midpoint (2006-35)

Living history

Girl of My Dreams

by Stephanie Piper

The last time a girl was born in the Piper family, Benjamin Harrison was President of the United States. Queen Victoria sat on the throne of England. Women wore leg-of-mutton sleeves, high button shoes, and elaborate pompadours. Horse-drawn buggy was the preferred mode of transportation, and only rich folks had indoor plumbing.

People spoke in awe about the 20th century, still 10 years away. Who could imagine what wonders might be commonplace in that bold new era? Horseless carriages, flying machines, moving pictures. Women voting and holding public office.

In the small Ohio town where Lucy Piper began her life in 1890, such outlandish ideas were the stuff of fantasy. Yet she would live to see them all, and more. She would lobby for women’s Suffrage and proudly cast her first vote in 1920. She would become a teacher, an artist, an avid reader, a traveler to foreign lands. She would pass along a love of learning and a deep respect for the diversity that makes the world a complex and challenging place.

I like to think that Lucy, a student of history, would rejoice with us as we prepare for a family milestone. This fall, we will welcome our second grandchild, the first Piper girl in 116 years. A friend asked me if we were going to avoid any ambiguity and simply call her “Princess.” That seems a bit excessive, but not much. I spent a lot of years shopping for overalls. Now I’m scouring the Internet for hand-smocked pink dresses.

To me, a baby is a boy. I raised three of them and am the adoring grandmother of yet another. I have advanced degrees in Little League, Pee Wee Hockey, Cub Scouts, and the Emergency Room. I can break up a backyard fistfight and talk someone down from the highest branch of the tree. If I had a dime for every pair of khaki pants and every navy blue blazer I ever bought, I’d be a rich woman.

None of this came to me naturally. I was a girly girl from the start, a lover of dolls and hair ribbons and Louisa May Alcott books. I struck out at softball and was always chosen last for Red Rover. It wasn’t an impressive resume for the mother of sons, but I learned to improvise. I put my Madame Alexander collection in storage and enrolled in my husband’s crash course on pop flies, triple plays, and forkballs.

For 20-something years, I was the sole woman in a household of men. It’s a role that has certain advantages, and I would not trade a second of it for any treasure on earth. My sons taught me honesty and courage and how to yell like a fishwife and swear like a sailor. When I wasn’t busy screaming, each one of them made me laugh every day.

Come September, I take on a new role: grandmother of a girl, purveyor of embroidered bonnets and china dolls, co-hostess of tea parties, tireless reader of “Little Women.” If our new arrival leans more toward T-ball and tree climbing, I figure I’ve got that covered, too. My skills are rusty, but I look forward to the remedial work.   

Late in her life, the long-ago Lucy turned her artistic talent to the creation of handmade books. She bound fine vellum in marbled covers trimmed with leather and designed exquisite endpapers to open and close each slim volume. One of these books came down to us, and I take it from the shelf now and examine the expert craftsmanship. It was meant to be a journal, and it seems to have been waiting all these years for someone to fill its pristine pages. I think of the new baby, and the stories she will have to tell of her life in the 21st century. Across four generations, Lucy has sent a gift: made by hand and passed along, from one Piper girl to the next.