The Book of a Young Grandfather

Writer: 
August 1, 2003

 

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After a certain Miss Madge of Durham married in April 1909, my grandfather, John N. Cole Jr., pasted the wedding invitation and her photograph into his new scrapbook. She’s married now...!” he lamented in the margin, “Alas poor Madge, I knew her well.”

He was twenty-one, a senior at Trinity College, and in those final weeks of academic drudgery the scrapbook must have been a fine distraction. He dedicated it grandly to a Miss Gladys and began to fill its pages with photographs of friends and himself and girls who’d caught his eye, Trinity glee-club programs, tennis results, invitations, little books from Alpha Tau Omega events, newspaper clippings, engraved cards, and poems:

Did you ever go to see a girl
And have a friendly chat.
You sit a while and make some fudge
Then go and get your hat.
You shake her hand and say good night
As gently as you can
Ain’t that a hell of a business
For a great big healthy man.

My grandfather is long gone now, and alas, I did not know him. But when he died in his early seventies, his old scrapbook was given to his daughter, my mother, who eventually gave it to Duke University Archives. When I moved here from Texas a few years ago, its brittle-brown pages greeted me with an introductory flourish and no apologies: “To you…who persist in turning these pages, this warning is given! If you are shocked, surprised, or in any way led to feel the ‘flutterings of curiosity’ and think those thoughts which are uncharitable…the fault is yours.”

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The scrapbook is personal, but among its thousand fragments is nothing especially uncharitable. I think it was a haven where my grandfather could indulge his creative muse and dwell on Love and Life and other youthful yearnings that his father, a Methodist minister, would have frowned upon. The elder Reverend Cole wrote frequently for the Raleigh Christian Advocate, addressing topics like the evils of saloons and the degeneration of Southern chivalry. As a Trinity College trustee during John Kilgo’s presidency, the Reverend helped guide Trinity as it emerged from chronic struggles over money, enrollment, and unity to become one of the South’s most promising schools. Through Kilgo’s efforts in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Duke family became committed benefactors, and the faculty—young men like William Few, William Pegram, John Bassett, and Robert Flowers—worked with a new and welcome optimism.

The Coles were not wealthy, but the Reverend was respected and was on good terms with Dukes and Carrs and other local families. My young grandfather was, too, though the connection seems to have been more social than pious. He was athletic, musical, funny, and a good dancer. He was often in love, or poised to be: Caroline, Kitty, Helen, and Passie Mae, and perhaps even Madge. Each seems to have smiled sweetly and said good night. He saved their wedding invitations, one by one.

It would be enough to find a young grandfather looking for love and handsome in his tennis whites, or costumed for a glee club skit, or dressed in evening clothes with a full dance card. It would be enough to look over his shoulder as he pondered scholarship at Trinity from his room in the New Dormitory (“The agony…the splitting headaches, the torments of candle flies and hot nights, when the lamp blazed before my streaming forehead….”) or compared girls met at a house party (“M. is definitely sweet but I think P. is the owner of more gray matter.”). But there is more here. There is a tension that most of us would recognize—a great impatience to go off and succeed and marry a wonderful new girl, mixed with a wistful affection for home and school and a childhood that had ended.

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After graduation he took a job teaching at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. Now the scrapbook received photographs of the teams he coached and of him with other teachers and young ladies at teas. The one most favored was an Atlanta girl whom he’d met at St. Mary’s in Raleigh; she liked him just enough to string him along with valentine poems.

On one vacation he visited his sister in Lynchburg and spent an evening at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. “Five hundred girls in one hall,” he wrote afterward. “ ‘Water water all around and not a drop to drink.’ ” To the girls, he drafted this letter: “With you…I felt like a convict who is suddenly transported from his prison cell into the dim religious light of a convent, where he views the celestial sisters with wonder and awe and feels his soul thrill at the ineffable sweetness of their song. I feared only one thing: that I could wake up.”

And I think he was waking up, discovering that his ambitions lay beyond the small world in which he had grown up. The South, including Trinity, was determinedly trying to “catch up” with the North, and my grandfather perhaps felt such self-consciousness as a burden. He wanted to be a writer. Encouraged by modest success with a few short stories, he applied to the school of journalism at Columbia University. His visits to New York City had already cast a bit of a spell.

Friday [December 31, 1909]—Got up at 11. Lunched at New Grand…. Dinner at Plaza. Later had dinner at Cafe di Opera with Brian and ABD. Was in C. di O. when clock struck 12…. Left about 1.30. Went to Knickerbocker, to Rector’s, to Martin’s, to Maxime’s, to Madrid, to Rector’s again. Breakfast at 6 a.m…[and so on through Tuesday].

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Columbia accepted him, and soon he was absorbed in reading copy, writing stories about Tammany Hall and Mr. William du Pont’s horse shows, and learning the proper spelling of Pierpont and Roosevelt and Hammerstein. I don’t think he planned to stay. A column in Raleigh’s News & Observer titled “Gotham Gets on Tar Heel’s Nerves” quoted him saying, “New York is a good place to work...but it’s a poor place to live. New Yorkers know this but they won’t admit it.” But Gotham got him for good. In 1913 he went to work for a printing company, had his portrait painted, and joined his friend Angier Duke in the New York Southern Society, which hosted an annual gala called the Cotton Ball.

Then, in 1915, his father died suddenly. John Cole Jr., now largely responsible for his mother and his younger siblings in Raleigh, stopped writing and took a job as a stockbroker. The scrapbook’s hold on him weakened; its final entries are mostly newspaper stories about his father’s death and the Atlanta girl’s brilliant wedding at her father’s plantation. There are invitations to the marriage festivities of Mary Duke and Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle in 1915, a story about a squash tournament, and then—nothing more.

Around 1920 he married a girl from New York. They had children; my mother and her brothers grew up in Manhattan and Long Island with little knowledge of their father’s North Carolina childhood. I cannot help wondering whether my grandfather, in the midst of his successes and failures, ever pined for home. If so, I suspect the scrapbook became a kind of trail that he could follow backward—not simply to youth and romance, but also to Trinity College and the South where he had once belonged.

Most unexpectedly, the scrapbook has become a path for me, as well. Coming here from Texas, where I grew up, I didn’t expect to settle easily. But in Duke’s archives I found my young grandfather, and his roots here have become ever so slightly my own. I can walk on East Campus and, though the buildings are largely changed and old Mr. Duke looks right past everybody, I can weave my thread into a fabric that already exists.