Articles about how to explore and discover “Hemingway’s Paris” are published with some regularity. Usually they recommend visiting establishments the writer was known to frequent, such as Les Deux Magots, La Closerie des Lilas, the Ritz. This is fine for those who are able and willing to pay top prices, only to be surrounded by a lot of other tourists trying (unsuccessfully, I’m pretty sure) to channel creative energy long gone from these particular places.
Is the magic still there? The good news is, yes, it is–and even better news is that you don’t have to pay inflated prices to experience it.
Here are a few tips for budget travelers who would like to experience something of what it was that drew Hemingway and so many others to Paris, and nurtured their creative genius.
1. Spend some time with the statue of Maréchal Michel Ney, located across the street from the Port Royal RER station, adjacent to the Closerie des Lilas. The statue was erected at the place where the Maréchal, one of Napoleon’s favorite marshals, who took both the blame and the fall for what happened at Waterloo, was executed by firing squad in 1815. (Ney’s last words are said to have been “Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her. Soldiers, fire!”)
Stand there, outside, and read what Hemingway wrote about Ney, looking back many years later, on the afternoon when he had stopped at the Closerie des Lilas for a beer after being told by Gertrude Stein that he and all his war-veteran companions were “a lost generation.”
“…as I was getting up to the Closerie des Lilas with the light on my old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out and the shadows of the trees on the bronze, and he alone there and nobody behind him and what a fiasco he’d made of Waterloo, I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be and I stopped at the Lilas to keep the statue company and drank a cold beer before going home…sitting there with the beer, watching the statue and remembering how many days Ney had fought, personally, with the rear-guard on the retreat from Moscow that Napoleon had ridden away from in the coach…I thought of what a warm and affectionate friend Miss Stein had been…and I thought, I will do my best to serve her and see she gets justice for the good work she had done as long as I can, so help me God and Mike Ney. But the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels…” *
Read it, and think about it.
Now you’re getting close to communion with the master, and you haven’t paid anything except the cost of the Metro ticket to get there.
2. Stroll over the Seine on the Pont des Arts, where Hemingway and his first wife Hadley strolled one night, reminiscing about their friend Chink. Or choose any bridge you like to stroll across. (The views are beautiful from all of them.) If you are with someone you love, reminisce about whatever makes the two of you happy. Or talk about the future, as Hemingway and Hadley did too. (But please do NOT add to the “Locks of Love” on the Pont des Arts: here’s why.)
3. Find your own café.
The cafés that Hemingway loved best were unpretentious local places where he could go to be alone and work. Thank God there are still hundreds of such places still in Paris, in every part of town. Find an unpretentious, unknown café, pick a table in a corner somewhere, and take out your notebook, or a book to read. You can order a glass of wine, a beer, or un café, and stay there for hours, and as long as you are not in the part of the establishment where a meal is being served, no one will bother you or hurry you on your way. (They probably won’t even bring you your check until you ask, unless they are changing the shift, in which case they may apologetically ask if you would mind settling l’addition. But you don’t have to leave then either. You should just pay up.)
4. If you want to go the places where Hemingway lived–as well as a few other very important writers, including George Orwell and James Joyce, Honoré de Balzac and Paul Verlaine–and to gain a very good basic overview/background on them, as well as a lot of other interesting information, two hours spent with Paris Walks Tours is money well invested. At 12 Euros for adults and 10 Euros for students 21 and under (children under 15, 8 Euros), it’s one of the best bargains in Paris for the intellectually curious. There is a weekly Hemingway tour, every Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. No reservations needed, all you have to do is show up at the Metro Cardinal Lemoine (a name that will be familiar to you if you’ve read A Moveable Feast) and meet the guide. The tours go on 365 days a year, rain or shine. (Here’s the link directly to their site: http://www.paris-walks.com/)
5. Find a nice café–not expensive, just nice, as in sympa–or a bench in one of Paris’s many beautiful parks, and read “A Moveable Feast.”
(You can read why you should read THIS edition, and not the 2009 “restored” one here.)
Really, is there any better way to connect with writers than to read the work they left behind? Is there any better way to connect with the Hemingway who so loved Paris?
