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 Chapter 14



It was, I think, early in the September of 1945 that I had another dinner with Brenda. At that time, Brenda was beginning to be slightly less Polish. It was mostly because of Maria. If the latter had turned out to be the Pole one might have expected, Brenda might have gone ever deeper into Polish London. But she couldn't very well do that with a daughter who was everything a Pole wasn't supposed to be. Brenda talked of these matters, a little wryly, but without any real pain. I pointed out,

"Joseph Conrad may have been quite different from Maria in many ways, but he evidently couldn't face life among the Poles either."

She laughed and allowed herself pleased on the whole.

"I don't think my Polish phase would have lasted indefinitely anyway. I find them fascinating, but there's no money to be made among them. I have to get back to fortune building."

As if to symbolize this change, Brenda's clothes were beginning to return to their former elegance. When I pointed this out to her, she replied,

"I have to keep up with Maria, now that she has all these pretty things. I've had to send to New York for most of them. Not much is available here, or even in France, just now."

I nodded sagely, as if I were familar with the situation as regarded women's clothing. After a minute of silence, Brenda spoke again.

"I'm pleased, not only that she's being such a help in the business, but also because she's so much in the Sanderson tradition."

"She's not at all like you, surely."

"No, but you've known other Sanderson women, haven't you?"

It had never occurred to me to compare Maria to Wilhelmina Sanderson. The comparison of a very old lady to a young girl was made even more difficult by the fact that they regarded me in such different ways. Wilhelmina had looked on me with open amusement. Maria obviously took me very seriously. I said as much to Brenda. She gave me that wonderful look of hers that I had seen so often in the past. I groaned and asked,

"Does Maria also make fun of me?"

Brenda, managing to keep some control over her amusement, replied,

"She gave me a wonderful account of your trip to the zoo. Do you remember an incident at the elephant enclosure? You evidently turned scarlet, and had to be distracted."

I attempted to set matters straight, but it was no use. Brenda said,

"But it wasn't just that, Thomas. Many of us besides Maria and Wilhelmina have found you diverting at times. I was thinking more of Wilhelmina's early history, when she was Maria's age."

"I don't know much of it. Only that she was Mott Rogers' mistress until he married her."

"Wilhelmina was also a war orphan, you know. In the first months of the Civil War, the border states, particularly Kentucky and Missouri, went crazy. Some families sided with the Union and the ones down the road with the Confederacy. They had at each other with whatever weapons they had. Wilhelmina's family was a good one, we've never been able to discover just which, but they were Unionists in Lexington, Kentucky. That wasn't a good thing to be there and then. Her parents and brothers were killed, and she had to make her way through hostile territory to Cincinnati."

"That may have been difficult, but it doesn't sound like managing as a Jew in Nazi Germany for five years."

"No, but it's the same sort of thing, just a difference in scale. Did you know how she met Mott Rogers?"

"No. She never talked about it with me."

"Probably with no one but her favorite grandaughter. He caught her shoplifting in his store. He threatened her dreadfully, but settled for free work in the store, and, of course, sex. At the beginning, anyway, Wilhelmina escaped the south only to become a slave in the north. She used to laugh at the irony of it."

"Yes. Seventy years later. I don't expect it was very funny at the time. If it had been Maria, she wouldn't have gotten caught."

"Don't be so sure. Wilhelmina had been living off the land for a year or more, and we know how competent she was. Mott Rogers appears to have been as mean and suspicious as any man who ever lived. He might have caught even Maria."

It was only at that moment, by virtue of the comparison, that I began to see either Maria or Wilhelmina clearly. When I knew Wilhelmina, it had been many decades since she had had any need to adapt to circumstances, but, even then, there were traces. Funny as she had thought me, I now realized that Wilhelmina had looked me over quite shrewdly. And then, instead of getting rid of me in favor of a proper trust officer, she had changed her own mode of operation so as to allow her to keep this source of perpetual amusement close at hand.

Unlike Maria, Wilhelmina had never betrayed nervousness. But, when young, Wilhelmina had lived with a man whose idea of a love pat had probably been a clout on the side of the head. I had a momentary image of a young Wilhelmina, with Maria's nervous smile, skittering away from Mott Rogers as he grabbed at her with his bear's claws. Maria, too, would settle down, now that she had nothing to fear. But she would never lose that same diffidence that had prevented Wilhelmina from telling anyone but Brenda about Mott Rogers, or the touch of insecurity that had caused Wilhelmina to buy and hide away masses of jewelry.

