Longfellow, for instance

There’s a pile of books by my bedside.  Usually I’m reading one, sometimes two, and then there are a few books of essays, or short stories for a quick fix.  American Writers at Home by J. D. McClatchy with photographs by Erica Lennard has been on my table for a year or two.   It was a gift from my son Alex, who worked at the Metropolitan Museum for several years, and made good use of his access to the museum’s bookstore.

At first the book frustrated me.  The images of the twenty-one homes featured are moody and often more shadowy than light.  The photographer writes in the forward that she “tried to breathe some soul and life” into the houses and to “capture with my camera fragments of what they might have seen or felt.”  My take is she put too much of her heart and soul in these photos – they are artistic, but the reader can’t see the rooms. The text often speaks of interesting details that are not in the photos.

For instance, let’s hop right to the section of Longfellow, which I read for the first time a few nights ago.  The author mentions a chair that was made from the wood of the village blacksmith’s famous chestnut tree and given as a gift to Longfellow by the children of Cambridge on his seventy-second birthday.  The caption written about the three images of his study also mentions the chair but does not point it out to the reader, and that is quite disappointing.

One of the photos of the study however, shows the desk where Longfellow stood when he wrote.  That interested me, as Hemingway (whose life filled up twelve of my working years)  also wrote standing up, and similarities between the two started popping to mind.  In fact so much in the section on Longfellow intrigued me that my excitement about discovering the man behind the poems has blotted out all the book’s annoyances.

The website of the National Museum of Horse Shoeing Tools and Hall of Honor has a page devoted to the village smithy’s chair.  It states that the tree in front of the blacksmith’s shop down the street from Longfellow’s home “fell victim to progress” when Brattle Street was widened in 1876.  The chair was made by H. Edgar Hartwell of Boston and lines from The Village Blacksmith were etched in around the seat rails.  Longfellow wrote a poem of thanks to the children of Boston and it is published on their page — wish I could show the chair to you, but click here to see.

Opening lines of Longfellow’s poems came swiftly to mind while reading about him and his home.    By the shores . . .   Listen my children . . .  This is the forest primeval. . .   Between the dark and the daylight . . .

But outside of the fact that he stayed at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where my wedding took place, I knew nothing of his life.

From the few pages of text on Longfellow in American Writers  I learned he was brilliant.  Upon graduation from Bowdoin, he accepted the position of the college’s Professor of Languages.  He went off to Europe and learned eleven to be prepared for the position.  He read profusely and he converted the ballroom of his home into his library of over fourteen thousand books.  He translated Dante’s Inferno. He incorporated his knowledge of language, history, mythology, biography, geography into poetry that was read and equally enjoyed by scholars and the servants at Queen Victoria’s castle.

He was a professional poet who knew how to promote his work.  His poetry offered a young nation a literary definition and a unifying culture.  Longfellow insisted his works be published as broadsides and in inexpensive editions as well as in leather bound volumes, so that all levels of society could have access to them.  If he lived in our day, he would most likely have been one of the first to have his works out on the internet and on ebooks.

Longfellow was an inspiration to his children.  They went on to be writers, educators, artists, travelers. He was a devoted husband, and outlived two wives.  His first wife, Mary, died during childbirth, his second, Fanny, was the first recipient of ether during childbirth in the United States.  Fanny, died tragically from burns suffered from a dropped match which lit her skirt.  She and her daughters, age five and seven, were applying sealing wax to a gift package of clipped locks of their hair.  Longfellow wrapped her in a rug, to try and save her from the flames, but she died a few days after.  Longfellow grew his beard to hide the scars left by the burns to his face.

In addition this was a poet who had fun.  Longfellow’s home hosted many a social gathering, watered by good wines from his well-stocked cellar.

