Keeping in Touch, 1945-1957

       For me these years began with office work in Manhattan while also studying at Columbia University. As I completed my M.A. in Psychology, I fell in love with a fellow student and we married in April 1947.  We moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1948, when my husband joined the Psychology faculty at the University of Kentucky. After a decade as a faculty wife and soon a  mother, I returned to graduate school.

       Ruth's life, as far as I can tell from her letters, centered on her husband and family and her teaching at HCHS. She enjoyed books, plays, and traveling with Charles.  Also she regularly spent time at an exercise therapy studio, including some teaching there.

Carolyn with children Babette and Richard, 1951

A Double Memoir

       Whose story is this anyway?  And what genre?  It is certainly not a biography of my dear teacher. It is a record of what I saved from her half of our correspondence, with my comments added. Inevitably, she speaks of my life as well as hers during the time we were writing.  Just what I told her, I must reconstruct, not always with certainty.

       Such a mosaic of our concerns for each other fulfills the original definition of a memoir: a narrative about events told by a participant.  Since we are two participants, I think of this as a double memoir.  Yet our parts differ sharply since Mrs. Lilienthal has no say in selecting and explaining the letters that represent her.  What I feel and think about her has filtered through decades of memory.

       Current custom enlarges the definition of memoir, blurs it into autobiography.  That’s so misleading.  Yes, both are told as true, and told by narrators who speak in first person and lived their stories. Yet in an autobiography, the narrator features herself or himself, and usually tries to create a comprehensive picture.  Autobiographers at best present their own actions, motives and values and defend them in depth. They include complex descriptions of people they have known.  Some compose their episodes as novelists do, telling conversations and dreams as if they had total recall, describing everything from settings to food, clothes, daily work . . .  Autobiographers, as well as biographers, choose what to tell by drawing on memories and documents more voluminous and varied than my resources for this memoir.

       Memoirists tend to set limits, to explore only certain aspects of their lives.  Ruth’s share of this memoir begins with her students’ memories of her as a teacher (1930-1962), and then I continue with letters she wrote for only one reader.  These letters reveal her interests and personality in a diary-like way, through day-by-day comments, but on days separated by months or years.  Writing to her audience of one, she selects her subjects to amuse or enlighten a younger person, initially a teenager, later a friend.

       While my share includes some documents and souvenirs, I must depend mostly on retrospect, recovering the dubious truth that comes through mists and gaps of memory.  When Ruth writes about what I felt and did, her comments sometimes startle or puzzle me, but mostly they match my recollections.  For the parts of our lives that Ruth and I exchange, we speak honestly, I believe.   What we told as true was true--even when we each left out more than we told. Our letters offer fragments of self-revelation, scattered across time, often hasty, rarely meditative.  Yet some passages in Ruth’s letters are so perceptive, witty, or wise that I hope they will be preserved.

Becoming Friends

       During my college years, Mrs. Lilienthal blends her mentoring with a reserved cordiality, sometimes shifting back to the exasperation she showed for my lapses in high school. RSL shares personal news sparingly. She writes about her husband and his wartime assignments or furloughs, but she never calls him Charles, only “Mr. Lilienthal” or her “spouse.”  She tells of places they visited for weekend outings, without mentioning their hosts.  She doesn’t refer to friends except for colleagues at Hunter.  She does describe her nephew Jeff lovingly and at length, but refers less often to his baby brother, Sandy.   She speaks of her brother’s grief over his wife’s death, but leaves me to deduce that some of her visits to Springfield to take care of Jeff were needed because of his mother’s illness before her second son was born.

       “RSL” is the way she typically signs her letters to me in Alabama.  After 1945, she becomes “Ruth,” and her closing phrases become increasingly warm.   We outgrow our roles as teacher and student to become friends who can express easy-going fondness.  She changes more readily than I do; my awe of her always lasted and I felt strange calling her Ruth (as she requested). She dropped any distancing of the kind that kept me an acolyte.  Reprimands ended, while her encouragements continued.

       We were both pleased when I came back to New York to live independently and to work full-time while I took graduate classes at night.  The elder sister and the sometimes wayward “southern chile” relaxed into friendship.

       During my years in Graduate School at Columbia University, when Ruth and I were living in reach of each other, we had no need of letters.  We phoned and met for meals or events.  But few records remain to show what we said or did.  I can reconstruct much of my life, but I know little of Ruth’s. For these New York years, this memoir becomes mostly mine.

At work and play in Manhattan: 1945-46

       After my college graduation early in June 1945, I returned to the North to live by myself—not with my family or kinfolk, not in a dormitory, but on my own for the first time.  A few weeks after my 20th birthday in mid-May and a few days after settling in Manhattan, I entered summer classes at Columbia University to begin graduate work in Psychology.campus on West End Avenue in an apartment for students. Every large room was converted to a bedroom, and five tenants took turns in the kitchen and the bathroom. I studied very seriously, and basked in the reflected glory of my professors: many were the authors of the textbooks assigned in our courses, including History of Psychology, Ex

       I found a room to rent near the perimental Psychology and Abnormal Psychology.  Since I wanted to pay for my own schooling at last, that Fall I went to work full time, continuing at Columbia by taking night classes. To be closer to my father’s apartment, I moved to a different rented room downtown in Greenwich Village.    

       Fortunately I really liked the work I found as an Editorial Assistant at Railway Age, a magazine that still serves the railroading establishment nationwide.  Subscribers were the corporate officers and staffs of railway companies.  My tasks were clerical much of the time, but for each weekly issue I composed formulaic articles about personnel changes: appointments, promotions, retirements and deaths.  I wrote my short articles using press releases from the railroads, just shortening the text and arranging the data to fit the formats set up by Railway Age. No creativity was required or possible. I wondered why they hired an English Major for such rote work.  Yet for the year I spent at it, my job never became dull to me, and my co-workers were fun.  Many were women close to my age with plans to move on to marriage or to better careers. One of them was a 23-year-old war-widow.  We enjoyed our lunches together and went to plays or movies some weekends.  I grew close enough to two co-workers to visit their homes on holidays.  One introduced me to her friend Fritz, an engineering student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He became my steady date on weekends when he could leave his campus.

