When September arrived, fall winds carpeted the ground with a layer of brown leaves and the pungent odor of fires indicated that tidy householders were setting their yard in order, and I returned to High School. Studies I had wept over seemed as easy as could be. My teachers praised my work and commented on how grown-up I had become. New members had been added to the teaching force during the summer and to one of these I fell captive. He was Harvey Wheeler, who wrestled with English verbs during the day and bowled over tenpins at night. Mayne and Ben met him regularly at the alley where he was as much at home as the balls and the pins.
Harvey was a graduate of Northwestern University, one of those agreeable people with ethical values so substantial that when he gave you a grade you could be sure that it represented his estimate of your brain. He refused to mark on any other basis. I shall always be grateful for the intelligent counsel and encouragement he gave me. He liked my essays, though how he could have found a seed of promise in their archaic prosiness, is a sweet mystery.
Mother had always considered it essential to sharpen up our papers for us and it nearly turned our hair grey. It never seemed fair. I knew the themes were vastly improved when she inserted a word here and changed a sentence there but I wanted it to be my expression of my vocabulary. One day I told him that Mother helped me and from then on in he took me under his wing. He polished my writing and oral English and stimulated me to write. I had read old-fashioned books and my essays were primly dry. There was a wide hiatus, too, between my written English and my vernacular, which employed Missourian colloquialisms. These Harvey corrected in a delightful way.
The High School now boasted a piano and I was included to play and sing. Through the lower grades I had leaned heavily on my banjo. Now I could embellish the morning hymns, or embroider “Lightly Row” with trills and furbelows and I loved it. There were practically no social activities in the High School, as we know it today. Indeed it is difficult to convey to a modern student the paucity of school life, as we knew it in Springfield. The top floor of Central school was the High School proper; four large corner rooms were homerooms for the freshmen, sophomore, Junior and Senior classes. Two tiny windowed offices over the front and back entrances of the building constituted the only other classrooms and their special subjects were taught to small groups. There was no library, not even a room where an interview could be held. The only club or extra-curricular activity was in the nature of a literary society stimulated by the faculty. Such a group was functioning now though I never attended. The chief drawback to my participation lay in the going and coming. Most of those who went walked in by twos like the animals in the ark and I knew Mother would frown on that. Besides there were no boys in High School in whose direction I had ever turned an approving eye. I hadn’t reached the stage of masculine appreciation. True I had envisaged marriage as an abstraction and was all set to engage in it when I was grown up. That I had decided at Lilly’s wedding, but such a plan was so far in the future that it didn’t affect me in the present circumstance. I classed “love” with “conversion.” When it hit you like the measles or whooping cough it was all up with you and then you “got married.” That attitude practically stripped my school life of friendly companionships. Girls talked darkly of what happened outside school hours to their boy and girl friends and I sensed little of its connotations. But I was as eager as any for wholesome associations, so I made an important decision. I would invite the literary society to meet at our house, if Mother was willing.
“Mommy, may I invite the literary society to meet here?” I asked one night at supper. “I wouldn’t have to have an escort if it met with me.”
Mother was suspicious of the literary aspirations of the participants whose names I rattled off as those who most assiduously attended the meetings.
“Did you say that Ray Elbert goes?” she asked.
“Oh, yes, he’s been at every meeting, I said eagerly, having read the meager recordings of the meetings.
“Who plans your programs?” she pursued.
“The teachers, I think, and the president, of course.”
I was a little short on specific information for I hadn’t wanted to lead young folks to think I was going to entertain them unless I was sure of doing so. Now I wasn’t convinced that I had enough talking points to complete the sale to Mother. She knew my predicament that I was too timid to ask anyone anything, so she took a chance and said that I might extend an invitation.
I was excited beyond words to invite my classmates to my home and when Friday night arrived I was in a festive mood. Mother was providing refreshments; they didn’t always have them at meetings, and I was sure that it would be a pleasant surprise.
The weather was cold, one of those bleak grey days that are immensely cheered by the prospect of a jolly evening. A brisk wind whipped the Dutchman’s pipe against the parlor window and whined along the eaves.
Our house, never normally warm and comfortable, had to be specially heated with roaring open fires, and even then the fires had to be kindled early in the day to turn the trick. I had had great fun getting ready for the meeting. Anticipation was one of my best accomplishments, and I was keyed to my most animated pitch all day. Mother had ordered the refreshments generally approved – ice cream, cake and lemonade. I was not an ice cream fan myself. Frozen concoctions always gave me a headache but I knew what the crowd preferred and “Lilly” cake couldn't be surpassed, so I was content.
By the time supper was over I was beginning to get jittery; there seemed to be so much at stake. I hoped that Mother would like my classmates and that they would live up to her idea of what literary aspirants should be.
