The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 2

Campo dei Miracoli
Campo dei Miracoli

At Mme Meringue’s

After their visit to the Leaning Tower, Polly and her parents checked out of the Grand Hotel Duomo and took a taxi across the Arno River to Mme Meringue’s attractive home on a side street not far from the train station. The little yellow-stucco house was narrow but had four stories, with balconies on each of the top three floors. Tubs of tiny white flowers decorated the balconies, and vines with more tiny white flowers climbed up the ironwork and cascaded back down over the railings. On the lowest balcony, three yellow lemons peeked out of the leaves on a small tree in a clay pot.

The taxi waited while Polly’s parents shook hands with Mme Meringue and hugged Polly farewell. An African boy whom Mme Meringue introduced as Charles—saying, “Charles helps me out from time to time”—picked up Polly’s suitcases, waved away her father’s offer of help, and disappeared up a stairway in the front hall. Pleased to see someone about her own age, Polly wondered which country he was from and whether he and she would become friends. Polly’s parents didn’t have much time before their train left for Naples. “We’re sorry not to see your room, Polly,” her father said. “Mme Meringue, Polly has our address and phone number. She’s a good girl; I don’t think she’ll be too much trouble.”

Polly followed Mme Meringue and her small dog to the third floor—so much for any notion of sneaking out her window. Mme Meringue opened the door and stepped back for Polly to enter her bedroom for the summer. The room looked like the inside of a snowbank. The headboard on the bed was white padded vinyl, scalloped at the top and rising on each end to a little white knob. A thick comforter—white, of course—covered the bed, and on top of it Mme Meringue had placed huge pillows trimmed in lace. Polly walked over to examine the pretty pillows, which were embroidered with light-yellow roses. She couldn’t wait to climb up on the bed with a good book, but that desire was immediately squelched. “I know you won’t lie on the spread or throw your books on it,” said Mme Meringue. Her golden spaniel looked at Polly as if to say, “I’d never jump on the bed.”

Polly suddenly felt as though someone else had come into the room. Expecting to see Charles, she turned from the bed toward the door. But all she saw was her tall, stout landlady and the snooty little dog. Mme Meringue was pointing to a small desk with a matching chair. “Over here is a lovely desk for studying your lessons and writing to your little friends. I’ll bet mamma and papà would appreciate a letter now and then, too.”

The desk was as white as the bed and walls, except for gold trim along the edges and on the drawer knobs. The desk, a chest of drawers, and a freestanding wardrobe made a matching set, along with the enormous mirror framed in white and gold that hung over the chest. Over the bed, Mme Meringue had hung a picture of two little girls skipping between rows of towering yellow sunflowers. Yellow seemed to be the one bright color Polly’s new landlady would tolerate. Polly loved sunflowers as much as the next person, but she couldn’t see herself skipping through a field of them.

Really, the room was beautiful, if she hadn’t been afraid to touch—and cautioned against marring—just about everything in it. And how was she supposed to walk on the deep, white carpet without leaving dirty marks, no matter how hard she’d scraped her shoes on the front stoop? Mme Meringue soon answered that question: “In the future, you’ll want to leave your shoes down on the little mat just inside the front door. I’m sure your mother has packed you some lovely slippers that will serve well here at home.” So that’s why Mme Meringue was wearing bedroom slippers—with fluffy white feathers on the top.

The worst thing about the room was its failure to include a single bookcase. In fact, it only contained one book—a white-leather Bible on the bedside table, which also held a white lamp topped by a white shade decorated with pompoms. Polly supposed Mme Meringue would have had a problem finding enough white books to fill even the tiniest bookcase. That was okay; Polly had brought plenty of books with her, as her parents had grumblingly noted when they’d helped her with her luggage at the New York and Pisa airports.

“I’ll leave you to get settled. Cena will be at seven. That is a bit early, perhaps, but I understand you Americans eat your—‘supper’ is it?—practically in the afternoon, and I have some things I need to do this evening.” Mme Meringue’s accent was even more pronounced as she slipped in the English word among her fluent but—even to Polly’s unpracticed ears—French-tinged Italian. Polly was relieved that her landlady spoke slowly enough for her to understand without struggling. She’d been very worried before her trip about whether her own Italian would be up to the test of everyday use.