Googling for some fact that has slipped my mind completely, I found this interesting item that shed an entirely new light on The Song of Hiawatha.  I quote from the Digital History website:

The HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] hearings and blacklistings discouraged Hollywood from producing politically controversial films. Fear that a motion picture dealing with the life of Hiawatha might be regarded as communist propaganda led Monogram Studio to shelve the project. As The New York Times explained: “It was Hiawatha’s efforts as a peacemaker among warring Indian tribes that gave Monogram particular concern. These it was decided might cause the picture to be regarded as a message for peace and therefore helpful to present communist designs.”

There’s so much more.  Check the Longfellow Society and the National Park Service websites for bits and pieces, and if you are like me you will be soon looking for more to read.  Mr. McClatchy tells us that Longfellow wrote letters at the large table in his study.  I thought it a good place to start, learning about him in his own words, until I discovered that there are five volumes of these letters.  I’ll have to look for something a bit more realistic.

*****

I have a memory of having a meal at Longfellow’s home in 1969.  The head of the children’s department at the Boston Public Library treated the new hires, including me, to lunch or tea after a meeting of some sort back in 1969.  But this may be something I’ve made up.

That memory reminded me of another meal — a dinner of “book” women at Dandelion in Burlington, Massachusetts.  We met a few times at different places, and once a colleague from the Kennedy Library was there.  The group didn’t gel. I was disappointed, but also relieved, when the gatherings stopped – or perhaps they went on without me.   I look back now and wonder about their purpose.  Was the initiator, whose name is a blank, hoping to start a bluestocking society?  That would have been fun if I were the person I am today back then.  But at the time, I wasn’t comfortable enough with myself to feel anything but awkward at both of these two experiences, and that has been making me feel awkward even now.

It’s a long way from Longfellow to self-doubt but somehow I made the leap.  Strange how the mind works.

Dad on Mother’s Day

We did good —
he whispers to me,
out of sight and hearing from the others
at our Mothers Day dinner —
but who is that sitting next to you?

Oh honey, I’m so glad you’re here –
I smile back.

They are young men with lives —
he continues —
and they love you.

Stay, will you, so we can talk later?
And can you talk to them too?

I don’t know how —
he answers after a while —
Did I ever know how?

And I try to remember
what we spoke of back then.
The four of us at the table.
The two of us in bed.

Afterword to Then Again

Reading Diane Keaton’s cleverly constructed and unapologetically revealing memoir Then Again I’ve spent more time reflecting on my life and feelings than her actual story.  Friends regularly accuse me of going off on tangents.  To me, my rambles all are on track.  Some books are favorites because of where they take my thoughts. It is a surprise and often a disappointment to reread one of these favorites and discover it isn’t what I remembered.

*

I feel validated when an author states my obvious.  It’s disappointing when we’ve used the same words.

I feel pleasure when the author articulates emotions and feelings that are in my stomach and in my heart but haven’t yet been put into words by my head.

I also enjoy being struck by an opposing view when it causes me to pause and rethink.  I can handle seeing the black and white turn grey

Diane Keaton has done all three.

*

Then Again, like the Jacqueline Kennedy interviews that I wrote about in an earlier post, was a gift.  This was a gift from my older son’s girlfriend.  They just recently decided to go their separate ways.  It’s a difficult thing for a couple to do, especially a couple that worked so well together.  I’ll never know why.  Hopefully they both know why.  But that is part of the baggage this book carries for me.  Bittersweet baggage, because she is a delightful woman (and he a wonderful young man).

My other son has a new girlfriend who, and I’m not sure if this is because I just read Diane Keaton, reminds me of Diane Keaton.  I don’t know her well enough to say that their personalities are similar, but she seems to have the same presence.  She’s delightful too.

*

Diane Keaton’s mother kept 85 separate journals, and scrapbooks.  Her writing started with letters to her husband while they were separated after the war.  He was in Boston in the Navy. She was 24, in California, and had just given birth to Diane.

I kept an on-and off diary starting in high school, wrote copious letters in college, and influenced by Anaias Nin in the seventies, began years of a passionate outpouring of what I remember as drivel, whining, and moaning about the lack of exciting boys/men in my life, or their rejection of me, and my utter alone-ness.  Finally I stopped writing.  Things must have improved.

