In With The Old (Haunts), Out With The New
Volume III, Issue I - Spring 2012
  • In the wending Customs line at the Brisbane airport, having spent the last 26 hours mostly in the air, I worried that perhaps I should declare Mary Hilliard. Video monitors flashed various items you might pay for dearly if you tried bringing them into the country, among them, the usual taboos: child porn, drugs, fruits and vegetables, and some others that Australia is particularly keen on keeping out of its borders, wood products among them. Australia does not kid around when it comes to keeping at bay its various nightmare invaders, with steep fines and jail time for especially egregious violations, though it’s fighting a rear guard action when it comes to invasive species, like most of the world, I reckon.

    I wondered if Mary Hilliard was a wood product. I wondered if I was objectifying her, or whatever the opposite of objectifying her is. After all, she wasn’t a real woman, though once she had been. I simply carried her memories with me. These memories took the form of her scrapbook I had purchased a couple of years ago at her estate sale in rural Virginia. And now I had taken her scrapbook with me to Australia. The scrapbook from the forties detailed much of her life in the most innocuous fashion – a scrapbook is our most sanitized form of autobiography. If today, we are guilty  ............

  • of over-sharing, Mary Hilliard was guilty in the 1940’s (though only to me) of under-sharing. I was not her intended audience, of course. She was her intended audience, or her kids and grandkids, of which I believe she had none. Her audience of one could supply all the context that was needed unless in her later years, her mind faded and even she could no longer remember who “nice Mr. Schuller” was, though a note presumably about him from 1945 or 46 was pasted into the scrapbook:

    Miss Hilliard
    “The oldest admirer you have” called.

    When I purchased her scrapbook, I felt there was some connection between us. We shared the same birthday and we had both lived in Pennsylvania. That’s something.

    But Mary gives up very little. I know the jobs she had, the USO dances she attended, the weddings she attended (none of them her own), the flyboy named Robert whom she seemed to have dated briefly, her stint as a Red Cross volunteer at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, her compassion for the shell-shocked boys she looked after in Ward 24. But the scrapbook ends abruptly, unlike  ............

  • her life which lasted another sixty some years beyond the war.

    Why had I brought her to Australia? I wondered as I stood in line waiting to be discovered in the possession of contraband life scraps. This had been an impulsive decision, not my first and certainly not my last, as I had imagined she might like to go to Australia. I don't think she traveled much in her lifetime, though I could certainly be wrong about that. But in Mary’s time, travel was more of a luxury than it is now for the middle class, who see it as a gauge of happiness, even a right. And I include myself in that number, He of the Sasquatch sized carbon footprint. The scrapbook’s longest section illustrated her post-war vacation to Mexico with some of her girlfriends. My mother visited Mexico at the same time as Mary – this was the logical place for Americans who weren’t wealthy but had some means to visit after wartime travel restrictions were lifted. My mother went there to finish her novel, but she also fell in love there with her own flyboy, a former RAF pilot in World War One, a Texan named Elliot Chess, sixteen years her senior. She accomplished her novel. He accomplished her, and my half sister Nola was born as a result. At the time, Mexico conjured images of romance and danger. Now it simply conjures danger, but even then there were hazards which became  ............

  • part of family lore. On a bus to Guadalajara, gunshots ring out, a rival bus company taking potshots. Windows shatter, passengers scream, Elliot Chess throws my mother to the floor. Perhaps that very evening, my sister was conceived, a Gringa dream of romantic adventure and reckless distance.

    Most recently, my family and I traveled to Cancun during my university’s Spring Break – we had planned an illegal hop to Cuba, but our plans derailed and we spent our time at a time share, the biggest danger to my blood pressure as I listened interminably as part of the deal to a sales rep tell me for three hours why I was foolish not to give her $22,000 for a sliver of paradise.

    And where did Mary travel in Mexico? Mary’s TRIP TO MEXICO! takes up thirty-four pages, at least a third of the entire scrapbook, and brims with photos, articles, advertisements, schedules, an immunization record showing the entire course of typhoid and tetanus vaccines she took before and after the trip. This was no Spring Break jaunt to Cancun, but a voyage of discovery.

    From friends:

  • Have Loads of Fun!
    Best Wishes

    And in the newspaper:

    Miss Mary Wilson Hilliard of 124 Porter Street, who has completed Red Cross Hospital work at the Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C. , has left on a six-weeks trip through Mexico.

