I don’t know why I’ve been feeling so sentimental about the past. Maybe it’s a normal part of growing older. Not so long ago I wrote about my mother’s 80th birthday. Today is Valentine’s Day, another source of memories. When I was a child in Atlanta, I didn’t like to sleep in my own room, so I often camped in my mother’s room. I loved to go through her jewelry box and the “pretty things” inside. Among these were an old Valentine’s Day card from my father and an identification bracelet, both of which were kept in an old envelope at the bottom of the jewelry box.
In my child’s mind, with no memory of my father, I naturally romanticized the stories I’d heard into an epic and tragic love story, a la Romeo and Juliet. The Scarboroughs were the Capulets and the Cottrauxs the Montagues, with high school sweethearts Nancy and Pete caught in the crossfire. Actually, there wasn’t a feud between the families, but my grandmother Scarborough (Nana) didn’t approve of the Cottraux grandparents (Mimi and Grandaddy). My Cottraux grandparents were world travelers, golfers, and loved a good cocktail party. Despite Nana’s hard-working farm family roots in Vermont, she very much embraced the role of Atlanta society matron and “old money” traditionalist. I was a little bit afraid of her, and adored Mimi and Grandaddy. Neither of my grandmothers, however, was the warm, hugging cookie-baking grandmother of my dreams. Nana was very stern and forbidding in my mind, and Mimi was more interested in the country club than baking cookies.
Nancy and Pete (aka Mom and Daddy) met at a dance, and the story was that the instant Daddy saw her, he told the friend he was with that he was going to marry that girl some day. In 1952, when Mom was only 16 and Daddy 17, they did just that. They eloped to South Carolina, where a 16-year old girl could marry without her parent’s permission. They kept it a secret until they no longer could. My sister Cathy was born in 1953. Mom was allowed to get her high school diploma, but had to study from home as it would “corrupt” the other girls to be around their married and pregnant friend. Her dream of going to college to study journalism was set aside. In 1950s Georgia, young mothers didn’t do such things. My father was by then a freshman at Georgia Tech, and they set up house in family student housing. (When I was little, this was very romantic to me as I had no idea how young they really were. As I turned 16 and then 17 I began to think of it a little differently. They were just babies themselves, I think now.)
Daddy became an engineer with Georgia Power, and was sent from Atlanta to Savannah and then Macon, where I was born in 1961. Daddy died less than a year later. Of course I’ve always wondered how different my life would be if he hadn’t been in the car at that time, that day, when the world irrevocably changed for us. Mom moved us back to Atlanta to be closer to family. By then my Cottraux grandparents were retired to San Diego, making them that much more glamorous and exotic to me than ever. Nana, however, was a powerful influence and support in our lives (and I never got over being a little afraid of her).
Remembering how much the card and bracelet had fascinated me as a child, when my mother was dying of lung cancer in 2009, she had me bring her the jewelry box one day. She handed me the card and bracelet and said, “I know you’ll take care of them.” I feel honored to be their keeper.
Never take your loved ones for granted. Someone might leave for work one day and never come home again, like Daddy.
Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. She was born February 3, 1936 in New York City, which often surprises people because she was so much a Southerner. Her parents, Dr. James Elliott Scarborough (1906-1966) and Isabelle Wisell Scarborough (1909-1992), moved to Atlanta when Mom was very young. My grandfather was a doctor at what was then the Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases and is now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. My grandmother was a nurse but left the hospital when my mother came along. The story in the family is that they were so sure that my mother would be a boy, they hadn’t come up with any girl names. Her birth certificate says “Baby Girl Scarborough”. Eventually one of the nurses started calling her Nancy and it stuck.
Dr. Scarborough, originally a farm boy from Hayneville, Alabama but a graduate of Harvard Medical School, was recruited by Coca Cola CEO Robert Winship Woodruff in 1937 to head up the Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta. Thus my mother became a Southerner and my Vermont-born and raised grandmother embraced Atlanta society.
I don’t have a lot of pictures of my mother. In 1990, the house she was living in with her second husband in Sacramento, California, burned down and many photos were lost to the fire. Here is a short photo tribute to my mother, Nancy Scarborough Cottraux Dilbeck (February 3, 1936-August 23, 2009).
