Going Back


She was the baby of her family. Everyone impressed upon her older sister, Judy, the necessity of getting A’s, but nothing about that was ever said to little Louise. She was her grandfather’s darling. He used to call her Little Bear and was Big Bear to her. She used to run and jump into his arms until one day her mother said he was getting too frail for that. Every Sunday she and Judy and their parents went across the street to the grandparental home on a North Hill bluff overlooking the Mississippi and Illinois to the east. Of Swedish and English ancestry, Clarks had been in Burlington since the 188Os. Grandmother presided at the Sunday meal, pressing with her foot a bell under the diningroom rug beneath the table covered with pads and a tablecloth to summon the maid.

WELL, THERE YOU are,” I said. “Now, I don’t know the first thing about you— never did. Begin at the beginning.”

“Bell under the rug, pads under the tablecloth!” I said. I hadn’t thought of that sort of thing for decades, for the lifetime of 90 percent of the people I see in the supermarket these days, who can’t remember the war, or Truman, or mail twice a day, once on Saturday, or Joe McCarthy, Sinatra, MacArthur, Rita Hayworth. “I didn’t think they had that out in the hinterlands. What, was there a butler too?”

“There was no butler,” she said firmly. “And the maid was an Iowa farm girl. Those little Midwestern towns, you know, worked very hard to be like Back East.”

Grandfather was a lawyer and served on the Burlington school board for years and years. “Thirty-eight, I think.” When the high school put up a new sports facility, it was named for him: the Clark Fieldhouse. She and her friends in long-ago days after school used to walk down to the center of town, three or four blocks from home. There were no suburbs. Beyond town limits was rich alluvial farmland. In town were places owned by members of her family. At one she bought a bright red strapless formal. (The word was also utilized to describe a dance where the boys wear evening clothes of varied style which were uniformly titled “a tuxedo.” A semi-formal means the girl wears her formal and he wears his double-breasted navy blue suit. In both instances his presentation of a corsage for wear at shoulder or waist or wrist is mandatory. Orchids, as we say today, send a message. Carnations send a different message.) Her grandmother was shocked when Louise modeled the new high-style purchase for her.

“How did you address her?”

“Grandmother Clark? Grandmother Clark.”

There was never any doubt that she would go to the University of Wisconsin, like her mother, like Judy, both of whom had been Delta Gammas there. She was, of course, a star of Burlington High School, and when later at my request she sent me photocopied things about her past, I found that was how she was titled along with three other people of the two hundred grads of her year: “Louise Clark well deserves to be placed among the Star Seniors. Outstanding in music activities, she plays first stand cello in the orchestra. On the student council this year, Louise acted as chairman of the assembly committee, and as another Senior honor, was elected Dolphin Queen. Throughout her years at BHS she has maintained a high scholastic standard. Scribblers and Y-Teens have kept her busy, and yet, with all these responsibilities, Louise finds time to indulge in tennis or swimming and in playing her large and varied collection of records. Her gay and sweet manner has won her many friends.”

‘What is a Dolphin Queen?” I asked on the phone after reading the photocopies.

“Well, at the swimming pool you were there in a bathing suit with high heels. And a tiara.” It wasn’t her only beauty-title situation. The Delta Gammas put her up for Summer Prom Queen and went about singing a song than which nothing could more controvert the facts: “Poor little Weezie Clark/She’s our shot in the dark/Her pointed head, her bony knees/She’s deaf and hardly sees. /You’ll vote for her/Because she’s just our Weeze.”

“Do you still play much tennis?”

“Twice a week, hour and a half each session. Do you play?”

“A good deal.”

“We’ll have to go at it some time, for blood.” Once I would have questioned if blood actually ran in this creature’s veins, that she had blood, or veins either. “But what,” anxiously asked my friend Richard, his Emily no doubt in mind, “if she beats you? It would be too humiliating.”

“Don’t you worry about that!” To myself I vowed that if she played like Steffi and Martina combined, she was still going down.

So Louise goes to the U.W.—and?

“I was going there, he was sending me there, my father told me, to get married.”

“That’s what he said?”