I don’t think so.
And–should you happen to be in Paris in a week that is particularly rainy, know that you are not alone. Here is a Hemingway quote that is not that famous, but it can be a very appropriate one: “I don’t know what I thought Paris would be like, but it was not that way. It rained nearly every day.”
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France.
*from A Moveable Feast, published by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1996 edition, pgs. 30-31
Richard P. Rueckert, known in our family as “Uncle Dick,” was born February 3, 1924, in Kankakee, Illinois, where his father owned and operated the I.C. Pharmacy and his mother was a homemaker. In 1942 he graduated from Kankakee High School. While in college, he joined the enlisted reserve. He was called to active duty in early spring of 1943, and in April of 1944 he was shipped to the U.K., where he lived in a tent city named Moberly Hall near Manchester, England.
When the Allied troops landed in Normandy, he was among them, a medic in the U.S. Army’s 315th infantry regiment, 79th division. He served 18 months in Europe.
In the spring of 2007, my son Phineas, then 13 years old, interviewed Uncle Dick as part of a school project. What follows is excerpted from that interview.
PR: I know you were in D-Day but were you in the Battle of the Bulge too?
DR: No, we were down around Strasbourg, and when the Germans did the Bulge, they threw what they called a counter-attack down there, with the idea of forming a pincer’s movement, and they would join up with the Bulge people and give us all kinds of trouble. But we were able to stop them, they didn’t have enough punch to get through our lines and so we absorbed them, so to speak…
We were at two little towns called Rittershoffen and Hatten. And that’s where our three regiments with the 79th infantry were trying to stop them, along with the 30th infantry, on our left flank. We were down almost to the Swiss border there, around Strasbourg.
PR: So, what was your job?
DR: I was a medic. We were running evacuation for an infantry regiment, the 315th, which was part of the 79th division. And we would take the wounded from the batallions to aid stations, bring them back to what we called a collecting company, which was set up behind the infantry a few miles, couple miles, something like that, and then after they cleared our location, they would go back to a clearing company for the division, which was way to the rear, and the wounded would stay there, or be sent over to an adjacent field hospital—like in the TV story, Mash. They were a surgical unit that would operate on these guys and try to get them goin’ again..and then they were evacuated further back to an evacuation hospital. And if they were serious enough, they would be sent back to the States.
PR: So, what was the atmosphere like at D-Day?
DR: D-Day? Kinda like today. (laughs) Cold and rainy! It was not real cold, but it was cool for that time of year. There’d been a storm out over the English Channel, and our division was D-Day Invasion Reserve for the Utah Beach. And fortunately they didn’t need us, except…our company was chosen to go in because they needed medical evacuation, and so they shot us in on a big ole’ LST to Utah Beach. And we got in there, and all our vehicles had been waterproofed so we could wade ‘em in in the water if we had to. Fortunately we didn’t have to. And so they sent us to what they called a de-waterproofing area where we took all this gunk off of the engines and off the exhaust systems and the other systems on the vehicle, and we ended up sitting there three days, waiting for the rest of the division to come in.
PR: What day was this? What day did you go in after the initial invasion?
DR: Well, our company went in on D-Day plus 3 days. The third day. At that time the Allies were in about 3 1/2 miles on the French coast. And shortly after that we helped go across the southern end of the Cherbourg peninsula, and cut it off from the Germans. Then we and two other divisions attacked up the Cherbourg peninsula, and helped capture Cherbourg, which gave us an all-weather port to unload further supplies and stuff, they didn’t have to dump them out on a beach someplace. Then after that, why, we came back down to the base of the peninsula. We kinda sat there for a few days, everything was getting stabilized…The British were on our left quite a ways up the coast. We were trying to get into Caen, France, it was a very heavy fight.
And then all of a sudden one morning, we were back at our company, the place we were bivouacking at, and I woke up about 6:00 in the morning and here the highway we were camped against was just lined up with tanks as far as you could see. And the next day we took off and that was when the breakthrough was established. And we headed down toward Avranches…and let’s see, what were some of the other towns…Le Mans. And on over toward Paris, kinda paralleling the Seine River.
