The Swinging Gate – an Autobiography at Age 11

Mama was a writer, although raising a large family didn’t leave her much time. If she were living today, she would likely be a blogger.

From our mother I have 2 precious documents – an “autobiography” she wrote for school at age 11 and a notebook/scrapbook from the years 1941 to 1943 around the time she met and married our father. Here we’ll look at the first, later the second.

ruth-age-8-2Ruth Alice Weigle grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, in a bookish, yet active family near East Rock Park. Her father Luther Weigle hailed from Pennsylvania Dutch stock (that is, Deutsch or German). Following ordination as a Lutheran minister, his career focused academically on philosophy and child psychology. His widely read book about Sunday School, titled The Pupil and the Teacher, propelled him to a faculty position at Yale Divinity School. Ruth’s mother, Clara, was a second-generation descendant of Norwegian immigrants. She was a senior at Carleton College in Minnesota when she met Luther. She retained a bit of the frontier as well as Scandinavia when she came east, whether it was skinny dipping in the lake with her family or whacking down bats with a tennis racket in the attic.

Eleven-year-old Ruth in her freshman year of high school wrote in cursive script an autobiography in 7 chapters for English class (sample above). Her teacher assigned a grade of “A,” but wrote “Your greatest weakness appears to be the spelling.” As I look back at the booklet of lined pages and photographs assembled by my mother in her youth, the spelling mistakes hardly matter.

I’m struck by her sense of time passing and her attempt to understand its significance. She titled her book “The Swinging Gate.” Try to imagine the gate of recent past still in motion as a child bursts out into the great world.

While reading a book, the name of which I can [no] longer remember, I found a verse that impressed me greatly. I do not remember the exact words, but this is the general idea – “The golden gate of childhood swings behind me.” Sometimes I am sure that I am beyond the “golden gate,” and then again I’m just as sure that I’m not; although I know that it is not far beyond me and it seems to swing back and forth as if inviting me to step into a new enchanting land. I have no love for dolls, but my fondness for roller-skating still exists. Anyway, it is with great pleasure that I recall in this autobiography my childhood days of adventure, dreams, and joy, and I hope my autobiography will give the same feeling to its readers. R.A.W.

ruth-blueberries-pixabay-509883
The Weigle family spent their summers in a small brown cottage overlooking Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. Blueberries ripened in late June along the lakeshore and in the surrounding hills, prompting these memories:


One of my cheif delights was to put on a white cap and go blue berry picking.  I found a kind of a thrill in meeting quite unexpectedly with the cows that sudenly came around the bushes and gave a loud moo in one’s ear.  I was armed with only a small bucket and shouted lustily for help when I heard the faintest suggestion of a “moo-oo.”  To my surprize the cow almost always turned away before help came.

While I am speaking of cows this incident comes to mind.  My uncle and aunt often visit us during the summer as on this occassion.  We all went gaily off to pick blueberries.  My aunt left her straw hat at the foot of a large bush.  A cow happened to be on the other side and my aunt thought it best to keep the bush between them.  The scene was exceedingly amusing, as the startled face of my aunt peered anxiously at the mildly reproachful eyes of the cow.  The cow discovered my aunt’s hat and after a few minutes also discovered that straw hats are very appetizing.

She wrote about Georges Mills near their summer home, where

Al Meter’s ice cream store…is always a favorite building to me. Winter’s store, where meats are sold, is across the street and is a regular country store, containing everything from dresses and buttons, postcards and candy, to gifts and bacon. I am always rather embarassed when I go there as Mrs. Winter must come out and comment on my growth, not forgetting to mention “and to think that I ever lent you a high chair.” I have a strong dislike for such people.

Her description of the summer house and its surroundings, as well as the lake, give a sense of her appreciation of gardening and nature, and a child’s fear in a storm:

Our home is on a hill from which one walks down a fern-bordered path to the dock, which is about four rods from the house. The house has brown shingles and looks as if it grew there. A few summers ago I planted sweet wilbain and foxgloves beside the ferns. It was a beautiful sight to see with the ferns gently waving in the breeze and the multi-colored flowers beside them. The trees at Sunapee impress me greatly. The beautiful white birch with its tender green leaves, the majestic silver birch, the tall pines that whisper softly in the night, and the sturdy beaches, on which squirels scamper up and down. Then as a lovely magnificent background the lake in its varying moods, calm with softly lapping wavelets, angry and tempestuous with whitecaps against the blue waves, and then again in the early morning with the shimmering, shing sunbeams playing on the waves and making thousands of sparkling diamonds.

