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The Way We Were

Coming of Age in Postwar Washington

Review by Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page T01


By Barbara Holland

Bloomsbury. 310 pp. $24.95

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The setting for Barbara Holland's memoir -- a wise, funny, haunting and thoroughly grown-up book -- is Washington and its environs during the 1940s and '50s. This is of course the place where most readers of this newspaper now live, yet the Washington about which Holland writes is so distant in time and ambiance as to be located on another planet, if not in another solar system. Born there about seven decades ago, Holland had what was then an unconventional childhood -- her parents divorced when she was very young, her mother remarried to a man whom she did not like, her maternal grandmother became in many ways the most important person in her life -- but she has a keen memory of the conventions and customs of that time, and she brings them back to life with clarity and affection.

Holland, who now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, has published a dozen books, too few of which seem to have found many readers. She seems to be able to write knowledgeably about almost anything she pleases -- her previous subjects have included cats, presidents of the United States, Katharine Hepburn and dueling -- but she is powerfully drawn to what she called, in the title of one of her books, Endangered Pleasures (1995), the subtitle of which is "In Defense of Naps, Martinis, Profanity and Other Indulgences." Never having met the lady, I cannot say this with absolute certainty, but all the evidence indicates that there is not a single politically correct bone in her body. In her previous books she has celebrated those pleasures that the health and PC police labor so hard to deny us, and she plays a variation on that theme in When All the World Was Young.

The pleasures celebrated this time around are those of a city and its suburbs (Holland grew up in Chevy Chase, just over the District line) to which development, sprawl and the K Street culture had not yet presented themselves. It will be pointed out, and properly so, that this was also a Washington in which white and black residents occupied separate universes, in which opportunities for blacks were stringently curtailed, but that was a reality of which Holland seems to have been entirely unaware as a girl, as doubtless were most if not all of her friends and, for that matter, white Washingtonians of any age and status. Given that Holland now has strong opinions about the place of women in American society, it stands to reason that she has comparable opinions about the place of blacks, but to impose today's attitudes on yesterday's story would be to twist the past to suit the convenience of the present.

This, much to her credit, Holland declines to do. She gives us the real world in which she grew up, rather than a fantasy dictated by the altered cultural and social assumptions of today. She readily acknowledges that memory is imperfect and unreliable -- "A memory is so gelatinous, waffling into this shape and that, until you say it out loud or write it down and it turns to stone, right or wrong, a fact" -- and it's a safe bet that she's got some of the details wrong, as all memoirists do. But the essential things she gets exactly right. She is nothing if not honest about herself, and the portrait she paints of the time and place of her youth rings entirely true.

I can say that with certainty because I was there: not in Washington, but in Pennsylvania and New York and Virginia in the same time. Though I am perhaps five years younger than Holland, the difference is meaningless, and though the biographical facts of our childhoods are almost entirely different, that too is meaningless. Though I had better luck with my "real" father than she did with her stepfather, I remember all too well the truth when she writes about Fathers, which she pointedly capitalizes:

"My friends and I were all deathly afraid of our fathers, which was right and proper and even biblically ordained. Fathers were angry; it was their job. . . . Fathers were the necessary antidote to Mothers, who by their very nature were fond and foolish and lacking in the firmness of character needed to put their foot down. Mothers could never say 'no,' Fathers rarely said anything else."

Certainly Holland feared her stepfather, and disliked him as well. He was a lawyer in the Labor Department, a stern and loyal New Dealer who nevertheless had nothing but contempt for the secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, for the simple reason that she was a woman. "Even now," she says, "and he's long dead, I'm afraid to write his name out, invoking bad luck, reprisals, ill winds," so she calls him Carl, "since that wasn't his name." In that day even those of us whose relationships with what we now call "male authority figures" were happier stood in fear of our fathers, who had not learned the lesson that the next generation would be taught, that kinder and gentler is better -- a lesson with which Holland probably would be quick to take exception, since she insists that "fear, pure and simple, [is] necessary nourishment for the growing child."

