THE FORTNIGHTLY CLUB BY DENE HELLMAN

It has been years since I heard someone use the word “fortnight” to describe a time period of two weeks. One might run across it in period literature, of course, but the last time it was in common use was likely in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, forty years ago I belonged to an organization of great dignity and vast erudition that was called “The Fortnightly Club.”

The club was many, many decades old and it had its roots in a Wisconsin town of perhaps 8,000 residents who were interested in any number of things but, largely, not in probing into an array of esoteric subjects.

The members, perhaps two dozen or so, mostly couples, were in their sixties and seventies. The high school principal and his wife belonged and they were in their forties; a local attorney and his wife belonged and, possibly, they were still in their thirties. One of those two couples sponsored my husband and me for membership after sounding us out on whether or not we enjoyed discussions of ideas. When we said we did, we were put before the Fortnightly members as if being considered for a fraternal organization. We were subsequently invited to attend — based in part, I suspect, on a wish to acquire some younger blood.

The first meeting we attended was held at the home of a retired couple and we drove around for a long time before we found it tucked amid several acres of trees and rugged lanes. The hostess sat in a circle of chairs, calmly knitting. (Presumably, it was her husband who invited us in.) I sat beside her and, trying to make polite conversation, commented on the bucolic location of their home.

I haven’t forgotten her answer. It wouldn’t seem unusual these days, when many lucky older people are vigorous, involved, and altogether youthful beyond their years. But this was the early 1970s and most old people looked
and acted old. Anyway, my hostess looked over her knitting at me with aging eyes. Her furrowed skin crinkled at me.

“We are trading up in Jeeps,” she said.

The activity of the club was that, in turn, the members would each read a paper on a topic that was totally up to the person presenting it. The reading of a couple of dozen papers, even at the rate of one every fortnight, could take months and months but most of us hung in there, seldom missing a meeting. Many of the women had been housewives, not women with careers, and they were inclined to demure over researching, writing and reading a paper. Some of them, however, put together a fine piece and presented it well. The men were all pleaed to do papers but when they read them it was to members who had remained awake while their club fellows dozed off and had a good nap.

The time came when my husband and I had to do papers and he chose to do one on Chinese philosophy. Talk about a broad subject! Not a research and write kind of person, his technique consisted of taking some books out of the library, reading excerpts that interested him and sticking bookmarks into those pages, then handing me the stack of books saying, “Type this up for me, will you?”

Appalled, I wrote “So and so says” at the beginning of each paragraph and worried that my husband would be excommunicated for plagiarism. Not to worry. He had a charming European accent and read the paper very well as the club members largely dozed off. When the meeting ended, he was graciously complimented many times.

When it was my turn, I decided to go for laughs and chose “graffiti” as my topic, beginning with the handwriting on the wall of Old Testament fame and ending with a selection of clever quips from New York and California public bathroom walls. It involved a fair amount of research and, when I read my paper, it was to a group that largely stayed awake — more in shock than interest. (We had just come out of the Sixties and were barely into the Seventies and some of those comments reflected a certain amount of New Think.) I don’t recall getting many compliments, a fine learning experience with regard to knowing one’s audience.

We had to move on in a couple of years, leaving the Fortnightly Club behind.
As I think about it these days, I find myself wishing I’d made an effort to find out who those people were and how their lives had been lived. I’d like the opportunity to walk through the room, shaking hands and appreciating the stories I heard. One man, I clearly recall, designed cross word puzzles for “The New York Times. Now I can think of questions I’d like to ask him but at the time I’d never worked a puzzle and asked not a one. Only three Fortnightly members are still living, as far as I know — the high school principal and his wife and me. Probably the lawyer and his wife are another two but I don’t know where they moved after they left Wisconsin.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “THE FORTNIGHTLY CLUB BY DENE HELLMAN

  1. This is a delightful little piece, Deneioa; a wonderful remembrance.

  2. Thanks! Dredging up old stuff sometimes works.
    Dene

  3. I still say fortnight, and get blank looks from neighbors and friends. I have to remind myself to edit it out of my writing.

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