The Evanston Community Kitchen

A food memoir about women in the kitchen and history in the making

We Can Interpret

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“We can interpret, but we can never know.” – John Marquand

It is not everyday that one gets an email from a Pulitzer Prize winner — nor is it everyday one gets an email from a world renowned Washington Post book critic. Well, I got an email from both yesterday. Jonathan Yardley emailed me.

I just about fell out as they say in the South. Jonathan Yardley and I have never crossed paths, nor do I expect them to again, but for a small slice of time we were holding cyber literary hands. I have to admit I have a bit of a literary crush on him.

Jonathon Yardley

Jonathan Yardley

Jonathon Yardley at Pirate Alley Faulkner Society introducing  Ernest J. Gaines for the 2012 ALIHOT Award for Literature

Jonathan Yardley at Pirate Alley Faulkner Society introducing
Ernest J. Gaines for the 2012 ALIHOT Award for Literature

Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, class of 1969. Jonathon Yardley is in the first row, second in from the right.

Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, class of 1969. Jonathan Yardley is in the first row, second in from the right.

I feel it is safe to say that my mom had a crush on Jonathan’s dad, Mr. William Yardley while she attended Tuxedo Park School.  Mr. Yardley was indeed a handsome chap and the headmaster at Tuxedo Park School from 1943 – 1949.

Photo Courtesy of Tuxedo Park School archives

Photo Courtesy of Tuxedo Park School

My mom always talked about Mr. Yardley when I was younger. Now I wish desperately to call my mom up right this minute and tell her I received an email from Mr. Yardley’s son. Then I’d ask her to tell me every single detail of her time at Tuxedo Park School. When she attended, it was called Tuxedo Park Country Day School and the school was in the Henry W. Poor House. My mom was a boarder from Manhattan. I never quite understood how she could have attended school in a mansion that was called the “Poor House.” Now it all fits precisely together, like the Nancy Drew jigsaw piece it is.

Photo Source: http://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/photos-of-tuxedo-park-new-york#slide-1

Photo Source: Town & Country. Grounds of Former Tuxedo Park School, Henry W. Poor House

This is an excellent article in Town & Country about the origin of the tuxedo jacket. It also includes beautiful photographs of some of the community members of Tuxedo Park, NY.

The alumni relations director at Tuxedo Park School was so very kind to help me in my quest to learn more about my mother’s time there. Ms. Fiona Duffy not only scanned copies of my mother’s records and emailed them to me — she also made copies of letters my grandmother (“Juney”) had written to Mr. Yardley and snail mailed them to me. It was like Christmas when the white envelope with the evergreen tree in the right corner arrived in the mail Saturday.

Henry W. Poor House, also referred to as the Tilford House

Tuxedo Park School — Henry W. Poor House, also referred to as the Tilford House  — Photo Courtesy of Tuxedo Park School

Photo courtesy of Tuxedo Park Historical Society Children playing on the grounds of the Tilford House (also known as the Henry W. Poor House)

Photo courtesy of Tuxedo Park School
Children playing on the grounds of the Tilford House (also known as the Henry W. Poor House)

I learned that my mom had the chicken pox in 1944 and the measles in April of 1947. I learned my mother’s childhood address in Manhattan. I read a letter my grandmother wrote Mr. Yardley on Community Kitchen stationery. An excerpt says, “I still want to send you a box but since school closed was afraid you might be away from home — so when I hear from you if you would tell me when you’d be about 4 or 5 days from time I would receive your letter — I’d love to send you some of our goodies.  I never can thank you enough for what you did for Betty Anne — you put her two feet firmly on the ground.”

I also learned a lot about my mom as a fifth grade student. She was mature for her age, but was at first “a nervous little girl.” She excelled in music and her French teacher wrote on her January progress report, “Betty Anne continues to attack obstacles with a dogged determination which one cannot help admiring. She wrote a very good examination paper, of which she may well be proud of.”  Betty Anne certainly did have dogged determination. And then some.