And we thought, “Oh boy!” We were riding with the French 2nd Armored at that point, and put our infantry on the French 2nd armored tanks and away we went. We ended up outside of Paris and secured some pontoon bridges that the engineers had put across the Seine because they wanted to get on the north side of the Seine. And we sat there for quite a while. We thought we were going to Paris: the French 2nd Armored went to Paris: we sat there and did what they called “secure the Seine loop.” (laughs)
And then we ended up way up, we fought in the Falaise Gap, where the Germans were trying to escape out of Normandy, and into northern France. And that was a lot of aircraft fighting, y’know, American pursuit planes bombing the retreating Germans, and that eventually got liquidated and we ended up at St. Amand, Belgium,which is just above the French border, not too far from Reims. And then somebody decided we were to go down into Lunéville, France, in that area.
It was gettin’ to be fall by then, and we ended up in the forest of Parroy, which is where WWI ended up. (rueful laugh) And fought through there for several weeks. It was wet and rainy, and winter was beginning to set in. And then, on and on, and we ended up, that’s when we got shunted down into the area on the German border, above Strasbourg. And then after the Battle of the Bulge was resolved…I guess you had an uncle that was there…
PR: Yes, I did…
DR: And when that all got settled they shot us up into Belgium, that area…on the Meuse River, and we did aquatic training with the infantry, and our project was to make the assault crossing of the Rhine. And at that point there were no American troops into Germany yet.
Well, lo and behold, about two days before we were supposed to make that assault crossing, they secured the bridgehead, and another unit went across, one of the things fell, after so many attempts to blow it up by the Germans, they got enough troops across to secure a zone on the east bank of the Rhine. We went ahead and did the assault crossing of the Rhine, which was north of there a distance, can’t tell you how many miles but not too far. And we went in, we were near, at the Ruhr area, where their big industrial plants were. And we helped liquidate that. Took a lot of displaced persons out of what they called DP camps. And…slave labor, so to speak.
And then the war was pretty much over for us by then. We went on Occupation up in that area, Dortmund, what were some of the other, Gelsenkirken, are a couple of the town’s names that I remember. And we sat there for quite a while as the rest of the armies were scurrying across Germany. And after that got sorta settled down, they sent us down into southeastern Germany, to the Czechoslovakian border. And we went in as far as Pilsen, and it was just sorta ridin’ along, there wasn’t too much resistance, because the Germans were in full retreat by that point.
And we got into Pilsen, spent about a day there, or I guess three days, maybe, and they got word that the Russians were coming from the east, and then the arrangement they had with them was, they were gonna occupy all of Czechoslovakia. So we pulled back to the German border in the Bohemian mountains, out on the western tip of Czechoslovakia. And we sat there all that summer, on Occupation. Pretty tough duty! (laughs)
And then the war was over by that point, and then they started breaking the units up, and they sent people that had enough points back to the States, for discharge out of the Army. And the rest of ‘em went back to the States, in units that were gonna go to Japan. Because by then the Japanese war was…they dropped the atom bomb and that pretty well ended that.
So we ended up sittin’ around Europe for several months until they decided I had enough points, I could come home. And so I was transferred to the 90th infantry division, division headquarters medical detachment, and went home with them. And then was discharged.
PR: So, how long total were you in Europe?
DR: A year and a half. I was overseas a year and a half. The first part of it, we went over in April, and we were stationed up around, let’s see, the Midlands, what they call the Midlands, which is up in central England. And I got to see your Grandad, he was down in Bristol, I think it was, at the time. And our division was drawing supplies from his quartermaster depot, so I rode down with the trucks one time, and stayed overnight with him. (laughs) That was rather unusual for that era.
PR: I have one more question. In all that time, did you ever get shot at?
