In the autumn of 1940, Rose Wilder Lane and her young friends, Norma Lee Browning and Norma Lee’s husband, Russell Ogg, took a long driving trip across the United States, towing a small travel trailer. They had reached Texas when Russell fell ill, and he and Norma Lee returned to Missouri to seek medical help. Rose stayed with their trailer in McAllen for three months, working on The Discovery of Freedom. During her stay, she came to love the balmy winter climate, the flowers and birds, and the generous, warmhearted people of the Rio Grande Valley.
Rose had settled in Danbury CT in 1938. But over the years, she occasionally visited South Texas. She visited again in late January and early February of 1965, and in April, she bought a house at 435 Woodland, in a quiet residential section of Harlingen TX. At the time, Harlingen was a town of about 38,00 people, located thirty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. She was delighted by her new surroundings. To a friend, she wrote:
The odd thing here is that oleanders, poinsettias, gardenias, bougainvillea, and all sorts of exotic annuals (growing wild as weeds) are disregarded as commonplace, while the prized things are geraniums, chrysanthemums and roses. And ordinary white daisies, of all things. A neighbor has a bed of those and the whole neighborhood is waiting eagerly to see them bloom. She had an orchid tree in full bloom which excites no second glances.
As Rose was getting settled into her new house, she was welcomed by her new next-door neighbor, Frances Giffen. Over the next three years, the Giffens, their son Don, and daughter Carol, became her friends. Rose took a great pleasure in the small community of Woodland Drive.
After the publication of A Wilder Rose, Mrs. Giffen’s daughter, Carol Giffen Mayfield, wrote to me to say that she enjoyed the book and felt that the Rose of my fiction was very like the real Rose whom she and her family had known. Carol’s note opened a series of email conversations about her family and Rose and their time together. It led to this email conversation, which Carol and I conducted over virtual cups of tea, poured from Rose’s very own lovely teapot (photo above). Rose gave the teapot to Carol’s mother, Carol gave it to me, and I treasure it.
Carol, I’m so glad to be able to talk, at last, with someone who actually knew Rose. How did you meet her? What were your first impressions of her?
When Rose bought a house in my parents' neighborhood, my mother, Frances Giffen, welcomed her—with a cake, more than likely. Apparently, that was exactly the right thing to do if one wanted to please Rose and get to know her. My mother didn't have an ulterior motive, however—she was always gracious and loving.
Mother had told me what a fascinating person Rose was, so when I met her, I was prepared for someone unusual. It didn't take long to realize Rose, as the cliché goes, did not suffer fools gladly. She intimidated me to a certain extent with her knowledge and intelligence, and that impression never left me. She was never at a loss for words.
How would you describe her?
Physically, Rose was not more than five feet tall, maybe shorter. Her white hair was long and swept up, more to get it out of the way rather than to look stylish. The minute she spoke, she became ageless and captivating, and her very beautiful blue eyes bored into the person to whom she was speaking.
When you knew her, did she spend only winters in Harlingen, or was she there in the summer, too?
I know that Rose was in Harlingen during some of those summers, because I recall that my mother made several cool, loose dresses for her—voile, perhaps. She really didn't have anything in her wardrobe to adapt to our intense heat.
What did she enjoy doing when she was there?
Rose loved her garden and did a great deal of reading. She had two Maltese, Pepe and Pepe's brother (she never gave him a name). After she died, they spent the remainder of their lives with my parents. Pepe's brother became Brother and outlived Pepe.
Do you recall any stories or anecdotes she liked to tell? She lived in so many different places—did she tell stories about them?
My parents gave dinner parties to introduce Rose to various people in Harlingen. She would always be seated at the head of the table and would hold forth in the most beguiling way. Someone would ask her a question and that would begin a sort of question and answer period. I never heard her repeat herself as she divulged layer after layer of her countless adventures. What has stayed with me is the fact she taught herself to read at an extremely young age, three, perhaps. She didn't say it in so many words, but I know that making enough money to survive was of great importance, and she was so intelligent that she found many ways to support herself. But she always passed off her accomplishments in a very modest way, like, oh, anyone could do that. For a brief time, she had been impressed by communism, but she quickly realized the awful truth of it and became very alarmed at the idea that it was spreading. Someone important—I don't remember who—had told her that "they" (the Communists) are moving east and east and east and will get us one day. She said with such intensity that it frightened me.
