The Mystery of the Princess Locked in the Tower (Nancy Drew meets Zelda Fitzgerald)

“The American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”

I wrote this down in one of my notebooks. I circled it, underlined it, highlighted it. But I didn’t note where I heard or read it. When I Googled the quote, I was led to her an essay by former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, “America Made Me a Feminist“.

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Paulina Porizkova

“In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable. That got to me.”

This obviously struck a chord with me. My worlds had collided, or coincidence had taken me on a journey. My fascination with Thomas Wolfe led me down a rabbit hole to the writing of contemporary Southern literary icon Lee Smith to the tragic figure of Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Drew, and unpredictably, Paulina Porizkova.

The degrees of separation are few. Thomas Wolfe was from Asheville, North Carolina, which he famously wrote about in Look Homeward, Angel, much to the anger and dismay of the city’s residents. Zelda Fitzgerald spent many years, and ultimately died in, Highland Hospital, a mental hospital (or “hospital for nervous diseases”) in Asheville. Lee Smith wrote a novel about Highland Hospital, Guests on Earth, and the fire there that killed 9 women, including Zelda.

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Nine women died in the hospital fire on March 10, 1948. According to the official medical report, Zelda was unable to escape the fire as she had been sedated and placed in a locked room prior to a scheduled electro-shock therapy treatment. The women who died were all trapped on the top floor of the central building

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The fire started in the kitchen wing, but there is still mystery around how it started and who might have started it. Speculation includes a former patient who was later hired to work in the hospital and held grudges against some of the other women, doubling their medications and locking them in before starting the fire in the kitchen. The windows were barred, the fire escape made of wood that quickly burned.

But was Zelda really “crazy”? She is commonly said to have been schizophrenic, but more recent studies suggest she was more likely bipolar, with periods of depression and periods of high energy and creativity. She was herself a writer (some believe F. Scott plagiarized from her writings), an artist, and a dancer; a free spirit in a time and place where that was heavily frowned upon. She was raised to be a Southern Belle, to marry well, to be a pretty and charming hostess, but not to be smart, creative, or independent. After the fire, she was indentified as among the dead from her charred ballet slipper.

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Lee Smith, through narrator Evalina Toussaint, wrote of Zelda in Guests on Earth:

She didn’t fit in, that’s all. They didn’t know what to do with her…None of them knew what to do with her. She was too smart, too original…She didn’t fit in.

Smart women who didn’t fit in. Locked up. Princesses in a tower. While Zelda was in Highland Hospital, F. Scott would visit, staying at the luxurious Grove Park Inn, supposedly resting and relaxing and taking the “beer cure” to wean himself off of gin.

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Grove Park Inn
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Highland Hospital doesn’t sound all that horrible when one looks back at the history of
the treatment of mental illness. Founder Dr. Robert Carroll created a program based on
exercise, diet, and occupational therapy rather than straitjackets and shackles. But there
were also questionable electroconvulsive treatments and insulin coma therapy, with risks of brain damage and death.
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Electroconvulsion therapy.
At Highland, Zelda was able to dance, to paint, to write.
The character Evalina, a talented pianist and a fellow patient, enters the hospital at age 13 in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. She loves to read. One of the nurses brings her Nancy Drew books.
Nancy Drew. I love Nancy Drew.
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 I read all of the Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the best compliments a coworker ever gave me was to call me Nancy Drew.

The first Nancy Drew mysteries were published in 1930: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn all in the same year. Nancy Drew books are still being written and published, the most recent title, Riverboat Roulette, was released in early 2017. Two titles, The Professor and the Puzzle and The Haunting on Heliotrope Lane, are planned for late 2017 and early 2018.

Why do we love Nancy Drew? She’s smart, fiesty, curious. Blogger Kerry Winfrey lists the reasons Nancy Drew is such a good role model:

  • She’s not afraid of anything.
  • She’s well-rounded.
  • She has great fashion sense.
  • She’s a feminist.
  • She has staying power.