Things happened fast in the fall. Jane was the one who found out that Maria wanted to go to America. She was hardly alone in that. To be a child or young person in Europe in 1945 was to be liberated by a race of hulking heroes with their pockets full of money and candy. Some of the older people who were "saved" might have their reservations, but the young wanted to follow those generous gum-chewing fun- loving victors back where they came from. Jane not only reported Maria's desire to the rest of us, but added her own vote. England, she said, was headed for a streak of austerity and boredom, and she wished to be elsewhere.

At that same time, Ralph and I were having seemingly unrelated conversations which did, in the end, have a bearing on the future of our extended family.

Ralph, in addition to his mathematical tendencies, had always had a social concern. He now wondered what would become of all the American servicemen who were being demobilized. I replied,

"I imagine they'll go back where they came from."

Ralph shook his head.

"Many of them are unmarried young men who were living with their families. A good many more had recently married, and left their wives with one family or the other. Very few had independently established households."

"Well, can't they just rejoin their parents and whatever dependents they left with them?"

"In England, most of them will just crowd in. It'll be a long time before the building programme does more than just replace the housing that's been destroyed. The American soldier won't be so easily satisfied. Most of them haven't seen any combat to speak of, but their egos are very much enlarged."

"I know. Every soldier who drove a truck two hundred miles from the front has stories of bombs being dropped near him."

Ralph laughed,

"Yes, indeed. There are only heroes and greater heroes. And the Europeans are treating them as such."

I concluded,

"So the hero won't want to go home and take orders from his father, much less his father-in-law."

"Certainly not. He'll want to be boss in his own home. America is rich enough, and grateful enough, to provide it. New communities will have to be built, quite different from the existing ones."

I could see Ralph's point. Millions of confident young men would demand a price, and they would get it. Ralph was willing to let the matter rest there. It was I, I seem to recall, who saw the implications for Brenda. If new communities of a different sort were to be built, someone with money and imagination should be able to help build them.

I subsequently approached her with this in mind, much as one venture capitalist might try to influence a larger one to go in with him. I was somewhat deflated when I found that she had already thought of building in America, and had accumulated some six hundred thousand there in preparation. But, still, there was something I could add,

"I've been reading the American papers quite thoroughly, and have come away with some strong impressions. The returning veterans are not only going to demand and get their own houses. They're going to demand and get college educations."

"I know the GI Bill of Rights promises them that. But I'm not sure exactly what that will involve. No matter how much the traditional universities expand, they won't be able to satisfy more than a tiny fraction of the demand."

"No, but there are large numbers of second and third rate colleges, not to mention new ones springing up. No demand ever goes unsatisfied for very long."

"You know, Thomas, you and I and Ralph have only had experience of Harvard, Vassar, and Columbia, respectively. What are those other colleges like?"

"Well, there's the one Smith went to, something called Oswego State, I think. He complains that the English think of him as not having gone to college at all."

"I guess I assumed him to be a college graduate. Is that just English snobbery, because he doesn't know Latin and Greek?"

"To some extent. But I bet Jane doesn't know Latin and Greek either."

"I'm sure she doesn't. However, her brothers probably do."

"Anyhow, Oswego State isn't much like Oxford. Smith majored in business, mostly taking courses at night while he sold cars in the daytime. Actually, I rather admire him for that."

"You seem to know quite a lot about Jane's old husband."

"He's someone I could keep up with while I was an alky."

"I see. Well, what he did just before the war may be the pattern for the future in America."

"Quite easily. The ticket of entry to middle-class America may turn out to be a degree in anything from any institution that calls itself a college. If, once employed, you can do the work, no further questions will be asked about your education."

Brenda, seeming to agree, replied,

"I suppose these young veterans won't really go to a college. They'll just attend whatever one happens to be close at hand."

"I dare say."

Brenda remained thoughtful, and something occurred to me.

"When new communities are built for the veterans, they'll likely be built in a circle around a new college."

"You've got it, Thomas! What we need is a college in the middle of farm land about ten miles from a city. We'll buy the land, expand the college, and put up little houses for the veterans."

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