Rose asked your brother, Don Giffen, to accompany her on the trip she planned in the last year of her life. Can you tell us about that?
Don knew Rose Lane much better than I did. They connected in such a way that she realized he would be the right person to accompany her on one last Grand Tour of Europe, to handle luggage, make arrangements, and drive the car. [She had purchased a Volvo , planning to take delivery in Sweden.] She asked Don to pose as her grandson to avoid questions as to why an elderly lady would be in the company of a very young man. (He was just 23). Sadly, Rose died when they reached Connecticut [October 30, 1968] and they never made the excursion together. Rose, however, being very wise and always thinking ahead, had made a codicil to her will, setting aside the necessary funds for Don to take the trip on his own. He did, about six months later. He was gone for the better part of a year and had a fabulous time.
By the time you knew Rose (1965-1968), her parents had been dead for a number of years. (Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1957, Almanzo in 1949.) Did you gain any impression about her relationship with her parents? Did she ever talk about her life in Missouri, either as a child or an adult?
I never heard her talk about Missouri or her life there. Don told me that she did not have a very satisfactory relationship with her parents. She felt that they had each other and she was sort of in the way. Only once did she talk about the Little House books. She had urged her mother to write down the stories Rose had heard when she was a child. They were not written in the way Rose thought they should be. Rose told her mother to try again and be . . . She used one perfect word, but I simply cannot remember it.
Oh, dear! When you do remember that “one perfect word,” please tell us what it was! But I’m sure you remember other things about her. What lingers most often in your mind?
Rose takes first prize in the category, Most Interesting People I've Known, and I will always feel very grateful that I met her. What lingers is her wonderful way of expressing herself. And those eyes—and vocabulary. Sometime after her death, I saw an interview with the film director, Alfred Hitchcock. To my mind, he was the masculine version of Rose—with an English accent. He had her droll delivery and her expressive eyes. The next day, I telephoned my mother and asked her if she had seen the Hitchcock interview the night before. Without being prompted, she said, Rose Lane!
In 1965, Rose traveled to Viet Nam, on assignment for the magazine Women’s Day. There, she met a young Vietnamese woman named Phan. Did you meet her?
Mother had a party for Phan and I met her then. She was shy and retiring, English certainly not being her first language. She had a lovely slim figure and was wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress. Later (Rose may have prompted her) she wrote a charming thank-you letter to my mother. She meant to say that the party would always leave her with wonderful memories, but she used the word “souvenirs” instead. I've always just loved that.
In September, 1967, Rose wrote to her friend Jasper Crane, saying that her house had escaped damage during Hurricane Beulah. For her, it was a “unique and marvelous experience which I wouldn’t have missed.” Do you remember that storm?
Oh, Susan, do I ever remember Hurricane Beulah! My husband and I were living in Brownsville at the time. Our mothers had both lived through the Storm of '33 when it hit the Valley. (The hurricanes weren't named at that time.) We heard countless stories about that hurricane so when Beulah arrived, we were quite determined to "weather the storm." It came at night and was very scary and thrilling at the same time. At times, it sounded like a train was moving through the house. Harlingen is farther inland than Brownsville, so they got the storm during the day. Thinking about this, I can't imagine my parents would have let Rose stay alone during the storm. She may have stayed with them. The damage was mainly to trees and power lines, and there was no electricity for at least a week. The novelty wore off quickly.
Carol, thanks so much for giving us this special personal insight into the personality of a very special person. I know that I speak for the readers of A Wilder Rose when I say thank you, thank you!
Everyone: be sure and watch for the reprint edition of A Wilder Rose, coming from Lake Union Publishing in 2015. I'm excited about introducing Rose to a wider audience!
Reading note. Happiness is something that comes into our lives through doors we don't remember leaving open.--Rose Wilder Lane