Study Abroad

A dear friend, retired from teaching Art History at the University of Minnesota, leads “study abroad” courses to Florence or Rome for undergraduates. Usually his students are native Minnesotans, attending the “land grant” university where their own parents may have gone. “Study abroad” for them means entering another country whose language is largely a mystery. They depend on Michael like bambini (little children).

For my mother, second born twin, the runt of her family who had rickets as a child, “study abroad” meant leaving her small town in eastern North Dakota, Hankinson, and traveling by train to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. By my calculations she entered as a freshman in 1925 and graduated just after the stock market crash in 1929. That latter date I have firmly in mind because she often emphasized, “But by 1929 we already had had an agricultural depression in North Dakota,” which allowed her father, the big fish in Hankinson’s small pond, to gobble up smaller fry. That he would emerge wealthier than before, we girls had no reason to doubt, for when we began spending summers there in the mid 1950s, Papa Max’s house was one of the grandest in town. Around nearby Lake Elsie he had bought up farms for “back taxes.” Did banks foreclose these farms because the owners were so strapped for cash they could not pay the mortgages or even the taxes? Or had farmers owned the land for decades but because of the drought earned nothing; when their taxes mounted, the state sold the debts to banks who then put them in something like foreclosure? I have to do more research.

In any case, my grandfather prospered when those around him did not. Even as a child, I felt a prickle of discomfort and resentment when my mother bragged about this Far away in Charleston, we lived on my father’s very modest teaching salary; rats slithered around our apartment garbage cans or died in the Old Citadel’s foot-thick walls. My mother made over my father’s worn-out trousers into slacks for us girls. We certainly weren’t rich. Her brother who worked with their father also did very well. His wife sent my sister and me “hand-me-overs” from his daughters, almost our age. Did we love or squirm uncomfortably in their twin blue coats with the gold buttons, or their flounced gingham dresses with white petticoats? Perhaps I sensed a conflict in my mother’s choice to leave Hankinson after college and “go east” to Pittsburgh where her job as a college librarian satisfied her quiet love of books, but never made her rich. Yet it put her directly in line to meet my father, a graduate student at Carnegie, who bent over her library desk with his warm brown Italian eyes. He was smitten from the get-go; it took her a little longer.

Her enthusiasm for what she gleaned at the University of Minnesota remained throughout the years entirely unalloyed. She loved the campus, she told us, so close to downtown Minneapolis with its glamorous department stores like Young Quinlan where her mother used to treat her and her older sisters to party dresses and lunch in the sky-high restaurant. Though she was sick the first quarter, intensely shy and suffering from stomach trouble, she gradually adjusted. She thrilled to history courses taught by Guy Stanton Ford. Attended concerts at Northrup Auditorium where she heard Rachmaninoff perform. Rachmaninoff, my mother? Was he still alive in the late 1920s and would he have visited the Upper Midwest?

Why Mousy decided to become a librarian, she never explained, though her love of books shone through my childhood as she read to us every evening: The “Little House” books, poems and stories from the twelve volumes of The Book House; the orange-bound biographies for youngsters of such luminaries as Mozart, my favorite, or Madame Curie. Every week we took a bus from The Old Citadel to the Charleston Library, then housed in a four-story mansion shaded by towering magnolias. Truly a “book house,” this library with its intricate curving staircase, its Palladian windows, and the sense that human eyes had awakened under its ceilings garlanded with rosettes and nymphs captured real life within its pages. If I lost myself there, I would wake up in charmed splendor, listening to my mother telling a story of going home to Hankinson for Christmas. “We were stranded just beyond Glenwood,” she related. “Huge drifts of snow blew across the tracks. But we college students didn’t care: we stoked the pot-bellied stove with torn-up wooden seats; broke out tins of sardines and crackers, and danced to a fiddle up and down the aisles.” I capture her there, sashaying across a line of little windows, her cheeks flushed, a smile on her lips.

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