by Donald Hall
[Read Atlantic Unbound's "Facts & Fiction"
interview with Donald Hall.]
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.
Rudolph was a "scholar," as Michigan country people called a serious student. In 1900 few from the farmland went to college. After the Great War people began to think about college, and to assume that Rudolph would attend the University of Michigan. As my mother late in her life told stories about Rudolph, I understood that for all his studiousness he felt some diffidence about his capacities. He worried that he would not do well at college. My mother not only made him laugh but encouraged him to leave the countryside and enroll in Ann Arbor's domestic Athens. He would excel, she told him. Then, doubtless, he would become a minister. What else did one go to college for? Doctor, lawyer, teacher, pastor. Rudy in his solemnity found a way to combine the romance of his reading -- the South Seas, piracy, jungles of Africa -- with his dark Christianity. Some speakers at Christian Endeavor were missionaries returned from outlandish places, where they had won souls to Christ, ministering to the pig-tailed hordes of China and the naked savages of the Congo. Now they traveled the Protestant Midwest to raise money for hospitals that would treat leprosy and pellagra.
When he was fourteen, Rudy left his one-room school to attend an academy in the mill town of Trieste, eleven miles away. He endured his semi-exile -- boarding weekdays and coming home for weekends -- until he was sixteen. For two years my mother saw him at church every Sunday morning, and rarely at other moments except in summer. They wrote each other a midweek postcard. They remained so close that people teased them about being sweethearts, even about marrying -- first cousins or not. My mother assured me that it would never have happened: they were too much brother and sister. One Sunday in the May when my mother turned fifteen, the church members packed picnics and lunched together in a field beside Goosewater Creek, not far from Willow Temple. Ella remembered Rudy at the picnic playing with a new baby, another cousin, by trundling her carriage fast and slow, making the baby Agnes jerk and laugh with abrupt stops and accelerations. After eating deviled eggs and pork sandwiches and rhubarb pie, Ella and Rudy took a long walk together, talking about their futures, continually brushing away mosquitoes. They tramped happily among the weed trees that grew along the creek, my mother remembered, and sat inside the green dome of Willow Temple. They spoke of the university and Ella's high school, where she took Latin because Rudy had recommended it. Ella told him jokes she had saved for him. Mostly they began, "A minister, a priest, and a Christian Science practitioner..." One story made him laugh until he wept; she could never remember which one. When she was terribly old, and dying, Ella still recalled the small yellow butterflies that had been abundant in the fields like migrant buttercups; she remembered the blue dress she wore, embroidered with red tulips.
That night, when Rudolph's ride came to take him back to Trieste, no one could find him. He was not in his room; he did not respond to his mother's "Yoo-hoo!" After half an hour his ride went off without him. His father and the hired man took lanterns from the barn and searched for him in the darkness among the outbuildings. Then they climbed the small pasture hill. I remember seeing that hill when I was a child. In my mind I can watch the yellow lanterns rise in the black evening, and hear the men's voices calling for him: "Rudolph! Ru-dee!" His parents were frightened; maybe Rudy had fallen taking a walk after five o'clock supper; maybe he had hit his head on a rock and lay somewhere unconscious. They summoned neighbor cousins to help.
Three miles away, asleep in bed, my mother knew nothing.
After an hour searching outside the house the men came back, thinking to look in the root cellar. It was Agnes's young father, cousin Michael, who found Rudolph where he had hanged himself in the attic. As Michael walked up the steep stairs with his lantern low, his face brushed against the boots. The impact pushed the boots away, and they swung back to hit him.
As long as any of his contemporaries lived, Rudolph's suicide was the subject of speculation. Rudolph -- everyone repeated -- was a sensible and lovable boy, affectionate if a little serious, "old for his age" but capable of playfulness. He loved his mother and father and his cousin Ella; he was a happy child. Ella's family reconstructed, by gradual accumulation of detail, the days and weeks before the tragedy occurred. No one could find anything that hinted of despair or violence. Why did a bright, cheerful, beloved seventeen-year-old boy hang himself in his attic? Why? Why? Why? Could it have been an accident? How could he tie a noose and slip it over his head by accident? People said, It must have been something he read in a book. They decided at the end of every discussion that reading stories caused Rudolph's death.
