I’m driving through a semi-rural landscape in central Illinois this clear, September morning, just south of the university community I’ve lived in for many years. Having grown up in a town in eastern Kentucky surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest, it took me a while to appreciate the beauty of this flat place, the more subtle changes of season, cooler colors, and a different sense of scale. Today, the big sky is intensely blue and empty. A field of rustling, ready-to-harvest corn lies to my right and to my left, soybeans are turning from green to gold. The car radio plays a thready symphony from an obscure Scandinavian composer. As I pass a herd of Black Angus belonging to the University’s animal sciences program, the symphony ends and the classical announcer comes on. In a cajoling, friendly tone different from his usual matter-of-fact delivery, he says, “Next I’ll play a famous piece from a famous suite. Do you know what it is? Can you tell me? Come on, it’s famous.” I entertain the fleeting impression that he’s talking to me and to no one else.
With a flourish of sparkly notes, a piano begins a playful, syncopated run. At once I see in my mind Scott Joplin’s face, the photo from a book of his ragtime compositions I once enjoyed playing, but I know it’s not his music. This piece is simpler and less dancy, with slow-downs and hesitations that remind me of little goats hopping about. But, I think, the composer must have known Joplin’s work; the influence is there. Where have I heard this before? The melody is tantalizingly familiar.
It’s a short piece. When it concludes, the announcer says, “Did you get it? It’s Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk from Debussy’s suite, The Children’s Corner!” He’s on to the next piece, but I’m frozen.
The word “Golliwogg” rings in my skull like a bell and sends me plunging down, down, into darkness, while an image of something human yet not human flickers in the background—wiggling, dark, elusive, comical yet slightly sinister. Thank goodness I’m driving on a straight, midwestern road, where all I have to do is hold the wheel.
For I’m no longer in twenty-first-century Illinois. Instead, I’m in the previous century, sitting next to my mother in a darkened auditorium, dressed in the Sunday clothes of childhood—a puffy dress with a full skirt, black patent leather shoes, white anklets. I feel special: witness to a significant event. The air is stuffy, the way it is when an audience has been sitting for a time in a confined space, but it is not unpleasant. I feel warm, nurtured, part of something communal. On the lit stage before us, Miss Greim, my piano teacher from the time I was eight until I was twelve, stands by a long-tailed grand piano, smiling to applause. Instead of the dark, utilitarian suits she wears when she comes to our house to give me a lesson, she wears a stiff, blue taffeta formal that catches the light as she bows and shows—heavens!—a hint of décolletage. Along with another local piano teacher, who lives in our neighborhood, she has just finished giving a piano concert. “Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk” is her encore. Underneath this scene, in the translucent palimpsest of the past, is another auditorium scene: my first piano recital as Miss Greim’s pupil, when I played the simplest piece possible, my hair in pigtails, my sturdy body encased in a pink formal with braided net straps, made by an Italian woman who taught at the college and sewed for friends. My fellow pupils, all children I know from the neighborhood or school, are clustered with me in their own finery, all gently paralyzed by the fear of performing.
The initial memory fades but not the feeling of attending an important, adult event while in a state of protected childhood. It was the word, golliwogg, not the music, that threw me into this memory, though the sound of the music started the process. I think of Marcel Proust’s description of being similarly catapulted into the past near the beginning of Remembrance of Things Past (A la recherche du temps perdu.) Upon tasting a madeleine dipped in tea, Proust was filled with a powerful sensation: “And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.” It takes Proust some time to discover the origin of this powerful sensation. Cudgeling his brain is no help. Then suddenly, a memory arrives, of his Aunt Leonie dipping a madeleine in her lime-flower tea on Sunday mornings in Combray when Proust was a child, and giving him a taste. Once the connection is made through a sensory memory, “the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”
Proust retired the trophy for psychological time travel and I do not claim that my experience was as powerful as his. But the effect of the word “golliwogg” (or “golliwog,” as it is now generally written) continued to intrigue me. I wonder what Proust would have made of the internet, which is where I went to learn what it means. Perhaps, my husband suggests, Marcel would have been so stunned by the abundance of information about his milieu and its past that he might never have written his masterwork. What would have been the point of recovering something already so well documented?
Golliwogg is the name of a black doll character in children’s books, created by American author and illustrator Florence K. Upton from a family toy. The first book, The Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg, appeared in 1895. Florence and her mother Bertha produced thirteen books featuring the character. Because they didn’t trademark the likeness, it was taken up by other authors, such as Enid Blyton, whose golliwog characters often behaved badly. The name was, perhaps, a combination of golly and polliwog. The doll had a round, black face; fuzzy hair; staring round eyes; and red lips. It wore red pants, a short jacket, and a bow tie. I do not recall reading the books of Upton and Blyton, but the picture of Golliwogg is familiar. Today it is seen as a racist stereotype and origin of the slur “wog;” but had my child self-come upon one of the Upton books, I would have gone directly to the polliwog connection. Our town was netted with shallow creeks where my friends and I waded barefoot, scattering minnows and polliwogs. The wiggly aspect of tadpoles, the more common synonym for the larval stage of amphibians, always gave me a sick feeling. That, and the fact that they had eyes, and so did I. Indeed, the word polliwog comes from two middle English words, for head (poll)and wiggle. Tadpole derives from middle English words for head and toad. My initial sensation of unease upon hearing the phrase “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” perhaps replicated my youthful, imagistic mashup of an exotic doll and a wiggling amphibian. I suspect the negativity, the “sinister” quality, that formed part of my initial reaction to the word, comes from the naughty iteration of Golliwogg. Of such unconscious influences spring racial bias. Late in life, when Florence Upton learned what golliwog had come to signify to many, she said, “I am frightened when I read the fearsome etymology some deep, dark minds can see in his name.”
