Our house in Vermont, my grandparents’ house that is, was full of books. Every room, every hallway, had its bookcase: a treasure trove.
The house burned down in 1975–I’ll get to that sad ending eventually–but before that tragedy befell, my grandparents had both died (peacefully, in extreme old age) and the books had been packed up and dispersed among the family. I got some, and still have a lot of those, except for one carton of my mother’s and aunts’ and uncle’s children’s books, circa 1919-1939, that was in the trunk of a Philadelphia boyfriend’s car (a lime-green ’71 Maverick) when it was stolen and whisked off to a chop shop somewhere in South Jersey.
I have sometimes mused on the thieves’ reactions when they opened the box to find a set of mixed Tom Swifts, Ted Scott, Boy Aviator: Over the Ocean to Paris, and a battered copy of Polly’s First Year at Boarding School, a gem from 1915, along with a few prized Junior Literary Guild classics, beautifully bound and illustrated volumes published in the Twenties and Thirties. Most of these latter works I have replaced, with some effort and at no little cost. (I am still missing Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze and would gladly pay twenty dollars or more for a copy in decent condition, if anybody out there has one.)
I sometimes walk through our Vermont house in memory, particularly when I can’t sleep, or when waiting in an airport–why it is that airport waiting lounges so reliably stimulate memory would be a good research topic for some psych major–and I can still see them lined up on the shelves and read the titles on their spines. The books and my reading of them are of a piece in my mind with the house and its owners and everything about our life there, so many decades ago, when Vermont outside of a few ski resorts was much more isolated, and time past often seemed still present.
It was an old farmhouse, like thousands of its type, painted the usual white with green trim, with an ell off to one side connecting the kitchen to the woodshed to the barn (a sensible arrangement, particularly in winter), and a deep porch where my grandmother kept her potted plants and bird feeders in summer. The original part was built before the Civil War; well before, to judge by the wide board floors and hand-hewed beams still visible from below, in the earth cellar where a gravity-fed spring led cold, clear, mineral-tasting water to a reservoir from which it was pumped up to the kitchen. Heat came originally from an enormous wood-burning range in the kitchen and a coal parlor stove in the study. These were retired in the late 1950s, when the house got modern plumbing and electicity, and were replaced with two kerosene stoves. These were lit only when the temperature went below forty-five indoors, so the sofas and armchairs were also well supplied with brightly-striped afghans knitted by Nana, who also crocheted bedspreads, embroidered pillowcases, and tatted. No one seems to tat these days; a pity.
I don’t remember any books in the big square kitchen with its sunny windows and vast iron stove, gleaming with nickel-plated curliques, except a few cookbooks–and Nana’s prayerbook and diary, which she kept in the top drawer of the buffet, since she used both at the kitchen table, each morning before breakfast and every night before bed.
In the living room, though, the glassed-in bottom of an antique secretary had three shelves, which held some modern historical novels–Katherine, by Anya Seton, which introduced me to my favorite century, the 14th, and incidentally to Chaucer; MacKinlay Kantor’s Pulitzer winner Andersonville was another book I read over and over. It still stuns me with wonder and pity today. Below these stood a few biographies of people I hadn’t heard of at the time, like Gertrude Lawrence and Wallis Warfield Simpson; next to them, a memoir or two–one was called Guestward Ho!, by a woman who ran a dude ranch in New Mexico; curiously, the book next to this was also about running a dude ranch, but a novel, this time, set in Wyoming–it was titled Rest and Be Thankful, by Helen MacInnes (who, I much later learned, wrote highly-regarded suspense thrillers before and during the Cold War and also found time to marry scholar and fellow Scot Gilbert Highet, whose parsing of “The Gettysburg Address” is very much worth reading, both of them balancing careers in literature with parallel lives as covert agents for MI6). Then came some humorous items like Auntie Mame, The Egg and I, and Chicken Every Sunday, and my favorite, on the very bottom shelf, between a volume of John Donne’s sermons and a copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton. This book was the first one I grabbed upon arrival every summer: Huck became and has remained my dear companion.
Grandpa’s study, which was off-limits when he was in it but free for happy rummaging otherwise, held his books–Vermont Statutes Annotated (he was in the State Legislature and was several times elected Justice of the Peace), a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica; an enormous dictionary on its own stand–I used to be directed, via stern nod, to this resource whenever I asked the meaning of a word–various works on law, religion, business, and accounting (his profession before retirement) and the famous “Five-Foot Shelf” of the Harvard Classics, all fifty-one volumes, marching straight across the built-in bookcase in their greeny-gray bindings.
