur on the air, wafting in from the deep black waters of the Suwannee River a few miles away. The camellia bushes my grandfather tends with daily care bloom pink and red all around, and over there, near a trellised archway woven with ivy and white ribbon, a small pond swims with goldfish. Just back of the archway, a family friend taps out a tune soothing but playful on her piano as her violinist follows her lead. Behind them, the wedding cake lies whole and gleaming on a folding table covered in white linen.

A handful of friends down from Atlanta gather beneath a dogwood tree, where a clutch of Live Oak-ians greet them. With his best man, my grandfather Mattingly, at his elbow, my father moves confidently among his guests, laughing, charming them so that the Baptists have to wonder what gave rise to their misgivings about him and his faith. Inside, in the kitchen, my mother’s maternal aunts arrange deviled eggs on a platter, finger sandwiches on a tray. They stay busy, keeping their eyes off the clock, while in the front bedroom, my Aunt Bum, the maid of honor, fusses with my mother’s veil. My grandmother paces. My mother, standing to keep from wrinkling her ivory moire dress, holds back tears.

“Where can that man be …” says my efficient grandmother, her small heavy shoes creating a racket on the wood floor. “I’ve half a mind to send George (my grandfather) out after him.”

My aunt peers out the window, then at her watch—4:25 now, but no sign of Father McLoughlin …

Strangely, the attic has yet to give up photos of my parents’ wedding, only a portrait or two of my mother in her gown. I can picture it, though. I spent many summer days playing on that green lawn, poking at the goldfish, somersaulting in the grass, hiding and seeking my cousins from next door. And the Good Father did show up, of course, in a station wagon according to family lore, and for some reason, my mother always rolled her eyes at this detail. A priest in a station wagon? Driving a family car? But drive up he did, gunning along the unpaved driveway in a puff of dust. The radio blared through his open windows—Notre Dame football, and whether this endeared him to my father or not is hard to say. Dad and his friends were rabid Tech Yellow Jacket fans, so the football was good. Notre Dame, not so much. But he had made it. Stepping out grinning and rumpled, I imagine Father McLoughlin calming the wedding party with a light Irish brogue. From there, the ceremony proceeded without a hitch.

From the Atlanta Constitution: "…her finger-tip length veil of antique ivory illusion tulle was caught to her dark tresses by a coronet of pleated tulle."
From the Atlanta Constitution: “…her finger-tip length veil of antique ivory illusion tulle was caught to her dark tresses by a coronet of pleated tulle.”

Later, my parents were off on their honeymoon, to Pensacola and Mobile and New Orleans. The first evening, after my father hung his clothes in the hotel closet, he came out dressed for dinner, eyes brimming. He touched my mother’s arm and said, “Your clothes are lined up right next to mine!” She must have kissed him then. I’m sure she did.

A month and a day later, bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor and my parents world turned upside down, the way the world will. Before long, my father would be back on the road, for basic training and that sort of thing. They wrote more letters, lots more, back and forth from Live Oak and Atlanta to army bases around the South. They were lucky. My father, blind in one eye since childhood, couldn’t very well shoot a gun, so he served his time stateside while his cronies were sent off to France and Italy and beyond.

My parents had a good marriage, certainly a resilient one (62 years!).  They had their rough patches, their losses and heartaches. Mom could be stubborn, a little spoiled, but then Dad was the one who indulged her. And he could be controlling to a fault. Late in their lives together, as my father began to suffer the effects of Alzheimer’s, I saw cracks and fissures between my parents I’d never suspected before. This upset my siblings and me. They were our parents. Their devotion should have been strong enough to weather anything, even the dissolution of my father’s very personality. Maybe because of this, for a time after my father died I found myself feeling a little angry at my mother. Now, eleven years later with both of them gone, I’m grateful for the years we had with Mom alone, grateful, too, that she saved everything, all these letters and photos and yes, even the toothpicks. (She threw a great party, after all!) By leaving behind these mementoes, these ordinary objects that now seem magical, Mom has given us a glimpse into their past, their shining youth, where my parents will dance forever to the sounds of Glenn Miller and Bennie Goodman, my father’s heart swelling as he holds close this woman he knows will make his dreams come true.

And when the band eases into their mutual favorite, Stardust–well, they both knew nothing could stop them.

Mom and Dad in the early 1990s. Their children and grandchildren were gathered just behind the rocks.
Mom and Dad in the mid 1990s. Their six children and upwards to fifteen grandchildren–the family my father dreamed of–were gathered just behind the rocks.
Perhaps their last dance, at my nephew's wedding in 2001.
Perhaps their last dance, at my nephew’s wedding in 2001.

… Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody,
The memory of love’s refrain.