Riverside High School (formerly Robert E. Lee), Part 1: The Girl Who Would Become My Mother

by Tim Gilmore, 11/24/2022

Only five people signed my mother’s high school senior yearbook. Barbara Walker wrote, “Dear Joan, you are one of the sweetest girls I have ever known. Don’t forget our good times in Shorthand!” Most high school girls in the 1950s took Shorthand, wouldn’t have imagined it would die off in the ’80s.

Joan Irene Keene, yearbook photo, 1951

Though my mother smiled and wore pearls for her senior photo, Patsy Masters’s note hinted that she was already gone from Robert E. Lee High School. “I hope you are having a grand time,” she wrote. “We still think of you and will never forget our many laughs.”

yearbook image, 1951

Though she said, in her 23-page 1981 autobiography, “During high school I had only a few friends,” more than 60 people signed Joan Irene Keene’s 1952 junior yearbook. So by the end of the following year, she was already revising her history. We’re always rewriting our narratives. Every moment’s turn rewrites the life we’ve already lived.

Spring Dance, yearbook, 1952

In the earlier yearbook, Sarah C. wrote, “Best of luck to a swell girl. You’re really cute and I like you.” Two other people called her “swell” on that same page. “Cute” and “swell” and “sweet” formed the triangle of 1950s compliments to a young woman.

yearbook, 1951

Elvina told Joan to remember “all the fun we used to have remember the times I would crowd you off the side walk & the times we used to have to stand on the bus because I was always so ‘fast.’ Last but not least remember the rides in the courtesy cars.” [sic] Wish I could ask my mother what Elvina meant. Whatever it was, it’s slipped into the all-consuming secrecy and silence of the world, the forgetting.

Joan Irene Keene, circa 1951

Though Nadine tells Joan, “You are one of my best friends,” she mentions no specific memories. Jackie and Jeanie both tell Joan to remember History class and someone named Mary, who apparently went by “Poodle,” said it was “great fun being friends.” Strangely, someone named Shirley, who called herself “Sauce Pot,” wrote, “May Bad Luck follow you always but never catch you.” Bad luck did follow my mother always and it usually caught her, though I can’t imagine Sauce Pot shares much of the blame for that.

Where are their specifics? Memory doesn’t stick to generalizations. Memory hangs on courtesy cars and friends playfully bumping us off sidewalks, not to being “swell” and “attractive” and “nice” and “one of the best girls.”

anonymous student, yearbook, 1951

Memory might persist in Lee High School beating South Broward 46 to nothing, with tailback Billy Childers scoring three touchdowns in that single game in the fall of 1951. Memory might persist in Carolyn Burns wearing a fascinator in the Junior Girls’ Fashion Show. Beside her picture, Carolyn wrote, “Best of luck to one sweet girl who I’ll never forget.” So there it is again.

yearbook, 1952

The promise never to forget occurs continually in these 70 year old pages. Does Carolyn still remember the girl who’d become my mother? Did they remember each other when they married and had children, when life broke their hearts, when they died too young or lived too long? If my mother hadn’t died 36 years ago, she’d be 87 years old now. Despite all their promises, how much longer will anyone who knew Joan Keene in high school still remember her?

yearbook, 1951

The comments scrawled in her junior yearbook already mention Bobby. In her graduation “memory book,” she wrote that her favorite band leader was Tommy Dorsey, her hobby was “collecting foreign dolls,” her favorite movie was The House of Wax, flower: carnation, color: “blue or pink,” ambition: “To be with Bobby.”

from my mother’s graduation “memory book”

She’s no longer at Lee at the end of ’53 because she’s already married, graduated early, left town. Marriage was the norm for girls right out of high school then and circumstances hurried Joan’s. She’d met Bobby at Skateland in November ’49. He was three years older. He joined the Navy in ’51 when Joan was a sophomore. Though her parents never liked him, that had more to do with his class than his age.

yearbook, 1951

“My new husband was home only a few weeks when he went back to California,” my mother wrote in 1981. “I stayed and finished high school.” Three weeks before her graduation, Bobby’s ship headed to Honolulu “for three months overhaul” and a rare dispensation allowed wives to attend. No wonder kids wrote about the near future as “forever” and the forgetting that would occur as “never.” For Joan, all she could see ahead of her was Hawaii.

Joan and Bobby in her living room on Mayview Road

Yet there was that moment when the road branched. Every moment does, but the ones that mark our lives so dramatically make for memory. What little we don’t forget we perpetually reinterpret. For Joan, Hawaii looked like everything to come. Later, she’d say she knew she was taking the wrong road even then. Maybe she did know it. We’re always more than one person.

yearbook, 1951

Joan took “the business course in high school,” classes in Shorthand and Typing. Families raised their daughters to make good stay-at-home wives, but some girls considered teaching or secretarial work. Prudential Life Insurance was building a tall marble building and hiring girls just graduated and the dean of girls called Joan and a friend to her office to tell her about it. Prudential would send a cohort to New York for three months’ training, all expenses paid.

Joan, who was shy and at 5’11” felt awkward about being tall, who loved her high school fiancé, was excited, but torn. New possibilities beckoned in opposite directions. Now she could imagine a new version of her young life and wanted to go to New York, but the letter Bobby wrote her broke her heart. He wouldn’t blame her, he said, if she didn’t want to marry beneath her class, to commit herself to somebody “so low.”

from The Florida Times-Union, March 7, 1953

So her decision became the crux of a constant existential reinterpretation. Three decades later, she’d write, “I don’t know if I loved him or imagined I loved him,” but when she was 17, she knew. And she married him. And foreclosed that other young Joan.

Bobby took a picture of her, the most beautiful girl in the world, on top of the Aloha Tower in Honolulu. She and Bobby pose on a sea wall with Diamond Head in the background. She smiles beside palms and banana trees in front of their hotel. The closer I try to look, the blurrier she becomes. Despite what our 17 year old selves promise, that’s what memory really does. The forgetting begins immediately.

cont’d as Riverside High School (formerly Robert E. Lee), Part Two: Ted Pappas Becoming Ted Pappas