When my mother was just out of University, in 1954, she was privileged to be offered the opportunity to spend a year at Sweet Briar College in Virginia on an exchange programme and scholarship. I have only a few memories from childhood of stories she told, but I do remember the emotional content of the stories - that is to say, the sense of joy and excitement at her life there, among the 300 women on 3000 acres of rolling wooded landscape at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The last time I visited the UK and told my mother that we were planning to visit Sweet Briar one weekend, she gave me a pack of her letters from that year: all the many many letters she sent to her parents, sometimes daily and sometimes 20 pages long. They are charming, innocent and full of life. In some ways quite the woman I know as my mother, and in other ways rather unexpected: so much youthful chatter about clothes, or the excitement about the young men who were interested in her, for example! Far more talk about church and religious events than I expected. Interesting trips to New York – to a show, or to work in Harlem alongside a drug rehab project, or to go shopping or sightseeing. Plans for a summer road trip with her best friend ‘Ginger’, and term break visits to other friends’ homes which revealed all sorts of interesting backgrounds, some of which she loved, but with some criticisms too.
Apart from a general liberal arts course of study, she was involved in theatre, dance, singing, hockey, church, speech-giving at various social groups; she made friends with students and staff, baked shortbread to sell, waited tables to earn money, enjoyed being taken out in boyfriends’ cars, travelled to visit cities with her friends, and experienced American life with all the energy and naivety of any 22 year old young woman. And managed to infringe rules, in the sweetest possible way, like going to the lake at midnight for a skinny dip. Oo-er.
How’s this for a great story: one day in 1955 she dropped in at Billy Graham’s home (I have no idea how she managed to be on ‘dropping in’ terms with the family); the man himself was not home but his wife Ruth was, and the children. My mother followed Ruth into the kitchen when she was invited to have a drink, and there she saw a most unusual thing that made her exclaim delightedly, namely a ‘half cup’: imagine cutting a cup in half vertically so that the front is rounded but the back is straight across by the handle. On the front was written ‘you asked for only half a cup!’. Ruth, in her generosity, insisted on my mother taking the cup home as a souvenir gift; my mother left, cup in hand, embarrassed but tickled pink. That cup is still in her possession!
So Luca and I took a long weekend off and arranged to visit Sweet Briar. We were treated politely, friendlily and generously by the Alumnae Office, taken on a tour of the grounds and provided with lunch and the free run of the college. It is impressive to see and hear about how they run a campus for such a small number of students; it is a beautiful setting and the use of the land and buildings is impressive. They have bees and horses and a new vineyard project; the charming old dairy is now an art department but the boathouse at the lake is still as always was. The college was on the brink of collapse only 4 years ago and was rescued from closure by rich benefactors; no doubt our potential giving power was reason for our exemplary welcome, and rightly so. It felt good to be there and I was grateful to bring the family story full circle by my return.
We ate out at proper local pub full of large and noisy Americans with baseball caps and strong accents, feeling foreign and conspicuous, in a nice sort of way, before turning in for the night on campus. The Inn is, let’s say, adequate, with decent enough bedrooms and a help-yourself to coffee and pre-wrapped pastries for breakfast. I don’t suppose my mother had much to do with local eateries like that, nor plastic wrapped food like that, nor would she recognise the highway at the entrance to the college grounds on which the cars roar past day and night. Some things ‘progress’ over the years (with a tendency to detrimental changes); other things, like the educative systems and commitment to excellence at Sweet Briar, no doubt remain more admirable in their constancy.
Our brief trip ended with a glorious drive, then, up 105 miles of Shenandoah National Park ‘skyline’ road, mile upon high mile of intense early spring: trees in first bud, views over long long valleys and plains, fresh and bright and pure. We arrived in Washington DC only in time to eat and sleep (at least we saw the outside of the Smithsonian Museum and the Capitol Building in the distance!), and took the train back to New York in the morning. We were needed then at Katonah, in upstate New York, for a choral concert, but that is a tale for another day.