DR: (laughs) Oh, I got shot at all the time! In the front lines, yeah…being a medic, you had an opportunity to get to the rear occasionally, in an ambulance, but we were shelled a number of times and…(laughs) Just goes with the territory. Fortunately, I wasn’t ever wounded…A lot of guys were, but…I lucked out, I guess you could call it. It was an interesting time. How old was I? 19 years old, somethin’ like that… (laughs) Pretty young! Yeah…yeah…I went back over there after, oh, a number of years ago…just to see what it looked like today. Saw some of the cemeteries, and the beaches, and stuff like that…so…one of those things you do, I guess…
And this link leads to a video of the 315th infantry, in Germany http://www.criticalpast.com/video/65675028438_315th-Infantry-79th-Division_Bien-Wald-forest_sign-on-hood_jeep-passing
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of literature. This is her tribute to one man’s contribution to the liberation of France.
September 1978. It is only a little more than 30 years after the end of the war that devastated the European continent and threatened the entire world. But that war is a distant, vague reality to me, born 8 years after it was resolved. I know it happened, but I’ve never thought much about it, and when we studied American history–in fifth, seventh and tenth grades–we never got that far. We always started with the Conquistadores and the Pilgrims, we never got past the Treaty of Versailles. Why didn’t the fifth, seventh and tenth grade history teachers ask each other how far we were getting each year? Seems like something could have been done about that.
It is 1978, and I am walking in the streets of Bayeux in Normandy, returning to my hotel after having gone to see a movie. It is my first trip to France. I had only been there for a couple of days, and was still getting used to the idea of travelling alone.
As I paused to get my bearings, a couple of older gentlemen stopped and asked me if I needed help. When I answered in my far-from-perfect French, they knew I was a foreigner. “American?” they asked, and I nodded. Their faces broke into wide, warm smiles, they shook my hands enthusiastically, they practically embraced me. “We fought with your father, your uncles,” they said. “We fought with them, side by side.”
Confused, I shook my head. At the time, I didn’t know that any of my uncles had ever been to France, and I knew my Dad hadn’t been. (Though he had been stationed in Japan after the war.)
“Not my Dad…” I said.
“Well, your uncles, then,” they insisted. And they also insisted on walking me safely to my hotel.
That was the first experience I had with the “ungrateful” French–the ones who are supposed to be completely unappreciative of our rescuing them from the Nazis in World War II. These two Frenchmen, total strangers to me, were effusively grateful for what they presumed my uncles had done for them before I knew that my uncles had done anything at all. And they seemed to want to step into the role of protecting me as a natural instinct, a way of expressing that feeling of gratitude, of family.
It turns out the Frenchmen were right. I learned later that not just one, but two of my uncles had aided in the liberation of France. One was a medic who had arrived on D-Day, day 3. The other was a radio technician, in service at the Battle of the Bulge. My Uncle Lewey, the radio technician, mentioned, when I had returned from that first trip to France, that he had been there too. “It wasn’t for fun, though,” he said, with a kind of rueful grin.
There were 160,000 Allied troops involved in the D-Day invasion. More than 9,000 of them were killed or wounded in the assault on the French coast. The rest lived to carry out the mission, and many of them, though not all, survived the war and went on to live out their lives. My uncles’ stories are just two of them.
Seven years ago my son, then 13, was doing a school project on World War II (I am so glad his teachers managed to get him and his class that far!) and he interviewed each of them. I will be posting excerpts from those interviews as the anniversaries of these two momentous struggles, so important in world history, approach. Stay tuned!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France.
The stories I loved most when I was growing up were the bedtime stories my mother told us about when she was a child.
There was the story about “horse mittens,” the time that my two uncles, aged 4 and 6, had slipped away from the house without their mother knowing, and trekked to the one-room schoolhouse where my mother and my Uncle Lewey watched, amazed–(Lewey was amused, my mother was not)–as they took the floor and proudly showed their most treasured Christmas present to the class, clapping their hands together in time and announcing boastfully, in unison, “WE got GEN-U-INE HORSE-HIDE mittens!!”
There was the story about how my mother and her brothers had managed to outwit Napoleon, the aggressive gander that terrorized them every day when they returned home from school, grabbing him by the neck (“Up close to his head, so he can’t turn around and bite you,” my grandmother advised them), and sticking his head into a snowdrift, then making a frantic run for the safety of the house.
There was the time my great-grandmother–”the rady with the rame reg” to my four-year-old mother, who couldn’t yet pronounce her l’s–made a miraculous recovery as a Midwestern storm approached, scurrying down into the root cellar with the rest of the family, in search of cover. (“It took her a lot longer to get back out,” my mother always said.)