The books purported author, Carolyn Keene, didn’t and doesn’t exist. The actual writers have come and gone, but Carolyn Keene lives on. Nancy Drew was created by Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of children’s books. He hired ghost writers to churn out the books, as well as other series like The Hardy Boys, according to a set and successful formula.

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I don’t think it was a coincidence that Lee Smith brings Nancy Drew books into a story of princesses locked in a tower. Just as Paulina Porizkova wrote recently, women are told we can do anything. Nancy did it all, while dressed to the nines. She had her roadster, her friends, her college-aged boyfriend (who doesn’t show up that much), a father who encouraged her. She was smart and pretty and everything I wanted to be as a girl. But in the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, she was locked away for wanting to be more than a good wife and mother. She had serious artistic aspirations of her own, but lived in her famous husband’s shadow.

“Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.” [Zelda, in a letter to F. Scott.]

 

Many women in institutions at that time were women who didn’t fit in, who didn’t want to stay in their proscribed boxes, who were uninhibited, creative, and deemed hysterical. The word hysterical itself is significant. It comes from the Latin hystericus–of the womb–and was considered to be a female ailment, brought on by dysfunction of the uterus. Gary Nunn writes of the “feminization of madness”. Take the word loony, from lunacy, and the connection to the moon (lunar). Thus, lunacy becomes a monthly periodic insanity brought on by the moon’s cycle. As Nunn describes it:

“These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness.”

In an interview, Lee Smith said,

“A fairly sizable number of women who were at Highland Hospital had really been sent there by their husbands or their families because they were just a little too wild or creative, because they didn’t fit into the norm that society—particularly Deep South society—expected of them.”

Zelda published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932. It was written while she was a patient at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was there after “an episode of hysteria”, and spent 2 hours a day writing as a part of her recovery. The novel was autobiographical and apparently angered F. Scott, who forced extensive revisions before it was sent to the publihser. He then used much of the same autobiographical material in his own book, Tender is the Night, published in 1934.

F. Scott himself was clearly mentally unstable, yet he, the tortured novelist, stayed at the Grove Park Inn while his wife Zelda was confined to Highland Hospital. Ring Lardner Jr. referred to the couple: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.” During their courtship, Zelda routinely evoked jealousy from F. Scott with her flirting and “outrageous” ways. Before their marriage, he was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Nancy Drew, if she were real, would probably have been locked in that tower too. But hopefully she’d solve the mystery of the fire and escape before she was tied down for electro-shock treatment.

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The Princess in the Tower, by Otori Reka

I am currently reading  Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda’s story as she herself might have told it.

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I’m not very far into it. Zelda doesn’t seem crazy, though, just bored and stifled by the expectations placed on her in 1918 Montgomery, Alabama.

There is also now a television series on Amazon, Z: The Beginning of Everything, with Christina Ricci as Zelda.

 

The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, died in 1986. When she was born in 1921, Zelda said she hoped her daughter would be a “beautiful little fool”, a line which F. Scott had Daisy utter in The Great Gatsby.

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Scott, Scottie, and Zelda Fitzgerald

 

She was definitely not a fool; multi-talented, Scottie graduated from Vassar in 1942, and over the years worked as a writer and journalist, wrote musical comedies, and was a tireless figure in the Democratic Party as a fundraiser and promoter of Democratic candidates. Completing the circle in a sense, she moved from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama and spent the last years of her life in her mother’s hometown. Two of her daughters control the Fitzgerald Trust. The house Zelda grew up in was set to be demolished in 1986; instead benefactors purchased the home and donated it as the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald Papers are held at the Princeton University Library.

Meanwhile, Nancy Drew is still a badass girl detective.

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keep calm

We don’t, like, use as many, you know, big words and stuff anymore?

I’ve realized reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel that my vocabulary is abyssmal. (Notice how I did that, using a fun word?)

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In school, we always had to memorize the lists of vocabulary words, use them in sentences, and spell them correctly. We even had old-fashioned print dictionaries! (I still have several, actually.)

 

No one bothers much with spelling anymore, assuming some computer function will fix everything. Ever had a funny miscommunication because of auto-correct in a text message changing what you meant to say? Yeah, me too.