Part of the story was how my mother first heard the news. Monday morning, ignorant of what had happened (ten years would pass before the Hulzes had a telephone), my mother took the seven o'clock train for Bosworth and its high school. Every school day of the year she and her sister Betty took the milk train. When they sat down and the locomotive jerked forward, behind them were two men who had boarded three miles north, at the depot near Rudolph's house. My mother heard Mr. Peabody say to Mr. Gross what a terrible thing it was when his own father, just last night, had had to cut Rudolph Howells down from a beam in the attic. Why would a fine boy like Rudy go and kill himself?
My fifteen-year-old mother alighted at the first stop, took the next train back, and went to bed. (Betty went on to school. It was part of the story, always, that Betty continued to school.) Ella vomited and for three days would not eat. She stayed home the rest of the school year, four weeks. She turned pale and lost weight; Dr. Fowles said that she was anemic. Once a week a Trieste butcher sent two quarts of steer's blood for Huldah to store in the ice box. My mother drank a tumbler of blood every day; it nauseated her, but mostly she kept it down. Once, she left her bed and slipped from the house for half a day -- terrifying her father and Huldah -- to walk by the creek until she came to Willow Temple, where she crept inside and howled hysterical tears. ("I thought he would be there," she told me when she was old. "Camilla, I thought he was there.") Thereafter her family contrived to keep her in bed. She failed all summer, eating little, until one evening she heard Huldah's harsh voice in the garden beyond her window telling a visitor, "We're going to lose our big girl."
This overhearing or eavesdropping appeared to startle my mother back to life. By the time school opened in September, she had become bright and energetic again -- brighter and more energetic than before. After her mourning she turned from a shy fifteen-year-old into the creature who caused the intake of breath. As her beauty became obvious for the first time, her youthful life began. She took part in high school literary and theatrical groups, as much as commuting allowed. A year later, in her senior year, she boarded in Bosworth weekdays. If a hayride or a square dance occurred on a Saturday night, she stayed over in town for the weekend, despite Huldah's disapproval. The summer after graduation, when she was seventeen, she took a job at Muehlig's department store in Ann Arbor, boarding with a family related to her mother.
It was clear, when my mother recollected, that Ann Arbor raised a pleasant devil in her. When another boarder arranged a blind date for her with a university student, she entered into a new life, and its excitement still reverberated when she was eighty and remembered those years. She became popular, a powerful word in the vocabulary of the time, and dated many young men. One fraternity (my father never belonged to one; to join would have been unthinkable) elected Ella Hulze its sweetheart, granting her an honor normally reserved for a sorority girl. She would have joined a sorority if she had been a student. (When I attended the university, I joined one and quit after a year.) My mother dated someone every night of the week, she told me, and her engagement book was full a month ahead. She made me laugh with her stories of boys she dated -- a collateral Ford who drove a Stutz, a broker-to-be who waxed his red moustache into points, a fainting swain who sent long-stemmed roses to Muehlig's. "It was innocent," she told me when I was seventeen. Ten years later I reminded her of that word, when she stayed with me after my daughter's birth. She laughed. "It was mostly innocent, Camilla." She told me about driving to Chicago for a weekend in a roadster with two fraternity boys. They visited a speakeasy; having taken a room at the YWCA, she had to ring a bell to be let in at 3:00 A.M., and covered her mouth to disguise her breath. She returned to Ann Arbor on Monday at 7:00 A.M., to drink coffee and attend her counter at Muehlig's. A week later both boys died at dawn in the same roadster, careering off the road into a maple tree near Walled Lake after a night of Prohibition gin and jazz. When she met my father, as he shopped for Christmas presents for his family, my mother was ready to settle down. They were engaged by Easter. My mother was eighteen then, my father twenty-six.
She clerked in a department store; he was a graduate student in classical languages. People speak of the attraction of opposites. Opposites are attracted when each is anxious about its own character. (And I am their product, in old age still a woman anxious about the conflicts in her character.) I think of my father as he must have appeared in 1925. He came from country people, as she did, but he wore eyeglasses and lived for books -- particularly books in ancient languages. My mother had taken Latin for two years of high school, but she stopped after Rudy died. How did my father find the courage to approach the beautiful Ella Hulze? I suppose his innocence was his courage; eight years older, bound to his library carrel, he would not have known that she was popular. Billy, or William, had reached the moment in his life, halfway through his last year of study, with a high school teaching job waiting for him, when he was ready for courtship and marriage. Through a legacy from his godmother, who had married into Flint's auto industry, he had $1,500, which would provide the down payment on a house with a mortgage at two and a half percent. Possibly his studies contributed to his infatuation: I laughed when I learned, not long before he died, that his final seminar at Michigan had examined Ovid's Art of Love. Like Ella, my father jolted himself into looking for an opposite. Then he met a beautiful girl, from a Michigan farm, selling scarves at Muehlig's.