“Tell us horse mittens!” we would cry. “Tell us about Napoleon!” “Tell us about the rady with the rame reg!”
The “rady with the rame reg” was also the one who would bring my inseparable uncles Jim and Dave, the babies of the family, to her side by calling out “Jim-Dave!” “Which one you want, Grandma?” one of them would call back. “You both come here, and when you get here I’ll tell you which one,” was her imperious reply.
As we were always hungry for more, my mother reached as deep as she could into her memory, and pulled out whatever she could to satisfy that hunger. Some of the stories she told were really not stories at all, just wisps of anecdote, or sketches of minor characters. Like Charlie, the hired hand with “dog teeth” (so named for some mysterious reason by my Uncle Dave). And the neighbor, a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, who mystified everyone for a time when she referred repeatedly, and excitedly, to the coming of “elekalikaly” to the neighborhood, until they figured out she was referring to electricity. Or my Uncle Dave’s way of picking up his boot and banging it on the upstairs bedroom floor in a vain attempt to make my grandmother, who was below him in the kitchen, believe he was out of bed before he actually was, in those winter mornings when leaving the coziness of his warm bed for the frigid air outside his sheets was such an unattractive prospect.
Then there was the story of Carol Busybus Powers. That was a story about my mother and her father, a man who strongly believed in, and practiced, corporal punishment.
My mother’s name was Carolyn Elizabeth Powers. One day, when she was about three years old, she was playing outside as her father worked on the roof. Seeing the ladder leaning against the house, she decided it would be fun to climb up, and so she set about doing so, ascending several rungs before my grandfather noticed what she was doing. When he did, he warned her in a stern voice to get back down, right away. “I don’t have to get down,” she called back up. “I’m Carol Busybus Powers!” “You’d better get down, and right now,” was his reply. And knowing that a spanking was being threatened, she did.
I loved that story because it represented to me the spirit of adventure and independence my mother must have had before much of it was beaten out of her. I did not think of my mother as a very adventurous person. To me Amelia Earhart was an adventurous woman. Nineteenth-century women writers like Julia Ward Howe and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose biographies I devoured in the Childhood of Famous American Series, were my heroines. And then, especially after President Kennedy was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy, whose glamorous life and gracious style fueled the direction of my dreams, and provided me with a role model distinctly different from the one provided by my own mother.
My mom, on the other hand, was “just” a nurse, and a mom. When I was young, I didn’t know how much courage, initiative, and determination it had taken for her to get herself out of the small-town farming community where she had grown up, to the suburbs of St. Paul, where we lived for the first few years of my life. I didn’t know that from her teen years she had ventured much farther out into the world than most people where she came from: working as a maid for a summer at a resort hotel in Yellowstone Park; signing up as a cadet nurse during the war; volunteering during the polio epidemic. I didn’t know that a spirit of adventure had also been required for her to meet with enthusiasm the prospect of moving our family “out East,” to Ohio, leaving all her friends and family behind, which we did when I was five years old, so that my father could take part in one of the greatest adventures of the twentieth century: the Apollo project that took men to the moon.
It was only much later, after she died and I was sorting it all out, that I began to realize how far she had ventured from the safety and comfort of her world. But then I remembered that one day she had told me about a boyfriend she had had before she knew my father. He had wanted to marry her, but she had declined. “He was nice,” my mom said. “He was very nice. But he wasn’t going anywhere.”
My Mom wanted to go somewhere, and with my Dad, she did.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France. This is an excerpt from her work in progress, “A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred.” She also wrote a tribute to her mother on Mother’s Day 2009, here.
From the time I knew there was a place called France, I wanted to go there. When I was a little girl, in my mind France was a place where kings and queens lived in castles situated in lovely, verdant valleys. As I became a little bit older, I became vaguely aware that it was a place where they spoke a language so beautiful the words had a kind of sensuality about them. (This was before I knew the word “sensuality.”) I studied French in junior high, high school, and college, and by the time I had dropped out of my first college after a year and a half, and was living temporarily back in Coon Rapids with my parents, the desire to go there was beginning to become a quiet, desperate, and unhealthy obsession.