       How much of my work and play did I share with Mrs. Lilienthal?  Probably not a lot. Yet, since she cared so much about dancing, I must have told her how Fritz took me to hear the big bands of those times, in ballrooms  where we could  watch the jitter-bugging, and get out on the floor ourselves  for slow dances.  Mainly, Ruth asked about my classes and teachers, and still wanted news of my mother or father. When I dated, my father and my stepmother met the young men who took me out. They always came to my parents’ apartment at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd street to pick me up. My parents were uneasy about my joining a male caller in the hallway downstairs from my room, and so   was I.

       At that age, 20 and then 21, I felt no strain at all to live three lives—student, office worker, and Manhattan gad-about.  My delight in the city was boundless.  Clichéd or not, I never tired of the bright lights, of people-watching as spectacle, the bustle of street life, and the endless variety of places to go.  Even while l was there, I could feel nostalgia for New York.  I revisited scenes l had loved as a high school girl, the parks of every borough, the aquarium and the planetarium and the museums I knew in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

       My sense of the city’s past came not just from books, but also from my father’s lore.  He grew up in brownstone Brooklyn before World War I.  His favorite stories described sailing from the Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club and venturing up to the Bronx to look over the Biograph studios where some early movies were made. The girls who charmed him in his youth

had not yet bobbed their hair or tasted liquor. (He was 22 in 1920.)  He recalled prohibition with its speakeasies, and enjoying silent movies.  He ido

Carolyn, "Working girl on the ferry"
Working Girl on the Ferry
       I rode the Staten Island Ferry, and took Riverside walks along the Hudson up near Columbia and down by the piers, and further south in sight of the Statue of Liberty. I sought out places made famous in books-- Fifth Avenue mansions, Jazz Age hotels, the Algonquin of the Roundtable, Thomas Wolfe’s Brooklyn.  I could get sentimental even about bus rides along the major avenues, especially double decker busses on Fifth.  When I could splurge, I went to the glamorous movie palaces, notably Radio City Music Hall.—Years earlier I had found for my charm bracelet a 3/4 inch silver image of the Empire State Building. Walking in the city I could sometimes spot the real thing.




 Still a playgoer, I saw Harvey on an August night in 1945.  Just after the curtain went down, Frank Fay, the star of the play, stepped out in front of the curtain to tell us that Japan had surrendered.  Leaving the playhouse we discovered Times Square in a crunch and a frenzy of celebration.  No traffic moved because of the joyous crowds; people were thicker than I had ever seen on New Year’s Eves.  And yes, the men in uniform were claiming kisses.

lized Mary Pickford and was shocked by the scandals of a few lesser actors. He introduced me to many of the songs and plays and books of the 1920’s.  Bye Bye Blackbird was a favorite tune, for example.  The jolliest of many books he owned and loaned was Archy and Mehitabel, a collection of newspaper columns by Don Marquis.  My father had read the earliest ones in the New York Sun as they came off the press, years before I was born.   Marquis satirized timeless human foibles through the lives of fable-like animals caught up in Jazz-age antics.  Archy, a philosophical cockroach, composes vers libre tales about such critters as Mehitabel, an alley cat, and Warty Bliggins, a frog with delusions of grandeur.  Some of Mehitabel’s sayings have lasted me a lifetime, especially There’s a dance in the old dame yet.

Summer 1946

       While I lived in that rented room in Greenwich Village with no phone, my friends could reach me only at work. So Mrs. Lilienthal writes me at 30 Church Street, the headquarters of the publisher of Railway Age and other trade magazines.  By midsummer I had worked there for 10 months, and merited a holiday.

             Dear Carolyn among The Files

           I 'phoned you at the beginning of the week to ask that you come to dinner but la! Simmons Boardman, Philanthropists, Inc. had given Miss H. a vacation.  How nice, how thoughtful, how un –feudal.

           I hope you had a restful week, maybe even a happy one.  I expect to be away for most of the remaining days, but shall try to 'phone you when I return to this locus. (7/11/46)

       Then discussing books we both had read, she agrees with me that The Snake Pit was very well written, indeed.  Mary Jane Ward wrote this best-selling novel; it is a partly fictionalized memoir of her psychiatric treatment at Rockland State Hospital, NY. We of course could not then know that I would work there a year later.

       But Ruth sharply disagrees about the value of a book I had recently given her.

            Thank you, lady, for Land Below the Wind. Of course I’m easy pickings for anything with travel AND a sense of humor, but already, in the first 25 pages, I begin to be subtly chilled by the colonizer and the colonized.                                

       This memoir by Agnes Newton Keith describes her life in Borneo as the wife of a British official during the 1930’s.  For me, it offered a vicarious journey to an exotic island.  The author depicts her family at home in Sandakan as well as her jungle excursions. I enjoyed her wit and her vivid descriptions of that faraway world.  But Ruth perceived racism in Keith’s attitudes towards her four servants and other local people.  Most readers at that time, including me, failed to notice the patterns of white privilege that Keith took for granted.  With no uneasiness she makes fun of the quirks of the “natives,” including those she depended on.

       At end of this letter Ruth shows that she’s annoyed about abuses of power in the USA, saying Thunderation on Bilbo, Rankin, Taft and their kin. Those senators (two of them Southerners) were then leading conservatives; they expressed, and tried to legislate, their views on race and class---views that Ruth abhorred.

       In August, when next she writes, she sends a postcard from Jeffersonville, NY, starting with a nod of recognition for my summer graduate classes, Dear Miss Hodgson of Simmons and Columbia.  Then she recommends a novel that quite pointedly dramatizes the dangers of prejudices, whether in the form of bigotry or of thoughtless conformity to customs that demean and exclude certain groups.  Do you and Daddy please read Margaret Halsey’s Some of my Best Friends Are Soldiers.

