[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.