By Victoria Howerton
(From issue seven of Elder Mountain)
In the 1930s there was no West Plains Civic Center. In its place sat a record store owned by a local couple. There was a modest sound proof room in the back where customers could take the records for a trial run. They had a lot of repeat business, at least browsing business, in part because of that room and in part because they were just nice friendly folk who made visitors feel welcome.
They’re gone. Their store’s gone, swept along in the tidal wave of change which constantly overlays one reality with a newer one. It requires conscious effort to distance ourselves from the present in order to see it and the past more clearly. Perhaps the best we can do is place the present on a timeline. Because what is the impact of modernity if we have no past to compare it to? We can feel neither the glow of superiority nor the twinge of poignancy without an historical baseline. Often our only points of reference are black and white photographs carefully lining a modern space, whether in a restaurant chain or a LandMark bank.
For the past nine months, my point of reference has been my 88-year old neighbor, Betty Dine. Every night at 8 p.m., I cross Shuttee Street to 204 W. Maple to put in one drop of medicine in Betty’s left eye to stave off glaucoma. Then we chat for a while about things old and new. Elizabeth Aldine Briscoe lives in the home where she and her 8 siblings were raised (and some born). She embodies the complexities and contradictions of modernity, having lived through two of the greatest catalysts for change in the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II, both pivotal events which are now four generations behind us. In 1946 she hitched her wagon to the rising star of the modern American woman, moving from West Plains all the way to New York City, where she spent decades working as a supervisor in the Hartford Insurance Company.
Yet now she’s my window into the past. Her tales of independence are as quaint as they are exciting. She makes going to the opera sound both trendy and enviable. (The first record she ever bought was a production of Boris Godunov, acquired in the friendly music store mentioned earlier.) During her time in New York she spent her surprisingly meager salary on helping her family back home, singing lessons for herself, season tickets to the New York City Opera, and a piano for entertaining her friends who loved music as much as she did. My so-called sense of adventure, nurtured on a fast food diet of documentaries from around the world, stands quaking at the thought of traveling to the hulking metropolis of New York not ever having seen it. “My first big puzzle,” Betty Dine once told me when I asked her about NYC, “was where are all those people going as they disappear into the ground?”
The summer of 1942 Betty Dine worked at Eades Cash store on the square. One day a young woman about Betty’s age came in to buy a graduation dress. Betty Dine remembers the encounter for two reasons: 1) The girl wasn’t allowed to try on any hats because she was black; although Betty Dine doesn’t remember if the same rule applied to the dresses, and 2) it was the first time Betty Dine stopped to consider where black teenagers in the area went to high school.
At that time there was an all-black elementary school for children living in “Lincoln Town” –a residential area reserved for black workers and their families – but there was no high school open to them. The West Plains High school wasn’t integrated until the 50s, so any black student wanting to continue past the 8th grade went to Springfield. Betty Dine herself is surprised she had never thought about these inequities until confronted with a girl wanting to shine for her graduation ceremony more than two hours away. In defense of the Betty Dine of 1942, in her day fewer than half of all Americans, regardless of color, continued studying beyond 8th grade. In the 40s that was to change, along with practically everything else.
The Briscoes were an educated lot: 4 of the 9 children became teachers. Lindsay Briscoe, Betty’s father, was a West Plains mail carrier. His neighbor, Guy Buck—original owner of the home where my husband and I live—was the other mail carrier. Lindsay was generous, affable, and known for his wonderful singing voice. I cannot speak to his inner thoughts concerning race, but several of his actions speak for him. Betty Dine mentions how he castigated one of his sons for calling a black boy, who was his son’s friend, a nigger. Another time Lindsay took a very young Betty Dine on a Good Samaritan expedition to the home of the Lincoln school teacher. Betty Dine had hatched the idea of donating a stack of surplus Sunday school material to the Lincoln school children, and her father willingly obliged her.