       Her effort at consciousness-raising includes my father because of his right-leaning political views.  He wanted government to favor business and worried about laws to bolster civil rights.   Halsey’s story dramatizes incidents at a wartime canteen.  Some of her leading characters find ways to change policies of segregation and snobbery; others come to recognize that they’ve been thinking in harmful stereotypes, and they reform.

       About her vacation, she sounds pleased, yet not entirely: We are staying in a house that was built in 1864—We bathe in brook and lake—We eat cows and chickens—We long for Times Square.  (8/22/46)

Ernest Meyers  

       That fall I resigned from Railway Age so as to complete my MA at Columbia by taking a final semester of full-time classes.  In the Psychology Library in Havemeyer Hall I kept running into a new graduate student, Ernest Meyers.  He was a Navy veteran of WWII finally mustered out many months after the Japanese surrender.  Neither of us had settled on a specialty, although I veered towards psychometrics and he soon focused on experimental psychology.   As the fall semester went on we became more enthralled with each other.  At school we both especially admired the same professor, Fred S. Keller.  Dr. Keller was the first person on campus to hear our news when we became engaged in January 1947.  My parents and Ernest’s weren’t surprised; they had followed some of the progress of our courtship, and approved.  Their differing religious backgrounds caused no problems for us.  The Meyers were proudly Jewish in heritage, but not in practice.  My parents, Methodist and Baptist, were open-hearted about faiths, although less so about race.

Carolyn, 1946
Ernest Meyers, 1946
Carolyn Hodgson and Ernest Meyers in 1946

       Off campus we celebrated our engagement with our friends.  Soon I presented Ernest to Mrs. Lilienthal; their meeting was cordial, just as I expected.  She was interested in our plans, and Ernest’s past, asking him about his college—Rutgers—and his years as a naval officer.  They were quite at ease with each other, joking, even teasing me about my youth; at 21 I couldn’t claim worldliness, especially compared to a 27-year-old veteran of four years in the Pacific.

       Yet I recall one awkward matter that she brought up.  In her forthright way she suggested that whenever we wanted to become parents, we might influence the sex of the baby-to-be by adding certain chemicals to a douche used quickly after intercourse, either an acid or an alkaline rinse.  One chemical would favor the success of sperm with female chromosomes; the other would favor sperm with male chromosomes. I couldn’t imagine trying such an experiment. Surely love-making ought not to become a laboratory process! I tried to hide my embarrassment, and recalled how I posed as sophisticated years ago at Hunter when Mrs. Lilienthal discussed sexual matters in her class. I squirmed then and I still squirmed, all the while trying to seem at ease.   In another year, the Kinsey report on male sexuality, published in January 1948, would stir many Americans, especially our classmates at Columbia, to speculate about private histories more openly.                                           


       Ernest Meyers and I married in April 1947, during Spring Break. For our honeymoon we flew to Cuba.  In those times visitors were welcome and we were treated very well.  Ernest’s overseas experiences, four wartime years in the Pacific, had shown him other countries, but not in festive ease.  For me, exploring a foreign place, even for just those few days in Havana, gloriously fulfilled my dreams of travel.

       Ruth enjoyed my excitement, of course. She let me ramble on about the people there and the places we saw. 

       During the summer of l947, Ernest advanced his teaching and technical skills by doing research on human engineering; he assisted in experiments to redesign the control panel of the Link trainer so that future pilots could use it with greater ease and efficiency.  We moved from our one–room place in Spanish Harlem to much more comfortable quarters on Long Island.  I found a job nearby doing clerical work for a construction company.

Ernest and Carolyn Meyers, 1947
Ernest and Carolyn at Home in Shanks Village

        In the Fall of 1947 we again moved , this time to Shanks Village, a huge community of converted barracks near Orangeburg, NY.  Our neighbors were other graduate students, commuting to Manhattan, 25 miles southeast.  We stayed there for over a year as Ernest progressed through his Ph.D. courses.

       I became an Intern at Rockland State Hospital, near our housing in Shanks Village, glad to be working in my field, psychometrics.  I administered tests for intelligence or for personality traits.  My tasks were particularly poignant because I dealt with children and adolescents who had been hospitalized for psychiatric care.  When I told Ruth about some of their dismal case histories, she too felt how especially sad it was to realize that the very young could become so terribly disturbed.

Ruth with nephews, 1947
Ruth in 1947 with her nephews, Sandy in her arms and Jeff standing.

       By the Fall of 1948, Ernest had completed his classroom courses and was ready to teach while he settled on a subject for his dissertation.  He took a position at the University of Kentucky where he would teach a range of courses, specializing in Experimental Psychology and Sensation and Perception.

       Ruth and I exchanged no letters during 1947 and 1948. We could meet only occasionally; for me to make the trip from Orangeburg to Manhattan was daunting and expensive.

       After Ernest and I moved to Lexington, KY, I was fortunate to continue my work in psychological testing.  During 1948 and 1949 many of the men who had returned from World War II were still applying for educational benefits under the G.I. Bill.  Working for the Veterans Administration, I tested applicants to determine whether they were best fitted for college or for vocational training.

       Again we lived on a former Army base, called Shawneetown, housed in barracks, each building converted into four small apartments.  The floors, roofs, and outer walls were not changed after their wartime use; both within and between apartments, flimsy partitions were added as interior walls. We cooked on kerosene stoves and hung sheets or shower curtains across the doorless closets. 

       Newly hired faculty and graduate students lived there, gradually moving out across the next few years as they could find affordable standard housing.  We got to know the other three couples in our building and four each in the two parallel buildings, as well as others elsewhere in Shawneetown, people we had met through shared interests.  A few had one or two children. Most neighbors were young.

       Within a few months, early in 1949, I was writing to Ruth about the various people we were getting to know, the ways of Kentuckians generally, and much that I was learning about academic hierarchies and the pecking order among faculty wives.

       And I told her our private, personal news—I was pregnant!

       Answering my February letter in March, she salutes me sweetly and replies at length:

Cherub enceinte!

