Tuesday, July 22, 1997
Is it too late to join club?

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The books were just an excuse. But it was a good one, and they used it for 65 years.

The Pro and Con Book Club started informally, as these things sometimes do. Elizabeth Greene, daughter of the manager of Thomas Emery's new Indian Hill estate, fell ill just after graduation from high school. "Tuberculosis, I think it was," says Edith Biery Seale.

Mrs. Seale was one of many schoolmates who went to the Peterloon farmhouse to visit her stricken friend. The young girls took books. And they talked. Elizabeth's mother, Joy Greene, told them they were a book club, gave them a name and a regular meeting date.

Hidden agenda?

"She was a lovely woman, Mrs. Greene." This information comes from Amie Greene, a daughter-in-law, so I think we can depend on it as truth.

And it appears that this lovely woman figured out a way to keep these schoolgirls gathered around her housebound daughter with the subtle nudge of a monthly meeting date. Furthermore, she engineered a plan that elevated the visits from dutiful sickroom house calls to lively literary discussions. Her daughter was a member, not an invalid.

A mother's masterstroke.

When Elizabeth died in 1934, the club continued. By then, there were about a dozen members, including another Greene daughter-in-law, Ettamae Waggal. "After the book report, we'd talk about everything else - boyfriends, husbands and anybody who wasn't there."

She says with four kids to chase she "had no business being in a book club." Sometimes she didn't have time to read the book. "But, of course, I went anyway and confessed." Of course she did.

By now this book club is beginning to sound familiar.

The women's club

Some of them were card clubs, where women pretended to play bridge while they gave each other advice on children with croup and husbands with cholesterol. Others were garden clubs, where they planted apple trees and beautified boulevards while exchanging maternity clothes and recipes.

Their lives revolved around their families and their homes, but "club" was a regular respite from pabulum and furniture polish. During the war years, they counted ration stamps for luncheons and desserts. But they continued to meet. And talk. And listen.

This month, seven members of the Pro and Con Book Club assembled to commemorate its founding. "Maybe this will be the last meeting," says Edith's daughter, Becky Wagner, who arranged the luncheon at her Fort Thomas home.

They bring pictures and mementoes. Lillian Parker has saved the little program booklets and the official history, written 25 years ago. "At one meeting, a Western novel was being reviewed," it reads. "Members came in sun bonnets and aprons and brought in chuck wagon type food." They met in a century-old house in Montgomery, which was razed to make room for Interstate 71.

There have been hundreds of books read, dozens of children reared, decades of weddings and funerals and graduations. As they grew older and eyesight dimmed, they went from evening meetings to daytime, from once-a-month to once-in-a-while to hardly ever.

They laugh. They nudge each other. They roll their eyes and use the exquisite conversational shorthand earned by years of history. They remind each other of the past, sometimes interrupting gently to correct a name, clarify a relationship. One in a wheelchair. One whose hands tremble. One who loses, occasionally, the thread of conversation.

They are, quite simply, old friends. And I can't help feeling a twinge of envy, wondering if women in my generation and the next - who are networking like banshees and getting child-rearing tips from the au pair and recipes from Martha Stewart - will ever know how it feels to be one of these women.

Their discussion is lively and intimate and funny and dear. But it is not literary, at least while I am listening. So, I don't know if they really love books. But I know that they love each other.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE