New England Primer

A short story

In 1937, Depression times, my mother left my father and me. I was seven years old, and she ran away with the town lawyer, my father's friend J. B. Burton. My father was Scytheville's doctor. While my father was in his office one morning, my mother packed a suitcase, left a letter, and walked to J. B. Burton's house. When I came back from school, my mother was absent, and my father stood silent in the kitchen. "Your mother won't be with us," he said in a cracked voice. I didn't dare ask him why.

It was December; the kitchen range was hot as he fried eggs for our supper. I watched him burn a letter in the firebox. When we sat at the kitchen table, he broke his yolks and pushed his eggs around but did not eat them. "Your mother won't live with us anymore," he said. I wept, howled, and clung to him.

"Minerva is leaving town with Mr. Burton," he told me. I was bewildered as well as bereft. I had never heard of a mother who left her family. I asked him why, and he only held me tighter. Anguish and rage began that almost governed my life.

I don't know how or why the love affair happened. My parents did not quarrel in my presence, and I saw them kiss and hug. His office occupied the front room of our house, so he was home most of the time, but he kept busy. He remained in his office mornings, with appointments, and in the afternoons he drove his Model A to visit old people without automobiles. Weeknights he was exhausted, and often went to bed early while my mother read magazines: Collier's, Life, The Saturday Evening Post. My parents were together only on Sundays—if there were no medical emergencies. She must have been lonely, and J. B. Burton could have courted her in the afternoons, when I was in school and my father was making house calls.

After she left, he spoke of her only when he had to. People didn't bring the subject up. I found a neighbor setting a loaf of bread on our porch. She did not meet my eyes but said, "Billy." A pot of beans also turned up. The most anyone said to my father was "I'm sorry," treating my mother's flight like a death in the family.

At school a boy teased me: "Where'd your mother go, Billy?" Most of us were too young to know what men and women did. Our teacher flushed red and said, "That will be enough, Tom!" No one said anything again. For weeks my friends avoided playing with me. When they returned, I was aware of a blank place in our acquaintance.

My mother, as I remember her from my early childhood, was slim and vivacious, with large brown eyes, bobbed black hair, and red, red lipstick. She moved quickly as she cooked and cleaned house; then sometimes she sat staring for an hour, smoking cigarettes. Often she held me in her lap. Some occasions remained tender in my memory, and were therefore corroded by what happened. When I was five, a small circus came to Blue River, ten miles away. My father dropped my mother and me off outside the tent on a Saturday afternoon and then picked us up after he had made his house calls. I remember the heightening buzz of voices, crowds jostling, the animal smells. We sat on pine benches watching high-wire acts and clowns, a droopy lion and its droopier tamer.

My mother wrapped an arm around me and called me "Billy, Billy"; we held hands. She bought me a box of Cracker Jack.

My father, Henry Francis Root, known as "Doctor Frank," was courteous, dependable, devoted to his duties, and decent without being unctuous. He had a nervous habit of cracking his knuckles, which came to irritate me. He was a good man, and above all he was disinterested; he was too disinterested. When my mother and J. B. Burton prepared to leave town, a week after she left us, Burton came to my father's office with a dislocated finger. I remember: We were having supper when someone knocked on the door. I opened it, and J. B. Burton stood there, with one hand holding the other. "Your father?" he said, not looking me in the eye.

My father had followed me to the door. Burton showed him the skewed, swollen finger. My father snapped it straight without speaking. Burton winced, but made not a sound.

"Billy," my father said, "get me that roll of adhesive tape on the table next to my desk."

I brought it in. I could not look at J. B. Burton, and my father concentrated on the finger. He could tape one digit to another without conversation. My father scissored and taped, impassively, behaving as a doctor was supposed to behave. Finished, he pointed to the door. When Burton left, he said nothing; he did not have the temerity to thank my father.

When Burton and my mother drove away from Scytheville, she did not say good-bye. On her journey west she sent me postcards telling me that she loved me and missed me. The cards bore postmarks from Albany and Buffalo. A birthday present arrived from Chicago. Then came a postcard from Reno, Nevada, and two months later my father told me that my mother had divorced him and married the man she was with. He would not say "J. B. Burton."

At first his sorrow and shock were visible only in his silence and a tremor in his hands. I wept when I went to bed, as quietly as I could, imitating his reserve. One night I woke from sleep to hear him weeping also. He continued his daily routine, more slowly, his energy depleted at thirty-seven. He lost weight. In the evenings he helped me with my homework, and on Saturdays he took me in the car when he visited patients. He showed me cellar holes and abandoned smithies, the ruins of a New Hampshire that had been prosperous until the Civil War. Mornings my father saw that I was dressed and made me breakfast. Neighbor women took turns taking care of me after school, but such arrangements could not go on forever. My father looked for a housekeeper who would clean house, stay with me when I came home from school, and cook supper.

Even in the Depression, Scytheville was relatively prosperous. Not every small town had its own doctor. The mill laid off some hands—farmers sharpened their old scythes thin as oak leaves rather than buying new ones—but many citizens had jobs, and Scytheville Academy kept going, with day students and a few boarders. Like many American towns, Scytheville paired itself with a poorer cousin. The shack people lived in Liberty, four miles away. If a Scytheville housewife's arthritis precluded washing and cooking, she went to Liberty for household help.

At that time families were known to be either "good" or "bad." Liberty had good impoverished families (as did Scytheville), who ate from big gardens, canned, boiled maple sap for sugar, kept a pig, cut down trees for heat, and shot a deer every November. They lived with plenty of food and warmth. The bad people in Liberty survived on hard cider, with intervals of seasonal work.

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Donald Hall’s recent books include Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry (2008) and White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006. He lives in New Hampshire.

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