            Thank you for the long and interesting letter, I should say that you are neglecting your duty to contemporary culture, if you do not write about the sociological mores of your time and place to, ---say, The Atlantic Monthly or such.  The devious rationalizations of all these subtly anti-democratic attitudes fascinate me.  Miss Benedix would not second my recommendation for a school showing of a film on discrimination against the negro; her reason, the very best: “I do not wish to embarrass any girls in any school group. (3/12/49)

       About the baby, Ruth asks for the due date and gives advice on choosing a name, or rather two names:

I shall be waiting the date du joir d’ arrive’e.  No—I wasn’t thinking then of the infant, but of you. (Are you devoting long hours to boys’ and girls’ names?  Those thought of the last moment, are seldom inspired.)

       We had indeed chosen names for a boy and a girl, long before.  A girl would be named Ruth, of course.  A boy would be named Lawrence, honoring D.H. Lawrence, one of our favorite authors, one whose last name appealed to us as a son’s first name. Our reading tastes were eclectic, ranging from Marcus Aurelius to Jules Romain to Thomas Wolfe.  At our request, Linda always included a renewal of our subscription to The New Yorker among her Christmas gifts.

       Half of Ruth’s letter deals with a trip we hoped to make to New York during our  Spring Break.

             Our Easter holiday will extend from the 14th thru the next week --- and I expect to be out of town.  But --- should you be here--- as you think you may--- sometime before or after--- I should love to have you nibble some lunch with me between 11 and 12, on Monday April 11 or Monday April 25.  Can do?

       I hope you got your theatre tickets.  After standing-on-line for 1 1/2 hours before it opened here, I got tickets for the 25th for Death of a Salesman.  We knew Cobb in his young and struggling days, and are thrilled about his success.  Madwoman---we found utterly charming.  The Hunt woman is magnificent. [Martita Hunt starred in Jean Giradeaux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot]

            Was Streetcar Named Desire on your list?

            It is now near midnight of March 16.  With current interruptions I had better say auf weidersehen instead of holding this paper further.

       Later in March Ruth writes to set a time for us to get together while I’m in the city.  She also bemoans a current political trend:

Dear Carolyn,

            Good!  You’ll find me at 11:00 A.M. on April 11th, in Room 212 of the high school building.  Second floor north is right-you-are.  Because of the time factor, we’ll have to lunch in the college faculty cafeteria. (3/26/49)

            It appears that I must still be naïve.  It never occurred to me that there would be anything but total support for the present Peace Conferences of Artists, Scientists, and Professors.  But the smearing and ‘anti-communist’ mass picketing by Catholic and ‘veterans’ organizations are making a very loud protest of the streets, and on the radio and in the press. The tempora and the mores are very, very alarming. 

       Across many months of 1949 we were out of touch. When I wrote Ruth about Richard’s birth he was already two months old.   Why wasn’t he named Lawrence?  We changed our minds because he was born on October 2, the birthday of his uncle Richard, Ernest’s younger brother.   Blood can be stronger than books. 

       Replying on December 18th, Ruth brings me up to date with her news.  First she tells how she spent her summer vacation—initially in pain, but later in delight, traveling by sea to the tropics:

           Do you really want to hear about our South American trip?  Do you really care to see the family album?  I’m not convinced, but I am receptive.  On last June 30, the symptoms of my uterine tumor (regrowth of one `excised eight years ago) became acute and on July 1st it was surgically removed.  The operation took some two hours, I had a bad time of it for four days, and Charles and I felt very sorry for me. So we pawned the family jewels after paying the surgeon, and went to Columbia for 38 days!

       Traveling on a very small freighter, a ship that had all sorts of pitches and rolls and lists, Ruth dared not throw up for fear of disturbing what she calls her deep embroidery.  She blesses Dramamine:

tested by the Navy, and most wonderfully reliable for any kind of motion sickness.  We dispensed it throughout the trip to various transient voyagers who made grateful genuflections.  We felt like Lilienthal and Lilienthal, medical missionaries and ghost emissaries of Searle and Co.

       After reminding me of some facts about their destination, Ruth characterizes another passenger as a privileged colonizer.

            Maybe you don’t have to look at a map to see that Columbia is the Northwestern portion of South America and famed for mountains, emeralds, and political instability. Said Mrs. Elliot, owner of the shipping line and mountains of greenbacks, “Twenty years ago the people were different.  We were just beginning our business.  They smiled hello to you on the street. Now they look with hatred and suspicion.  They are no longer patriotic as they were.”  We asked her what she thought the cause was.  “The communists.”

       Ruth delights in all that she sees.  She names the cities where they stopped before and after moving through the Panama Canal, which she found more impressive than she had foreseen.  From Buenaventura on the Pacific, they went by train inland for six hours to Cali, the city she enjoyed most.

from costal humidity thru jungle thru plateau thru the Cordillera a mountain range to Cali! --- where I should like to live some years. Temperature always friendly; a fertile, fertile valley that yields two crops a year; and surrounding and receding hills.  The sunsets were glorious and astonishing. Plantations of sugar cane, banana, coffee, orchids. The tropical fruits were luscious and heavenly: papayas, mangoes, curubas, lulos!

       Her anecdotes about food and films are amusing rather than enthusiastic:

              On t’other side the coffee was dark, overroasted and bitter.  All meats became black leather on the plate.  Such overcooking, such overdoing! 

              American movies with Spanish subtitles were a confusing experience topped only by the frustration of seeing a French movie with Spanish subtitles! 

       Two other passengers took the full tour with Ruth and Charles, both unmarried women who taught at high schools in the northeast.  Ruth draws a thumbnail sketch of the older one as age 50, world traveler, New Englander, Roosevelt-hater, teacher of history; the other is age 35, emotionally conservative, intellectually liberal, teacher of English and Social studies.  She adds that Poor Charles had to ferry about 3 school teachers!  But he was noble, even gallant.  

