[Read Atlantic Unbound's "Facts & Fiction" interview with Donald Hall.]
WE lived on a farm outside Abigail, Michigan, when I was a girl in the 1930s. My father was a Latin teacher, which was how I came to be called Camilla. I cannot say that I have lived up to the name of Virgil's warrior. My father served as the principal of Abigail High School, and we kept chickens and horses on our flat and scrubby land near the Ohio line. My father's schoolwork kept him busy, so we employed a succession of hired hands for chores around the farm. Many were drunks. A weekly rite, when I was small, was for my father to pay a fine on Monday morning -- 6:00 A.M., before school -- and drive the befuddled, thirsty, shamefaced hired man back home. When the advances for fines grew monstrous, so that our man was indentured a month ahead, he hopped a freight west. In hard times the quality of help increased, even as my father's salary and the price of eggs went down; he hired strong young men for three dollars a week, some of them sober. The poverty of those years touched everyone, including a protected child. I remember tramps coming to the back door; I remember men with gray faces whom my mother succored with milk and buttered bread. I can see one of them now, preserved among the rest because he addressed me rather than my mother. "It's hard, little girl. Could you spare a crust, little girl?"
The house was my mother's house. She was Ella, the bright face of our family, beautiful and lively -- a lover of horses, poetry, and jokes. People said, lightly, that she married my father to hold herself down. I grew up loving my quiet father with a love that was equally quiet; I desperately loved my serene, passionate mother. What a beauty she was. When I see reproduced a Saturday Evening Post cover from the 1930s, I see my mother's face: regular features, not large but strong; bold cheekbones with good coloring; dark short hair; fullish lips, deeply red without lipstick; large blue eyes, staring outward with a look both shy and erotic. When my mother walked into a group of strangers, the room hushed.
She had grown up with four sisters, isolated on a backcountry farm in Washtenaw County. The Great War was only a distant rumor. Her childhood was a clutch of girls, a female conspiracy on a remote, patchy forty acres, in a domain of one-room schools where half the pupils belonged to her own family. They made one another clothespin dolls for Christmas; they sewed and did fancywork in competition for their stepmother's praise; they passed their dreams and their dresses on to one another. How I wanted a little sister to pass my dresses and dolls on to! When my mother told me stories from her childhood, I heard themes repeated: the family was self-sufficient (I grew up reading and rereading The Swiss Family Robinson) and "got by on little." When she spoke of their genuine simplicity, she spoke with wonder, not with bitterness; she didn't make me feel guilty over my relative comfort. The Hulze farm never prospered as the Battells' -- my father's family's -- did for decades. The land was poor, but to survive by your own labor on your own land was triumph enough. Another theme was death, for she had lost a baby sister to a fever at eighteen months; and her mother, Patience, died of diabetes, not long before insulin was discovered, when my mother was nine. Two years later she acquired a stepmother, my grandmother Huldah, who was kindly but fierce, with a Christianity modeled on that of Massachusetts Bay in the seventeenth century. Like my father, my mother was an eldest child; she mothered her younger sisters even after Huldah's access, since Huldah quickly bore Herman Hulze two more daughters.
Life on the Hulze farm was hard -- Monday washing, Tuesday ironing, Wednesday baking -- but as my mother remembered it for me, it mustered grave satisfactions. Everyone worked equally, according to age and ability; everyone was clothed, warm, and well fed; in a venture of equal labor no one was dependent on another's largesse. Weekdays were half school, half work; the children, who rose at five, after their parents, did housework before school and darning or fancywork before bed. Saturday's chores finished the week, and the family looked forward to a workless Sunday. Yet Huldah's Sabbath was strenuous. Her church was two hours of hellfire in the morning, with Christian Endeavor (hymns, visiting speakers) at night. Sometimes Huldah searched out a Sunday-afternoon church meeting, to occupy her family for an otherwise idle moment.
A N exception to my mother's largely female nation was a dear male cousin whose story she told me as I grew older. Rudolph Howells was her first cousin, two years older, her father's sister's boy, who lived three miles down the road. Even at ages when boys and girls avoid each other, Rudy and Ella played together. They hiked to each other's houses, or barebacked a workhorse on a rare workless weekday; or they met under a great willow beside a creek halfway between them. Its shelter was their hideout, and they came to call it Willow Temple. In the absence of telephones they exchanged penny postcards to arrange their meetings. For my mother, isolated among sisters in that flat countryside, the boy's friendship was redemptive; Rudolph was the male of my mother's early life -- after her father, who was alternately working and asleep. For Rudy, who was an only child, my mother provided the sole companionship close to his age. As she described him, Rudy sounded unnaturally solemn; it was Ella's childhood joy to bring out the child in Rudolph, to set him giggling or dreaming. Rudy was a reader. He brought books to my mother, who became a reader herself in order to please him. In Willow Temple they recited for each other the poems they had memorized at school and performed for Prize Speaking -- works by Whittier, Longfellow, Joaquin Miller, Edgar Allan Poe, James Whitcomb Riley. My mother could say "Telling the Bees" right through, without a mistake, when she was eighty.