This short novel covers a span of five years, from 1924 to 1929, in the lives of the four motherless Hughes children, Evelyn, Floyd, Dale, and Vernon, who range in age from three to twelve years. They are left at the Wyoming State Orphanage in Cheyenne by their alcoholic father, Thomas. When he does not return for them, as he has promised to do, or pay forty dollars a month for their support, they become wards of the State Commission of Child and Animal Protection. The children have lived in poverty in a small broken-down house next to a railroad coaling station in Worland, Wyoming. Nevertheless, their very young mother somehow taught them to honor their father despite his flaws, and they have become an affectionate, close-knit family with deep loyalty to each other. When the children are placed separately in potential adoptive homes in various parts of Wyoming, they lose all contact with each other for a period of time, but regain their connection under circumstances that reinforce Evelyn’s belief in a protective spirit. At the age of eighty, Evelyn begins an attempt to reconstruct this portion of her early family history, relying on snippets of memory, fragments of conversation, over-heard remarks, and a sketchy official record of the Hughes family obtained from the Wyoming State archives. What gradually emerges is not a true biography, but a story of love in many guises, which is as simple and as true as if it were a fairy tale.
Late in his life, my husband, who was a thoughtful and also a sometimes whimsical man, one day announced, “I’ve concluded that I am just a utility model human being. I would very much like to have been a deluxe model or even a sports model, but that simply is not the case, I’m a utility model and that’s all there is to it.”
My response was to laugh, because what flashed through my mind were automobiles that fit into each of these categories, and I instantly tried to match him to one of them.
The first mental picture I had was of a massive vehicle once owned by some friends, a 1950’s era, top of the line Cadillac, shining with chrome, and sporting large tail fins. Over-voluptuous it certainly was, but in its day it represented luxury and affluence. My husband was right; he definitely did not fit into that category. Wretched excess was not his thing.
The sports car I envisioned was a gull wing Maserati we had seen years ago in front of a restaurant in Santa Barbara. When the sides of this amazing vehicle majestically lifted up and two splendid-looking people emerged, I remember a feeling as surreal as if I were looking at alien creatures disembarking from a space craft. No again. My husband was a down to earth kind of fellow. Though he enjoyed novelty and inspected this unique car with delight, he would never have considered it his alter ego.
And then there was my Uncle Ted’s quintessentially utilitarian Model T Ford, dull black, of course, which unfalteringly carried him every single day for years on end to his job at the wholesale grocery warehouse. Hmmm, well, yes, my husband, being half Swedish, was wonderfully systematic and dependable and he also possessed the same kind of endurance as Henry Ford’s all but immortal car; but against this, was the jaunty Bohemian half of his heritage which required, color and music and innovation and complexity to keep life interesting. No, he definitely was not a Model T type.
“Listen,” I said, “you are in a class all by yourself, probably some kind of custom-built hybrid, but whatever you are, I have absolutely no intention of trading you in for some flashy new model. You still rank pretty high in customer satisfaction.”
Sometimes self-evaluation can be a pitiless thing. We in the geriatric population are, I think, prone to be especially hard on ourselves when we look back, because we know that we have not accomplished all that we set out to do in life. People of our generation were likely to have been indoctrinated in Latin class with the heroic maxim Ad aspera per astra which roughly translates: reaching the stars through great difficulties. Many of us, as children, witnessed our parents doing exactly that as they struggled to give us the best life possible during the depths of the Great Depression. We were, in a sense, programmed to set lofty goals for ourselves, to leave behind us “footprints in the sands of time.”
We older people were fortunate in that so many of our working years were spent during a long period of prosperity. This was a time when many of our dreams actually did come true, and against all reason lured us into supposing that by working just a little bit harder we could meet any goal we had set for ourselves.
The most damning thing that could be said of anyone was, “He sure didn’t amount to much.” So, we aspired to making our mark in life, and it didn’t occur to us that there was an absolute limit to how many of us could become president of the United States.
Come to think of it, my husband might have made a really great president. He was raised on a dry farm in Colorado where the whole family worked endless hours to eke out a bare living. The children in that family were admonished to: “Make yourself useful instead of ornamental.” Since that became the guiding principle of his life, it’s no wonder he concluded that he was “just a utility model human being.” Serviceable is a far better designation. He gave a great deal and he wore well. And he also touched the stars.
Seventy-four years ago, when I was age fourteen, I fell deeply in love with a whole lot of men, all at the same time. The roster included Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer, the boys’ junior high school P-E teacher, the University of Wyoming basketball coach, the clerk at the corner grocery store and the baritone soloist in the Congregational church choir.