Volume 50 was labelled “For Boys and Girls from Twelve to Eighteen Years of Age,” and I was besotted with its offerings: the Grimm brothers, Aesop, Andersen . . . On the shelf below stood the matching twenty volumes of the Harvard Classics Fiction Collection. I sampled most of these nine or ten feet liberally over the years, thus becoming acquainted with (among the two sets’ many other offerings) Homer and Herrick and Herbert, Fielding and Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas Malory and Sir Thomas More. I remember how I wept at Oliver’s death in The Song of Roland, and giggled at fat Sancho Panza, and how I fell in love with Dickens and have never fallen out.
In contrast to this elevated fare, and more or less to cement our family’s tastes as Essentially Middlebrow, on the bottom set of shelves stood the interminable collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which I also devoured, mostly sitting in Grandpa’s big red-leather rocking chair. (Quite a few of these well-packaged condensations led me to the library to find the original complete works, which I might not otherwise have known to hunt for, so I do not smile or sneer at these volumes, which must make up the bottom layer of hundreds of landfills today.)
Books sacred and profane, venerated and derided: I was free to read whatever I chose . . . I close my eyes and drift back to a summer afternoon:
The rustle of pages and the creak of the rockers combine with the hourly shrillings of the cuckoo from the huge Black Forest clock on the wall, which Grandpa wound every Friday night most ceremoniously, checking its time against his fat gold pocket watch. I hear the heavy bronze weights, shaped like fir cones, rising on their chains. The pendulum ticks; the cuckoo bursts out of his tiny door: “Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” The breeze flutters the sheer curtains, bringing in the scent of the pine trees; the sunbeams slant lower and lower, and Nana comes in at last to turn on the lamp and call me in for “coffee time,” scolding me mildly for reading in the dim and ruining my eyes.
Coffee time was a ritual I wish I could bring back. Maybe, if and when I retire, I will attempt it. At four on weekdays, we gathered around the dining room table. Nana had coffee with real cream, one of her few luxuries. I drank well-sugared coffee-flavored warm milk from a small blue lusterware pot that had been my mother’s, with matching cup-and-saucer; Grandpa stuck to his beloved Postum, into which he dropped a tiny saccharine tablet, a procedure at which I wondered, until I finally inquired and was told that Grandpa’s doctor wished him to avoid sugar. This proscription seemed not to extend to baked goods. Homemade cookies or cake or pastry went the rounds, and we munched and sipped and chatted quietly of the day’s doings, before we went back to our various occupations until the call to supper.
One was not permitted to read at the table. My grandmother’s excellent cooking was often bolted in my haste to get back to the doings of Robin Hood or King Arthur. Or Lad, A Dog. Or the Ingalls family, or Dr Doolittle, or Rob Roy. I was always reading, gulping books down really, as if there could never be enough. There never can. (I am one of those who will of course read anything–if there is no book or magazine I will gladly read the back of a cereal box.)
Curiously, amidst all this wealth, I never saw either of my grandparents reading merely for pleasure. Both read the newspaper every day, and the postman, Mr Johnson, brought a tidy selection of weekly and monthly magazines: National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look. My grandfather did, however, keep three particular books on his nightstand, longtime companions into which he dipped every night before composing himself for slumber: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, in the original Greek; a rather battered Roman Catholic prayer book in a Latin/French doublr translation; and the Bhagavad Gita, this last rendered in English prose, in a soft-cover pocket-sized edition from the New York Theosophical Society, published in 1912, a year after Grandpa arrived in the city from his native Bavaria.
As a child, I used to wonder about my grandfather’s bedtime reading. The Meditations: what could an ancient Roman emperor’s musings (and in Greek) mean to a 20th century person? (I finally figured this out when I took the time to read old Marcus for myself.) The prayerbook was more understandable; its owner was a devout Catholic and had in youth, I knew, studied for the priesthood before deciding that that was not his true vocation. But that knowledge made the Gita even more perplexing: a Hindu religious text seemed to have little in common with my grandfather as I then perceived him, and even less to do with its companions on his nightstand. (Here, again, I achieved a form of enlightenment some decades after, when I read The Song of the Lord for myself and learned that true devotion sees no barriers and knows no limits of language–or of deity.)