I knew this one Sunday afternoon when, as I was walking along the road to visit a friend half a mile away, I found myself muttering to myself, over and over, the delicious words, “le roi du coeur; le roi du coeur; le roi du coeur,” practically the whole way there. I had seen the film of the same name in an art film house in Minneapolis the night before and could not let go of those lovely words, nor of the pleasure of speaking them aloud. “Either I am going to have to get over there,” I announced, to myself, aloud, in English. “Or I am going to become a lunatic.”
But it was a while before I was able to get there. Flying to Europe was very expensive in the late 1970s, and for someone who was earning her living as a typist, being able to save enough money to buy the plane ticket was going to take a while.
That is why I was so excited when, one day on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather announced that an English businessman, Freddie Laker, had just started a no-frills airline that was offering flights from New York to London for the unheard-of price of, I think it was $199. “Okay, that’s it,” I said to myself as I listened to the rest of the story. “Now I can do it.”
Getting over there was now feasible, but I knew once I got there I would want to be able to stay for a while. So I decided, then and there, that I would work and save as much money as I could for the next year, and leave for Europe the following September. I began to plan the trip with a girlfriend.
To his credit my boyfriend, who was about 15 years older than me, and who probably knew he risked losing me by encouraging me in this venture, was very supportive of my plan. Not once did he use his considerable powers of persuasion to try to dissuade me from stepping out into the world on my own. On the contrary. When the time came for me to go a year later and the girlfriend was unable to join me, I hesitated: he urged me on, and drove me to New York to catch the plane. The only influence he tried to exercise was just before I left, when he sang the praises of his beloved London long and hard enough that he convinced me I really ought to stay there for at least a few days before going on to France. Anglophile that he was, and nothing if not eloquent, he convinced me to do so, and I didn’t regret it.
But I wasn’t about to fall in love with London. I had been waiting all my life to get to France, and now I was almost there. I stayed with the friend of a friend who was studying at the London School of Economics and who had a shared flat in Earl’s Court. We went to the theater and the symphony, we ate wonderful Indian food together, he helped me plan my trip. London was wonderful, but it was not my destination: within a week I was on my way to France…
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure“). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France. This is an excerpt from her work in progress, “A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred.”
In 1892, when my grandmother was born there, Bonair, Iowa was a town with 30 inhabitants. My great-grandparents, Lewis Philander and Nellie Caroline Sanborn, had moved there not long before from Plymouth Rock, Iowa with their two older girls, Ini and May, aged eight and ten. L. P. Sanborn, as he was known, owned the flour mill. My grandmother’s recollections of the Bonair of her girlhood, which she recorded in 1971 when she was 79, included a lumberyard, a grain elevator, and a school about a mile or so east of town. (“The ones in the town didn’t like that so we had a second school upstairs over one of the stores. That was where I started to school, a cracker box, wooden of course, was my desk and Mother brought a small chair for me from home. I was up in the middle grades when they built the schoolhouse.”)
As the town grew, there were improvements: in 1897, the Lime Springs Sun hailed the spanning of Bonair’s main street with “an artistic sidewalk of the latest design, by means of which one can now cross the street without wading knee deep in the mud.” In that same year, the paper reported that my grandmother’s father had purchased the general store owned by Mr. Webster, and now had “one of the finest residences in the city.” My great-grandparents had built a new storefront alongside the old store, which had been on the first floor of a house. They turned the old storefront into a living room and bedroom, and now with three extra bedrooms that they didn’t use, could take in boarders.
Mother served meals to anyone coming or going that wanted to eat, so you could say she had a boarding house I suppose. There was Clare Barrett, the depot agent, Harry Dawes, lumber yard, Mike Welch, blacksmith. Then others coming and going. A grain elevator man, a stock buyer. She generally had a table full. As the years went by it seemed that married men had the jobs and she wasn’t busy, but the teacher often stayed there, and a student preacher would come from Fayette each weekend and stay there.