Our conversation on this topic, by the way, came about after Betty Dine had browsed a newly published book of old West Plains photographs. I asked if anything in it had surprised her. “Well,” she says. “I never knew Lincoln Town had a name. Everybody just called it Nigger Hill.” Inexplicably that nugget of information didn’t make it into Images of America. Betty Dine was also disappointed the book didn’t mention the weekly Saturday night concerts put on by the school band down on the square.
For someone like me, who comes from a background of restless folk who don’t put down roots of significant length and keep the neighbors (and quite a few of the family) outside the fence where they belong, even a housebound Betty Dine seems more connected to her family and the West Plains community than I. She still has an older sister, age 91, who occasionally visits and writes. Her brother and sister-in-law, both in their 80s, sometimes roll into West Plains from Colorado to catch up on news and police the yard. She got a letter a while back from the youngest in the family, Priscilla, 74, who lives in New York, and my heart almost stuttered at the tenderness in her voice as she ripped open the envelope. “I wonder what the baby has to say.”
The house reverberates with echoes of family: The many beds upstairs where Lindsay used to sing the children lullabies; the doorway where sickly baby Bob (nursed back to health by the entire family and spoiled in the process) would bellow for his mother to come back when she left on an outing with Daddy; the same doorway where poor Angie suddenly collapsed, never to awaken.
Yet the present, the modern reality, isn’t shunted to one side. Betty Dine cuts out articles from the Quill about my husband’s activities and projects, which I at least read and sometimes hang on my refrigerator, and there’s rarely a person involved in community events of whom she hasn’t heard. I earnestly try to provide her details, but she is usually the one who fills in the blanks for me, like the day I was telling her about the extraordinarily helpful organizer of the West Plains Music Festival, Paula…somebody… “Speraneo?” inserts Betty Dine. Oh, yes. Speraneo.
Sometimes Betty Dine carries her eye for detail a bit far. Like the day I told her about the MSU Springfield Theatre Troupe which performed for my elementary school in 1972. I remember being awestruck by the young man who performed “Greensleeves” on our cafeteria stage. I was in kindergarten at the time. “Do you remember his name?” she asks.
She is a little demanding, my Betty Dine, at least when it comes to places, names, and correctly adding columns of figures. I have to smile when she repeats what one of her co-workers in New York had to say on the matter, slowing her speech into a Long Island drawl, “Betty, the trouble with you is you’re too goddamn particular.” My gut feeling is that Betty Dine sees that as a great compliment.
Well known children’s author Madeleine L’Engle wrote The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, which chronicles the last months before her mother’s death. Madeleine, Sr., had been a modern, vibrant woman who lived life large, but by age 90, only vestiges of her earlier life remained. L’Engle, at age 50, wrote, “[Mother] strode casually through a world which is gone and which I will never see except through her eyes.”
Our frightfully modern world has sloughed off the outdated fashions and ideas of the past, and we casually stride through it, as oblivious to our impending obsolescence as a grasshopper is to winter. We must understand that modernity is an illusion doomed to crash into the barrier of time; perhaps we can salvage our humanity from the wreckage. Betty Dine most surely has.
Victoria Howerton holds a BA in Latin American Studies, a BJ in journalism, and an MA in Spanish, all from University of Missouri-Columbia, and she is also a registered nurse. While living in Washington, D.C., she worked as an HIV/AIDS educator for La Salud, as a housing coordinator for Adelante Advocacy Inc., and as coordinator of HIV/AIDS outreach at National Council of LaRaza. Victoria has served as a Spanish interpreter in courtrooms, hospitals, and police departments, and she interpreted for former Ecuadorian president Rodrigo Borja when he visited Columbia, Missouri, in 2005. She has taught Spanish at MU and at North Arkansas College, and her journalism, editorials, translations, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in a variety of newspapers and journals, such as The Columbia Missourian, The Missouri Folklore Society Journal, and Cave Region Review.