Who's Your Mary?

February 3, 2015 at 11:30 AM

"No More Need for Flowers"
Hannah Leffingwell '15 tells us about her "Mary"

When I was a child, my grandmother liked to sit me down and tell me her favorite joke. “Have you heard of the Great Depression?” she would ask. I would nod my head. “Well,” she would say, “there was nothing great about it!”

Indeed, for my grandmother and her family, the Great Depression was a time of extreme hardship. At the age of seven, my grandmother’s family abandoned their farm in Oregon, unable to stay afloat in the wake of the economic crash of 1929. Unlike most farmers, who fled west to California, my grandmother’s family fled east, eventually landing in the small town of Brighton, Colorado.

Anna May LeffingwellAlong the way, my grandmother and her sisters scavenged for tissue paper in the trashcans of the towns they passed through, using what they could find to make paper flowers, which they sold along the way to pay for food. It was autumn when my grandmother’s family embarked on their journey, a time when the children would usually be starting school. While my grandmother’s siblings accepted the impossibility of continuing their education on the road, my grandmother refused. In every town where the family stayed, she would find the nearest school house, and ask the teacher if she could attend classes. If the teacher said no, my grandmother would stubbornly sit in the back of the room, a silent but attentive participant in that day’s lesson.

For my grandmother, education was never a given. She fought just as hard for her education at the age of seven as she did at the age of sixty when, after raising four children, she pursued a college education. After receiving her degree in political science, she sold her house and ran for governor of Colorado. At the family cabin where she lived during her campaign, I can still find pencils in the old desk, reading “Anna May Leffingwell for governor 1978.”

In fighting for her own education, Anna May Leffingwell fought for mine. She may not have made it to Harvard or the governor’s mansion, but she was a woman unafraid to dream big, and it was these dreams that allowed to her raise herself up from poverty and create a better life for herself and her children.

No photographs exist from my grandmother’s childhood, but I have a clear image in my mind of a young Anna May, sitting on the back of an old flat-bed truck, holding a bouquet of paper flowers in her arms as her family drives down a long dusty road. It may seem impossible to establish a thread of continuity between that young girl and myself, and yet it is in this image, more than any other, that I see myself in my grandmother.

As a writer, I suppose my purpose is not so very different from the young Anna May’s. I scavenge for the leftover pieces of other people’s stories, and pull them together—like those disparate shreds of tissue paper—in the hopes of creating something beautiful, even when the world thinks there is no more need for flowers.

Who's your Mary?



Hannah Leffingwell '15

Written by Hannah Leffingwell '15

Hannah Leffingwell is a graduate student at the Institute of French Studies at NYU, where she will be pursuing her PhD in French Studies and History beginning next fall. She is a writer, translator, cook, seamstress, outspoken feminist, and proud alum of the class of 2015.