Dreaming of Returning to France

Posted on July 1, 2011

Five years ago, I took my first and only trip out of the United States, spending 10 days in France on a trip with my AP French class. Before splitting off into the suburban homes of our host families, we visited Paris and parts of the Loire Valley, where we toured numerous castles, cathedrals, and historic towns. Since then, I have often dreamed of returning to France and seeing other European countries for the first time. What a treat it was, then, to process the MurielMcCormick Papers this semester.

Like many other American women during World War II, Muriel McCormick found that serving her country also enabled her to experience new levels of freedom and independence. The collection includes several diaries that follow her time as a high school student in Stamford, Connecticut, a young adult working in Washington, D.C., a staff member of the United States embassy in Paris, and then as a newlywed woman back in the U.S. The diaries have the ability to resonate with modern audiences in large part because they capture many of the timeless joys and frustrations of going to school, dating, working, living away from home, and just growing up. On the other hand, they also provide a window into the historic era of WWII, a period that differed greatly from the world young adults know today.

The bulk of the collection, though, consists of hundreds of photographs that Miss McCormick took and collected throughout the 1940s. Most of them trace her time working for the U.S. Department of State in Paris from 1945-1946. While based there, she traveled all around France and Western Europe. Looking through the photographs was like taking a virtual tour of Belgium, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Italy, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and many more. However, the best part was seeing pictures she took at various tourist locations in Paris and the château region, imagining that she and I shared some of the same experiences but just 60 years apart.

On October 18, 1946, having turned in her resignation to the U.S. embassy in order to return home to marry her fiancé, Muriel wonders to her diary if it is "the last working day of my life." The line succinctly and effectively reminds readers how the boundaries pushed by World War II were, in many ways, intended only to be temporary changes. Without the war, Miss McCormick might never have lived in D.C. or traveled to Europe on her own as an unmarried woman. Still, she does not hesitate to end this chapter of her life, nervous but also excited about life as a stay-at-home wife and mother. Studying history has taught me just how often adversity and hope coexist in a way that credits the purity of the human spirit. Although working at the Special Collections Research Center this year has not convinced me to become an archivist, I have certainly come to appreciate what they do even more. It is because of the work done here that researchers have access to rich collections like the Muriel McCormick Papers.

Leigh Soares is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2010-2011 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.