This musical memory was not the first time Miss Greim had returned to me in my adulthood. I grew up in a small college town at the end of the era when women often had to choose between careers and marriage, or have the choice made for them. Indeed, my paternal grandmother, who as a young woman taught in one-room schools in southern Ohio, loved teaching more than anything and wanted to continue in the classroom. But married women could not be hired as teachers in the early twentieth century; they were to stay home and take care of their families. When she married my grandfather, the local schoolboard required her to give up her job.
In childhood, I knew many older, single, professional women, mostly teachers and librarians, and I remember their kindness and interest in me. It was like growing up in a flock of fairy godmothers. All of them were born before women could vote, which became possible in 1920. On the street where I lived, my mother was the only woman who both worked, as a high school business teacher, and ran a household. Over the back fence, my best friend’s mother was going to college in preparation for teaching in junior high school, in addition to her family duties. The other working women in the immediate neighborhood, a widow who was chairman of the college art department, a woman who taught in the college home economics department and decorously “kept company” with a lifelong bachelor, and the dean of women, all lived alone. One woman, a divorced teacher with a son, lived with her parents. You could hardly swing a cat without hitting a piano teacher, the go-to source of spending money for stay-at-home mothers. Miss Greim, who also taught piano at the college, was, by consensus, the most demanding of the local piano teachers. When she moved away, I took lessons from another neighborhood teacher who was home with a toddler and a baby.
My mother’s best friend, Miss Wilkes, as she was known professionally, was head of the geography department at the college. A high-toned Old South lady from Tennessee who thought nothing of traveling alone on a tramp steamer to Brazil or to the northernmost city in Norway by herself, she was said to have been disappointed in love as a young woman and to have sworn off marriage. Viewing me in my cradle shortly after my parents brought me home from the hospital, she said sadly to my mother, who was showing off my responsiveness, “Oh, Rubye. I’m afraid she’s going to be intelligent.” She well knew how often intelligent women ended up alone. But she, and other single women in our community, were also role models for independence and purpose.
Several years ago, I was trying to write a short story based on an anecdote from Miss Wilkes’ life, but I was getting nowhere. She was memorable in so many ways, yet I couldn’t make her come alive on the page. Then one day, browsing in the cosmetics section of a department store and intermittently meditating on the problem of the moribund short story, I came across a display of Tabu perfume. I picked up the iconic, violin-shaped bottle and, sprayied some on my wrist. At once I was reminded of Miss Greim, whom I had not thought of in years. The smell was as familiar to me, and as tied specifically to her, as were grand pianos—a spicy aroma of elegance, adventure, and femininity. I had grown up seeing the Tabu ads in magazines and wondering at the story they told, for they featured a painting of a male violinist and a female pianist in formal dress, who may have been playing a duet a moment before. But in the instant captured by the picture, the woman, in a gown of gold satin, has risen into the powerful, one-armed embrace of the mustachioed violinist, who is holding his violin with the other hand, up and out of the action, and they are kissing. Tabu, the forbidden fragrance, says the ad. The picture is, in fact, a painting called The Kreutzer Sonata by Rene-Xavier Prinet, based on Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, which in turn took its inspiration from Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. In Tolstoy’s work, a married woman who plays the piano falls in love with a violinist. They play Beethoven’s sonata together and commit adultery, resulting in the wife’s murder by her husband.
How witty of Miss Greim to have chosen Tabu for her signature fragrance! Was it also a bit sad? I knew nothing of her personal life, but an air of abstinence floated about the aging single women of my childhood, perhaps an erroneous interpretation but still a characteristic of local society, in an era which did not enjoy the sexual freedom of today. Besides, to a child, adults exist only in the interactions they have with the child; their personal lives are unimaginable. That a woman might choose to remain single would never have occurred to me or my friends, brought up on the first wave of Disney princesses. Such a thing was not part of the prevailing social dynamic of the town.
Standing by the perfume counter in the department store, I decided I could let Julia Bone, my character based on Miss Wilkes, wear Tabu. I had conceived of both the real and fictional women leading disciplined lives, eschewing the forbidden, and maybe that tension could bring the story alive. I bought a bottle of Tabu, began to wear it myself, and soon was wrapped in an atmosphere of both sensuality and regret. In no time, via my computer, Julia Bone began writing to her sister in Alabama. Finally, I could hear her real voice; and the short story became an epistolary exchange between the sisters that revealed her life and preoccupations. Eventually it was published in The Virginia Quarterly Review.
As I grow older and the future shortens, I find myself returning more often to an ironbound, antique chest inside of which lie the chains of causality that make up my understanding of how the present is connected to the past, which, in turn, has made up so much of who I am. I finger the links to recapture those memories refined and bent into story, the currency we use to pay our identities and histories forward. The internet tells me that Miss Greim, who had two music degrees from Northwestern University, came to eastern Kentucky from Illinois. She was herself was a composer of piano pieces for children. I continue to wear Tabu in her memory.
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, New York: Random House, vol. 1, 1961, 34. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.
Florence K. Upton, Wikipedia article
Elaine Fowler Palencia, Champaign IL, grew up in eastern Kentucky. She is the author of How to Prepare Escargots (Main Street Rag Press) and three other poetry chapbooks, as well as six books of fiction and a nonfiction book about her great-great grandfather, “On Rising Ground”: The Life and Civil War Letters of John M. Douthit, 52nd Georgia Volunteer Infantry (Mercer University Press). Her work has received seven Pushcart Prize nominations.