During one visit to my parents’ home, my mom brought me up to the attic and presented me with a box of things that I had left there while I spent a year in France.  Included in that box were the journals.  Oh my god, I thought.  Did my mom read these?  What would she have thought?  I didn’t open them, but brought them home.

As my children grew, however, so did my anxieties about what was actually in those journals.  If I didn’t want to read them for fear of what they contained, how would my children or my husband, react to them   One day they went out with the trash.

As an archivist by profession – this was total heresy.

Sometimes I wonder what was in those journals and if I wrote well – but never enough to regret not keeping them, even after reading about Diane Keaton’s mother’s scrapbooks.  The future has always been more important than the past to me.

*

The last chapter of Then Again is Diane Keaton’s reflection on the final chapter of her mother’s life – her death.  Like my mom, Diane Keaton’s mother had Alzheimers Disease.  We believe my father did also.  But neither of my parents have been as debilitated by the disease – at least not yet.  I can’t bear the thought of my mom curling up and shrinking away.  It could happen. Maybe we’ll be lucky and one day she will just lie down to rest on the couch as she always does in the afternoon, but not wake up.  The disease shows very little mercy.   I have not yet been able to put my emotions and feelings stirred up by this chapter into words.  Diane’s story with her mother has been no help to me.

*

I was supposed to read this book.  Diane Keaton’s mom would cut out photos and headlines from magazines and she would copy quotes from everywhere.  One day she had a cover from a New Yorker thumb tacked to her kitchen bulletin board.  It read “ Is it possible to go backwards and forwards at the same time?”  Yes it is – just as it is possible to grow younger and older at the same time.

Brothers-in-Law

My dad David and Uncles Eddie and Elliot home on leave, 9/5/1943

Several years ago my basement flooded and many of the family treasures were lost or damaged.  The days of sifting through papers were bittersweet.  My twenty-something boys came up for a long weekend to go through the boxes I had marked as “Morgan’s Life” and “Alex’s Life.” They contained drawings, writings, school papers, letters, whatever I thought precious enough to save for them when they grew up.  It was a sad and joyful weekend of hard work — emotionally and physically. My sons were amazed at how clever they were as little boys!  They told me they would love to go through the papers again, but not until the next flood.

Here’s a gem I found among my father’s papers.  It’s an undated letter from my mother’s sister’s boyfriend to my father during the war.  My mom and dad are Mil and David.  Her sisters and their beaus are Thelma and Eddie and Shirley and Elliot.  The little girl is my older sister.

______________________________________________________

Hi ya fella,

I hope this finds you well.  I am alive.

Hey, don’t call me those names.  I’m lucky if I can write a note home now and then, beside the fact that we are now not allowed to say anything.  We are busy — to make a terrific understatement.

I guess you must have heard of my good fortune – the thirty day leave.   It was like water to an old desert cat in a sand storm or land to a sailor in any kind of storm.  In short and to put it mildly, it was great.

A picture for daddy, 1943

Now comes the flattery. Dave, you are the luckiest guy in the world, that kid of yours is just a dream, she’s beautiful.  She’s got more sense than I have (maybe an insult but considering her age).  She’s so sweet you could just eat her up.  I spent half my time with her.  I just can’t put into words what I thought of her.  For the first time in my life I can truthfully say that I love a child. She’s not like the run of the mill.  She doesn’t cry and pout all the time or make a pest of herself.  In a nutshell, she’s wonderful.

I came home fully intending marriage in a year of receiving 20% sea duty pay and all I only saved about $250.  As you can see, that is nothing to boast of.  In the past few mos. in the Pac. I have saved easily that much.  I got 2nd class giving me $96 base pay & 20% plus $10 for extra service (running motion picture equip).  I save about $86 per month, I could do worse.  So we got engaged.  All of which leaves me very unhappy, because I have been kicking myself ever since for not getting married when I was home or not saving dough when I could, well no use crying over spilled perfume.