       The staff and officers of the freighter are memorable as well:

            The table steward had to be deposed early in the trip for drinking, racketeering, embezzling, V.D., etc. etc.  We were cared for by Carlos, age l6, from the small mt. village of Dagua, Columbia.  We taught him many things, and he was both eager and able.  We taught him some English words and some American customs:  that one does not usually serve 14 prunes for dessert to one person (He did! and we ate them! because he was so anxious to please, --- that one never serves a bowl of Maraschino cherries as a course, & that some cheeses have a right to smell and that therefore one must not throw 10 lbs of Stilton overboard! 

The crew was Columbian, the officers Scandinavian, and – the most colorful item of the whole trip! --- The Captain!  was born in Greece, was educated in a French monastery, and was as beautifully-headed and beautifully-voiced a man as I have ever seen.  A tremendously vivid, engaging personality!  Nicholas Elaertes.  Good food, drink and conversation are the elixir of life, and enjoyment is the summum bonum! 

       This letter runs very long, five 8 1/2 x 11 handwritten pages.  Four of those pages are devoted to the trip, and the rest of the letter takes up a miscellany of the topics we typically write about, like books and jokes and current activities.

       At the end of her travelogue, Ruth makes an explicit turn to other matters.

And now let me come to a full stop and shift gears.

          Go to the nearest circulating library and read Morton Thompson’s The Cry and The Covenant.   It’s a magnificent achievement --- the story of Dr. Semmelweiss and the cause of puerperal fever.

       I read it soon, finding that it evoked memories of Mrs. Lilienthal as I had first known her at the Hunter Annex in 1939, urging her students to read books about scientific discoveries.  Morton‘s “magnificent achievement” is a grim tale of Dr. Semmelweiss’s persistence while his evidence is denied and rejected over and over again.  Finally, years later, after innumerable needless deaths of new mothers, the medical establishment at last recognizes that those who assist mothers giving birth must keep clean. As Dr. Semmelweiss insisted, doctors do need to wash their hands before every delivery.

       Remarking that she enjoyed a joke I had sent her, Ruth offers one in exchange:

            At a public address on Post-Adolescence, Dr. H. H. Hart opened by apologizing for not telling a joke about the Irish, or the Jews, or the Scots.  These people had ‘minority feelings.’  He would tell a story about psychiatrists since they formed the only group without vulnerable minority feelings. The 3 psychiatrists were Freudians.

Psychiatrist 1—“How far back can I remember, gentlemen? I can remember something sweet, soft and pink.”
P. 2 --- “I can remember father back than that --- I can remember being enclosed in darkness that was very warm and very moist.”
P. 3 --- “I can remember still farther back, gentlemen.  I can remember going to a picnic with my father and coming home with my mother.”

Then she seems anything but jolly as she speaks of her current activities.  Her duties at Hunter are too burdensome, too discouraging.  Her regimes of studying voice and body control offer some ease, yet some stress; she quotes Chaucer:  the lyfe so short, the craft so longe to lerne.

       Yet she has framed this letter with happy replies to my belated news of our baby’s birth:

My very dear Carolyn,  

          I have been worried about not hearing of the Expected Event.  How good that everything went well.  Psychologist [female symbol] & psychologist [male symbol]à  well, it should lead to a pure strain.  I don’t believe a word about the beauties of one in his third month.  Until age 6 months they’re all—all—that is, except my nephew---lumpen and flaccid and drooling and mewling.  Their legs form horrid angles and their impenetrability to reason makes them exasperating.  All right, All right, so send me the picture. (12/18/49)

And she signs off the letter with a wish for Richard and his parents:  may he be happy with you and you with him.

       I must have replied immediately to those delightful tales of travel, and to other parts of that long letter.  Within two weeks Ruth sent me a tiny greeting card saying that she was pleased with me and felt that I seemed well settled:

Dearest Carolyn-married-two-years,

            It’s heart-warming and brain-coddling to read four cheery pages without ary a tale of conflict and ary a teardrop.  It’s a man you have Carolyn, as good as he looks.

            You, who wished to flee from the academic, seem to be well entrenched in that milieu. I have always enjoyed its illusions and delusions of peace and sobriety.

                        I look forward to seeing you in New York next summer.


       Yes, since early 1947 I had been settling into university worlds as well as into marriage and motherhood.  Settled may not be the best description; I bustled about doing family projects (sewing, photography) and campus projects (departmental events for both Psychology and English) and taking part in cultural and civic groups.

       Since Ruth finds my untroubled letter brain-coddling, and thinks of conflicts and tears as typical parts of my correspondence, I must conclude that I kept her in the role of mother confessor.  She rightly credits my psychologist-husband with some success at steadying my mood swings.

       Ernest and I wanted more children, at least one more rather soon. We had convinced ourselves that closely-spaced children would feel and show less sibling rivalry; untested as parents, we expected to find ways around predictable pitfalls.  However, that dream of painless parenting turned out to resemble Ruth’s description of academic life: rich with illusions and delusions of peace.

       When we went to New York in August l950 I was again pregnant. Our daughter Babette was born in March 1951.  And why wasn’t she named Ruth?  Because Ernest’s cousin, younger than he, Babette Stiefel, died of polio during the summer of 1950; we wanted to honor her memory.  The surprise I planned for Ruth, naming a daughter after her, was put off for a later child.  At least I had never told her of our intention, so she wasn’t aware of the change.

       For our few weeks in Manhattan, Ernest and I sublet an apartment near Columbia so that he could meet with his dissertation committee and get approval for his projected experiment of using positive reinforcement to investigate verbal behavior.  Most days I took Richard in his stroller to parks on the upper west side overlooking the Hudson.  My mother-in-law and my friends, including Ruth, came to visit us and to play with the toddler—a relaxing season.

       Ruth and I must have matched our calendars to arrange times to meet, perhaps by phone.  No letters remain from 1950 and 1951.  I kept mailing plenty of pictures of the children to everyone I knew; I had learned to enlarge black-and-white prints, working with trays on my kitchen sink and using a borrowed enlarger, at night, with blankets tacked over the window. I was so poorly skilled that my homemade prints eventually faded to sepia and gray. Luckily, I saved the small prints that the photoshop produced from the negatives.