But my father was not a skillful farmer. When pig raising did not take his full attention, he felt inadequate or hypocritical; in his absentmindedness he failed his agrarian ideals. The Latin language, and only the Latin language, enthralled him. Exhausted after a day among hogs, he sat by the oil lamp placed on a central table in the small living room, reading Tacitus while his mother darned and his brother studied baseball scores and his father drifted into sleep. In Virgil's Georgics the Michigan farm crossed paths with the study of Latin. As a young man my father dreamed of translating the Georgics, adapting them to southern Michigan, but the farming tired him out; he never completed the first book.
By 1925 the family realized that the Battell farm could not support four adults. The agricultural depression had started a decade before the rest of the country crashed, and the once-rich farm began to fail. Somebody had to leave the place and get a job. Then came the disaster, as my father always called it. One of his chores was to feed the piglets once they were weaned from their great mothers, carrying buckets of corn from the Battell cribs. The stored feed nourished a guerrilla army of rats. One morning my young father, weary after staying up with Virgil half the night, fed rat poison to sixty-seven young pigs. The whole family wept, even his hard father and stolid brother, as they dug a long trench on a rainy day and buried their hopes for a prosperous or even a tolerable year. When he was an old man, he still shook his head in melancholy guilt as he spoke of his lethal error. "The bags were different colors and sizes. The pellets were gray. How could I have done it?" I remember him at seventy-four, still lamenting his terrible mistake; he could see the pale young bodies in the rain, and puddles gathering in the trench. My mother, the family wit and teaser, knew better than to joke about the disaster. But once, when my father was soaring high in self-confident absentmindedness, and made tea by pouring hot coffee over tea leaves, she called him "The Great Poisoner." He laughed, I remember, but looked abashed and sorrowful.
After the disaster the Battell family took out a mortgage to provide capital for my father's M.A. at the university. Back in Ann Arbor, my father undertook courses in education as well as Greek and Latin, so that he might become a high school teacher. Two months after he returned to his studies, he met my mother in Muehlig's. The elderly Miss Wuestefeld, of Abigail High, who had taught Billy, had told him that she would hold on until William was finished with graduate school. Thus my father revisited, ten years afterward, the classroom where he had learned to chant amo, amas, amat, eagerly leading new students to recite amo, amas, amat. It was a secure position, as everyone knew: "There'll always be work for a Latin teacher." A monthly check would repay his family's bank loan and help to repair his conscience, mourning after the poisoned piglets. In Abigail his old schoolmates would breed him pupils and call him "professor" without irony. My parents had been married three years, and I was a baby, when the position of principal opened. My father was chosen not because of his administrative ability but because of his sex. Most teachers were women, but principals were men; only men could deal with unruly boys. Maybe my mother was unruly too.
My early life was happy -- or at least it was even, like a plain as it steadily upthrust a crop of corn. The radio and the automobile were our wonders, and I measure my childhood by the names of products: the Crosley, the Emerson, the Philco; the Model T, the brief blue Chevrolet, the Model A, which never broke down as we took rides every warm-weather Sunday afternoon, adventurously speeding at forty miles an hour over Michigan backcountry roads, knowing where we were headed without being sure how we would get there. My parents sat together in the front seat and I sat in the back, scooting from side to side in my Sunday dress as the landscape drew me. Having clear access to both sides was a luxury of only-child-hood. On these Sunday drives my parents spoke little. I watched my father's mild, bespectacled eyes take in an Angus herd; I gazed at my mother's poised, beautiful profile as her face turned from side to side, calm or complacent, accepting what the route offered. Every Sunday we rode two or three hours over southern Michigan and northern Ohio, looking at cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and horses. When we had driven as far as we would go, and started back, my father would search out an ice-cream parlor and treat us to a sundae.
