Friday, February 28, 2014

A Different Kind of Senior

It was grand celebrating those glory days when the seniors of Fort Meade High School had graduated in 1919. And it’s been quite as grand to relive those reunion occasions, thanks to the letters and newspaper clippings my grandmother had saved among her special papers.

Along with all the newspaper clippings that Rubie McClellan Davis’ friend Zemla Doke Griffith sent her from Fort Meade, Florida, Zemla had included a long and newsy letter.

Personal letters like this are not the type of item people are accustomed to receiving in our current times. While Zemla’s letter was postmarked October 20, 1983—not very long ago—it does still reach back to a world that many people now would find foreign. Got friends who went to the hospital or lost a job? Now, we think nothing of posting that on Facebook or even Twitter, so everyone in our circles would know.

Perhaps only fifteen years ago, the way to share such personal news would be by email—or at the least by picking up the phone and calling, even if it were long distance.

But thirty years ago? Back in 1983, when this letter was written, there were still many people who held to the notion that it would have been extravagant even to pick up the phone to chitchat, if it involved a call between, say, Ohio and Florida.

So consider a letter like Zemla’s the 1983 equivalent of Facebook—all lumped together in one huge post.

What did she talk about? News, of course! Important stuff—at least to folks like Rubie and Zemla. The latest on what’s been happening to anyone and everyone they knew in common from the “good old days” when they were all together in high school—the mighty senior class of Fort Meade School.

When that subject had been worn out—hoping, of course, that coming in the reply would be more tidbits to keep the conversation going—the topics would head toward other familiar areas, like family, neighborhood, hobbies.

After discussing the news from classmates Elizabeth Morgan and Marie Alderman—or anyone else who had recently been in touch—Zemla responded to what my grandmother must have written in a previous letter. I’m not at all surprised to discover that Rubie’s eyesight had been a topic of correspondence. By that time, Rubie most likely had had her cataract surgery—which brought with it an outcome she never found quite matching her expectations. I can’t tell you how many times I heard my grandmother regret what had become of “my eye-uhs,” as she would call them in her distinct version of a southern accent. Apparently, the “new things that have come out” that Zemla was championing were the very things my grandmother was bemoaning.

The reference Zemla made to “your daughter” concerned Rubie’s oldest daughter, my mother, who after being widowed had sought work in the education arena just as the then-recent economic downturn had caused many school districts to lay off large numbers of teachers. My mother, after selling the family home in New York, had found a position teaching in a private school in Los Angeles—a radical change from the public school environments back home. Discovering an associate had recently been appointed principal of a private school in Minnesota, she signed on at that less-urban school setting, moving yet again, halfway across the continent. Finally, tired of being so far removed from family, she resigned herself to return home to Columbus, Ohio, where her parents and sister still lived. Until she could find a teaching position, she made ends meet by doing restaurant work along with those ever-hopeful gigs at substitute work in several school districts in the area. It was likely at that point that my grandmother had made mention of her daughter’s circumstances to her confidante, Zemla.

Keeping in mind that, in 1983, Rubie would have been eighty four years of age, and her husband Jack nearing eighty six, it’s no surprise to hear Zemla offer her condolences for Jack’s declining health. All these classmates and their spouses—at least, among those whose spouses were still alive—were likely experiencing similar circumstances. No matter how well they seemed to be doing, it was a slower and more circumspect “well” than it had been back in 1919, the year they were the mighty seniors just about to graduate from high school.

Zemla Griffith letter to Rubie Davis sixty four years after they both graduated high school
She [Elizabeth Morgan] said she had a letter from Marie [Alderman] and she had just lost a sister. That made 5 deaths in her family since the first of the year. Marie has had some problems with her heart but seems to be doing better now. She is not as active as she was though. I hear from her occasionally.
            I am so sorry you are having so much trouble with Jack in such poor health and your eyes so bad. Do hope the doctor has been able to improve your vision by now. It does seem with all the new things that have come out you could get some relief. Hope everything is better for you.
            I hope your daughter can land a permanent teaching job. I think she is wise to do as much substitute work as she can get. I really don’t see how she holds up to two jobs though. Teaching is so hard and so is restaurant work.


  1. I love the old letters. I feel like I have had a peek inside their lives and their hearts when I read them. I heard someone speak that said with us relying so much on texting, emails etc. for communication, the generations that follow will not have that glance within our lives because most of us will not be leaving behind the boxes of old letters or diaries. I am ever grateful for the few things that I have, but you, Jacqi, have a gold mine. Thanks for the beautiful way in which you share your treasures.

    1. I've heard that said, too--and believe me, I'm as jealous of those with boxes of old letters as you are. These few I've been able to find are indeed treasures to me.

      Thank you for stopping by with your kind words at just the right moment. I think we all are searching for as many ways as possible to preserve these glimpses into our families' past.

  2. Hardly anyone writes letters anymore..lined paper and all..I do have a few friends I write to and have a supply of old stationary...I should use it up:)

    1. I used to be quite the letter writer, myself, but somehow that seems like not only an entirely separate age, but a different universe. What has become of us? You are right: use up all that stationary. It will make someone's day. And we all could use a little bit of that!

  3. I still write letters when I intend the communication to be "special" - like "thank you notes" and such.

    My folks are old enough that even to this day, they resist "phone calling" for "money reasons" even though the calls are "included minutes" with their plan! Old habits just can't be broken!


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