Brand building through storytelling

Dayle, this one’s for you

Dayle Dickinson must have been 15 when she opened her mother’s copy of Ladies’ Home Journal and found a short story called “Paper Flowers.” The illustration featured two barefoot, guitar-toting girls–one who looks bold enough to hop a freight, the other unmistakeably demure, as if she’s only toying with rebellion. The blurb announced, “This remarkable story by a fifteen-year-old author tells about two offbeat girls and one wonderful summer—and what happened when winter came.”

I was that author. My mother, who wrote for Ladies’ Home Journal, had shown my story to her editors, who bought it for the head-spinning sum of $500. She then took me to the magazine’s office in New York, where I was interviewed by a junior staffer with dark eyeliner and a Mary Quant haircut. None of what I said appeared in the sidebar about me. Mortifyingly, it quoted my mother’s boast that I “talked at the age of nine months, sang in seven languages at a year and a half and at three composed…shapely little narratives.” Thank goodness no one at the Journal knew that my mother had edited the story with a red pen (and my father, a professor, passing further judgments from the wings). I felt like her project, not a literary star in the making. Although the story was later cited in an annual compilation of the year’s best short fiction (1965, in case you’re wondering), I did my best to put it behind me.

As for Dayle, she never forgot “Paper Flowers.” She kept the tattered magazine for years. After it went missing, she tracked me down online and asked if I could help her find a copy. I know how it feels to search for a lost book that cries out to be read again, so I was touched by Dayle’s enduring affection for my story.

I have a single woebegone copy of the magazine—cover falling off, pages yellowed—and the pages are too big to photocopy. I’m looking at it now. What a period piece! The top coverlines read “What Americans Expect from Robert Kennedy” and “The Neglected Wife: Big Trouble for the Busy Husband.” The model wears an updo, oven mitts and a floor-length apron emblazoned with theJournal‘s motto: “Never underestimate the power of a woman.” Inside there’s an ad with the headline: Dear Betty Crocker, I’ve been married a year. Jim hasn’t said a word about my cooking since the first week. I’m worried.”

This morning I reread “Paper Flowers.” Then I typed out the entire story so that Dayle could read it here. In my haste, I made so many errors that I had to retype not just words but whole lines. I felt my way back to the story with my fingers because that was the only way to share it with Dayle. It became, in effect a new story.

In 1965, I had identified with the narrator, Ellen, who becomes disenchanted with free-spirited, large-living Judy. As edited by my parents, Ellen’s refusal to follow her friend down the path of rebellion becomes full-blown contempt. I did not write a disdainful throwaway line about Judy’s dirty hair; that was one of the parental edits. Even then it struck me as a false note. But my parents were a formidable pair, and they wore me down.

Something similar happens to Ellen, I now realize. The real drama of the story is not that Ellen outgrows Judy, but that she allows her parents—particularly her mother—to sabotage and ultimately destroy the friendship. Ellen does no growing: instead she retreats from Judy’s forthright and courageous attempt to rekindle the friendship.

This is not a theme I could have faced at the time. I defined myself as an iconoclast with a tiny coterie of like-minded friends, when in fact I could be cowed by parental judgments. Although Judy and Ellen are fictional characters, they embody the conflict I often felt between the my inner risk taker and the well-behaved intellectual my mother wanted me to be. Like many repressed kids, I felt drawn to daring friends. Like many parents, mine didn’t trust those people.

But enough about my interpretation of the story. Dayle has just reread it and weighed in with the first posted comment. She remembers passing “Paper Flowers” back and forth with her friend Marie, “spending long hours on the phone speculating about whether or not Ellen sold out and what happened to Judy. We vowed it would never happen to us.”


Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

Dayle Dickinson
October 08, 2009 at 5:05PM

That conflict between your “inner risk taker and well-behaved intellectual” is one I totally identify with. Marie and I passed “Paper Flowers” back and forth to each other, I think, to give us courage so that we would be brave enough to do the exciting things we yearned to experience. We didn’t want to be Ellen but we were a bit afraid to be Judy.

I’m so glad that Judy’s dirty hair wasn’t your idea!

Thank you for bringing this story back to me. I wish Marie were here to share it with.

October 09, 2009 at 5:05AM

Ms. Maynard,
What an awesome piece! I can actually close my eyes and visualize the two girls as if they were real and right here in front of me. Even at 15 you had the gift for telling stories, even though you parents had their input, your inner voice still clearly shines through. The 1960s suddenly return to life here with a resonance and clairity that survivors from that era can readily and wholeheartedly embrace.

Rona Maynard
October 11, 2009 at 6:06 AM

Thank you, Lynne. We were so lucky to be young in the 60s!

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