Marjorie Scribner: A Little Bit Adventurous

Marjorie Scribner was a woman of extraordinary eloquence and vitality who worked for good causes throughout her life. She visited our classroom at Dunn Middle School on January 17, 2003 escorted by her grandson Jacob Grant, and her warmth and personality are evident in the words that follow. She died a few years later, in 2009, at the age of 101. Her zest for life was inspiring.

I was born Marjorie Pérez on December 5, 1908. I think the only Pérez in the Manhattan phone book at that time was my father’s office and a cousin. My children’s last name is Grant, and my last name now is Scribner.

I’m 94 years old, and probably more changes have happened in this past century than in twice the time before. So many things we take for granted have only recently happened, and a lot of it was with no fanfare, no excitement, so you probably don’t remember that it was ever different. And there have been two horrible world wars in my lifetime.

World War I, which began in 1914, was supposed to be the war to end all wars. I was aware of it. I was a small child, but we were living up in Alberta, Canada, a part of the British Empire, and the war was dramatic. Some people viewed it in a romantic way, and I’m sorry to admit that I did, too. There were a lot of Scottish people in Alberta, and there was a regiment of Scots there, and they had bagpipes. I was about five years old, and I thought it was wonderful! I’m ashamed to say that I would pray that the war would last long enough for me to grow up and be in it.

I think people now have a much better idea of what war is like, and in spite of President Bush, I think and I hope we’re not going to war. I’m told there’s a big demonstration in Santa Barbara this weekend. They’ve already had one, and that’s a good sign. People are much more realistic.

A lot of the changes that I’ve seen were important things like airplanes. I can remember when a plane flew over, you’d hear it and you’d run out, and you’d look up because it was so exciting to see.

You never used to be able to go to Europe so easily, or even places closer, because you couldn’t go long-distance flying. If you wanted to go to Europe, you’d go on a boat. It would take five or six days on a fast ship, or longer. And it was very nice, but you couldn’t do a lot of the things you do now. The map was very different, too. European countries still had their colonies. There weren’t so many small independent countries as there are now.

And a lot of the things aren’t world-shaking but they really changed our lives. For example, cars are much more common, they go much faster, and many people have them. And the basic mechanics of living are much easier. When I first got married, we would have tea for breakfast because I didn’t know how to make coffee, and there was no such thing as instant coffee. That came later. And all the frozen food, all prepared! You didn’t have that. Or the canned things, which aren’t nearly as tasty or good…

Simple things – movies, for instance, didn’t have sound, and you’d have a piano player in the theater playing an accompaniment to the movie, whatever he or she thought would set the mood.

And telephones. The family would have a telephone, maybe even two, one upstairs and one downstairs. But you never took for granted that you could talk to people who were awhile away! My mother was a Californian and my father was a New Yorker, and when I was a child, we’d come out to California and spend Christmas with my grandmother. And they were all together one evening, family and friends, and I was in bed asleep because it was late when the phone rang, and they woke me up because somebody from New York had called on the telephone. This was such a world-shattering event! It’s just as if somebody called you from Mars!

Christmas. We had candles on our tree and little cups that would hold a tiny candle and you bought lots of candles in all different colors and you clipped these onto the branches of the tree. You kept a bucket of water handy, although I never heard of a tree burning from the candles. But every Christmas there would be some fire from an electrical blow-up!

I always liked to read, and I read a lot, but I don’t think I had a favorite book. I must tell you one book I thought was wonderful when I was little: Black Beauty. But I read it again just a few years ago and I never read a duller book! When you read it as a child, your receptivity is exactly right for it, but when I read it the second time, I’d read too many other books, spent too much time thinking about horses.

We didn’t have games like you have now, but we had one game that had a board and you could manipulate the players with rods so it really did take some skill and some practice. We had to make more effort, I think, than you do now. And we did try.

When the Depression came in 1929, it was a dreadful, dreadful thing. You didn’t have what you have now, unemployment insurance and the safety nets you now have. It had been a very prosperous economy, and suddenly it wasn’t there anymore. Hoover was president and he didn’t do anything to make it easier for people, but Roosevelt was elected, and he instituted a lot of reforms. You got things like unemployment insurance, and life became much easier. Little things you could see. Changes.