Always we returned in order to ride our horses for an hour before Sunday-night supper, which was sandwiches around the radio. I cannot remember when the Jack Benny show began broadcasting, but in my old age Jack Benny's running gags, remembered, taste of cream cheese and crushed pineapple. My mother and I rode together after school in good weather. On Saturdays as well as Sundays all three of us saddled up: my father's horse, the roan stallion, Bigboy, unruly like a high school boy; my mother's Morgan mare, Benita; and my multicolor pony, Skylark, who was large enough to carry my slight figure until I was sixteen. These handsome creatures were the enduring quotidian romance of my girlhood. After school I curried Skylark's flanks until my mother was ready for our amble along a stony road at the side of a hayfield. Both my parents grew up with workhorses, and would have missed equine company were it not for these three, stabled in the barn adjacent to our chickens. I'm not sure why we kept chickens, except that my father considered farming a good thing -- and he no longer cared to raise pigs. Selling eggs and broilers paid for the hired men and the horses.
When my mother sat on a horse, she looked not like a Michigan farmgirl but like the Honorable Lady Something; she wore a horse the way a model wears clothes. My father was unpredictably impetuous, an excellent rider on a capricious, powerful horse. Bigboy liked to run, and would have run away if my father had not been so masterful; they galloped ahead of us and galloped back, pulling up in a froth of high spirits. One of my mother's teasing names for my father was Billy Cowboy.
Driving the car, my father, I imagine, daydreamed Latin. I have no notion what my mother dreamed. Maybe she thought of my father, or of Rudolph. Because Rudolph was the source of my mother's Latin, and because he and my father were both serious, even solemn, I came to think of Rudolph as an antecedent to my father. I considered that my mother made up for losing Rudolph when she married William. I was too shy to advance this theory to her until she was well into her eighties. "Perhaps," she said, but my notion clearly annoyed her. "They did not look alike at all," she said, and a moment later she wiped her eyes.
My mother learned to drive -- a fairly advanced idea for a small-town housewife in 1933 -- in order to go to the library, so that she and I could stock up on books. I progressed from dog-and-cat books to a wonderful poetry anthology called Silver Pennies. Next I found novels, from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to Black Beauty, with excursions into the Nancy Drew series, and started to inhabit the house of stories, in love with the improbable and the heroic. My mother enjoyed novels and biographies but cared more for poetry. She deserted Whittier for Wordsworth, and Longfellow for Keats, but she also admired the moderns: Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Masefield, Elinor Wylie, Edwin Arlington Robinson. She wore out a copy of Tristram. Later she found Robert Frost -- my father admired Frost, the classical side -- and the young Stephen Vincent Benét. It would have been too much for her to admire T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens; later, when I tried them on her (I was at college), she shook her head regretfully.
My father reread Virgil, Horace, and Catullus; he preferred Cicero's letters to his orations; he worked away at Thucydides, read journals of classical studies -- and increasingly took part in a battle over the place of classical studies in the American high school curriculum. Voices in the 1930s proclaimed that learning Latin was impractical, that our youth, rather than waste valuable time on dead languages, should concentrate on arithmetic, mechanical drawing, and business letters. To my father, the suggestion was retrograde. In Abigail he tried to institute at least one year of Latin for all students, with four years for those few students aiming toward college. Two years of Latin were required for admission to the University of Michigan.
He gave speeches after lunch at the Rotary Club; he wrote letters to the Abigail Journal. Although principal, he still taught Latin, and because he taught with enthusiasm, Abigail's Latin courses were well subscribed. Elsewhere the walls were falling. When an old Detroit high school chose to remove "Classical Academy" from its name, he wrote a letter to The Detroit News, ending, "If our civilization is to survive encroaching darkness, Latin and Greek must keep alight the fires of learning, shining beacons that keep us to the path." He signed it "William Hammersmith Battell, Principal, Abigail High School." If I let him sound pompous, remember that he pursued a passion.
With his duties as chairman of the Michigan Classical Association, and as secretary of the Great Lakes Latin Society, he paid less attention to our farm, haphazardly preserved by the succession of hired men. The first I remember is Herbert Ganke, an old man who talked to himself while he worked. He was courtly to me and my mother, and worked slowly but steadily. Once a month he got into trouble. Finally he passed out in a back yard after stealing clothes from the family's clothesline. Later we hired boys who worked a week or two and vanished; a sweet hobo named Tom lasted a whole winter, sleeping under the eaves in the hired man's room. He disappeared after one payday, around the time the snowdrops poked up. A shy, handsome local boy named Raymond was marvelous with horses, and could even control the volatile Bigboy. Raymond was illiterate, my mother discovered, and she taught him to read.
