Marie Kulisich and Alice Mae West were born three months apart in 1930, and each lived on her family's ranch in Govert Township. When the time came for the two little girls to start school, each walked through the door of the one room Govert country schoolhouse and, during the years that followed, each little girl eagerly applied herself to her studies. They both liked school, Marie and Alice Mae.
In their claim to Govert and to the country school, they were the same, but all their teachers could see the difference between the two little girls. For one, Marie was a tomboy. When she wasn't in school, Marie played with the goats and the bum lambs on the Kulisich ranch and she wandered the prairie barefoot upturning rocks to see what would wiggle out from the spit of moisture beneath. Alice Mae was as much girl as rugged prairie life would allow. At the West house, a doll could be found, and Alice Mae would play as little girls are known to play.
As different as the two girls might have seemed to some adults, they were best friends in a country school where Marie and Alice Mae were the entire first grade. When they last saw each other after finishing the 6th grade in Govert School, they had no way of knowing that more than 70 years would pass before they would see each other again. But that is putting the cart in front of the horse. That is where we should end, not begin.
When Marie and Alice Mae started the first grade in 1936 at the country school in Govert, South Dakota, they were already familiar with the school building. The Govert school was the only public building in the township other than the Govert Store, which was also the post office. Alice Mae's big sister, Evaline (who would play Meg in our version of Little Women), attended Govert School. Alice Mae's brothers had gone to school here. So had Marie's brothers and sister. The Govert School is where the two little girls went to church when a preacher was available and, from this place after a community social event, they would ride home across the prairie tucked under a warm blanket in the bed of a wagon in the earliest, darkest morning hours.
Like the March sisters, the two little girls were poor, Marie and Alice Mae. Louisa May Alcott would call theirs a genteel poverty. Their families experienced no poverty of spirit, nor did they lack in self-determination, or pride in the labor of their own hands. Still, they were as poor as the school. The school board could never give Govert School new books to start a school year; all the schoolbooks were well-thumbed by other students. Likewise, Marie and Alice Mae never had new clothes to wear the first day of school in the fall.
The two little girls didn't know they were poor. They were born into the Depression, and this modest prairie life was all they knew. Besides, pretty much everyone out there in the North Country was a church mouse. Marie and Alice Mae went to school, did their chores, played games, went on picnics ... and always looked forward to the P.T.A. meetings which offered entertainment so wonderful that the two little girls might squeal anticipating the fun they would have. Oftentimes, they themselves supplied the entertainment with a song or a dance they learned at school. The March sisters would agree with Marie and Alice Mae that being poor didn't seem like such a bad thing when you were loved and having fun.
You never did see two little girls who liked school as much, whether they were tending to their lessons, heads together, or whether they were running lickety split across the schoolyard during recess. The seven children attending Govert School in 1939 would rather have been playing pump-pump-pullaway at recess, but they stood quietly enough, for long enough, that a photographer managed to capture their picture. In the back row, left to right are Billy Lale, Alice Mae West, Evaline West, and Marie Kulisich. In the front row are Edwin Springer, Sonny Springer, and Mercedes Hafner.
Fifteen minutes for recess! Playing tag in a dress was not the easiest thing, but all the girls wore dresses to school in the 1930s and for decades after, tomboy or not. What amazing talent it took for their mothers to sew such style into a dress cut from another dress worn by an older sister, a favorite auntie, or one of mother's old dresses, or made from flour sacks ... such pretty collars and puffed sleeves, and nice lines. Mom probably wasn't happy to see the dirty knees and soiled dresses when Marie and Alice Mae came home after school, but what is a little girl to do at recess but to risk getting dirty? And did a little girl really care at the moment she tore across the schoolyard and slid on her side through the prairie dirt? For sure, Louise West and Nikla Kulisich washed a lot of soiled dresses during the school year ... without electricity, without plumbing.
After an energy-taming recess, Marie and Alice Mae were ready for two more hours of quietly sitting in desks lined up facing the teacher, studying math and spelling and reading. Marie and Alice Mae memorized phonetics from a flip chart, and quizzed each other on spelling words. Then, when Marie went back to school in the fall of 1942, she no longer had Alice Mae to run her through spelling drills. That summer was the last time the two little snowflakes saw each other for years and years to come. They would both have hair the color of snow before they shared the same room again.
Alice Mae started the 7th grade in Newell, South Dakota, about 50 miles south of Govert School. Marie moved with her parents to Newell for high school but, by that time, Alice Mae and her family had moved on to Plainview Academy in Redfield, South Dakota, where Alice Mae went to high school. Alice Mae grew up, went to college, became a teacher and a social worker; she married and raised two children, a son and a daughter. Marie married and raised two sons, and became an artist working in ceramics, glass, porcelain, textiles, and even words. Marie created art in her garden, too. Be patient for a little longer and I will show you Marie's Monet.
Marie and Alice Mae wrote letters over the years, but something more than 70 years passed before they were to meet again. On 16 August 2013, Alice Mae and Marie had a reunion in the Black Hills. This is how Marie remembers the day:
I'm grateful for this joy
that came to me today
Alice Mae and I
are 83 years young!
How many times
can we start a story at six
and continue it for 70 years
with such love and affection?
I wasn't there, and neither were you, but this picture allows us to "remember" the day, too. Even though Alice Mae (left) and Marie are standing in Marie's garden, an artistic masterpiece fit for Monet ... and even though the day is warm ... remember these women, once school chums as girls ... remember them as snowflakes, each unique in her own beauty.
That was a good week for Marie, because a few days earlier Marie also had a reunion with Alice Mae's older sister, Evaline West. After leaving Govert and finishing her studies, Evaline became a college dean, a professor and a counselor. All three women, Marie, Alice Mae and Evaline, can call this life that began in Govert, South Dakota, a good one. These are strong, talented women. Real women, honest, resourceful, hard-working, just like their parents who settled in Govert, South Dakota. They believe in God. They believe in family. They believe in community. The same is true for Evaline's and Alice Mae's little sister, Shirley Jean. None of them, not a single one of these four women, became a niminy piminy chit.
If you haven't read Little Women for a few years, you might have forgotten about niminy piminy chits. Don't have a copy of Little Women on your bookshelf? Can't get to the library today? You can read the book on-line or download the book right here: Little Women.
Perhaps Shirley Jean and Alice Mae can tell us who, between them, should be cast as Beth March and who will play Amy March.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
[Written with a tip of the hat to Louisa May Alcott, and with gratitude to Marie Kulisich and Alice Mae West for their memories. Pictures used with the permission of Alice Mae West.]