    Unimpressed with the Star Courts Motel in San Antonio on her way to Mexico, she wrote beside an attached colored sketch postcard of the place: “Ugh and then again UGH.” But directly below, beside an envelope from The Plaza Hotel in Laredo, she wrote: “Air-conditioned with beautiful bathtubs. Heaven on earth after a hot day’s ride.”

    And of course, I think yes, air conditioning would not have been a given, and the busses certainly wouldn’t have had it.

    And then, Mexico! Road photos, her two girlfriends posed beside a  ............

  • couple of strapping Mexican lads, one wearing a conductor’s hat, the other a brimmed hat the size of a Panama. And the captions:

    Beautiful Flat roads
    Mexicans really do take siestas.
    Look carefully and see:
    1. The plaid seat covering of Ann’s car
    2. An Indian woman carrying a baby on her back
    3. Indian hut

    A giant fold-out road map of Mexico, opens grandly, revealing this part of the world as it existed in 1946, along with a smell like mushrooms sautéing. On the next page, an article on Mexico, “The Highroad to Mexico” by Absalom Jackson, Jr.:

    [W]ith all travel restrictions now lifted, more and more Americans are heading south along the Pan-American Highway. No passports are needed and the necessary tourist card and car permit, good for six months, can be procured at the border for $2.10. Already the tiny trickle of  ............

  • traffic down the highway during the war years has become a flood that is bringing U.S. dollars and prosperity to the Mexicans along the way. The hotel cash registers are jingling and the owners are smiling again. And as more new cars become available, Mexico will really come into its own as a vacation spot.

    In Mexico City, Mary’s friend Anne takes in a bullfight, but Mary and Fran catch a movie instead. She sampled tequila and eavesdropped in the crowd that took in some “Native Mexican” dances, and she kept a Pelota program which featured a photo of handsome pelota star dressed in white and flashing a dazzling smile. Her favorite sport, she declared, and next time she’d learn how to bet.

    Was there a next time? I’d like to think so. My grandmother, a music teacher in Brooklyn for many years, saved her money and took Carribean cruises in retirement, and my mother traveled to San Miguel de Allende when I was a child to get some writing done away from me and my siblings, and to see friends. I’d like to think that Mary, too, returned to Mexico during her lifetime and filled other scrapbooks, or flipped through this one to remind her of her first big trip. But who’s to say?

  • I doubt she ever made it as far as Australia, and most likely the Mary Wilson Hilliard of 1946 never even dreamed of it. I didn’t bring her for sentimental reasons because I know that she’s not here, that only her memories, entrusted to me, a stranger, have accompanied me, to help me meditate about Place and what it meant to her then compared to what it means to me now. The only travel restrictions I know are those imposed by my credit limit. Because I travel so frequently, I sometimes think that place means little to me, that it’s disposable, that I spend time in places rather than inhabit them. Mary doesn’t need me, but I think I need her. She’s a good travel companion. And I was terrified I might lose her because I’d brought her on impulse with me to Australia.

    I asked an official by the baggage claim what carousel I could claim my luggage from and he told me, but took my declaration form and made a red mark on one of the lines. I wondered what that red mark meant. I guess it means that I was an annoying bludger who couldn’t read a bloody monitor right in front of his face. When I handed the card to a uniformed man at the exit, he told me to wait on the side and then to follow another uniformed official, who x-rayed my bags and seemed alarmed enough to  ............

  • hand me off to yet another official, a woman who politely proceeded to eviscerate the contents of my luggage.

    When Mary crossed the border into Mexico, she had her luggage sealed against theft presumably, and when she returned, her purchases ran over the $100 quota because of some Taxco silver she bought, and she paid $6.60 in duty.

    I imagined Mary must have been honest about it all, when the Customs officer, Luis Vela, asked her what she was bringing back. And I was honest, too, about Mary.

    “I have a scrapbook with me,” I told the Customs Official.

    She smiled in a noncommittal way and took out a bottle of pills, a painkiller that didn’t belong to me.

    “And who’s Margie Hemley?” the Customs officer wanted to know.

    “My wife,” I said. I had either mistakenly thrown her pills into my suitcase or had purposefully thrown them in because you  ............

  • never know when you might need a painkiller. After 20-some hours in the air, I couldn’t remember. But I chose to go with the former excuse, which the Customs official bought, thankfully, and sent me on my way, with Mary’s ephemera intact. If Mary were really here, I imagine she would find some way to commemorate our entry into Australia, a photo snapped outside the Restricted Area, a souvenir penny pressed for two dollars into a tourist trinket, but I don’t bother anymore with such markers because I know that after an hour, a day, a month at most, where I’ve gone means little to anyone else but me.

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