Late afternoons, when my father came home from school, and my mother and I were back from our ride, he changed into overalls, consulted with the latest hand, and checked out the hens while my mother cooked supper. I attended the one-room school a quarter of a mile away, and sometimes brought a friend, Caroline or Rebecca, back to play; but on rainy days, or when I played alone with my dollhouse or read stories, I interrupted myself to visit the barn and the outbuildings with Herbert or Raymond or Miller, to curry Skylark and feed apples to Skylark, Benita, and (carefully) Bigboy. Some hands were grumpy, possibly not fond of small girls, as I followed them around; others took the opportunity to smoke cigarettes and tell the stories of their lives. With Raymond, I was in love; after school I liked it when Raymond sat at the kitchen table doing his ABCs under my mother's supervision, reading my dog-and-cat books, moving on to Silver Pennies.
Often my mother and I remained alone together on weekends, quiet in the living room, or riding over dusty fields, while my father drove overnight up to Mackinac Island to chair an emergency meeting called by Michigan Concerned Latinists. No longer did my parents touch each other when they passed in the hallway. My father's eyes behind rimless glasses gazed into the distance, shiny with urgency. My mother's beautiful eyes looked low at hooked rugs and waxed floors, and I heard her sighing, sighing, sighing. I knew she was unhappy, and I sighed as I heard her sigh.
For my tenth birthday, in March of 1938, my parents gave me the sheepdog I had begged for. Memory of Dido as a puppy allows me to date events of that spring, because I recollect her with a love purer than any other; Skylark was dear, but did not follow me to school and to bed. At the library I discovered Albert Payson Terhune's Lad: A Dog and its siblings. With my mother I trained Dido; I slept with her; I grew up with her -- and when she died of old age at the farm (I was in graduate school, in a female co-op that forbade animals), a part of me died with her.
A month or two after my birthday I woke to hear my parents quarreling. I slept lightly that spring, for Dido wriggled under the covers or sometimes signaled that she needed to go out. It wasn't an argument that I heard first; it was the sound of my father crying unmitigated tears -- a sound I had never before heard. He was not an unemotional man, as men went in those days, and I had heard him weep over a friend's death; but that night I heard a terrible sound -- my father's wail of utter misery, as he gagged and coughed and spluttered. My heart pounded and I left my bed in order to run to their room, but then my mother's soft, continual murmur -- controlled, persistent -- held me back and calmed me, as it was intended to calm my father. I had no notion of the reason for his tears. I heard no words from him except "Ella" among the cries, and "Ella" repeated. When I made out her words, I heard her say that she loved him -- but the words carried a cadence of withholding, like "anyway" or "still" or "despite everything." She was trying to console him, but in her tone I heard something I had never heard before, as chilly as a wheat field in January.
For some nights -- a week? a month? -- I stayed awake deliberately in order to listen. I could not hear everything they said, and maybe I slept through a night or two, though I doubt it. I heard enough. With Dido's wriggling help, I conspired to hear my new parents, my parents as I had never known them. After years of our daily routine -- farm, school, horses, chickens, canning, quilting, Sunday rides, radio, Virgil -- I entered a moonless darkness of conspiracy as frigid as the stars. Everywhere I went, I carried with me this enormous debilitating secret, something I could not speak of to anyone -- not to Rebecca in the hayloft, not to my teacher at school, not to my cousins.
Night after night, when they thought I was asleep, I heard them quarrel. Sometimes they attacked each other. My mother's voice rose and I heard her use the word "divorce," a notion I scarcely understood. I heard my father say, "I'll take the child," and I realized they were talking about me. Increasingly now they mentioned "him," and I became aware that my mother loved someone other than my father. I hugged Dido so hard that she made a squeaking noise and then licked my face. Lying in bed with my dog, my heart pounding, I knew whom my mother loved. Only a short time before, just after my birthday, I had come home from school to find my mother agitated, not looking at me, running back and forth to tidy or do small chores. She told me that Raymond -- the boy she had taught to read -- no longer worked for us and that old Ferdinand was back, to fill in for a while. I had never liked Ferdinand, who didn't like children or perhaps girls, and I adored Raymond, so I burst into tears. My mother turned on me in a rage (something she never did, not even when I broke a cup of wedding china) and shouted, "Go to your room!"
