Speak Memory, But Not Too Much

Here at Streetlight, our favorite nonfiction is the personal essay and after reading some recent submissions, I’ve been thinking about my own family stories. One of my favorites is one that didn’t happen to me, but to my mother when she was a child.

It’s a story I heard several times and always was amused by – but, I notice, differently as time goes by. The story could be told with this caption: “The Day My Mother Got Kissed by Warren G. Harding,” and it’s as short a story, as the events it features.

The year was 1920 and my mother was six years old and her sister, four. Warren G. Harding was coming to Fair Haven, Vermont on a

Warren Harding
Warren Harding

leg of his campaign for the presidency (which he would later win, of course, but that’s not part of the story). Our great grandmother, a determined social climber and an ardent Republican, had managed to get herself on the welcoming committee. Apparently there was a parade and in it, several little girls (I’ve always imagined white dressed with flower print) carrying baskets of flowers.  My mother and her sister were among these little girls.

When the great man appeared, they would throw the flowers at him. The only hitch was that my mother had apparently been careless with her basket, causing the flowers to fall out. To solve this, her grandmother sewed the flowers into the basket. What could be simpler, eh?

And when the great man appeared, and all the girls were throwing their flowers, my mother, having no other great ideas, threw the whole basket – and bingo! – hit the presidential candidate on the shins. Whereupon, as any girl would do, especially in 1920, she burst into tears and Warren G. Harding – who may have had his faults, but he knew  how to campaign – picked her up and planted a nice kiss.

That’s the story. It may even be true. I think my mother liked to tell it because it featured her only contact with the famous. Even in later life, by which time she had become an ardent Roosevelt Democrat, she still liked to tell it as an amusing anecdote – and there was still that element of pride.

Still, I’ve often thought about the circumstances: how could my great-grandmother, who surely knew the flowers were to be thrown, have thought that sewing them into the basket was a good idea? What does this tell me about her?

And what was my mother doing with that basket to cause the flowers to fall out? In some private versions of the story in my own head, I imagine her hitting her four year old sister on the head with it. That is not an unthinkable idea. Did the four year old also lose her flowers and were they similarly sewn into the basket? I never thought to ask that. Or perhaps I knew I wouldn’t get an answer anyway. In my darkest suspicions, sometimes, I can even imagine it was the younger one who threw the basket and got the kiss. Unfaithful suspicion. There is an inner voice that always reminds me, no, if there was one who was going to throw a basket at somebody, it would have been my mother. That same voice reminds me that whatever story we got, that was the one my mother meant to tell. And isn’t that how it is? We tell the story we want to.

Well, Warren Harding went on to become one of the worst presidents ever to inhabit the White House and my mother went on to become – in her later years – a Democratic Committee Woman  from her county in New York State. Not an elective office, but a role that pleased her greatly. I never thought to ask her if she saw any connection to Warren Harding, but I can’t help wondering, a little, if she were to tell the story now, how she would tell it.

Susan Shafarzek

 

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