All of this shows that I understood little of Grandpa at the time and less of his three beloved books, though for many years I saw them, one after the other, lying on his blanketed knees or held to the light in his fine old hands, when I went into his and Nana’s room to say goodnight. It did not even occur to me to marvel, not for years, at the fact that while his native tongue was High German, he knew his adopted country’s English–which he spoke impeccably, though always with a trace of accent–better than many native speakers did. And not English only. As for those three books, remember, one was a bilingual edition in Latin and French (he used it to keep up his facility in both tongues, he explained), and another was printed entirely in Greek (he maintained that its flavor in the original was greatly superior to any translation he had ever seen), while the third was a modern English translation from the Sanskrit. I much later discovered that Grandpa’s seminary studies had led him to learn not only Greek and Latin but Hebrew, and as for modern tongues, he was fluent in French and Italian, had some Spanish and Portuguese, and could carry on a conversation in Dutch or Danish if pressed.
Most of the books in the house were in English, though: Nana and Grandpa became American citizens as soon after the Great War as it was possible to do so. They spoke English to their children, reserving German only for discussions to which the same children ought not to be privy. They resumed this practice when I came along, but stopped when I started to pick up the language. I must have been three or four when I slammed the screen door so hard that I damaged it. I begged Nana not to tell Grandpa I broke the door, but that afternoon at coffee time, in the middle of a quiet stream of soft Deutsch, I distinctly heard her say “Thur.” (Nowadays in modern German this word is spelt Tur, but I still see it the way Nana would have, with its original Th. The same sad fate has befallen “Neanderthal,” alas.) When I heard her say “Thur,” which I knew meant “door,” I was heartbroken. “You promised not to tell!” and I flung down my napkin and rushed weeping from the room. As I fled, I glimpsed their two faces, open-mouthed in surprise and chagrin. There were no more inadvertent German lessons after that, which makes me sad.
My grandparents had retired to this quaint but drafty old place, innocent of modern plumbing or heat or lights, at the end of the Second World War, having spent the decades since their marriage in 1913 mostly in and around New York City. There were a few extended stays in places like Buffalo and Basking Ridge, New Jersey, too, and even a year in Richmond, Virginia, but their American compass needle seemed to point toward Manhattan or at least Brooklyn most of the time. They were like gypsies, though, moving restlessly from neighborhood to neighborhood, apartment to house to small town to city and back again. My mother, their youngest child, left home at seventeen and could recall over twenty moves. There were at least ten before that, she said.
I never knew why they moved so much. The gene passed to my mother, who moved us–Daddy, my sister and brother and me–at least twelve times from my birth (I was the oldest) until I too left home at seventeen. I resented the moving. Always the new kid on the block, ill at ease in a succession of schools where the others had been comfortable companions since kindergarten, I was never reconciled to being the stranger. It took me decades to understand that the child of two people who went across an ocean in search of something–what?–would not be likely to settle in one place, especially when her parents never seemed inclined to root themselves either.
Until the house in Vermont.
Nana and Grandpa had a friend from New Jersey, an older gentleman, also German-born, who had bought a property in Vermont and moved there, years before. They visited–and fell in love.
Nana told me once that the Green Mountains and the little church-steepled villages, the high pastures and fir trees, reminded Grandpa a bit of his childhood in the Bavarian Alps, in the little town of Burgberg im Allgau. For herself, I imagine that Vermont was just as alien to her own upbringing in far northern Schleswig-Holstein as New York and New Jersey had been, but where Papa went, Mama would follow. (Thus they addressed each other; it always struck me oddly when people outside the family called Grandpa “Francis”–or, worse, “Frank,” or Nana “Agnes.” It never felt as weird when I heard anyone call my parents “Bart” and “Barbara,” I suppose because they used those actual names to one another.) Nana grew up in a flat land of canals and windmills and salt marshes, with the North Sea winds blowing down from Denmark. Her family on her mother’s side were prosperous peasants. I remember her telling me that when she was a little girl, it was her job to mind the geese. In return, she got the down and feathers whenever a goose was slaughtered, and from these she made pillows and a featherbed, for her eventual marriage. Her father was a Dutchman, a sailor in the Merchant Marine. Perhaps his seafaring nature passed to her, and had its place in her own journey to America.
From Grandpa’s study one could enter the front hall and leave the house by the front door. This was never used, in my memory, though it stood propped open by a stoneware jug on summer afternoons, for cross-ventilation. The screen door was kept hooked, though. That hallway held the front stairs, steep and narrow. My feet were large enough by age twelve for me to need to place them sideways when going down. At the top was a small bookcase with another eclectic collection: a couple of Wallace Nuttings, Lives of the Saints for Boys and Girls, a horizontal stack of Little Golden Books and another of old Vermont Life magazines, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Forever Amber (I’ve always wondered how that one got in there), and Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories next to The Grapes of Wrath (a first edition I wish I’d snagged).