       The year 1951 was the busiest of my life, up to then.  The previous Fall I began transcribing the text of Ernest’s hour-long sessions with his subjects.  His Columbia professors had approved his experimental design for measuring how positive reinforcement could shape verbal behavior.  Simply put, his research would demonstrate whether speech patterns changed when reinforced by subtle rewards, eliciting new patterns even though the speakers remain unaware of altering in their word usages.  The results would show the workings of subliminal reinforcement.

       After Babette was born in March 1951, I typed the recorded sessions while I tended two babies, one an infant in diapers and the other 18 months older, in training pants.  Ernest took the laundry to the washateria and did the grocery shopping.  The children enchanted us, and unwittingly taught us ways to cope with them during their unenchanting hours.  Dr. Spock’s guidebook also came in handy.  Indeed a boon for the perplexed and frustrated      

Carolyn with Babette and Richard, 1951
Babette at five months,  Richard nearly two years

       Across the academic year 1951-52, Ernest completed his data-gathering.  I joined a pottery group, and mailed Ruth a hand-made gift.  She replies with an analysis of the little clay image.

                                                                                                                      June 7, 1952

Dear Miss Alabama,

            It is always delightful to hear of you from you.  Your magnum opus arrived all in one piece yes---- so there can be no doubts about it that I can have.  What a horror! (That I could not do any thing as good, it is beside the point).  I cannot relate it to any facet of your personality; it must have come straight out of your id.  But I have set it at a focal point in the living room and I shall let you know as soon as it takes possession of me. (Do you recall the tiny green ceramic thing-um-bob you once produced?  I still have it and wonder with it.) (6/7/52.)   

       That great work was shaped like a half-sized mask.  Perhaps its demonic features did rise from my id, but I designed them to suggest primitive masks worn by shamans to scare away evil spirits.  The green-glazed Thing-um-bob she has kept from years ago was a pendant with a swirling design, meant to be worn on a leather cord.

       She also thanks me for the latest batch of snapshots, saying that they made her much more comfortable than the threatening artwork.  She finds it amusing that both children resemble only Ernest.

       Linda must have praised something I wrote, so that Ruth again urges me to make serious efforts:

I think Mama Meyers is very right.  Couldn’t you produce material in the form of letters, if it’s the form that frightens you?  BEGIN TODAY!  (Trumpets).

       She suggests that I read a book she found brilliant: Philip Wylie’s Opus 48, then declares that she prefers non-fiction; in particular she praises an author whose writings stir her to speculate about the psychology of sexuality.

However, I grow more impatient with fiction.  I’ve been enjoying you-should-excuse-me ‘psychiatry books.’  I read a few of Reich’s papers on Orgone Energy, and was impressed, baffled, & excited. It seems so very probable that the autonomic nervous system should be the anatomical seat of unconscious behavior.

       I couldn’t respond to that enthusiasm for the views and claims of Wilhelm Reich.  At Columbia our professors dismissed his work as mistaken, even ludicrous.

       Ruth’s other news is partly distressing and partly pleasant.  At Hunter the new principal is male, a disturbing change, and she fears that other policies she dislikes may come to HCHS—introducing the core curriculum, maybe even coeducation.  She names three former teachers who have died.  For lighter notes she includes phrases and sentences from nine entrance exams, amusingly awkward, for example: "to pudder in the kitchen," "Wreckless teenagers," "when you are 13 like I am, yhou are in a turnabout," and "Rain befell our little town." By contrast, her nephew’s twists of phrase refresh her: “Friendmanship is hard to get” and “don’t you remember?  It was a old, old time.”

       During this summer she plans to leave the city only on weekends, which she doesn’t regret, because she’s eager not to miss her dance classes.  In closing, Ruth mentions a gift for our one-year-old: Dear Ma, please use the enclosed scrap of greenery to buy Babette a lollipop and a cookie.

       Perhaps Ruth’s nostalgia for Hunter in the old days, including my time there, led her to call me Miss Alabama at the beginning of this letter, or perhaps she alludes to my Alabama schooling.  A few months later, calling me Dear Chile, and herself docile, could she be teasing me about my teenage demands for her attention?

[postcard]                                                                             September 30, 1952

(The last photographs of the children were the best yet)

Dear Chile,

            How docile I am.  Carolyn says send a postcard & that I do.

           What an adventure!  What fortitude. And how can Ernest get away at such a time in  the semester?

            Thank you for your invitation to supper--- but I take a body class every day at dinnertime. (Does that sound mad?!  I still try to live three lives.)  I can be certain of Wed. from 3 – 5, and-of-either Tues. or Thurs. 3-6.   Let me know when which and phone numbers.

                                                                                                Love, Ruth 

       Ruth always thinks of our travels with the children as requiring fortitude, but we took them lightly.  That October Richard became three years old, and Babette one and one half.  For us to pack and go did feel like an adventure, and the young ‘uns enjoyed it too.

       Ruth remarks about pictures from Summer 1952, but my favorites that year were made later one evening just after marking the children’s heights at those ages. To turn posing into a game, we called for actions.  They obliged, responding to instructions to “make faces” and then “smile.”

Babette and Richard playing
"Make Faces" 

Babette and Richard playing

       In my letter of November 1953, I included a hasty essay that I carbon-copied to circulate among my correspondents.  For more than four single-spaced typed pages I wrote a breathless account of a literary visitor.  We managed to meet the novelist Joyce Cary, whose books enthralled me, especially his trilogy including “The Horse’s Mouth.”  For three pages I told my correspondents  what I recalled from his talk at a Saturday luncheon, and then I reported his conversations that night at a party with the English faculty. On Sunday morning he came to an impromptu breakfast at our house, the jolliest and most informal event of his short stay in Lexington.  My last few paragraphs tell how we spent the rest of that day with Cary.