But there was also big opposition to Roosevelt as president. There were some people so opposed to him and what he was doing that they’d blame him for everything.

Some of the things that Roosevelt instituted were also communist ideals, but he was never a communist. There was never any thought of a communist government in this country. But because there had been no support from the government in the Hoover administration, a lot of young people became communists. A lot of them left the party when it became so oppressive, but a friend of mine went to jail because he would not inform on a friend of his who was a communist. The government wanted his name and would possibly have prosecuted him, so my friend went to jail, but he didn’t join the communist party. I might have joined the communist party myself because of some of the ideals, but I never wanted to be part of any party as repressive as the communist party.

During this period the Fascists rose to power in Italy and Hitler rose in Germany, and I think when World War II finally came about, there was no doubt that this was a war that had to be fought. Hitler was so horrendous, and the Holocaust was worse than anybody could have imagined. But after the war was over, there was a time of relative peace, and now I’m afraid we’re coming out of the wrong side again.

I certainly hope we don’t go to war. Violence just breeds violence. A diplomatic solution takes more thinking, more doing, more planning, but then it’s over and you don’t have thousands of people dead and an even worse situation than you started with, because revenge is a terrible emotion. It doesn’t lead to any good thing.

President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a woman with a wonderful social conscience. She herself made many changes, and I admired her from afar. She worked for women’s rights and humanity. She had many admirers and was very charismatic.

I had a chance to get to know her a little bit one time, when I lived north of New York City, in Westchester County. It’s a prosperous county with a lot of different communities in it. The Red Cross was very active in the war years, and there was a Junior Red Cross in the high schools. I was the chairman of the Westchester County Junior Red Cross. We were going to have a seminar one weekend at Vassar College. Their alumni house had meeting rooms as well as rooms where students could live for a few days. And we had the idea of asking Mrs. Roosevelt if she would come and be the chairman of this event. We didn’t know her. We just called. But she couldn’t have been more gracious. Yes, she would come up there. And she did.

And then came the day that she was going to speak to the students. There they all were, several hundred in a large room. She said she was slightly hard of hearing, so when a student spoke, she would walk down the aisle to wherever this student was and make sure that she understood everything that was said. She was just so outgoing and so wonderful! She was very, very good with all of the students, and later, she said she loved it.

I became an editor at Reader’s Digest and their office was north of New York City in a country environment, very pleasant. But I like the city! When I got old like this, I liked New York City because it’s very easy to get around in. There’s good public transportation, and it’s laid out in grid patterns so you don’t get lost. And there’s so much to do. Wonderful museums. The Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art – both are world-class museums. And the New York Public Library! If any of you have been to New York, it’s a great big building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue and it has wonderful collections and exhibitions. I was a volunteer and docent there.

There’s a beautiful park, Central Park, in the center of the city, and a number of small parks…and you can walk. Sidewalks are a great invention! Right now, New York has the lowest crime rate of any large city. There was a time when people were afraid to go out at night, but you don’t have to be. Better to be a little bit adventurous.

I volunteered at a shelter in the church – St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. I didn’t know it would be so rewarding! There were so many different kinds of people. They didn’t just come off the street; they were screened. But all kinds. There’s some people who are chronically homeless, people who for one reason or other can’t hold a job, but so often, it’s just people who are down on their luck.

There was a French couple in the shelter. The husband had gotten an eye infection, and they’d gone to a hospital and he was given some medicine that was too strong, or a prescription that was mis-filled, and he became totally blind. They both had worked. He was a chef and she worked as a waitress in the same restaurant, but now she had to take care of her husband and couldn’t do anything. They lost their apartment and were totally helpless.

Some people who came to the shelter even had jobs, but to get an apartment you need first month’s rent and usually next month’s rent as security and it’s very hard if you have a minimum level job to accumulate any money. One man had a job working for a tailor and he came one night with a wonderful box of chocolate-covered strawberries to bring to the shelter. You just live from day to day, and so we’d have people in the shelter you wouldn’t expect. We’d give them coffee and something to eat before they went to bed…wonderful people.

I broke my leg when I was out here, about four years ago. And when I got back to New York, I would go to a museum and get a wheelchair and wheel myself around or push it and sit down when I needed to, and I miss that kind of thing here.