For her, love came from her grandmother, even though she was "undemonstrative, unsentimental." She kept her feelings to herself, but she was always there, and the example she set -- matter-of-fact competence, attentiveness, political independence -- had a powerful influence on the shaping of Holland's character. Her mother, Marion, "pretty as a peach and brilliant," had an extraordinary college career at Swarthmore, studied law for a year at Columbia, and "blazed forth into the world and then vanished, suburban mother of five, of all possible lives the least suitable." Her "secret passion" was carpentry, and she was exceptional at it, tangible evidence of just how out of step she was with her times. Not until World War II, when she took a job in the display department at Hecht's, did she really come into her own.

Eventually her mother (who to my taste is, apart from the author herself, the most appealing person in the book and its true heroine) found a career of her own. She wrote children's books, which were published by Knopf. Eventually there were about a dozen of them. They are now out of print, and "most of them are long forgotten, being about middle-class white children with such middle-class problems as wanting a dog or dropping a library book in the bathtub, but at the time they did well," and gave her mother "more money than could be swallowed up by summer day camps and autumn school shoes." Perhaps it is excessive to say that the example they set was the most important gift that mother gave to daughter, but surely it ranked way up there; though Holland, like her grandmother, eschews emotional display, the pride she takes in her mother's accomplishments is plain and affecting.

There was school, of course, which she loathed -- not least because she was an early and prodigious reader, which separated her from just about everyone else, made her "different," which no child likes to be -- and then there was the agony of junior high, "segregating children during their three most disastrous years so they could exercise the worst possible influence on each other." She did find a close, wonderful friend, Gloria, with whom for those three years she "had an ally, and an ally makes all the difference." Forces beyond anyone's control ended the friendship and left Holland bereft, though her gratitude toward and affection for Gloria are undimmed.

Holland recalls that friendship with clarity, as she recalls everything else. "Families were inextricably together," she writes. "Many siblings grew deeply, even morbidly, attached to each other, and many others became lifelong mortal enemies." Children? Sometimes kids hitchhiked: "No driver seemed surprised to see us; none molested or kidnapped us." Me too: As a teenager, I must have hitchhiked thousands of miles. "Somehow the safety of children, a subject of obsessive, passionate national concern today, simply didn't bother anyone I knew." Me too: Our parents tossed the kids into the back seat and off we rode, unencumbered by car seats or safety belts or anything else. Also: "Most children were unusual then. Different, one from the other. Various in flavor. It was before the invention of teenagers." Also, a sign posted at the National Zoo:




A Washington forever lost. "The Senators gave their followers many stressful seasons and were rarely out of the basement, but Mother always said: 'Any fool can be a Yankees fan. It takes real talent to be a Senators fan.' " Everybody listened to the radio, "our ear on the world." Until "the mid-1950s, when air-conditioners started spreading from the movie theaters into the bedrooms, summer in Washington was infamous. People died. It put the British in mind of Calcutta and their diplomats drew hardship pay." Fear of polio "closed down the neighborhood swimming pools," because polio "was the faceless stalker. The hooded Horseman. It slunk around in silence, it crept up on small children, leaving them twisted." My own mother, terrified of polio, made us wear ungainly straw hats with wide brims; I never understood why.

Was it better then? Probably not, though it seems so to Holland and to me. Polio hadn't been brought under control. Men molested girls then as now -- "it was always beastly, frightening, sickening, and best forgotten, and I suppose it happened, one way or another, to every girl in the world" -- and Joe McCarthy spread fear around the city and the country. The Cold War -- the Bomb -- "soaked through our lives and colored our days like a toothache." Maybe the thing to say is that on the whole it was pretty good to have been there and then, but few of us would want to go back.

For all that, and for all the shortcomings and eccentricities of her own family, Holland had good times, and interesting ones, and she learned from them. You have to be on the alert to catch the moral of her tale, but it's right there in a couple of sentences about three-quarters of the way through: "Growing up is the process of learning how many things you can't do and how many people you can't be. When you've winnowed them out, what's left is you." That's what we used to call a home truth, but then so is everything else in this splendid book. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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