There’s the family you get and the family you make. Tell me about yours some time.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
The Muskrat yearbook for 1935 has this to say for Elinor J. Munro: “‘Elie’ — French Club — Yearbook — Baseball — ‘Hey! Where’d everybody go?'” She played clarinet in the marching band. She played a waitress in the senior play–some long gone tweedy whodunnit in preposterous British accent. She played in the dirt. She wasn’t voted most likely to do anything at all. Her name wasn’t even on the ballot. Some of us blossom late.
College may have done for Elie what it did for me: achieving escape velocity from the breast, the nest and all the rest. How she did it in the Great Depression is a bigger mystery than that senior play.
The summer of her junior year at college, Elinor Jane Munro broke another barrier: she joined an archaeological dig in Mussolini’s Italy, at an ancient Etruscan site near Cerveteri, not far from Rome but a very long way from Iowa. Three months of dust, heat, patience and the gentle hand of Lucy Shoe Meritt, classical archaeologist from Mount Holyoke College, transformed her.
Other than a steamship, what do you suppose brought Elie there? Distance (from home and the familiar)? Adventure (well beyond the comforts of Grant Wood’s Iowa)? Discovery (of an ancient civilization and of herself)? What she got was a baptism in methodological exactitude and monasticized introspection. I’m jealous.
Occasional notes between Munro and Dr Meritt are preserved in the University of Texas archive at Austin—familiar jottings between a respected classicist and her enthusiastic protegé. Whatever Elie had experienced that summer of 1938 either changed the trajectory of her life or, more likely, gave it direction for the first time. Back in America she kept abreast of scholarly journals, even writing one of them with an observation on Etruscan grammar.
Those notes to Dr Meritt reveal a life of the mind unknown to friends and neighbors in Agincourt’s Lilac Court (where she lived) or co-workers at the telephone company (where she worked). Elie Munro led two lives. What her correspondence doesn’t reveal, however, may be the most precious thing she brought back from Cerveteri — her son Larth.
Should she have declared him at Customs, contraband, illicit cargo hidden in her womb?
Miss Munro returned from Italy in time to enroll for her senior year at college, but dropped out after Christmas when the pregnancy began to show. She bore a son, Larth Meritt Munro, in April 1939, while our attention was diverted toward the Europe of his conception and discretely away from issues facing an unwed mother in provincial Iowa.
By the time I was seven or eight, mother and son had moved on, perhaps to avoid the sort of talk that follows illegitimacy—small towns, small minds and such. What I recall is his name — Larth — one I’ve never heard since. It turns out to be ancient Etruscan and may have well suited a dark-eyed, black-haired, slender boy approaching his teenage years.
I wonder where they are today, whether Elie is still alive (she’d be my mother’s age) and how she explained Larth’s conception in the Old World and his arrival in the New. I wonder if a humid summer night at the edge of a terraced and gridded archaeological dig took note of an Iowa farm girl’s passion — for knowledge, self-discovery, adventure. I wonder if such things even matter in the stolid march of civilizations?
We should hope they do.