Elliot, Thelma, David, Shirley, Eddie, Mildred

Getting back to an interesting subject, everything at home is as well as could be.  I saw your family a few times and Doris quite a few, all fine.

Getting home to serenity and peacefulness is quite a shock though pleasant. I hope you can experience it soon.  I know that whenever Mil or Shirl looked at me they saw you & El, but it was beyond my control, though I wish it weren’t.  I probably caused them more grief than happiness by my very presence.  If so I’m sorry, but I just hope you get home first this time just to square things.

If possible let me know where you are now.  Take care of yourself,

Ed

Elliot, Eddie and David with the parents of the sisters, their loves, 9/5/1943

Christmas 2011

Christmas is not my holiday.  This is my 64th Christmas.  It is there, every year, whether I’m looking for it or not.

I do not remember individual Christmases.  Some passed by as just another day. Some were filled with happy children and good food.  Mostly however, when I think of Christmas the specifics are blurred, and my body reacts to feelings of jealousy, incompetency, guilt, and confusion.  Christmas is always sooo big that it is hard  not to be caught up in it – trying to find a place to fit in even if you don’t believe.

My experiences are not that unusual I’m sure.  I was a bright Jewish girl in a predominantly Catholic grammar school.  Much to my displeasure my mother would not allow me to participate in the annual Christmas pageant.  I sat alone in the auditorium during rehearsals while my classmates practiced walking down the aisles carrying candles and singing carols.  They played bells and made decorations and chatted about their trees and wish lists.

My next door neighbors would invite me over to help them trim their tree and I would return home to unsympathetic parents with my stories of how I helped stick cloves into oranges and sprinkled sugar on cookies.

My parents caved in finally and one year allowed me to put a wooden shoe by the side of my bed before I fell asleep and they filled it with candy.   I also remember going to see the department store windows on Fifth Avenue – full of teddies and snow, and animals, and lights, and I think we also went to Rockefeller Center one year  I wonder if they did this out of love for me, not wanting me to feel so different.

When I moved out on my own and had my own apartment it took me several years before I got up the nerve to put up my own small Christmas tree.  I bought eggnog and exchanged gifts with friends.  I never told my family because some of them would think of this as treason, not standing up to the Christian takeover of the season, not supporting the Jews who chose to not even acknowledge secular Christmas.

Then of course, I fell in love with Clark, a non-Jew, one who’s mother loved Christmas, decorated her home, shopped with fervor, cooked and baked, and brought out the holiday dishes..  The first year we had them at our house for the holiday I was a bundle of nerves.  Do I leave the menorah up?  Do I buy decorations?  What do I cook?

When we had children it was even harder.  I was happy they loved our sons so much that they showered them outrageously with presents, but at the same time, I never knew how to reciprocate or how to balance one set of grandparents’ Chanukah with the other grandparents’ Christmas.

Our little family created our own Christmas traditions.  We’d set up the tree on Christmas Eve – this started mostly from my not wanting to crowd out Chanukah when the two holidays coincided. It made our Christmas Eve very special.  We’d cuddle in our family chair and read Polar Express; we’d open one present.  After a wild morning opening presents on Christmas day, we’d go to a movie – it often was the newest Star Trek – and then we’d return home for a good dinner.

After my husband’s death in 2006, my sons and I continued to get together for Christmas.  It was his holiday, and it is their holiday too.  This is the first year that I am not with them. I am happy that Morgan, my elder son, has a girlfriend who shares her family Christmas with him.  It is a much better Christmas than I could give him now.  My younger son, Alex, spent Christmas with members of his band.  I think he was looking forward to doing this.

Without my boys Christmas has little fascination to me and I feel out of sorts.  It is there, trying to poke itself into my life, but somehow I can skirt around it a lot easier.  Yes, I brought my sons presents and yes, we will get together sometime in January to celebrate our memories of Christmas with Clark.  We will never let the holiday go because of our love for him.