       Then a marvelous thing happened.  It was time to go to the airport, and we checked the plane—1 1/2 hrs. late.  Everyone was delighted and settled to talk, but on further checking it messed his connections—the outcome was we decided to drive him to his next place (Richmond, Ind., 4 hrs. by car, turned out to be a bit more, and some time out to eat).  The kids were darling, so eager for the adventure—Cary a bit non-plussed to learn they would go too, but soon recovered, and compared my bustling about with blankets, babies, pillows, etc., with his family’s packing and driving to summer house when children were small.  We were switching things from our car to one less likely to cause emergencies in route, and Babette had his briefcase open and was tugging at his papers—but I whisked the luggage away in the trunk in time to save her reputation and (I later learned) 2 short stories and an article.  

       The children were perfect dears all the way (including a good nap) and Ernest had to drive slowly because of the rain, so we could talk more easily; and we did talk and talk as old friends do.  It is a wonderful and rare experience to talk really freely, and of things that are close to your heart. Mr. Cary is very giving-of-himself is the only way I can think to put it.  He is full of wonder of the world and not inhibited to mention very splendid or very simple things such as people are often shy of—either for fear of sounding silly (of course the very articulate perhaps do not have that worry, I wonder—perhaps more so, but not in talk as much as professionally) or because of the intimacy, self-revelation, even. The danger in commitment, again.

                At any rate , we had a very wonderful time with our meandering talk—Richard jumped into the inevitable discussion of the weather as  we were starting out by asking Mr. Cary his current question (same for everybody) (to beat them to it? Being the conversational gambit most frequently put to him--) “how old are you?”  “I’ll be 65 next month.”  This is an unusual figure to Richard and he wanted to know when he would be 65.  “In 61 years" led to the future and the past (I have plans for the celebration of 2000, and can remember Lindbergh’s triumphal tour [in the 1920’s]—Cary sat on the knee of a man who fought in the Battle of Waterloo).  We all allowed as how we are in favor of love, including sex, naturally).  At lunch we gave free instruction on how to differentiate a soda from sundae.  We spent a great deal of time on God—Ernest spoke for Science and Mr. Cary for Metaphysics (and even so I have questions left over . . .)

                Well, I guess 4-plus pages of this is enough.  We reached Richmond about 4:15 and very nobly resisted an invitation to supper.  Everybody but Ernest slept all the way home.              

       When Ruth responds, she begins by naming six aspects of my life:

                                                                                                Dec. 13, 1953 

Dear Child Woman Wife Mother Reader and Writer,

            How reluctant I was to send your Report away [to the next reader]. Since I am one who had never read Cary a word, and now wish to very much, you can credit yourself with effective motivation.  I did see his Religion as a child (no--- it was A Child’s Religion) in, was it, Vogue of all places ---and recognized the warmth and simple charm.

       Amusingly, when she comments on what I’ve said about some movies shown on campus, she lists every single one she has seen as special.

            How wonderful of you to bring five films to town!  My very favorite ones are Forgotten Village and Carnival in Flanders and Major Barbara; and Specter of The Rose I saw thrice with idiotic delight.  The Strange Ones I have not yet seen, but Cornelia’s word is that she was smitten.

            That I should love to be in your town for Xmas vacation, is a fact.  And I thank you for your sweet thought.  But that I cannot, is also true.

            I gasped when I found this still on my desk, it now being December 23! So off with it NOW THIS VERY MOMENT with no further thought, and much love and many wishes for the best days ahead.


       Although Ruth does not mention her holiday plans, she and Charles joined her brother’s family that year, as I learned when the Ashers sent me their Christmas pictures from 1953.








Ruth, Christmas with the Ashers, 1953


1953 Christmas with the Ashers

       During the academic year 1953-54, Ernest and I moved from our barracks quarters to a large old house near the airport.  We could afford it because we shared with another young couple.  Only in that spacious setting could we have managed our gathering for Cary; he commented that the occasion reminded him of genial gatherings in Richardson’s novels.  And only there did we have room to invite the Lilienthals to visit.     

        In 1954, we moved again, renting a house on Rose Street, at the eastern border of the University of Kentucky campus.  It was in easy walking distance to the library, the Psychology Department, both campus theaters, and the basketball coliseum, the last for Ernest’s sake. And we were very close to the stadium, and football games. I went there only to take the kids to see the fireworks every fourth of July.

Richard and Babette, 1954
Richard and Ernest Meyers, 1954

Richard and Babette

Richard and Ernest

       Ruth’s next letter deals mainly with plans for the coming summer. Why does she call me ebullient?  Probably because I had written her joyously about our return to town, as well as the prospect of getting to New York.

                                                                               July 11, 1954

Dear Ebullient one,

            I hope that you’re settled in your new house, and that the children never did show the measles.

            If you get to NYC. next month (quelle courage to travel with two children!),  it will be good--- very good--- to see you again. 

            I shall probably not be in town on Aug 4, 8 thru 10, 18, and 22 thru 24.  You can reach me either at home (NE-8-3484) or at the studio (Co-5-8971).

            (--- haven’t reached Cary yet because Reich continues to enchant me: “a thought--murder a day keeps the doctor away.”)


       Daily thought–murder!  For Ruth to admire that advice from Wilhelm Reich and find it psychologically healing startled me as much as my witch-doctor mask had startled her. In her fantasies, who were the victims of these imaginary killings?  I can only guess they were politicians of the kind she despised—Thunderation on them—and perhaps administrators who changed educational policies for the worse.

       During the summer of 1954 we met in August, possibly at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, near the Lilienthal’s apartment on President Street.  But perhaps not—Babette at 3 1/2 was small for long subway rides, although Richard, nearly 5, was tireless.

       Ruth sends a note to me at my mother-in-law’s apartment to reach us just before we return to Kentucky.

Carolyn dear,

            Did I maintain there was a children’s zoo in CENTRAL PARK?  Well there ain’t one ---- and I meant Bronx Park.

            It was delightful, seeing you and the children.  How quickly the good things grow!  I felt like The Ancient One---also like Water Displaced.

         Ruth   (9/4/54)

       Calling herself Ancient One at age 45 seems strange, and the water image even stranger.  Is that some sort of a spillover?