L. P. Sanborn had bought his business at a good time: in three short years, by 1897, the population of Bonair had more than tripled, to 100. There was now a creamery, a dealer of farm implements, two music teachers, a carpenter, a restaurant, a livery, and a barbershop. In addition to running his general and feed store, L. P. Sanborn was the town postmaster. Two years later, in 1899, there would be a new Methodist church, of which my great-grandmother was treasurer, and a schoolhouse on the edge of town, in which “Miss Vinnie Carman handles the birch and teaches the young idea how to shoot,” as reported by one of the Cresco newspapers, in an apparent reference to the widespread belief of the time that “to spare the rod” was to spoil the child.
While it was at its peak in those days at the turn of the twentieth century, Bonair always had to struggle to survive. News items from the same time period expressed anxiety over the fate of the creamery: one, in April of 1897 commented that “If wind were the only thing needful to start a creamery, the one in this city, instead of remaining idle, would be running day and night.” A few months later it was noted with relief that the creamery had “at last” been rented, and would soon be put into motion.
I had the general impression from the way my Mom had talked about her that Nellie Punteney Sanborn, my great-grandmother, was a rather formidable figure, but I wasn’t sure if her formidability was on the whole a good or a bad thing. One of the things I found during my research, in her personal Bible, was a newspaper clipping about a revival company that had come to town in December of 1892, the year my grandmother was born. Nellie had carefully recorded, on a piece of paper secured in the pages of that Bible, the fact that in December 1892, she had “consecrated her life to Christ.” A newspaper clipping describing the revival preacher, pianist, and singers was next to that. And another note said that L. P. Sanborn had consecrated his life to Christ in 1914. What happened in the intervening 22 years, I wondered. How did he hold out for so long? Was it a friendly or a hostile waiting period? And what was that like for my grandmother as a child?
Clearly my grandmother had absorbed a vivid and acute sense of right and wrong. One of her school essays, entitled “Sidewalk Education,” carefully outlined an argument against people allowing their children to run free in the streets of the town, where they would be exposed to “the bad element as well as the good….What can their parents be thinking of to let them do this! and probably the reason is they don’t think at all,” she wrote. “If asked they will say, ‘The children want to play on the street, why not let them?’,” and added, “Who does not know that it is easier for a child to learn bad habits than good?”
But her moral stance was not devoid of compassion. She ended her essay on a softer note, asking, “Can we not help this in some way by providing proper ways of amusing them? They are not bad at heart and surely something must be done.”…
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure“). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. This is an excerpt from her work in progress, “A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred.”
Well, it is probably about time to turn my thoughts toward home.
Actually, they have never really left there. When I was living in New York City in my mid-twenties (35 years ago), one of my best friends made me aware that being from the Midwest was neither a burden, nor a shame. It was not something you had to explain or hide, or do any of the other things Midwesterners sometimes do when they leave their Midwestern homes behind. Through her example, she helped me understand that the roots that some people choose to dismiss or deny (usually under pressure of a surrounding atmosphere in which the Midwest is hardly seen as a place of general interest and admiration) were, or at least could be, a source of strength. For me that strength was crucial, an essential resource that helped me in becoming the adult me I wanted to be–while retaining the essential me that has always been.
My friend is from South Dakota, and she kept a map of her home state on the wall of her office in New York. That was something I had never thought of doing, but pretty soon I had put a map of Minnesota on a wall in my home, and marked certain special places on it. Inexplicably, it made me feel good–more relaxed, happier–every time I looked at it. Sometimes I would reach out and touch it as I hurried past, as if it had some talismanic power. I think maybe it did.
I’m no longer living in New York and I’m not back in Minnesota either, though I have spent enough time there over the years that it still feels like home, one of the three places in the world where I feel happiest and most comfortable.
For more years than I care to think about I have been working on a memoir called “A Long Way from Iowa.” Iowa, because that is where my grandmother was from, and that is where my story (in a way) begins.
It has been hard to find the time to work on this book for a host of reasons. But I have been steadily plugging away at it, as I can. I’ve recently returned to it and am filling it out and figuring out which parts of the story are still missing. It is work that I love more than I can say.
So I thought maybe it was time for my blog to have a place for writing about the Midwest. Just to be ready for whatever comes next.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure“). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.