Monday, February 18, 2013

The Mitford Sisters

Book Review: The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

Never having heard of the Mitford Sisters, I tackled this five hundred page work of non-fiction with sixty pages of Source Notes as if I was curious about them and wished to know it all.

Surprisingly enough, their stories ended up fascinating me and making me now an official expert on their varied lives. Except not.

I've asked numerous people if they have heard of them – and all of them had said “uh, no. Who are they?”

They are the six daughters of David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, [1878-1958] and his wife Sydney [1880-1963], daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles. If I were British, all of that title stuff might mean something to me, but I'm not, but I thought you all should know. Oh, and the Mitfords had a son, Tom, who managed to only be noteworthy for dying in Burma at the end of World War II.

Lovell gives all six of these daughters due time in her work.

Coming of age in between the two world wars, the Mitford sisters caused drama in the social and political milieus of Great Britain, and their controversial lives served up much gossip; in fact, one of them, a member of the group with the moniker Bright Young People, seemed always in the “news” during those volatile decades comprising of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

The oldest sister Nancy was a best selling novelist, Diana, considered an “icy” beauty, after divorcing her first husband, the heir to the Guinness fortune, married Sir Osward Mosely, a Fascist leader, Unity Valkyrie, one of the middle daughters, befriended and spent noticeable time with Adolf Hitler and then attempted suicide, Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire, and Jessica, one of the youngest openly aligned herself with the Communist party. Only Pam, the “boring” one, lived a quiet, county life.

I have to admit I enjoyed the book immensely. With the thrust of the book revolving around the time up to World War II, Lovell used the extensive letters exchanged between family members to recreate the lives of these very interesting women. Hard to believe that one family could produce such a group of siblings, but apparently the Mitfords did.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Please, Mrs. Avery...

a top 100 song of 1972, the year I graduated from high school --

 heard it on the radio today, and well, I thought I had forgotten it, but then my head sang, "and the operator said forty cents more..."

Goodness. The things I should have forgotten but haven't.

FTR: Run, Sylvia, run.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Half a Life

In 1988, Darin Strauss was a month away from graduating from high school. As he and a few of his friends headed to play miniature golf, he accidentally hits a classmate and kills her. For the next eighteen years, Strauss carries the guilt of that day and the ghost of Celine, the sixteen-year old girl from his high school who unexpectedly steered her bicycle into the path of his car.

Inexplicably but irrevocably connected, Strauss awoke every day hereafter with the thought of some aspect of that tragedy. Whether it was the way he acted at the scene, half way flirting with two girls who stopped and offered sympathy, or how Celine's father brought him ice tea when he stopped by her home to offer condolences, Strauss suffers and struggles greatly under the weight of the guilt for her death.

He writes, “What I hated in myself, for more than half a life now, was feeling lucky for being alive. For not being blamed. Merely for being allowed to continue, when Celine wasn't. How could anyone be unhappy about that? But how could a person with my story agree to feel relieved and blessed? The accident has formed me. I can no more discard it than I can discard having grown into adulthood.”

Strauss's personal journey reads differently. Perhaps its his acute and sensitive prose, his brutal transparency, his probing and picking at the truth of what happened to him in his past, but there is something extraordinary and original about Half a Life.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mostly Shots

 Margaret, Kenneth, Hunter, 1955

When my parents moved to Atlanta in late July of 1954, they first settled in West End, a suburb of Atlanta. We lived on Westmont Avenue in a small house with a basement. A set of metal steps ran up the side and accessed the kitchen from the driveway. My oldest brother Hunter remembers that the house sat on a slope at the bottom of a hill and at the end of the backyard was a gulch. In the basement was a cuckoo clock, a gift from our Aunt Harriett, but that story is for another blog.

I have no memory of that house. My parents rented it for about six months until they bought the home on Oana Street in southwest Atlanta in January of 1955. There they raised us four children and lived for the next twenty-three years.

Even though we left Westmont and West End, my parents did not leave behind the church they attended, West End Christian, the friends they made, or their pediatricians.

For the next five or six years, we returned to West End to see the Dr. Reynalds, pronounced "Rayno," a husband and wife practice whose office was located on the second floor of an old house on Gordon Street, now renamed Ralph Abernathy Junior Boulevard. Another famous Atlanta historical house occupies this same street --- the Wren's Nest, the home of Joel Chandler Harris, one time editor of the Atlanta Constitution and the creator and author of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, a favorite childhood story book of my family.

The Wren's Nest

West End, up until the 1930s, thrived on the money of well-heeled Atlantans who built grand houses, mostly Victorians, on spacious lots that fronted what would eventually be the new streetcar line. This investment in real estate encouraged a promise of prosperity and made West End a desired location.