I had actual pictures of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer and the University of Wyoming basketball coach. These were newspaper clippings which were concealed under the flowered paper that lined the top drawer of my dresser. I peeked at them every night. I never personally met any of these hidden loves, of course. But, on the other hand, I saw the grocery store clerk almost daily, and caught sight of the P-E teacher when I was in gym class. On Sunday mornings in church I was free to sit in rapture, which had nothing to do with religious ecstasy, and study the baritone soloist. In any chance encounter with one of the locals, I smiled at them in passing and they smiled back, never suspecting the amorous turmoil they left in their wake. Nor did my family or friends have any inkling of my covert, one-sided love life.
When I was growing up it did not do to be thought of as “boy crazy.” One girl I knew, the first one in our class to wear lip stick, the one who later had a glamour job as usherette at the local movie theater, was forthright in her interest in boys. My brother sarcastically dismissed her as someone who “would fall for any guy around, even if he was a yellow dog with red pants on.” My mother placed great stress on my being “ladylike” and this certainly did not include any blatant self-promotion or coquettish behavior. My father praised me for being “level-headed,” and my teachers considered me a conscientious student. So, like Walter Mitty, I turned to fantasy. In my private world, I was not exactly Lady Chatterley, but, despite my inexperience, I did my best.
A daring innovation in the Cheyenne junior high school curriculum was a class in social usage which was designed to prepare us ninth grade girls for the perils of high school. The class was taught by Miss Elwood, a white-haired maiden lady with prominent teeth who had somehow been up-rooted from the Deep South and inexplicably ended up in Wyoming. She spoke to us about afternoon teas, cotillions, the proper order for introducing one person to another and the gracious way to accept or decline an invitation. She advised us to always remember to put hand lotion on our elbows because if we omitted this step from our toilette, we could end up with calloused elbows which would negate any possible charm we might otherwise have had. In addition, she exhorted us to “keep smiling.” This would help us through practically all embarrassments. It was especially important to smile if you needed to excuse yourself from a social gathering to go to the bathroom.
The word “sex” never passed Miss Elwood’s lips. Her sole advice on dating was for us to encourage only gentlemanly young fellows who understood how to treat a real lady. A review of all the boys I knew did not reveal anybody answering this description. I took refuge in my own stable of glamour men.
The constrictions of my adolescence, when viewed by today’s lenient standards, seem absurd. I simply grew up in a time when we were never allowed any slack because of our “raging hormones.” Sexual freedom absolutely did not apply to our age group and if anyone had suggested sex education beginning in our sixth grade class, there would have been multiple cases of cardiac arrest among our parents. Nor did our families accept the teen age years as a period set aside for unconventional or rebellious behavior. We were viewed as awkward kids, not yet “dry behind the ears,” who needed firm guidance to reach responsible maturity by the time we “came of age” at twenty-one. This was not a perfect system and did not always produce the results intended. I do not expect to live long enough to see if today’s relaxed ways will result in a better outcome.
I can only tell you that my elbows still look okay and I found lasting happiness with a gentlemanly fellow who looked a lot like the Wyoming University basket ball coach.
My guru is by my side telling me for the umpteenth time how to post new material on my blog. I have missed talking to all of you and plan to try to remember what to do next time. When I start to post, anything I ever thought I knew slips through the cracks in my mind.
When people tell us we can accomplish anything we want to if we try hard enough, they mean well, but they are sometimes quite wrong. I have spent a lifetime struggling unsuccessfully to overcome two serious learning deficits.
First of all, I am a lost cause, musically speaking. Melodies do not strike my ear and linger pleasantly in my mind the way they do with other people. I cannot carry a tune and, for me, rhythm is merely an intellectual concept.
Secondly, I find anything having to do with numbers downright arcane. For example, there is a perpetual irreconcilable difference between my bank statement and my check register, no matter how painstakingly I calculate.
Researchers have located specific sites in the brain responsible for musical and mathematical aptitude. For this reason, I have resolved never to have a brain scan of any sort. I have no wish to be revealed as a medical oddity with a cerebrum as riddled with holes as a Swiss cheese, or, worse yet, perhaps one with a whole hemisphere atrophied to the size of a prune.
My musical education, which I entered into with the utmost good will, began at age six. My adoptive mother, who had always yearned to play the piano, saw to it that I received the music lessons she was denied. Neither my eager young music teacher nor I had the least premonition of the struggle that lay ahead. I easily learned to read single notes, fascinated by the small bug-like forms that crawled about among the lines of the bass and treble clefs, but when the time came to combine these notes, I was incapable of discerning when I had hit a wrong note except by the restrained gurgles of my teacher or by my mother’s more overt cries. Furthermore, I had no sense of rhythm. When my teacher asked, “Honey, don’t you feel the beat?” I didn’t know what she was talking about. Like Sigmund Freud, who did not care for music, I felt nothing and heard only “musical noise.”
You might suppose that my mother could have accepted that I simply had some gaps in my circuitry, but, alas, no. Dreams die hard. She was a determined and optimistic woman who believed that with training and practice some dormant musical ability would awaken in me. I certainly did not want to disappoint my brand-new, lovely mother. I can honestly tell you I put my all into learning to play the piano.
