My memories come back to me in little pieces of time and place; small threads woven
together. Sometimes, I wonder why I have certain memories, why a particular time and place are
so etched in my mind. I remember a summer afternoon, during one of our dad’s prearranged
visits with my younger sister and me, that we had decided to amuse ourselves by looking through
his old high school yearbooks.
Turning through the brittle pages, Sis and I stopped at the one placed between the staff
and senior class.In Memory of Mary—so out of place among pages celebrating youth and
promise. Smiling back at us in her ruffled, chiffon blouse and horn-rimmed glasses, she wore a
hint of dark lipstick that added a certain maturity to her sixteen years. “What happened to her,
Dad?” I was curious now.
“She was sitting right behind me in class the morning she got sick,” Dad said. I have a
vivid memory of how he looked just then, kind of far off, like he did whenever he talked to us
about his little brother Jimmy, who died at age two, or his Army buddy in Korea who died one
snowy night, overcome by carbon monoxide while he sat keeping watch in a jeep.
By the time that summer afternoon with Dad’s yearbooks played out, it had been several
years since our parents had separated. Sis and I became summer visitors to our hometown after
moving with Momma back to her hometown a whole state away. When we moved, we took the
memories of a three and five-year-old: thetick-tick-tickof Grandpa Jim’s pocket watch against
our ears, the smell of hot ink hanging in the air at Dad’s newspaper office, and blanket forts
under Momma’s dining room table during thunderstorms.
Dad loved the times he had with us now, often driving through town to point out
landmarks like the first house he lived in with indoor plumbing. “I was 13 that year,” he had
said, laughing. Sis and I laughed right back. The thought of it! On our drives, we always visited
the cemetery with its ancient, toppled gravestones, stopping in the newer section at our family
plot to remember our grandparents. Next to their stone was that of our greats, an Irishman and an
English lass who married after their paths crossed in Illinois. But it was little Jimmy’s gravestone
that had been the first to be set in place, during the bitter cold of February, 1937. Although he
had lived for over two years, his obituary measured his life only in months:30-month-old son
passes away.As we’d weave through the gravely cemetery road, the sounds of crunchy earth
under Dad’s car tires, I would remember the days when we all lived together and Momma and I
would place flowers on Grandpa Jim’s grave in the springtime. Once, as she dug in the earth, she
told me that all the cowboys were buried in the oldest part of the cemetery.
I knew it must be so, because she said it.
Dad had lots of those small scraps of memories, woven together by way of old cardboard
boxes that held what he considered treasures. I was only 11 that summer, but I could tell how
much those keepsakes meant to him, especially now that he lived alone. One by one, my sister
and I pulled from the boxes old war ration booklets, photographs of Dad playing with his cousins
on the farm as a boy, a faded letter written by our Grandpa Jim to his mother during his Navy
service in the Great War, and little Jimmy’s obituary. This is where we had found the four
leather-bound high school yearbooks.
Happy teenagers filled the pages yellowed with time. But their dress made them look
older than their years. The boys wore crisp, pressed shirts tucked inside trousers; the girls donned
plaid skirts with blouses tucked at their waists. Sis and I lived in a different world. We wore
straight-legged jeans, put bubble-gum flavored lip gloss on our lips, and listened to disco music
on our little radios. Still, we felt connected to our dad by going to those places and times with
him on our summer visits. The yearbooks seemed to draw us in to find out more about our dad as
a boy. It was the autumn of his senior year in high school. He told us how World War II had just
ended the year before. Our soldiers were home, victory was ours, and things were getting back to
normal. On a warm evening in his small hometown along the banks of the Iroquois River, you
could hear the sounds of family radio programs drifting through open windows.
Folks waved hello to each other on the streets of downtown. The air-conditioned movie theater
offered the only escape from summer’s heat. The town doctor made house calls with his small
black bag, caring for his patients from their birth until they died. It seemed as though all the lives
in the little farming community were intertwined, like the roots of the ancient maples and oaks in
the old cemetery, standing together in the storms and the sunshine God sent their way.
Turning those pages filled with back-and-white photographs brought out the rich, musty
smell of age. It mingled somehow with the happiness in the kids’ smiles, still capturing the
freshness of youth decades later, especially on the pages dedicated to the traditional senior class
dress rehearsal. Posing playfully with their friends in clusters on the school lawn, the kids wore
their black satin graduation gowns and caps with tassels that tossed in the autumn breeze. Our
dad laughed from one of those pages with his good friends Ralph and Bud, arm-in-arm. We
found Mary there, too. Must have been one of the last photographs taken of her. It was still
visible in all their expressions how much they had believed in their futures, stretched as long and
wide open with possibilities as the country roads that surrounded them. Even the twists and turns
must have seemed exciting. Don’t they always when you are young?
