Sort Of Like How The Name "Ethel" Is Getting Popular Again
Volume II, Issue II - Nov. 2011

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"All memory is individual, unreproducible – it dies with each person." Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

All memory is individual, unreproducible. But a scrapbook is a quote from memory, much as a snapshot is a quote. When the person dies to whom that scrapbook belonged, the scrapbook alchemizes over time into an artifact without context, rising out of the anonymous pile in a junk store or at an estate sale. This is how I came to own the scrapbook of Mary Wilson Hilliard, born May 28th, 1919 in Easton, Pennsylvania. I found it at an estate sale one Saturday morning in August, 2010 while I was in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Several of the other fellows at VCCA and I decided to take a break from our individual projects and search for barbecue and garage sales. My memory of this day has mostly faded. I'm in the backseat of someone else's car and I'm not even sure who is seated with me. Helen B? I don't think Helen would go in for either barbecue or garage sales. Lisa Z? The same. Lisa S? Yes, almost surely. And surely this outing was at my instigation because that's what I do. I instigate.

A strip of divided highway lit by a too-bright sun, small businesses lining each side of the road.

I once had a student who took a photo of every meal he’s eaten over the past ten years. There's something about this project I admire and something I don't. We can’t even remember our own lives day by day, and even if we could, even if we photographed our days at ten minute intervals, what would this mean at the end of a life? A number of diarists have recorded the minutiae of their days, even down to their bowel movements. The desire to preserve life is hopeless. The desire to memorialize a little less so. Thomas Mallon writes in A Book of One's Own, People and their Diaries that there is always an intended audience for a diary, sometimes posterity, sometimes grandchildren, sometimes a future self. Undoubtedly, the same is true of scrapbooks, but instead of the minutiae of a day or the feelings or observations of that day, the scrapbook, hits only the highs, not the lows of a life. With only a caption or two, there's not much to go on, so where's the interest to anyone else? But it does interest me, or at least this scrapbook interested me when I found it on a table in the basement of a church along a sun-drenched Virginia road one August morning on an otherwise unremarkable day of my life.

The book has a heavy leather cover of reddish brown, and it bulges with perhaps a hundred construction paper pages on which are glued the ephemera of Mary Wilson Hilliard's life. I have never seen a scrapbook like it. It covers only six years of her life, from 1940 to 1946, and I was told by one of the people holding the sale (a professional outfit with no relation to Mary Hilliard), that a companion scrapbook also existed, from the 1930's, but someone had already purchased it, and there was no record of who that was. Why that person didn't purchase this scrapbook as well is obvious to me. The price was not cheap. The cost of the remaining scrapbook was $75, and who would buy someone else’s scrapbook for such an outrageous price?

Rhetorical question.

I understand why it was so expensive. Every page is crammed with such ephemera as letters, engagement announcements, the stockings she wore throughout World War Two, a newspaper proclaiming the invasion of Normandy, a woven bracelet made by one of her traumatized army patients when she worked as a volunteer at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC. There are playbills from dramas and musicals she saw, a beautifully preserved menu from Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans, circa 1943: A bowl of gumbo sets you back 35 cents. Her birth certificate. A Hawaiian lei from a cruise she took. Her red cross pin. A balloon from he Shriners' Circus. The button from a military uniform. Election paraphernalia from the first election in which she voted. Her voter registration card. She voted for Wendell Willkie against Roosevelt. She was a Republican, at least in 1940, and she attended a rally for Willkie on October 4th, 1940. A little song sheet printed on both sides sits loose in the scrapbook, as do many of the artifacts, some that come unglued, some that undoubtedly she simply pressed between the pages of the book.

Vital Campaign Messages, set to tunes everyone knows and enjoys.

Everybody Sing! and Win with Willkie

My money is all spent for taxes –
My money I don't even see;
It all goes to Washington Bureaus
O bring back my money to me.
Bring back, bring back –
O bring back my money to me, to me;
Bring back, bring back.
O bring back my money to me.

Mary and I don't have much in common politically, but we share the same birthday.

And there are mysteries embedded in the scrapbook. There's Robert, the fighter pilot she dated. Several photos show him posed by his bomber with his crew, several photos show him with Mary. And there's this telegram Robert sent her December 29th, 1945

Willie: I'll be in Washington for New Year's Eve. Would like to see you very much. I'll call you Sunday morning. Love, Robert.

And there are captions. The most intriguing, referred to twice on the same page:

"Before tar baby arrived."

"After tar baby arrived."

The term comes from the Br'er Rabbit stories, a term not widely used these days as it's widely perceived as racist. Mitt Romney found this out during a campaign swing in 2006:

But in Mary's day, it would have referred to a sticky situation – sadly ironic in this case as the glue on which she pasted her photo or memento of tar baby didn't hold. Glue stains accompany the captions.

Whatever was held there is held no longer. Perhaps if I look at the placement of the captions, I'll be able to piece together an explanation. The captions are in the section when she worked as a Red Cross volunteer at Walter Reed in March of 1944. I know this because the preceding page has a photo of her with all the other volunteers, 43 in all, behind which she tucked her supervisor's evaluation of her:

Miss Hilliard needs help in recognizing and understanding the underlying elements of human behavior, the implications of illness, and the role of a social worker in this setting, though in April she was considering attending social work school. She now has decided she does not want to do this.

Mary worked on Ward 24, and she seems to have been fond of one patient in particular, whom she refers to simply as "Grande." She captions a couple of spots with the words, "Grande's handiwork, Ward 24," and one of these pieces has survived, a beautifully woven bracelet of black and white—I'm not sure of the material, that Grande must have given her.

It's likely that the buyer of Mary's other scrapbook butchered it to sell its ephemera, which surely is worth more separate then in its present bulky form.

The problems here are many. Do I want to reconstruct her life? In part, yes, but I'm interested as much in the artifact-ness of this scrapbook, the idea of private memorialization, the shrines we construct to tell us who we were and that we never consider will someday wind up sold to a complete stranger at an estate sale. I don't want either to sentimentalize her or to show her disrespect. I want to inventory these six years of her life and write about each defunct object in a way to revivify it, or at least to take this small museum and enlarge it, to consider it as an archeologist might. A tomb. A dig. The small treasures of a life. I want to consider our small treasures, our milestones – these things that make up a life or part of it. In the scrapbook, I see a small sliver of her mind at work, though I can't possibly know her in all her complexity, as I can't even know myself. But the scrapbook bobbed out of her consciousness into mine in a church basement in Virginia, and it seemed to suggest we shared an affinity besides our mutual day of birth. It seemed to suggest I buy it. And so I did.

So what will I explore and how will I explore it? Perhaps the project will be interactive between me and you. I hope to share bits of Mary's scrapbook here and in our newly-created blog.

And so, begging your pardon, Mary, let's press ahead.

The Serialized Scrapbook of Mary Hilliard
Robin Hemley, Defunct Editor