       The only letter I have found from 1955 refers to a pattern in our correspondence.  Every year I tried to write her before her birthday on December 5th, or to phone.  Ruth often noticed my birthday, May 16th, if not on time then in June after her school was out. 

                                                                                                            December 28, 1955

           My Favorite Southern Child,

            Thank you for my annual birthday letter. Birthdays don’t lose significance, they change their significance.  Up to quarante annees, they loom and swell like parties; but oh, they then fall into a recessional of flying fields! That I was ever young enough to dream that I should never die!     

       Ruth seems to treat her 47th birthday as if it were her 74th.  She defines age 40 as the turning point from the joys of celebration to the sorrows of lost time. What made her uneasy about aging and mortality?

       Next she bemoans educational setbacks, starting with the new national policy of adding “under God’ to the pledge of allegiance, followed by a long list of unreasonable . . .  suffocating demands at Hunter: continuous doubt, committee filing,  evaluations, confusion.  What offends her most is a new program to drill seniors, excluding the less promising ones, for advanced placement in college.

At the end of the day, selected seniors meet to be pumped with pre-digested, concentrated pabulum so that they may be excused from the Freshman course in that subject, at college.  In my youth, we raised the banner for ENRICHMENT, not ADVANCEMENT!

       Thus she emphatically despises what she next calls the self-deception of those who insist that such so-called advancement can be achieved without lessening enrichment.   Ruth sees this as a conflict between GOOD and GOOD, and prefers the old good, enrichment.

       Still in a mood of questioning cultural trends, Ruth speaks of her interest in Erich Fromm’s best seller.

Your recommendation spurs me to get The Sane Society. I was tantalized by the reviewer’s comments in   SRL [Saturday Review of Literature], on the Fromm interpretations of laziness, & of conformity.

       After seven years in Kentucky, six of them busily mothering, I told Ruth about my notions for further graduate study. Thanks to Ernest’s GI Bill benefits, we bought a house in Gardenside, a newly developing suburb near the James Lane Allen Elementary School. Both children would later enroll there, freeing me for many hours daily.  Ruth suggests a solution to my restless floundering over what-next-to-do.

            You say you feel guilty when you cultivate your own garden.  If you must feel a burden, certainly self-realization can also be regarded as one.  The philosophy of individual liberalism cooked our geese when it transferred some of the responsibilities from God to man.  So, my good girl, it’s high time to begin to look for rejection slips in the mail

            I look forward to being with you In August.

Very fondly yours,

       Twice a week, while Ernest graded papers, I went out in the evenings to take part in activities I enjoyed: making pottery and attending a writing group. The short stories I drafted were far too inept to submit for publication,  despite Ruth’s faith in me. Across another year, 1955, I remained indecisive but not unoccupied.  Besides my hobbies, I took part in activist groups like the ACLU and NAACP.  Social protests would in time evolve beyond petitions about  inequities, like those made by our committees, toward sit-ins and actions on the streets and in parks, restaurants, and city halls.

       Our yearly August trips eastward let us pass through Manhattan on our way to summer rentals we shared with Ernest’s brother’s family.  Our sets of children combined neatly; Phyllis and Dick’s three interspersed well with ours: Janet was born before Richard, Tommy within days of Babette, and Nancy two years after.

       In the next letter I can find from Ruth she asks about my summer silence. Now I wonder where we did go in August 1956, why we by-passed Manhattan, and what kept me too busy to send our news to Ruth. I can’t recall, and don’t know whether I was irritated by a cancelled holiday, as she suspects.


Dear Carolyn,

            What happened this past summer?  Did you not get to New York? I feel vibrations of irritation from you.

            We have moved to a new apartment, but we wonder what makes them call it 3 and one-half rooms. Construction is still going on and the landscaping consists of bulldozers, rubble and partly demolished slums.    “It will take time”.

             The elevators are spastic, are regularly repaired, and become invalids again as soon as the doctors have gone. “It will take time”...

             These few moments are a pause between cartons number 19 and 20.  “It will take time.”

            How have you managed to move so serenely so many times?


       She credits me with more serenity than I felt about jostling around Lexington at four addresses across the years 1948 to 1955.  But finally we were living in our own house and expected to stay there.  Such moves were not unusual for newly married couples in our postwar decade.

       In Spring 1957, I was still exploring ways to return to work.  Ernest and I had formed plans not just for my career but also for our family’s future.  The University of Kentucky’s nepotism policy forbade the hiring of spouses to work in the same department.  So I set aside my thoughts of going on for a Ph.D. in Psychology.  We wanted two more children, but only later, when we could readily afford them. We projected our 7- and 6-year-olds into our imagined future.  In another seven years, by the spring of 1963, they would be 14 and 13, and we foresaw them baby-sitting for younger siblings. 

       Doting parenthood trumped psychological common sense.  How could we forget the turbulence of adolescence?  We should have known better from books, or observation, or memories of our own growing pains.  Ernest had acted out his teenage rebellion so dramatically that he was sent away to school.  I tried to keep my chaos inward, but struggled with insomnia and surges of despair, all the turmoil that I told only to Mrs. Lilienthal early in the 1940's.  Still we envisioned our adorable youngsters maturing into compliant teenagers, eager to please us and to dote on their infant siblings.

       My  stirrings to  return to some career called for immediate action.  We both agreed that the best work for me would be teaching high school English.  My focus would be literary, book-centered, and in my summers I would be free to share the children’s months out of school.

       In the spring of 1957 I applied to the University of Kentucky School of Education for classes to earn an M.A. and a teaching certificate.  But when I was told that my M.A. degree  in Psychology from Columbia University would not be accepted as a substitute for their three-hour required elementary psychology class, I changed my mind. I applied instead to enter the M.A. program in the Department of English, across campus in the School of Arts and Letters.  There my courses would be literary rather than pedagogical. And I could teach at an advanced level. After being accepted by the English Department, I began my first classes in May.

       Two months later, on July 20, 1957, my husband suffered a heart attack. It came suddenly, with no previous symptoms, and he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Index  --   Next: Diverging Paths