One Hundred Years From London: Memoir of My Early Years
My great-great grandmother, Caroline Elizabeth Jarvis, was born in Burmondsey, Surrey, England, on November 24, 1849. Her parents’ names were George Jarvis and Francis Hicks Jarvis. I don’t know what her home or life was like then, but what I do know is that it was exactly 100 years later, on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1949, in Billings, Montana, USA, when I decided to join the family. Great-great Grandmother Caroline and I share the date of our birth, and one day I am going to discover what else we share. For now, though, here is the story of my birth.
My Aunt Edith, Mom’s sister, was visiting my parents that Thanksgiving holiday to help after my birth. She and mom prepared the usual Thanksgiving dinner with all the “fixins.” Mom had been feeling small twinges in her back all afternoon and figured she was going into labor, but she did not tell anyone. Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday and she knew she would not be given any dinner if she went to the hospital.
She waited until after dinner, just as they started clearing the table, to announce that she was in labor. Dad grabbed her bag, and off they went to the hospital to have me. I arrived at around 7:00 in the evening. How do I know this? Ever since I can remember, I have heard the story about how my Aunt Edith was left alone with my big brother, Roger, who was only 16 months old, and the Thanksgiving dishes. For years after, she would jokingly tell me that I should come and do her Thanksgiving dishes; that I ‘owed’ her.
Mom told me that when she would take me out in the baby carriage for a walk, everyone would tell her what a beautiful baby I was. Such lovely coloring (I was the prettiest shade of gold, she said). Of course, later she discovered that the reason I was that color was because of jaundice. She said when she looked at me she finally understood why people would say, “My, what a nice…baby,” when they saw my big brother as a baby. Roger was bald and his ears stuck out from the side of his head. Mom thought he was beautiful, of course. First baby and all that. However, when I appeared that Thanksgiving she knew what a beautiful baby really looked like – jaundice and all!
About 16 months later, my brother Kelly joined us. The three of us must have been a handful for Mom. Just 16 months apart, all of us in diapers at the same time – and back then there was no such thing as disposable diapers! Our brother, Ricky, did not enter the family until five years later – and by then we three were ready for a new sibling. Although I vaguely remember how furious I was when Mom and Dad came home from the hospital with another boy! I really wanted a sister.
I figured I had another chance four years later when Mom was pregnant again. However, it was not to be – Randy, my fourth brother, was born on February 10, 1960. I was not happy at all! I wanted a sister, but it never happened. As I grew up, though, I began to realize how lucky I was as the only girl in a family of four boys. I always had my own room while my brothers always shared their rooms and I had a bunch of brothers ready to protect and defend me if I needed defending and protecting.
My dad planned a special birthday treat for me on my ninth birthday. Years later in a creative writing class in college, I submitted this story for an assignment on a significant memory from childhood:
My First Date
When I woke this morning, I knew it was a special day. My Dad winked at me over the breakfast table.
“Don’t forget, today is your birthday, and I have a very special surprise for you.” Dad smiled as he finished his coffee and kissed Mom good-bye. After he left for work, I asked Mom what the surprise was, but she would not say anything.
All day in school I tried to figure out what my Dad could possibly be getting for me that was so special – and so mysterious. I asked Kathy, my best friend, what her Dad got her for her 9th birthday.
“Oh, I got the neatest new bike, and some clothes and junk.”
“But I’ve already got a bike, and I really don’t need any new clothes. What could he be getting for me that I need?”
I walked home from school with Kathy, and we parted at the corner. We usually talked for a while, but not today. I just had to get home in a hurry.
“Mom!” I yelled from the front yard, “has my present come yet?”
“No, come on in and change your clothes. Help me get this salad ready for dinner.” Mom was in the kitchen washing the lettuce. I did not see any sign of a birthday cake, so I figured she had hidden it somewhere to surprise me. I was 9 years old today, almost too old for a birthday cake, but I guessed that Mom would have made one anyway.
“Why don’t you answer the door, Janie?” Mom said when the doorbell rang a few minutes later. I dashed to the door, knowing that it was for me.
A boy from the florist shop was standing on the porch with a small box in his hand. I could see a flower through the cellophane top.
“Is Janie Johnston here?”
“Yes, I’m Janie, but why would you be bringing me flowers?”