 

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As I have written, I am in a current Wolfe-worship phase (see Look Homeward, Angel, or Things Thomas Wolfe Said and I’m not obsessive, I’m passionate (or, I’m stalking Thomas Wolfe). In his wonderfully crafted writing, he uses a lot of words that I have to look up. Some of them are really awesome (I need a synonym for that one), but not so easy to fit into conversation in our “modern times”. Of course, Wolfe thought he was living in modern times. It’s always modern times at the time…

In 1982, Moon Unit Zappa released her novelty song Valley Girl.

The a year later, the movie Valley Girl came out.

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I was in my early 20s at the time, and thought the ridiculous way of talking was a joke  or would go away. It hasn’t, and it’s spread. “Like” as a substitute for every part of speech is ubiquitous (see, I did it again), and it’s an increasing phenonmenon that Americans end their sentences with an  uplift, as if everything is a question. I am guilty of falling into the speech pattern myself. “I was, like,… and then he was, all, like, …” instead of “I said… and then he said…”

In an effort to become more erudite (love that one), I once signed up for the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Day e-mail. But the e-mail always got lost in the shuffle, or I promptly forgot the word by the next day (or hour). Urban Dictionary was more fun, but not quite what I had in mind in terms seeming smarter. As in book smart, not street smart. No one who knows me would ever call me street smart!

 

I’ve started keeping a list of words from Wolfe’s writing as they strike me (and as I have to look them up in the dictionary). I am under no illusions that I will start using these words in regular conversation; I feel misunderstood much of the time already. But the beauty and power of words is something we sometimes forget. I love this quote from writer Diane Setterfield:

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

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Writer Diane Setterfield.

 

Wolfe himself clearly loved words. It is said that editor Maxwell Perkins worked over almost two years helping Wolfe cut 60,000 words from the original, vast manuscript of the book.

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Editor Maxwell Perkins.

Here are a few of my favorites that I have run across that survived the editorial pencil.

Proofreading Red Pencil

pusillanimous: cowardly

pullulation, as in “The limitless land, wood, field, prairie, desert, mountain…the ceaseless pullulation of the sea.” It has to do with abundance.

stertorous, as in stertorous breathing–rasping, snoring

scrofulous: Wolfe uses it a lot as the fictional town of Altamont is a place where people went to recover (or die) from tuberculosis; he uses it to refer to people who don’t look well. It sounds like you wouldn’t look well if you were scrofulous.

debauch: to corrupt

rapscallion: one of my favorites and often used with the kittens–mischievous

inchoate: rudimentary; immature

fecund: fertile

bellicose: aggressive

rapacious: aggressively greedy

I fear the post is verging on the somniferous. In other words, I’m like, probably, you know, boring you and stuff like that? So I’m, like, going to bed now?

good-night

Peace and hugs.

I’m not obsessive, I’m passionate (or, I’m stalking Thomas Wolfe)

Can you stalk someone who is no longer alive? I’ve become entranced/fascinated/obsessed with Thomas Wolfe since I brought him up in Look Homeward, Angel, or Things Thomas Wolfe Said. I go through crushes with writers. I’ll become intrigued, learn everything I can about said writer, read everything they wrote, watch every movie made about them or based on their books, until I’ve exhausted the possibilities. Then I move on to the next crush.

I now follow the Thomas Wolfe Society on Facebook. My queue on Audible.com contains whatever they have (and as much as I like the writer Tom Wolfe, it’s Thomas that’s the subject of my interest).

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Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)
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Tom Wolfe (born 1931)

I saw a post on the Thomas Wolfe Society Facebook page about the movie Genius (Don’t Believe the Haters: In Defense of ‘Genius’), starring Colin Firth as editor Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe. The post is a defense of the movie, which apparently had detractors. I had never heard of the movie (have I mentioned that rock I seem to live under?). I had to see it. Why? It’s about Thomas Wolfe, and it stars the amazing Colin Firth, handsome Jude Law, always good Laura Linney, and Ice Queen Nicole Kidman. I am not so crazy about Kidman, but in this movie her demeanor and style seem to fit the character, Aline Bernstein, a woman who succeeded in the then male-dominated world of theater set and costume design and could be said to have had a “tumultuous” relationship with Wolfe.