My bedroom had no bookcase, so whatever I was reading at bedtime reposed under my pillow until I finished it and returned it to its proper place. This room had the most wonderful wallpaper, which Nana and Grandpa had chosen just for me: repeating groups of chubby little cowboys and cowgirls, Indian boys and Indian girls with feather headbands, Mexican boys and Mexican girls in sombreros and serapes, accompanied by burros and chickens, kittens and puppies, with tall cacti dotted about at intervals, all on a deep blue ground, with a smiling moon above. I loved my room, loved the tall fourposter bed and the Eastlake dresser with wavy mirror, ornate brass pulls, and marble top. A single tall window let in the resinous scent of the pines growing behind the house, and many nights I dreamed that the wallpaper children and their animals and I roamed through that forest together under the kindly moon.
The middle room was less a room than a passage to Nana and Grandpa’s room, but it held a white wooden bed, a tall white dresser, a low white dresser, and a very small red-painted bookcase containing only two sets of magazines in vanilla-colored binders. These magazines were called Crusades, published by the Maryknoll Press, owned by a Catholic missionary order, and were Bible stories for children, with brightly colored illustrations; I remember enjoying them immensely, though by modern standards they were impossibly inauthentic: everyone from Adam to Moses to David to Jesus looked like a blond American surfer dude, and the more bloodthirsty aspects of Scripture were carefully elided. It would be some time before I found a copy of the KJV and read what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.”
My grandparents’ room held their twin beds, their dressers (his, high; hers,low); a small iron cot where sick grandchildren could sleep under Nana’s watchful eye; a Morris chair; a brass floor lamp; the nightstand with Grandpa’s bedtime reading, as detailed above; and the door to a treasure trove: “The Back Room.”
We–my sister and brother, my cousins and I–never called it anything else. It was heaven, bliss, the end of all strivings, the culmination of desires: The Back Room.
It lay over the woodshed, an unheated storage room lit by a single naked bulb and a handyman’s window in the back. Some people call them witch windows: a standard double-hung sash set aslant along an eave, forming a long diagonal parallel to the slope of the roof–a thrifty New Englander’s use of the space, eminently sensible: use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without, as the old folks admonished. And so someone had done, in some time before. The handyman’s window was tucked away in a shed dormer at the far end of the room, and a Victorian fainting couch in worn red velvet, the nap mostly rubbed off, lay beneath it. This was my hideaway on rainy days, where I reclined in splendor and read my way, shelf by shelf, through the accumulated riches of the last generation.
The Back Room. Repository of steamer trunks, 1920s vintage, full of old clothes: molting fur pieces, lace blouses falling into shreds, corsets without their strings, a dozen hats trimmed in feathers and artificial flowers and draped with torn veils. Final resting place of several partial sets of electric trains, an Erector set (likewise nonfunctional), blocks, puzzles, old cookie tins full of broken crayons, several battered dolls. And dozens and dozens and dozens of books.
The Back Room. Paradise.
My uncle and aunts and my mother had been the beneficiaries of all of this largesse, and now it was my turn. Oh, my siblings and my cousins also enjoyed, along with me, the trunks of dress-up clothes, and we staged many dramatic productions among the threadbare tatters of the past, setting up folding chairs, hanging dusty draperies, and putting on what we called “theatrical extravaganzas” for the hapless grownups we coaxed into the Back Room and pressured into watching us preen and clown in our finery while reciting scraps of Shakespeare and Mother Goose. But I seemed to be the one who went at the books as if I were a starving castaway and they a cache of nourishment left for me and me alone.
Three sides of that room were shelves crammed with books, and I read my way up and down and across and back again over all the years of my childhood, making the acquaintance of new friends and renewing my attachment to past intimates.
Some of them are with me still, and their magic has not diminished with their age or mine. Let me tell you about three in particular, right now (later, in another post, I’ll talk about some others):
—The Children’s Country, by Katharine Burdekin.
Kate Burdekin, a British writer, a lesbian, a dear friend of George Orwell (who used some of her ideas in 1984), isbetter known today for her dystopian novel Swastika Night, about a future 70o years after a Nazi victory. She also wrote a remarkable children’s book in 1929. In England it was titled St John’s Eve, after the magical night of June 21 that follows the year’s longest day in the Northern Hemisphere, a night when magic rules.