I like to think she would be proud of me for the path I’ve taken over the last few years. She always let me make my own decisions, whether she approved or not (like when I dropped out of college in 1981 to follow a boy halfway around the world). I didn’t always like her decisions either (like moving us to California in 1972), but I’ve come to appreciate the hurdles she faced and the choices she had to make.
As I get older I get nostalgic for more and more things from my youth. There are certain books I carry in my heart; I read and reread them. Thinking about them brings back sense memories of the time and place in which I read them. The Wind in the Willows takes me back to the den in our house in Atlanta, in the green nubby-fabric wing chair, with our cat Whiskers and a sunbeam coming through the windows just so–it’s keeping me warm and cozy and I can see the little dust motes floating in the light. The Borrowers I associate with reading in bed; Mom would let me sleep in her bed when I was afraid to sleep in my own room. I read The Borrowers propped up on pillows while she read her book next to me.
In no particular order, here are some of the books that helped instill my deep loving of reading. Of course my mother gets credit too; she was a voracious reader and was very open minded about giving me free rein to decide what to read. There was a time when instead of an allowance, she would take me to buy a new book every week at Rich’s department store (now a Macy’s). The book section was directly across from the candy counter, so I would sometimes get a little bag “fruit slices” if I had been especially good that week. Many of the books, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, were already on our bookshelves.
The books that touched my heart and imagination:
Amelia Bedelia (by Peggy Parish, illustrated by Fritz Siebel, 1963)
Of course I have my own story that goes with this book. I forget what grade it was, but my best friend Leila Greiff and I used this book for a class project in which we were to present a book to the class. Leila played Amelia Bedelia, we made props (somewhere we managed to get a rubber chicken), I was the narrator, and I think my mother contributed one of her delicious lemon meringue pies. Our teacher liked it so much that she had us go with her to her university to present to a class she was taking. She played Mrs. Rogers (who gets to eat the pie).
The other thing I adored about this book is how it teaches about the different meanings of words and phrases, the concept of taking something literally (Mrts. Rogers did say to draw the drapes), and not to make assumptions. Bonus lesson: being a good cook goes a long way toward getting you approval!
The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (by Margaret Sidney, illustrated by Hermann Heyer, 1881)
As the youngest of 4 children in a house headed by our young, widowed mother, I was understandably drawn to any stories of hard-working widows and their spunky children. And there would pretty much always be a dog and a cat, too. Mrs. Pepper, called Mamsie by the children, works hard to make ends meet, with the help of the children Ben (Ebenezer), Polly (Mary), Joel, Davie, and little Phronsie (Saphronia). Joel is the one who always gets in trouble. Davie is the quiet one. Ben is ultra responsible. Polly is sweet and pretty and tries her hardest to help Mamsie. Phronsie is only 3 at the beginning of the book, but she’s a little blonde cherub who everyone adores, of course.
Little Women and Little Men (by Louisa May Alcott, 1868 and 1871)
These were in combination in a flip book; the bookshelf in my older sisters’ shared room contained a complete set of the Companion Library flip books, a set of children’s classics published in 1963. I’m pretty sure I read them all along the way, but this was my particular favorite.
In my usual way, I tried to assign a sister from Little Women to each of the Cottraux sisters. There are 3 of us, not 4, but it kind of works. Cathy was clearly Meg, the beauty, the eldest and the one most set on a life as a wife and mother. And Ellen was so obviously Jo, the smart, funny, irrepressible sister. My brother Steve didn’t really fit into my scheme here, but I doubt it bothered him. That leaves kind, shy, musical Beth and the artistic, spoiled youngest, Amy. Which am I? I think a bit of both. I’m not musical and of course I wasn’t sickly like Beth, but I hope I am not so thoughtless and narcissistic as Amy.
The Borrowers (by Mary Norton, illustrated by Beth Krush and Joel Krush, 1952)
This is the book that I read snuggled under the covers in Mom’s bed. I was afraid to sleep in my own room for some period. There was a metal fence post outside my window and a light somewhere glinted off of it at night. The twin gleams looked like eyes to me and even if I pulled down the shade I could see them through the gap. I would crawl in Mom’s bed, where the dog Tripp was always asleep too. It was probably kind of crowded but I only remember it being cozy and safe.
