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Clara Bourdaghs’s Scrapbook

Posted in Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the March 13th, 2024

I never had a chance to meet Clara (née Belisle) Bourdaghs (1907-1947). She died of breast cancer fourteen years before I arrived on the scene. I’ve seen a handful of photographs of the woman, but not heard many stories. My father was just ten years old when his mother passed away after a lengthy hospital stay, and he had few direct memories. When I was growing up, I did get to know Great Grandmother Exilda Belisle (1884-1977), a gracious woman who delighted in tailoring elaborate formal dresses for dolls she would buy used at the Stillwater (Minnesota) Goodwill. I also remember a cluster of Belisle aunts and uncles whom I saw from time to time, but as a child was only vaguely aware of how they were connected to me. One of them ran a bakery on Main Street in Bayport and used to give me free eclairs when my father or grandfather brought me in to say hello, usually after a visit to the barbershop three doors down.

It was only later that I came to understand clearly who those people were and how they were connected to the woman who is the source of one-fourth of my own DNA. They’re all gone now. I wish I’d thought to ask them to tell me something about my paternal grandmother. What sort of person was she? What sort of sense of humor did she have? What were her favorite foods? Did she like to dance?

Recently, Clara walked back into my life through an unexpected doorway. I was given a scrapbook of newspaper clippings that has been passed on down through the family. It doesn’t have any names or dates on it, but from the contents, I’m pretty sure this belonged to Clara. I’m guessing most of the clippings came from the Stillwater Gazette. Most of the stories included consist of typical local, small-town newspaper reports about Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So visiting Mr. and Mrs. Such-and-Such for an evening bridge party and the like. None of the clippings include dates of publication, but from the national stories included, Clara seems to have started the scrapbook in 1927, when she was twenty, and carried it on with it until 1934. Somebody (perhaps my father, previous owner of the scrapbook) has tacked post-it notes onto a half-dozen pages, but I can’t figure out any logic behind their arrangement.

And so I have a new little window onto Clara. Many of the stories include mentions of her and her siblings–their social calls, her sisters’ weddings, a report of Clara’s own hospital stay due to appendicitis. The Keys quadruplets get a couple of pages to themselves. Another selection of stories cover long forgotten local tragedies–the drowning of eight-year-old Ollie Luttrell and her playmate nine-year-old Irene Tullo in the St. Croix River; the death by fire of Sister Jucunda Laudsch at St. Mary’s Convent; several fatalities resulting from automobile accidents. Clara also cut out and pasted in little jokes and factoid space-fillers that caught her fancy: “About Short Skirts” or “Danger in Parking” (the latter word in its 1920’s sense of making out in a car seat).

It turns out that Clara was a Charles Lindbergh fangirl. Some of the earliest clippings follow the famed aviator’s 1927-8 goodwill tour of Mexico. And several pages near the end of the scrapbook cover the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping of 1932. It’s not surprising that a young women in 1920’s Minnesota would swoon over Lindbergh, a homegrown hero from Little Falls. But it leaves me wondering: did Clara follow Lindbergh down the fascist rabbit hole a few years later? One of the last clippings in the scrapbook, pasted inside the back cover, is a report about the 1934 rebuke by Detroit’s Cardinal O’Connell of the ugly race-baiting and antisemitic radio broadcasts by Reverend Charles Coughlin, a forefather to Rush Limbaugh and the like. Did Clara clip this because she liked O’Connell–or because she admired Coughlin?

Walter Benjamin supposedly dreamed of composing a book made up entirely of quotations from others. A scrapbook is something like that. I can sense the hand of an absent author, if that is the right word, when I hold Clara’s scrapbook in my hands.

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