Donald and Carol, two earth children, follow a mysterious message and find themselves in Fairyland. The goddess Ceres sends them on their way after they pass her tests, and they journey with their guide Gillyflower (who explains to the puzzled Donald and Carol that, unlike Earth children, who are boys and girls, the children here have no sex or gender) through the Children’s Country and across the sea to the People’s Country, where Donald defeats a Goblin and rescues a Prince.
Later, Carol also conquers an enchantment, saving a Duchess from a horrible fate. The adventures of the two children entertwine, with Carol often taking the lead over Donald, who is quite concerned to defend his masculine prerogative. The story is genderbending; Carol is the hero, by the novel’s end, saving Donald from the clutches of a beautiful witch who feeds on his life force through her kisses. Carol faces the witch and reclaims Donald, who is her dearly loved foster-brother. I remember how bewitchingly attractive this book was, and how eagerly I returned to it, year after year. Did it influence my own feminism? Surely. Do I still adore it? Absolutely.
—The Forgotten Daughter, by Caroline Dale Snedeker.
This novel, set in Rome in the time of the Gracchi, tells the story of Chloe, a Greek slave on the country estate of Lavinius, a patrician. In an earlier military expedition, he had abducted Chloe’s mother, also named Chloe, from the isle of Lesbos, and fallen in love with her, though he was legally married to a Roman lady. Installing his Greek mistress on his country estate, he returned to Rome and his duties there, and due to miscommunications, believed the false news that Chloe and her newborn child had died.
The child, and her mother’s faithful nurse Melissa, survive–but as slaves, abused and forgotten. But Chloe eventually finds a way to make herself known to her father, and the story ends on a happy note, with Chloe taking her place at her father’s side–and a romance of her own appears to be developing, as well.
I found the story deeply compelling: the abused “forgotten daughter” clinging to her mother’s sacred memory, eroneously blaming her father for the mother’s death, gradually coming to understand the forces that drove her parents apart and learning to be strong enough to face her own future, whatever it portended. The novel also stimulated my early interest in history and politics. The contrast between the ideals of the Republic and the Roman concept of justice with the horrible realities of slavery made a profound impression on my young mind.
—Calico Bush, by Rachel Field
I still treasure this tale of a French “Bound-Out Girl” of thirteen, settling in 1743 on the remote Maine coast with the English settler family who own her indentures. Marguerite, now Maggie, is twelve, and must live with and work for the Sargents, late of Marblehead, until she is eighteen. Clashes with Indians and the privations of frontier life do not daunt Maggie, and the friendship of new neighbors consoles her, as does the affection of the Sargent children who are her charges. When tragedy strikes, Maggie’s love and loyalty save the family.
When I first read this novel, with its gorgeous woodcuts by Allen Lewis, I had never been to Maine or to L’Ile des Mont-Deserts, as Maggie first hears of the magical place now shown on maps as Mount Desert Island. I had also not read much about the early American (English) settlers to the region. Much later, on beholding the Maine coast and the islands, I felt the power of Maggie’s story anew.
That story is about a very young woman’s courage, and it is also about being a stranger in a strange land, and learning to love that land nonetheless, and to feel at home there, despite harsh winters and the presence of enemies. The spring and summer will come, and those enemies could turn out to be friends.
The house where these books found me is gone.
Grandpa died in 1967, Nana in 1974. My mother sold the house and barn, the three knolls with their pine forest and blueberry bushes, the brook and the meadow. She did not love the place. I was sad, but it was her house now, and she didn’t want it. I think part of me hoped someday to buy it back, but the new owner was unlucky, or careless–who knows? The house burned down. Where it was is a small log cabin, and other houses have risen where we roamed through the pines or picked blueberries, sitting on ground pine in the sunshine, plinking berries into our pails and thinking of blueberry pie tomorrow.
The house is gone, but in memory I walk through every room. The books in their bookcases, the books in the Back Room, are part of me now. They live on inside me.
I wish I could thank Nana and Grandpa for the home they made for us, for the treasures it held out to us for the taking, and for the memories that still, nearly seventy years on, make me glow inside with happiness. Perhaps, if the heaven they both believed in exists, they know how grateful I am, and are glad. And, even if that heaven is just an imagined destination, I know, because they and the house and the books taught me so well, that imagination is balm for the soul when reality lances us through with pain and sorrow. Imagination and good memories: what an amazing, never-failing gift.