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I found an interesting post on History vs. Hollywood that compares the actors to the characters they played in the film. What is really interesting to me is that this is a predominantly English cast, in a movie filmed in England, about an iconic American writer from the South and the story is mostly set in New York. Dominic West, who I thought was American the whole time I watched The Wire, portrays Ernest Hemingway. Guy Pearce is a convincingly pained and troubled F. Scott Fitzgerald. Why do the Brits appreciate this literary heritage more than most Americans?

 

Fitzgerald was one of my crushes. I went through a fascination with Hemingway the man, but never got so much into his writing. Yes, I appreciate his style and way with words, but I’m not so much into his subject choices. Fitzgerald totally appeals to me: handsome and troubled with a beautiful, crazy Southern Belle wife.

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This was in my freshman year of college, and in my American Literature class with Professor Robert L. Casebeer (real name) in 1980 I wrote many a paper about Fitzgerald.

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My first attempt at college was in Ashland, Oregon, 1979-1981.

Before that, in high school, I went through a serious John Steinbeck phase. I still love his books. I admit to being a total wallflower nerd in high school. I spent a lot of time in my room, drawing and painting and reading and sewing my own weird clothes. No surprise I was never asked to the prom, much less on a date.

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John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

I’ve been through similar obsessive phases with the English writers Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisted) and John Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga).

Lest you think it’s only male writers that I stalk, I’ve been through my Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) phase and an Agatha Christie (1890-1976) phase as well.

 

 

I first became fascinated with Thomas Wolfe back in the 1990s. I got to Wolfe through a desire to live in Asheville, North Carolina. Musically, I was in a David Wilcox phase, and he is (was?) based in Asheville. I was also in my museums career phase, and figured there would be a job for me at the Biltmore Estate. I applied for several jobs, but it’s hard to get an interview when you live 3,000 miles away!

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American folksinger and songwriter David Wilcox
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I’d be so much closer to family than I am in California.

 

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Is it so much to ask for to live in the library at the Biltmore Estate?

And it was my obsession with Asheville that got me to Thomas Wolfe, native son.

There are so many connections I could go into–Paris in the 1920s, where so many artists and writers (the so-called Lost Generation), including Wolfe, spent time. A good account of this is Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast. And one day I will make a  pilgrimage to legendary Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, central to that time and that generation.

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But meanwhile, I’ll be listening to the audiobook version of Look Homeward, Angel and dreaming of different times and places.

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Look Homeward, Angel, or Things Thomas Wolfe Said

Thomas Wolfe had a thing about home. So did E.T., but his wish was much simpler: call the folks and get a ride back.

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Thomas Wolfe was a little more complicated. He was born October 3, 1900 and died September 15, 1938. His father ran a gravestone business in Asheville, NC. He died of miliary tuberculosis of the brain at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore just shy of his 38th birthday. Wlliam Faulkner called Wolfe the best talent of their generation. High praise.

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Look Homeward, Angel was Wolfe’s first novel. Published in 1929, it is a fictionalized account of his early life in Asheville. It caused an uproar in Asheville at the time, and Wolfe stayed away from the town for 8 years. Maybe that has something to do with his notions of home as well.

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You Can’t Go Home Again was published posthumously in 1940.

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I remember there being a made-for-television movie of the book in 1979, starring Chris Sarandon as the young writer in the story. I don’t remember if it was any good.

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I am more of a Steinbeck fan myself. He also said you can’t go home again.

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I recently went home again.

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I thought I was going home again when I took a job at the University of California, Davis last last year. The town of Davis itself felt like home and I was quite comfortable th. Campus also felt like home. Some things had changed, as I expected they would, but the general feeling of being there was much the same. For reasons I won’t go into, it didn’t work out, but it had nothing to do with the place.