By the late 1950s, West End peaked and stalled and a lot of these estates, built at the end of the nineteenth century, had seen their best days. Gordon Street suffered what happens in dying neighborhoods and seceded [what a Southern word!] sections to businesses, but still had a sense of history and pride with the evident still magnificence of some of these former mansions.

The home fa├žade of our pediatricians consisted of red brick, possibly in the Colonial style, and sported towering white columns that held up the overhang of the second story and overlooked a porch that stretched across its front.
The big house perhaps had another business on the first floor or the doctors themselves lived behind those big closed doors, but of that none of us remembers.

What I do have vivid recollections of is – the office itself, the climb up the stairs, and the shots I suffered in its confines. As my sister Margaret and I both reminisced, we seem to concur on the fact that we "mostly got shots" there.

What kind of shots? I dunno. Booster? Penicillin? Inoculations? Scary?

Sitting back, perhaps a hundred feet from Gordon Street, the house was far enough back that we first made a short climb of a few cement steps that led to the front walk and then another short walk to the steps to the porch. From there, a partially glass door opened into an expansive foyer.
Gordon Street, GSU FILE:  LBGPNS05-039a

In the middle of the foyer loomed a spiral staircase that led to the second floor and Dr. Reynalds' office. Fancy carved balusters and newel posts reminded of the house's grand past, and these few indications of its former life lay in its remaining interior structures including the impressive helical stairs. If there were windows highlighting dust motes and dead insects, I simply don't recall since I was focused on those steps and what a climb up them meant -- "mostly shots."

I hated the sight of those stairs – as I knew what awaited me above involved pain or discomfort, or both, and I knew that whatever that unknown thing was – the sight of those steps triggered it.

This was a doctor's office of the 1950s, an era of no suckers for the good little girl, no Highlights magazines to entertain, and no whining.  Crying happened there, since, you know, shots, but not whining -- it was simply unacceptable. 

Made of a deep, dark wood, the old staircase creaked loudly when stepped upon. The groaning and creaking sound made by the weight of the patients who climbed those steps is a noise I will never forget. There was no sneaking up those stairs [not that I would want to since, you know, shots], but I know that sound has never been replicated.

Note: On a visit to Mast General Store on Main Street in Waynesville, North Carolina, built in the 1930s, the sound made by the customers' tread on the upper floor of that wooden edifice groans in the same manner. In fact, it's a noise that takes some getting used to by both employees and customers, and the first time I visited that store, I thought of the Dr. Reynalds.

A clear path up the middle of the stairs, scuffed and worn to a light yellow by the high traffic, and the bannister top polished to a lighter color from the many small hands gripping and sliding along its rail was clear evidence of the many feet and hands that passed through.

I must have held my mother's hand, my always sweaty paw gripping hers as we climbed that very noisy staircase or perhaps she held me on her hip as she climbed, but that groaning, creaking sound as we made our way to the second floor -- always there.

At the top of the staircase lay a huge hallway, converted into the waiting area. Lined around the walls rested hard backed wooden chairs and back less benches, uncomfortable, scratched, and well-used. Swinging our short legs on those adult chairs and benches, we left indelible marks, scratches, and nicks in the wood as we waited fearfully and anxiously to be called into the “office” for "mostly" shots.

As I sat in that waiting room, I heard the clomp clomp of other children and adults, the loud squeaking and moaning of that old wood as they too climbed those stairs, arrived at the top as if to an execution, and shuffled to one of the waiting chairs for their appointment with the doctor.

The nurse sat at the end of the hallway behind a counter in a reverse L shape. From there, in her white uniform, white cap, white hose, and white shoes, she would call your name for your [shots] appointment: “Harriett Sue McDaniel” reverberated down that hallway.

Other children eyeballed me as my mother and I walked the plank to the door that would take me past the nurse's desk and back to the examination room. There, I hoisted myself onto the crinkly, white paper of the leather examination table and fearfully waited for .. [heh] shots.

Three or four examination rooms contained a single exam table, wooden bureaus with drawers used for storage, and on top of the bureaus, glass jars with silver tops that held cotton, wooden tongue depressors, and, of course, syringes. Bottles of alcohol fueled the smell of the place and actually greeted us at the bottom of those creaky stairs.

I can't conjure up any visual memory of either of the doctors Reynald, but the steps, the waiting room, and the examination room seem etched in my mind.

Oh yeah, and the shots.
BTW: I asked my siblings for contributions to this entry in my blog, and well, we have some shared memories, but mostly, we remember ........ the shots.