Storms, too, seem a vital part of Sunapee. Two years ago there was a bad ice storm. Some trees were uprooted and uterly demolished and others were bent so that they would never straighten out again. I remember one particular storm during which the lightning and thunder made older and wiser heads than mine shiver and shake. The lightning was so close it seemed pink. We saw it hit a stump about three quaters of a mile away. I was trying frantically to recall any of the warnings I had heard. Here are some of them: not to stand by walls, windows, or fireplaces, not to hold or be near steel, and as a precaution to sit on feathers. What was I to do? If I stood by away from the walls I was in front of the fireplace, and if I moved away I was either by something steel or a window. Finally I dragged a pillow unto the floor and sat holding my breath.

ruth-in-rowboat-2

 

 

Ruth’s favorite “amuzement” at Sunapee was swimming.  She would have liked fishing except for the fish and even more the “worms, those ugly, crawling things, and above all to bait my hook with them.” Boating was jolly, and she enjoyed cheering for her older brother Luther in the speedboat races.

 

Luther had purchased a fast motor boat called the “Diana.” He entered the “Diana” in the motor boat race. That morning he had tested the “Diana” and rated her, but the lake was stormy and “Diana” could not go her fastest. For the race the fastest boat goes last and the slowest first so the race will be more even. In the afternoon the lake was smooth and Luther went, gradualy getting ahead of the other boats. As he neared the goal, he realized that he would reach it too soon. When he did reach it he was disqualified for stalling. I am angry about it yet.

A highlight of her early years was a family trip to the World’s Fair. This is how she described it:

As we neared Chicago it seemed as if the suburbs would never end and the city itself never begin. When we did reach it, I felt as if I had certainly come from the country. Everything was noisy and in a hurry and the traffic was endless. Taxis darted under one’s very nose and, altogether, to me Chicago was just a great jumbled mass of confusion.

Dad…had stopped before at the LaSalle Hotel and had decided that we would stay there…. Our rooms were on the fourteenth floor and within full earshot of the roof-garden’s orchestra, which played continually. There were some drunken men in rooms across the courtyard, who were holding a lively correspondence with some others right above us. Some girls, also, participated in the discussion. We spent a very restful night.

ruth-chicago_worlds_fair_posterThe next morning we arose quite early and went down to breakfast, after which we made our way to the fair grounds. Outside the gates there were salesmen and beggars “galore.” Once inside I walked down the Avenue of Flags to the Hall of Science in which I “browsed” quite a while. I walked down the Midway and didn’t get very far as they were so many attractions to detain. I was very interested in the houses of future generations. I had heard about the World a Million Years Ago and therefore made my way to it as quickly as possible. We entered on a revolving platform. The first things we saw were caves in which men and women of the prehistoric period stood in various attitudes. Then, entering the man part of the building, we saw dinasours, apes, and reptiles of many names that moved and grunted in a very realistic manner. I then visited the quaint Belgian village. I bought a few trinkets in the shops in it. We then went to a little stand and had for lunch some popcorn and “Jack Weane’s frozen custard.”

After lunch we visited the Chrysler Building and inspected cars. We also saw a movie of the testing cars and saw “Babe,” a very atheletic athelete, run, jump, etc. We went up on the Sky-Ride and made a general tour of the grounds on a bus.

Some time later we returned to our hotel, had as good a night’s sleep as possible under the circumstances of the night before, and prepared to leave. As we waited for the car, a procession came around the corner to drums and bugles. I afterwards learned that Chicago was welcoming the Irish boxers….

We reached New Haven without any mishaps and from there we went on to Sunapee, where we stayed untill school started.

Ruth ended the autobiography in this way:

I look forward to being a sophmore. One of the high and lofty sophmores. Beyond that I dare not go. If I ever get to be an exalted senior, I will look down on my freshman year, but now live only in the present.

Thus I close my autobiography. I hope its reader enjoyed it and will not judge it too harshly as I am only eleven years old. The “swinging gate” seems nearer and I pause now to look back over my childhood days before passing into the dim, shadowy regions of the future.

 

Next post:  Connecting with the East

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Featured image:  High school freshman composition by Ruth Alice Weigle, 1933.  Ruth Alice Weigle, age 8, family photo.  Blueberries, by Johan1127, CC0 Publlic domain, Pixabay. Young Ruth Weigle in the bow of a rowboat, family photo.  Chicago World’s Fair poster, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

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