I’ve started thinking about the past. Not just my past, but their past, for theirs is what made mine possible.
She was born in 1895 and named Isabel Hoy.
She was born in 1938 and named Pauline Dunlap.
She was born in 1958 and named Cynthia Patrick.
They all hail from the cotton-country of Fairfield County, South Carolina.
And then there’s me. I was born in the deep oil country of West Texas in 1986. Rebecca Brust.
As my mother and grandmother before me, I attended a small women’s college in the Upstate of South Carolina. During homesick college nights I’d walk across campus to the library, walk up the flights of stairs and scan the shelves for yearbooks. All gathered, I sat with five yearbooks before me, each named Y’s and Other Y’s. The years: 1981, 1980, 1979, 1978 and 1956. One by one I’d open them up, scanning the pages for the faces that could ease my homesick heart. My Momma, the same spark in her eyes I see today, seated in her high heels because at only five feet tall she thinks she needs the extra height for people to take her seriously. I see her face and wish I could tell her, You’re captivating, shoes or no shoes, and everyone around you sees it. You shine. My grandmother’s class photo, looking somewhat sad and wistful. There was only one yearbook with my grandmother who only completed the same semesters of college, deciding instead to follow her heart and marry. Her heart, like her husband, betrayed her. I see her face and wish I could tell her Don’t do it, but if she hadn’t, my mother and I wouldn’t be.
I’m positive if I were to open those yearbooks in Mickel Library today there would be tear stains on their pages. Ritualistically I’d wipe my eyes, close the yearbooks, put them back on the shelf, and leave. Back outside in the cool Carolina night air I’d see the front of campus. When my grandmother attended, you couldn’t be seen in the front of campus without a skirt and white gloves. I’d think about how times changed, as I was almost never seen without jeans, a ratty ponytail and my flip-flops. I’d walk past the dorm buildings where they used to sleep. I’d laugh to myself as I remembered the stories my Momma told of her classmates who would sunbathe topless on the roof of one of the buildings, cotton balls strategically placed. To this day she swears she wasn’t one of them, but I’ve never believed her.
There was something comforting about just knowing I was walking where they’d walked, being connected to a time and place bigger than any of the three of us. Since 1889, students walked those sidewalks, slept in those buildings, and learned on that ground.
Seventy miles away sits another library with an even dustier yearbook on a shelf. In it, the following:
Ella Isabel Hoy: “Her eyes as stars of twilight fair; Like twilight, too, her dusky hair.”*
“Isabel reminds us of starshine, and as a graceful, dignified Senior she has proved that she will fit in well with the role of “Goddess of the Evening Air.” She is quite a favorite with the teachers, as well as with the students, and is our own steady Isabel at all times.”**
My great-grandmother. I see her face and wish I could tell her Your grace steadied all of us. Your starshine flows in our veins.
At one point, all four of us lived at the same time. One of my most precious possessions, a photograph of us seated around a table, three women and a little girl. Four generations together, now two of them are gone. My mother and I still carry that starshine, passed from one generation to the next, a treasured gift.
I look into the faces of my three sons, and although the female line has ended, the starshine remains.