After a while I learned to sight read pretty well, but since I never had any real idea of what should come next, each time I played a piece it was a new adventure. Tempo remained an iffy concept, inversely related to the complexity of whatever composition I was attempting. When attending to runs, trills, arpeggios and grace notes, timing fell by the wayside.
Memorizing music was out of the question save for one notable exception. After seven or eight years of lessons, I could play, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Charms” from memory. And, at age eighty-three, I still can. I have no idea why.
As to mathematics, my troubles began in the first grade. Once again, I started out with a genuinely positive attitude. I liked the looks of numbers, particularly fours, which I had once seen written with the top of the four closed into a triangular shape so that it looked like a little sail boat. I persisted in writing my fours that way until the teacher complained to my mother and I was told to produce a standardized version. This convinced me that there is no room for whimsicality when you’re dealing with arithmetic. It was an uphill journey from there.
Nevertheless I survived the years of basic arithmetic with the kind of stoicism we reserve for coping with chronic illness, and actually clawed my way through first year geometry. Reprieve finally came when my high school math teacher implored me not to sign up for algebra. After our geometry experience, she figured both of us had suffered enough.
I once heard mathematics described as a study of “pure cold beauty.” It sounded to me as if they were talking about graveyard statuary. Frankly, I am more attracted to things that are warm and fuzzy. As a matter of fact, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” has a kind of warm and fuzzy quality about it, don’t you think?
At eight years of age, I discovered that if you yourself are not famous, the next best thing is to have some connection with a person who is. One of my older brothers was hit by a Model-A Ford as he was crossing the street, and, at school, I became known as “the sister of the kid who got run over.” This kind of notoriety was a heady experience for a third-grader with no major, or even minor, achievements to brag about. But I recognized an opportunity when I saw it. I summoned all my capabilities for the dramatic to capitalize on my brother’s misfortune.
“Yes,” I said somberly, “all three of the bones in his right leg are broken. He had a compound fracture. He’s still in shock.” I was quoting verbatim my mother’s telephone conversation with her sister in Denver.
“What’s a compound fracture?”
I had asked the same question myself, but now I acted as if this were the sort of thing any well-informed person ought to know. With an air of condescension I explained, “It’s when broken bones stick out through your skin—one of my brother’s bones was sticking clear out of his pant leg.”
There was a collective gasp. I savored the incomparable satisfaction of being the focus of a ring of appalled faces. My classmates were aghast and agog.
The main problem with sensationalism, however, is that it dissipates quickly if not replenished with new and juicy tidbits. I was able to maintain my position of vicarious celebrity for about a week by issuing daily bulletins of a quasi medical nature.
First, I described the trapeze placed over my brother’s bed to help him shift positions a little. To hear me tell it, he was performing incredible acrobatic feats on some complex mechanism. I drew a picture of his leg in a foot-to-hip plaster cast in an impossibly elevated position with an enormous weight dangling from it.
Then I talked about the young cowpuncher in the room across the hall from my brother. “He fell off his horse and he’s in a coma. He hasn’t come to for six weeks. His head’s all bandaged up. I can see right into his room and watch him breathe.”
After that I announced I had counted three doors at our small hospital with “No Visitors” signs. “That means the people are probably dying.” I explained callously.
Finally, digging really deep, I mentioned the guinea pigs in the hospital basement. “They keep them there for experiments. They give them germs to eat and then wait to see how sick they get and if they’re going to die.”
After that, I was out of ideas. (My brother recovered without a limp and lived another sixty-five years.)
What triggered the foregoing memories was a recent trip to the super-market. I was in a slow-moving line and all of us in the queue had time to study the lurid covers on the display of tabloids. The man standing behind me was outraged by what he saw.
“Who in the world thinks up all this wild stuff!” he exclaimed to his wife.
“Oh, probably a group of cynical types have a conference and try to decide what’s the most outlandish thing they can publish about some celebrity without being sued,” she replied.
“Well, if I was Prince Charles, I’d sure sue somebody over that picture,” he said, pointing to a maximally unflattering photo of the prince with Camilla. “They look like an ad for people with acute allergies.”
“And, look here! You’re not even safe when you’re dead! They keep resurrecting Jackie Onassis and the Kennedys and even poor little Jon-Benet Ramsey—-wouldn’t you think they could let them rest in peace!”
“People always want a connection to the rich and famous, dead or alive,” his wife responded.
“I’d say the people who print this stuff have got to be pretty hard-up for material!”
The man had put his finger precisely on the problem I encountered decades ago. Even if your original material is good, it has to be constantly augmented and judiciously embellished to hold public interest. Eventually, no matter what you do, the subject matter grows thin. I could have told him that keeping the public aghast and agog for any length of time is no simple undertaking.