It was Raymond whom my mother loved instead of my father. That Raymond was ten years younger than she was -- feckless though sweet, illiterate, diffident, from a family that lived in a shack, with a father often in jail -- did not then occur to me. Later I put things in their places: my father had raised himself up, become learned, dedicated himself to the finer things, become "professor" in Abigail; how it must have pummeled him, along with profounder jealousy, that my mother picked Raymond to love -- Raymond who had never graduated from grammar school. Doubtless my mother loved Raymond at least partly because he was so pitiable, so unlike my distinguished father. Something about Raymond was pathetic or beaten, even hangdog. A combination of prettiness and need made him so attractive.
Listening to my stranger-parents, in their hurts and deliberations, I felt terror and misery. But I also felt exalted: I was a romantic figure, like a child in a book, like the match girl in the snow, a wistful, pathetic product of adult abandonment or deceit. In my conspiracy or secret knowledge, in my separation from my parents and the rest of my world -- friends and school and house, everyone but Dido, who listened to my complaints ecstatic with adoration -- I felt myself the locus of an extraordinary fate. I thrilled myself with the vision of my despair. I felt ennobled by self-pity and by awareness of, and admiration for, my mother's recklessness, beauty, abandon, and sin.
One night I heard my father say "Damn you to hell!" -- he never swore -- and laugh when my mother took offense. I seemed to have been stolen by gypsies. My parents had been gypsies always, disguising themselves as ordinary Michigan people. During the day -- I was sleepy, of course; my mother was puzzled when I dozed in my school dress on the hearthrug after school -- my parents tried to carry on as they always had. I was impressed by the aplomb with which they behaved, "for the child's sake." Their ability to deceive, to be utterly different by day and by night, carved itself into my soul. My father came home from school, put on his overalls, did a few chores with Ferdinand, spoke politely with my mother over dinner, and asked Camilla about her schoolwork. We were a conspiracy of three, a play for three characters. I pretended or dissembled as much as they did, and rejoiced in the skill of my deceit. I pretended ignorance or innocence while I knew for certain that my parents were cruel enemies inside the appearance of their marriage. Although they continued as if they cared for me, I was alien and an encumbrance. We were three strangers, as only I was aware.
Officially I did not know the facts of life, as we called sex in those years, because parents waited to tell a daughter until she was ready to menstruate. But as a farm child I had watched barnyard copulation. Already I was attempting to read novels written for adults in which men and women -- when they loved each other, whether they were married or not -- disappeared into the privacy of a blank page to do something that confirmed their love and made for mayhem. I knew what they did; it was wicked and it was wonderful, the most extreme of pleasures and the worst. I knew that my mother and Raymond -- while my father and I were at school, or on weekends when my father and I visited someone -- did what the rooster did with the hens; what the stallion Bigboy attempted with the neutered mare Benita.
One night, as my parents spoke in bed, I understood that they were approaching a crisis. The next night at nine o'clock Raymond would come to the house and the three of them would talk. From what was said I gathered that they would decide about divorce and about "the child." The next night, after dinner, my father proposed that we ride in the car. It was unheard of that I stay up after seven on a school night; they wanted to tire me out so that I would sleep soundly. Disingenuously I remarked on my late bedtime, and in a single voice my parents said that it didn't matter, that I could sleep in and be late for school. They seemed unaware how unprecedented their behavior was.
That night I did not need to struggle to stay awake; I set my bedroom door ajar and crouched on the floor with my ear at the opening, hugging Dido, so that I would miss nothing. I heard Raymond -- he had an unusual gait -- walk up the path. I heard him enter; I heard perfunctory, conventional exchanges. How frightened Raymond must have been. I could imagine his drawn, white, lean, weak, handsome face. I heard my father's level voice, grave and formal; I heard my mother weeping; I heard a new sound that I could identify as Raymond's tears. Later I heard my father weeping also -- three grown-ups crying in the living room at the foot of the long stairs.
Maybe I dropped off to sleep, leaning between the doorjamb and Dido, because the next sound I heard was a shout of rage or despair, and then came hurried steps and the door slamming and steps running outside. Raymond had run away. I pushed my face around the jamb of the door and saw that my father and mother stood side by side. Suddenly I heard my father scream, "Bitch!" The front door hurtled open, my father shouted, "I'll never be back!" -- and I heard the door slam again. I crept to the top of the stairs. My mother stood in the doorway as the Model A started and my father drove away. When she turned back to enter the living room, I stood halfway down the stairs in my white nightgown, a fierce Virgilian warrior who had read Victorian romances. "I have known all," I said.