The Borrowers so spoke to my imagination. I wanted there to be a family of Borrowers like the Clock family–Pod, Homily and their daughter Arrietty–living under the floorboards of our house. Their matchbox beds and thread spool tables and their distrust of the “human beans” who they borrow from seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I hoped to see things that Borrowers could use slowly disappear from the house, but I never did find a family like the Clocks.
The Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Paul Bransom, 1908)
Perhaps my favorite of all time, the adventures of Mole, Rat, Mr. Toad, Mr. Badger and the sporty Otter are at times sad, frightening, and heartwarming. Mr. Toad tends to get a lot of attention (as he would say is only right), but it was always Mole who tugged at my heart. He has a kind of innocence and a longing for something, but also a sense of nostalgia that make him so much more of a real character to me than the incredibly silly Mr. Toad.
Heidi (by Johanna Spyri, 1881; pictured 1929 edition translated by Philip Schuyler Allen and illustrated by Maginel Wright Enright)
Set in a place and time that I had no comprehension of, this children’s classic will forever be associated with the Swiss Alps in my mind. If I ever go there, I am sure I will be disappointed that it’s not all beautiful meadows, goats, and hay lofts. The first night Heidi is at her grandfather’s and makes a bed in the sweet-smelling hay and looks out at the stars; oh, I wanted to be Heidi. And I loved a cute dress with a pinafore back then. I would tuck my Crayons in the waistband and forget they were there and then they’d get run through the washer and dryer…Heidi would never do something so careless.
Daddy-Longlegs (written and illustrated by Jean Webster, 1912)
The letters of spunky orphan Jerusha Abbott, who calls herself Judy, to her anonymous benefactor who she nicknames Daddy-Longlegs, was probably the first book I read that really had a clear sense of romance (between people, not cartoon animals like Lady and the Tramp). Even though I know the book and its ending by heart, I’ve read it at least 50 times and it makes me happy every time. Her adventures at a women’s college also put the seed in my head that I wanted to go to Mount Holyoke to college when I was a teenager. That didn’t happen. And again, would 1970s-1980s Mount Holyoke have been remotely like the college depicted in early 1900s Daddy-Longlegs? I think not. But I can still wonder how different my life would’ve been if I had been able to follow that dream.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Tomorrow Will Be Better, and Joy in the Morning (by Betty Smith, 1943, 1947, and 1963)
I couldn’t choose one so I listed all three. There is a fourth book that Betty Smith wrote in 1958, Maggie Now, that I haven’t read. I’m not sure why! Much of her writing is based on her own life experiences. Side note: when she was a girl in the tenements of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was a very poor, hard place. I wonder what she would think of the hipster culture there now.
Queenie Peavy (by Robert Burch, illustrated by Lerry Lazare, 1966)
I have a feeling this is one not so many people will be familiar with. Queenie is growing up in rural Georgia during the Depression; her father is in jail and her mother is always working at the local canning plant. Poor and with a chip on her shoulder, Queenie’s temper tends to get her into trouble. I remember being particularly struck by a scene in which there is very little to eat in the house; I had never thought before about children going hungry.
The Summer of the Swans (by Betsy Byars, illustrated by Ted CoConis, 1970)
Lest you think I only ever read really old books or books written about the past, I did read contemporary books as well. One of my favorites, probably attained on an aforementioned trip to Rich’s, was The Summer of the Swans, about sisters Wanda (19) and Sara (14) Godfrey, their brother Charlie (10), and dog Boysie (old). It’s essentially Sara’s coming of age story during a difficult summer. When mentally-challenged Charlie wanders off, Sara, as the one closest to him, must set aside her angst while learning about the nature of love and family. The illustration of Sara and Charlie also influenced my artistic sensibility.
Harriet the Spy (written and illustrated by Lousie Fitzhugh, 1964)
I still like to imagine I am Harriet. Among my takeaways from this book (maybe not what Louise Fitzhugh intended): a period when I wouldn’t take anything in my school lunch but tomato sandwiches, just like Harriet. And a to-this-day unaccomplished desire to try an “egg cream” in New York, which I understand contains neither eggs nor cream. I think a lot of people focus on Harriet as a spy, but what Harriet wanted was to be a writer and her spying was a way to fill her notebook with observances. You go, Harriet!
I could keep going (Nancy Drew, anyone?), but I’ll leave you with Harriet.