Mary’s name was listed in all the girls clubs their high school offered. She was described
as charming and determined on the yearbook page dedicated to her. After graduation, she would
be off to nursing school, hoping to eventually tend the sick in the wards of the local hospital
when her studies were completed.
I imagined Mary walking to school on the Friday of the big homecoming game, reaching
within for some of that determination while trying to ignore the headache and fight off whatever
she was coming down with. Maybe she imagined the homemade cake and punch to be served
under a crepe paper ceiling at the dance, or hummed the sounds of the big band greats that would
play in the background. Did she cross her fingers that the football team would have a victory to
usher in the celebration?
With all the excitement and chatter in the halls that day, few probably noticed that Mary
was moving rather stiffly, pulling her sweater over her shoulders to stave off the chill engulfing
her entire body as she found her seat behind my dad and sat down hesitantly, like someone
checking for wet paint first. Mary’s anticipation of the festivities must have taken more energy
than she could muster. She was sent home that morning, feverish, as her classmates gave well
wishes to their dear friend. But it wasn’t a cold or the flu that Mary carried with her that day; it
was polio. My dad would never see his friend again. Just like the morning he went to school in
the first grade and the angels came for little Jimmy.
Dad told us how parents used to worry, hiding their children away indoors each summer
when the polio cases were being reported. Anything to save them from crutches, wheelchairs, or
the awful prison of an iron lung. The New York newspapers had said 1946 was the second worst
year for polio on record. That fall, there had been two cases right there in town, a brother and
sister who were both recovering nicely in hospital beds and expected to be home soon.
For Mary, there would be no more breathing in crisp autumn air on a morning walk to
school. She entered a world of hushed voices, light and then dark, and the force of air into her
lungs through a long metal tube. The words on the yearbook page didn’t belong: “failing rapidly,
no chance for survival.” Mary died seven days after the big homecoming Friday.
Sis and I could see how the loss had affected Dad, even all those years later. That distant
look of his told us so. High school halls are not places we go to consider deep things, like
brevity. In youth, we never believe that we are the guests of God on this earth. Then, there is an
empty seat at the family table, or little shoes bronzed in place forever, or the empty desk of a
dear friend to remind us of the truth. But with the passing of time, we all come to understand that
life’s days are fleeting, carried on a current like the waters of the Iroquois River—always
moving. Something older folks tell younger ones, and the younger ones never quite believe.
But soon enough, that autumn of 1946 turned into winter, with the leaves on those
cemetery trees turning from crimson and golden to dead and falling away. Then spring came,
with its budding trees offering life once again before the class of ’47 walked cross the old
wooden stage to take hold of their diplomas and their futures. And time had stopped in one
family’s home. There, I could imagine the carefully folded plaid skirts, blouses, and lovingly
preserved graduation gown with its matching cap. Silent reminders.
In the old cemetery that hid the intertwined roots of tall, strong trees beneath its grounds,
there was a new stone with words etched between denial and acceptance:she’s just away.
The seasons linked us all, like the roots of those fine, strong trees, as we lived in the town
on the banks of the Iroquois during our appointed times. Every spring the tulips popped up,
inviting May Day baskets left on doors. Summer heat would return, and linger, then give way to
ancient trees offering fall colors as the air chilled once again, signaling another homecoming
weekend celebrated under crepe paper ceilings. Winter faithfully followed, and everyone closed
their windows to the cold.
Sis and I didn’t know it then, when we were just girls looking through faded yearbooks
taken from their hiding place inside cardboard boxes, but someday those books would be a little
piece of our dad’s life still with us after his passing.
The pages would tell us once again the story of a boy we never knew, who would one day be our
dad. I still spend time turning through the pages of the old yearbooks, remembering that he was a
boy first. I think of all the stories he told his two best girls about his life, and I never forget about
Mary. She was part of our town’s history, just like our greats, and the old cowboys, and sweet
And I remember that places also touch our lives, capturing people and events to hold them in
time. My sister and I will always be a part of that little town, with its friendly neighbors, winding
river, and the gravestones with our family name engraved into them, but mostly the cherished
memories of Dad and our times together, reminding us that we are rooted there too.
Lisa A Gavin has been published at christiandevotions.us, in Prairie Wind Newsletter, and
Devotion Girl magazine. She was a weekly writer for tblfaithnews.com from 2014 to 2022. Lisa
is a 2005 graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature. She lives in Illinois when she’s not at
a beach somewhere with her grandchildren.