How I do miss my mother.  Even after receiving an email from a Pulitzer Prize winner and reading the academic files from her fifth grade in school — getting to know her as a little girl — it just was not enough. More than anything in the world, I just want her back. I want to yawn as she tells me for the fifteenth time about the time she ran away from Tuxedo Park School, convincing several other girls to come with her.  I imagine her gazing out on the terraced lawns, planning her escape. She was a feisty redhead and exhausted Mr. Yardley’s patience at times, but he adored this little red head. She adored him.

Below is the email I sent to Mr. Yardley’s son, Jonathon Yardley.

Dear Mr. Yardley:

Hello. My name is Megan Oteri. I am the daughter of Elizabeth Anne Welch Miller; she attended Tuxedo Park School in 1946-1947.  

I have been in contact with Fiona Duffy and she unearthed my mother’s TPS school records. What a treasure. There were letters your father wrote my grandmother and letters he wrote on behalf of my mother to her school in Evanston, Illinois.

There is also a letter my mother wrote him on cat stationary from her summer camp. My mom was very fond of your dad. Fiona sent me a copy of Vera Brigham’s book on Tuxedo Park School.  I would like to talk to you specifically about 1946-1947 and your father. 

I believe the story you told Vera Brigham is about my mother (see below). My mother told me she ran away from Tuxedo Park. The story about the pistol seems familiar too. It is so interesting to hear the name Mr. Yardley and see it in print (in the letters) because my mom spoke of him so often.

“Day students left at 4 P.M., but having a boarding department put a great responsibility on Bill Yardley. Nothing worried him more than the prospect of harm coming to a border. So when several girls decided to run away one evening his consternation was intense. Soon all but one returned and, finally at about 11:30 that night this last lost sheep knocked timidly at the Crawford Blagden’s door in the Park. Bill rushed over to bring her back, but not to castigate her, as he was always gentle and kind.”

I am writing a historic food memoir about my great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s famous food delivery service and bakery, The Community Kitchen,  located in Evanston, Illinois. The book spans how long the Community Kitchen was opened — 1918 to 1951. The Community Kitchen brought national attention to the city of Evanston in the 1920’s because it successfully addressed the Servant Crisis and also was the model for the nation as a cooperative centralized kitchen.

I agree with the John Marquand quote you wrote in your 2005 review of Samuel Freedman’s book, My Search for My Mother’s Life: “We can interpret, but we can never know.” 

My mother passed away on Christmas Eve 2012, and like Marquand, I am searching for who my mother was. She had an entire different life before she met my father, which set her life on a completely different trajectory. 

I am searching for the interpretation of who my great-grandmother was before she was a woman who was one of the first business women in the country. I am searching for who my grandmother was as a freshman who flunked out of Smith College. I am searching for who my mother was as a nervous little girl sent to boarding school in Tuxedo Park in 1946, two years after World War II.

I have been hunting through archives, through ancestors, through story, through memory. Nothing can replace a mother. Even though I had a letter my mother wrote as a fifth grade student from TPS, written in her pre-teen cursive script on kitty cat kid stationary, it just was not enough. I wanted to know exactly what she was feeling right then and there. I want to know what she felt when she looked out at the terraced gardens at the Henry W. Poor House. I want to know the exact conversation she and your father had when she finally found the courage to return back to Crawford Blagden’s door the night she ran away. But I can’t know that, I can only interpret…

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Author: Megan Oteri

I am an arts educator, writer, poet, photographer, and mama. United Arts Council Artist in the Schools and Writer-in-Residence -- I am available to conduct workshops and residencies: Memoir, Writing, Poetry, Spoken Word, Poetry Slams. Contact me for more information. Also available for freelance writing and photography. I am also working on a historic food memoir: http://evanstoncommmunitykitchen.wordpress.com

One thought on “We Can Interpret

  1. Reblogged this on memomuse's Blog and commented:

    “How I do miss my mother. Even after receiving an email from a Pulitzer Prize winner and reading the academic files from her fifth grade in school — getting to know her as a little girl — it just was not enough. More than anything in the world, I just want her back.”

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