“Beats me, kid, but that’s the name on this card.” He handed me the box with a big white envelope addressed to me. I opened up the card, saw Dad’s name at the bottom, just below this:, “I will pick you up tonight at 6:30. Wear your best dress.” The corsage in the box was made of beautiful lavender orchids with tiny white flowers and green lacy ribbons. It was the most beautiful corsage I had ever seen. It might have been the only one I had ever seen, but it was beautiful!
Dad picked me up at 6:30 sharp. He was wearing his new suit, and I had my pink dress with the white bows on. Mom said we made a striking couple. When we got into the car, I asked where we were going.
“Well,” Dad was smiling again, “I figured that you were going to grow up pretty soon and start going out with boys, so I decided that your first date should be with the first man in your life. We’re going out to dinner, and then dancing.”
How exciting! But he was wrong about boys: I sure wasn’t about to go anywhere with boys, at least not yet.
I did not actually start dating until several years after that, but I will never forget my first date. We went to the Starlight Terrace – a restaurant on the road to the airport. The restaurant is long gone, of course, but the memories of a nine-year old girl on the arm of her dad will never quite go away.
The years between my first date and the time I entered high school are all gone too, lost in snapshots of memory. Girl Scout camp was great fun, I remember. There are three distinct memories that come from that time. My mom was our scout leader and she made sure we had many exciting adventures at Twin Pines Day Camp. We must have been around 10 years old the summer we found “Sheik” the bull snake. He was big and slow. We adopted him and mom taught us how to hold him so he would not be afraid of us.
Some of the other counselors wanted us to be afraid of him, though, and did not think we should be playing with a snake. That was the best summer; we made s’mores, pigs in a blanket, ants on a log, and caramel dumplings. Mom was a great cook, even on a campfire.
One other summer camp memory that stands out is from the first time I went to ‘sleep-away’ camp. The girls stayed in cabins surrounding the lodge up in the mountains above Red Lodge, Montana. I remember writing home to my parents telling them about my cabin-mates. I even remember their names: Margo Powers, Leslie Harper, and Sonya Martinez. In my letter, I mentioned that one of them was black and one was Mexican, but I did not know which was which. Leslie was the daughter of a dentist and was white. My, I led a sheltered life in Billings in the ’50s. We had very little exposure to other cultures in our white neighborhood and when I ended up in a situation with a black girl and a Mexican girl, I knew they were not white, but other than that could not tell the difference. Even the names did not tell me anything, for all I knew Margo was a Mexican name!
It did not take me long, though, to figure it out. After camp was over that summer, I invited Margo to visit me in my neighborhood. We were riding bikes around when some of the older boys started calling her names that I knew were wrong. We went inside where my mom assured us that the boys were just being mean and they did not know anything. Margo cried and my mom took her home. She never did visit me again.
This brings me to the last real memory I have from my childhood. It was Girl Scout summer camp again, and this time I must have been around 13 or 14. It was CAP camp, or Counselor Apprentice Program, I was in training to be a camp counselor, although I never did become a counselor. I had discovered boys and this turned out to be my last summer as a Girl Scout. The camp was a month long and we stayed in modified covered wagons. We did a lot of things in that camp, learned how to cook over a camp fire, how to lash poles together to make tables, went hiking all over the mountains and thought we were being so wild and independent when we took off our shirts to hike in just our bras because it was so hot.
We camped out under the stars several times, getting our sleeping bags and clothes wet when we got caught in a surprise rain storm. Looking back now at that summer, I marvel at how completely carefree and innocent we were. Of course, we considered ourselves as much more sophisticated and certainly not innocent, but we really were.
In 1966, I started my junior year in high school. I had spent the previous summer terrorizing my parents as a teenager. The one thing that I did, however, that was different was take a summer school class in creative writing. One of my friends, Jackie Vinner, who was a year older than I was and went to school at Billings Senior High, the arch rival of Billings West High, where I attended, also took the creative writing class. It was not that we had to take the class, our grades were good and we were not failing any classes, but we wanted to take it.
We spent summer mornings in the classroom while our friends were out doing teenage summer stuff, like hanging around, sleeping, and going to the pool. Jackie and I wrote stories. I do not remember too much about what kind of stories we wrote, but I do remember really liking the class and the opportunity to write.
That fall, my mom talked me into signing up for the Journalism class and I met Mr. Lou Morris, the journalism teacher. Writing for the school paper that year and during my senior year changed my life.