The night of the confrontation my father could not have stayed away for long. We ate breakfast together the next morning; I remember because we had pancakes, a rarity usually saved for birthdays. In my ten-year-old cynicism I made note of our treat. My mother never looked me in the eye; my father praised the pancakes and left quickly, but behaved toward me with his competent affectation of ordinariness, which let me understand that my mother had not spoken of my eavesdropping.
When she saw me on the stairs, as she turned back from the door, her face went dead white. After I made my rehearsed announcement, she struggled quickly to recover herself, and asked questions to find out what I knew. At once I dissembled; her aspect terrified me, and in order to bring blood back into her face I lied or played innocent. When she asked me what I had known, I answered only that my father was not coming back. My mother assured me, grasping for an appearance of calm, that he didn't mean it. Forcing a frail smile, she said, "He'll be back soon, Camilla." They had quarreled about the horses; she wanted him to sell Bigboy . . . When I kept my silence then, my secrecy resumed itself forever. My secrecy dug itself a lightless castle inside the hill. My secrecy bricked up a dungeon door behind which something still languishes. Our lives restored themselves -- at least theirs did, or seemed to. I doubt that my mother saw Raymond again. Four or five years later he was killed in the war; I know that much only because his name with its gold star ornaments the scroll by the Abigail Town Hall. If anyone else came into my mother's life, later or earlier, I never knew it. My father went back to his Latin classes and his school administration. Every day after chores he sat down to his books, Lucretius more than Virgil, Tacitus more than Livy, some Horace but never Ovid. In the evenings he studied while my mother quilted or revisited her poets, or read novels aloud to my father and me: Dickens, Mark Twain, early Steinbeck. After a while they were touching each other again; I watched with careful, secretive eyes. Two years later my mother had a hysterectomy and told me I would remain an only child.
Surely I was changed forever. Life at the farm was calm, but I lived elsewhere in my fancy. I absented myself by reading stories, imagining myself a reckless heroine or a pathetic victim. Outside the house of fiction I was chronically restless. Nothing in life, I knew, was what it appeared to be. When I read a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, I recognized the minister and his pious congregation who met at midnight in the woods to celebrate mass for the devil. I knew that by universal conspiracy we agreed to deny the secret wickedness of every human being. We needed, every hour, to understand that the fabric of routine covered unseen deceptions and enormities. We also needed to remember that the cloth must show no rips or tears, and that this covering was as real as anything. I admired the fabrics my father and mother wove, whatever might throb or coil underneath the cloth.
When I left home, at eighteen, to attend the University of Michigan, I contrived to continue the life of fiction. I delighted in keeping two or three boyfriends at the same time; my schemes provided opportunity for plot-making. Majoring in English, I found Henry James, and wrote an honors thesis on What Maisie Knew -- and I knew what Maisie knew better than my teachers did. My parents were pleased with my academic success. My father offered to finance a Ph.D. if I wished to enter his profession as a college teacher, but I wanted to write rather than to talk about the writing of others. I won a Hopwood in fiction, took an M.A. in library science, and spent many years working in the library at Barnaby Academy in Grosse Arbor, south of Detroit -- a servant in the house of fiction, and in the houses of history, poetry, and biography. I found it less necessary to dissemble in my private life as I plotted and published my own literary fictions. Critics sometimes wondered at the violence in my stories, not aware of my provenance as warrior.
My history is not especially interesting; nor was my parents' history, so far as I can tell, after the incident of Raymond. They lived the even life of the cornfields, with their horses and Chevrolets, with their quilts and classical studies. I visited sometimes for weekends. Sometimes we met in Detroit or Ann Arbor for a play or a concert. When I married, they approved of my husband, and when Valerie was born, my mother spent two weeks with us, sleeping on the sofa, to help me out. We lived in a dormitory then, because my husband taught French at the academy, and my mother's aging beauty did not escape the attention of the sixteen-year-olds on our hall. During the long illness of my daughter -- she contracted leukemia at five, when medicine seldom cured leukemic children -- my parents tendered comfort and support. They took a new mortgage after paying off the old, to help with expenses; more important, they supplied their presence, their grief, and their abundant tears.