The house looked its very best when night fell, shaded lamps glowed and the grate filled with rosy coals cast gleams across the rugs and faces of the family. The meeting was called for eight o’clock and about seven-thirty the couples began arriving. Mother and the family retired to the rear of the house. They were determined for me to be the hostess and I not only filled the bill but also ran over, as far as cordiality was concerned. As a matter of fact, I was infinitely more lit up than the house, I was so delighted and hopeful.
I hadn’t mentioned the meeting to the teachers because I thought it was better to leave that to the president. After all I had never attended a program and I couldn’t be presumptuous to those who regularly chased the literary fox to his lair.
When a goodly number had laid aside their wraps and the president had made no effort to call the meeting to order, Mother summoned me with a wigwagging sign. She had discovered Ray Elbert turning the lights down and her eyes were narrowing suspiciously.
“When is the program going to begin, dear?” she asked very gently. Deep in her heart she was sorry for me but her sympathy did not extend to my friends.
“I’ll see, Mommy,” I said and she followed me in while I interviewed the girl who had so enthusiastically described the meetings to me.
In concrete form, the program failed to materialize. There wasn’t any. Neither were there chaperones or faculty. The meeting was rapidly settling down to a petting session. Each time Mother retreated, the lights would be turned down and just as persistently, Mother, like a dark shadow, fell on the group and turned them up again.
The evening was one long nightmare. Mother finally in desperation served her refreshments and sent the guests home to their mothers. Nor did she excuse the teachers, who, in her opinion, had failed to show a suitable sense of responsibility. As we set the parlor in order and Mother discovered a large grease spot left by a recumbent head, she said, “What sins are committed under a literary heading.”
I never lived down that imbroglio. For years, whenever my aspirations rose too high, some one was sure to refer to the High School Literary Society and I shuddered in a zero temperature.
A few months later announcement that the Theodore Thomas Symphony was to give a concert in Springfield set my hopes throbbing again. I had never heard a symphony orchestra. The nearest I had ever come to it was the theatre orchestra in Memphis, and the one that accompanied our run of opera at Perkin’s Grand Opera House. I was set aflame at the thought of such a treat.
Father liked to have us attend cultural affairs and he provided fine seats for us all and I counted the days. Mother rose to the occasion and bought my spring dress in time to dedicate it at the concert. It was a charming creation, in my opinion, made of putty colored challis with pink sweet peas tossed onto its surface with entrancing effect. To top it off, I had a hat trimmed with the same bobbing flowers. My cup was so full it threatened to bubble over.
Lilly’s baby had developed into a nice, sizable little boy, full of spirits and play, and I spent most of my leisure with him. We went on errands together. I rode him in his carriage, and serviced him in the less popular roles as well. He had been somewhat touchy one day and I was helping to undress him when I noticed camouflaged effects on his normally clear skin. I called Lilly. She took one look then she said, “Una, run over and get Mommy as quickly as you can.”
I didn’t need prodding. I dashed across the lawn and slid through the fence that divided our property from Maynard’s.
“Mommy,” I called through the house, “Lilly wants you quick.”
Mama was never slow and in emergency she moved like lightning. Out the door we flew and as we covered the distance I endeavored to draw a clinical picture. We burst into Lilly’s living room and after a hasty look Mother said, “It looks like measles or chickenpox and you’d better call the doctor.”
Ben immediately harnessed Dolly and was off. In the meantime my spirits dropped like the tide. The concert was only one week away and I was sure that having been the baby’s constant companion, I was in for whatever the baby chose to distribute. Mother decided that in any case I was better off at home, so in a blue miasmic funk I ambled over to our house, found my nightie and turned into bed. Dr. Clements pronounced the baby’s illness chickenpox, and since I had never had the disease, declined to give me the pleasant assurance that I might enjoy immunity.
I tried my new frock and hat on and flirted the new circular skirt before the bedroom mirror. At least I could enjoy ownership. I searched my skin for telltale blotches and as each day slipped away was fearful and hopeful by turns. I shall never forget how excited I was when the fateful hour to don my dress arrived and I was still unspotted. The strain had been unbearable. At night I dreamed of leprosy, of smallpox and all the spotted fevers. As we entered the swanky new theatre I had visions of breaking out as I walked down the aisle, exposing the large audience to contagion and then not enjoying the concert because of a remorseful guilt.
When the music began I forgot everything else. My social self ceased to function. I was in another world. It returned momentarily when I read in the program that the symphony of the evening was based on a theme called “Fate knocks at the door,” Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Maybe the chickenpox was Fate. If so, I had closed the door on her.
The concert remains one of the high spots of my girlhood, a torch to light me to years of enjoyment as I listened in Chicago to the same band of men later known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The world is small and like a magnet my later experiences seemed to be drawing me away from Springfield.