But I love being here now and if I were in New York, I probably wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things. This is a beautiful valley, and I love the mountains and I must say that I don’t mind the climate. I miss New York. I miss the city, and I miss my friends. But this is the next best place.

I have three children. Jacob’s father is the youngest. My daughter Jennifer is the oldest. I thought it would be nice to have twins, but that didn’t happen. Her brother Jeffrey is just thirteen months younger. This was the beginning of the war and Hitler of course was frightening, and I thought a child shouldn’t grow up alone ’cause your parents are going to die eventually and you need someone of your own generation who is close to you. It’s insurance for a good life. So I had Jennifer and Jeffrey and I thought two children, a boy and a girl, was just right. But when they got older they began to think it would be nice to have a baby, and they finally persuaded their father, and then they all persuaded me. So I thought we’d have a very tender scene when I told them we were going to have a baby. And when they were getting ready for bed one night, I told them we were going to have a baby, and they exchanged glances, and Jennifer said, “Mom, we’d rather have a mouse.” They’d been reading Stuart Little for a bedtime story. So here was my little announcement deflated. I said, “You may have a brother. You may have a sister. You will not have a mouse.” And he didn’t turn out to be a mouse. He was Philip, Jacob’s father.

My birthday this year was wonderful because Philip and his wife Cassandra gave me a glider ride as a present. It was a small glider. I was in the front and the pilot behind me. We took off from a field close to the airport, but not the airport, so it was just us. It was very nice. The plane went up over the Valley, but high enough that I could see the ocean, and looking down was like looking at a map. Anytime we had driven we’d always go a different way, so I never could sort it all out, Solvang, Los Olivos, one from the other, but looking down from a glider, going more slowly than a plane, was like looking at a map. You could see the relationship of one community to another.

For my next birthday, I’d like to go up in a glider again. I like the feeling of going along with quiet, and when you’re cut loose from the engine, the only sound is the sound of the wind.

There are so many things I’d still like to do but I can’t now…

They say if you see a shooting star and wish on it, your wish will come true. If you see the star for just an instant, and you can think of what you want in that instant, if it’s at the top of your mind and it’s something you’re really working towards, I believe it. If you choose what you want to do and then really work for it, it will happen.

In some cases things look worse today, but as long as people are concerned about them, they’re gonna get better. I think people are more involved in some ways than they were a couple of generations ago. There are human rights organizations like Amnesty International. And there are various organizations working to preserve the planet, not destroy the environment. I’m opposed to President Bush because he doesn’t seem to care very much about this.

The Civil Rights Movement? Yes. I remember. There used to be lynchings. There used to be absolutely no chance for a black person to achieve what a white person could. And while I think it may still be harder for a black person, it’s not all impossible. In fact, sometimes the black person gets chosen for visibility. But the Civil Rights Movement had some terribly sad moments, like the Birmingham little girls, and the Till murder. I think people are more aware than they were a couple of generations ago.

And you organize small groups. That’s how it starts. Just two people. One person speaking out, and there you have it.

But people are good. You know, it’s that old story. Dog bites man doesn’t make headlines. Man bites dog would. Because how often does that happen? There are far more good people in the world than bad. We have to seek them out.

And there are so many different things you can do. It’s an interesting time for anyone to be alive because there are more choices. That makes it difficult sometimes, but easy has never been the best.

Just be open to everything. Don’t be afraid to try anything. When I went up on the glider ride, I was thrilled, and people said to me, “Aren’t you afraid?” Why would I be afraid? A big truck is much more dangerous.

So embrace the new. You don’t have any choice, actually.

2 Responses to Marjorie Scribner: A Little Bit Adventurous

  1. Jenifer Grant Marx says:

    Thanks again for this. I really miss my mother.
    She was an amazing woman with such a heart
    for humanity combined with an innate sensitivity
    to form.


  2. Elspeth Ingram says:

    We should all write down our memories for our kids and others. Her memories of the candles on the Christmas tree, the Till murder, the importance of a phone call – all very much a life becoming forgotten. I remember when my Grandmother would call from Scotland. We had to talk one at a time and wait for a brief lapse of time. If we spoke simultaneously you couldn’t hear.

    I regret not having my mother’s sweet voice recorded. Or Dad’s. I can hear her but my children can’t.


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