Our marriage could not survive Valerie's death. My husband and I could scarcely look at each other, and both of us found comfort elsewhere. I fell in love with a student, as it happens, and caused considerable suffering. When my ex-husband, Emil, suddenly flew off to teach at the American School in Beirut, the football coach's ex-wife went with him. Emil subsequently achieved fame, if that's the word: three and a half years as a hostage; freedom; talk shows; a book, in which "an early marriage" received mention.
I remained for two decades in the Barnaby library; the school authorities never acknowledged my escapade -- if they ever knew. I settled down among the books and the bookish boys. My fiction enjoyed some success, so the English department borrowed me to teach a writing class. When I was forty-five, I married a widower retired from Ford, a rare executive who loved theater and literature, and we led a good life together until he died, nine years later. I found relative comfort in middle age, as I suppose my parents did.
But I need to say: Even through the worst times -- torments and disasters; losses; gains that were worse than losses -- I kept on loving my parents. Whatever they did in the dark of the moon, they performed as well as they could in daylight. I honored their brave, sad endeavor. When I sought calm, waiting for electroshock during depression in the worst years, I thought of Sunday rides in the Model A -- the back of my mother's neck and my father's trim haircut.
When Latin went down to defeat after the war, my father withdrew from teaching but remained principal of Abigail High until he retired, at sixty-five, the subject of farewell banquets and testimonials. He lived for eleven more years, pruning fruit trees and raising berries on the farm he had brought his bride to. Occasionally he worked at translating Lucretius into blank verse, a project with which my mother helped; her ear for iambic pentameter was more secure than my father's. I keep the unfinished manuscript, with its fussy Victorian diction. When he died, my mother remained on the old place; I moved there when she was eighty, about five years after my second husband died. I read Tristram aloud to her, along with Rabbit, Run. We walked every day in the pine woods that grew where hayfields had been. We drove to Ann Arbor for the bookstores, and visited Muehlig's, which appeared to have shrunk. We drove to Detroit to see the Rivera murals again. In desultory fashion I finished a quilt she had started, and I held my mother's hand when she died, last year, at eighty-seven. I board my horse at a neighbor's farm; my latest sheepdog is another Dido; I live in the house where everything happened.
Or almost everything. In her last years my mother kept returning in her mind to her cousin Rudolph, and told me much of what I recounted earlier. I listened hard to understand her, Ella still beautiful in the noble bones of her lean ninth-decade face. When I heard her speak of Rudy's young pedantry, expressed in bookishness and missionary Christianity, I thought of my father, although my father was never troubled by diffidence. Then I made the association that annoyed her. Once, as she spoke of Rudy, she revealed something else, or two things at once: Rudolph's eyes, she said, were a blue-gray one could never forget -- light and mild, yet so piercing that they were painful to look at. She remembered such eyes in one other face only -- that of a farmhand named Raymond, she said, whom I had probably forgotten.
Her mind remained sharp, although she sometimes wandered among episodes of the past. "Nothing happened," she told me during the last month of her life, "in Willow Temple that day." I knew what day she meant. "But maybe he felt something," she said, and stopped speaking.
"Maybe he wanted something to happen?" I said.
"I've thought so," she said. "Maybe he felt something in his trousers. I've wondered so." I held her hand. "It could have been something as small as that." Then her old humor asserted itself: "Not that I had witnessed his dimensions!" She laughed her trim laugh. "It was so long ago," she said. "He wanted so much to go to China. What if something had happened in Willow Temple? Sometimes I think he never died." She shook her head to deny dementia. "Sometimes I think he never lived -- or that I never lived, or your father. How preposterous we are. Jokes and disasters, that's all there are. Is." Her tone suggested that she spoke without consequence. "The world is arbitrary," she went on. "Why did I work at Muehlig's? Why did the pigs die? Why do poets write poems? If insulin had been discovered, I would never have known Huldah; I might have been a Christian. Why did Raymond put a noose over his head?"
Some mistakes you don't point out. Some mistakes lack great implication, though I suspect that nothing is wholly arbitrary -- not mistaken names or poisoned pigs or leukemia or a kidnapping in Beirut. The latest Dido let me understand that she wanted to go outside, and I took her walking past fallen outbuildings into the new wood.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October, 1996; From Willow Temple; Volume 278, No. 4; pages 85-102.