In my own literary efforts, I hope to one day finish a memoir about moving away from home (see The Do It Yourself Museum ©, maybe someday brought to you by the Hallmark Channel ™). Home in this story is to me the house we lived in in Atlanta until the summer of 1972. I still dream about that house frequently, and remember the details of it better than most of the other countless apartments and houses I’ve lived in over the years since.

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So many memories. Dyson Drive, late 1960s.
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Dyson Drive house, early 1960s, before a back addition of a breakfast room, a large bedroom for my sisters, a second bathroom, a little teeny tiny bedroom for me (the littlest one).

I was in Atlanta for a short visit to celebrate October birthdays (we are the 3 Libra sisters). We had a wonderful time, with mani/pedis, bargain shopping, great food, a day at the Atlanta History Center (an upcoming blogpost) and a visit to the old neighborhood in Druid Hills.

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For the most part, the changes were no more than I expected. I don’t have any illusions that things remain the same. My Atlanta childhood memories are uniquely my own. My mother’s memories of the same places were different as were her mother’s. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and happily disagree with Messieurs Wolfe and Steinbeck. You CAN go home again!

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First we explored Emory Village, which we used to walk to to go to Horton’s. Horton’s is hard to describe; basically think old-fashioned five-and-dime with a soda fountain. A little change in your pocket as a kid went a long way at Horton’s!

 

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There are now 3 stores where Horton’s used to be.
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The old Kroger, where I used to love to go grocery shopping with my mother on a Saturday, is now a CVS. I saw something on the Internet that it used to be the nation’s smallest Kroger store, which is probably why I liked it.
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For many years (41 to be exact) this was the home of Everybody’s Pizza. I don’t remember what it was before that! It opened in 1971.
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This was a KFC. Falafel King is a big improvement if you ask me!
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One of these shops used to be the wondrous Alexander Stinson store. It was a, to us, groundbreaking shop, my first exposure to anything remotely counterculture in Georgia. It was opened in the 1960s by Bill Stinson, an English professor and a deft hand at creative merchandising and display. There were eventually 3 stores. I LOVED Alexander Stinson.
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The old cinema. The last time I was there was on a visit in 1978; my sister Ellen took me to see the Jill Clayburgh/Alan Bates film An Unmarried Woman. I also fondly remember the sandwich shop, as well as when I learned what PDQ stood for in Pizza PDQ.

And you can’t go to Emory Village without wandering into the gorgeous entrance to Emory University. When I was a high school senior in Sacramento, California, I desperately wanted to go to either Emory or to Mount Holyoke (that’s also a different blogpost; I went to neither).

Next stop: Fernbank Elementary School and the Fernbank Science Center.

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The old sign out front is gone.
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It’s been replaced with this sign.

The old building is gone, a new, large, spiffy one in its place. And that’s okay. The kids of the neighborhhood deserve a nice, new school with updated facilities. Yes, the Cat Stevens song (Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard plays in my head (see Is there a cure for earworms?Or, Help! I Need Somebody…) but it’s just a song and new kids in the neighborhood are making their own special memories.

Frankly, not all of my schoolyard memories are that great (I remember when the torment of my school years, the President’s Physical Fitness Test, was instituted at Fernbank. Nightmares!)

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New school.
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Plastic playground equipment and softscaping. I survived metal equipment on blacktop, but I did have a lot of skinned knees.
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Please don’t make me do the President’s Physical Fitness Test ever again!

At some point in my childhood, the Fernbank Science Center was built across the street from the school, and basically over the fence from our backyard. On hot summer nights we would walk over to the planetarium, which was blissfully air conditioned.

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The backyard of our old house is over that fence.

My favorite memory of school is GOING HOME at the end of the day! We lived so close, and walked rain or shine. When we moved to California and I had to ride the school bus, I was in total culture shock. This was my walk home:

I loved this house, it looks pretty much the same, and I hope I keep dreaming about living there!

Just remember, there’s no place like home.

 

And every woman should have a pair of red shoes. It was my mother who said that one.