Polly’s school back in New York offered all sorts of languages, and she felt lucky to be heading into the eighth grade with three years of Italian already behind her. Her teacher, signora Martinelli, was Italian herself, from Rome, and she was the one who had done the most to help Polly fall in love with the language. Signora Martinelli loved music, too—opera, especially—and played recordings of beautiful arias for the class. Some of the kids mocked and pantomimed the singing, but Polly adored Italian opera and hoped to attend at least one during the summer.

As soon as Mme Meringue left her alone, and before she even thought about it, Polly pulled the book she was reading from her overnight case, slipped out of her sandals, and lay down on the thick, white quilt, her head against the luxurious pile of pillows. But her conscience quickly reminded her to jump up again and pull back the quilt. The blanket underneath was equally white, but Polly’s conscience didn’t bother her about lying on that and leaning back again against the pillows. She opened the book, which was by Bianca Pitzorno, her favorite Italian author, but didn’t read more than a paragraph before she fell asleep.

 

When she awoke, the soft light through the shuttered window told Polly the day was far advanced. After a moment of feeling disoriented about where she was, Polly remembered, glanced in haste at the clock beside the bed, and was relieved to find that cena was still half an hour away. She didn’t want to irritate Mme Meringue, especially the first day, and even more especially given what Polly had in mind for later.

Cena was in the dining room. A soup course had been served at the two places set with elegant silverware, delicate glasses, and linen napkins. Mme Meringue was already at the place at the far end of the table, which would have seated eight comfortably. She motioned to Polly to take the seat at the opposite end of the table. In contrast to Polly’s bedroom, the dining room was dark and formal. The massive furniture was intricately carved. A spectacular crystal chandelier hung so low over the table that it obscured part of Mme Meringue’s curly hairdo and made it look as if she were wearing an elaborate glass headdress. Polly imagined that Mme Meringue had eaten here with her husband when he’d been alive. Had he been called “signor Meringue”?[1] she wondered. Could an Italian man possibly have the name “Meringue”? And was that smiling, gray-haired man in the portrait over the buffet cabinet her landlady’s husband? He had warm, cheery eyes. “Is that a portrait of signor Meringue?” she got up the courage to ask, indicating the picture.

“Oh no, my dear—I mean, yes, that is my husband, my dear Gustavo, but he was Gustavo Bonetti. Italian women retain their maiden name after marriage, although they are also referred to as ‘la signora so-and-so,’ according to their husband’s name. My dear Gustavo was always proud of me and liked to introduce me as ‘my wife, Mme Minou Meringue.’”

“He looks very nice, very kind,” said Polly, thinking that she, too, would keep her own name if she married.

“He was the kindest man you could ever imagine,” Mme Meringue said so softly and sadly that Polly thought for a moment she was about to cry. Polly wouldn’t have blamed anyone for crying from missing such a sweet-looking husband, not at all what Polly would have imagined proper Mme Meringue’s husband to be like.

Mme Meringue abruptly stood up. “I think I would like some more of that minestra. Can I interest you in another cup, Polly?”

As good as the soup was, Polly wanted to leave room for whatever was coming next. She’d been learning about Italian meals and their multiple courses, and besides, she was too preoccupied with all that had happened and all that still lay ahead for the evening to have her full appetite.

Charles was not around, and no other household members were in evidence. Mme Meringue served the meal herself, fussing over whether Polly was eating enough. Polly tried to reassure her: “Really, it’s so good! I’m not very hungry—maybe still a little jet-lagged—but I love the pasta! But really, I’ve had plenty!” Polly had to admit that Mme Meringue did have a talent for pasta, even if she were French instead of Italian. A tasty piece of baked haddock and spinach with olive oil and lemon juice followed the pasta course. Like the rest of the meal, they were served on fragile-looking blue and white china, which Polly imagined Mme Meringue bringing with her from France. And then she was happy to see that dessert was a dish of raspberries, which Polly loved, and a cheese plate she could safely decline. As much as she liked sweets such as tiramisu, she absolutely would have had to turn down a rich dessert.

Beyond the discussion of Polly’s appetite, the dinner conversation felt like a game of Twenty Questions, with Mme Meringue asking almost all the questions and sticking to such topics as Polly’s school, friends, hobbies, and house back home.

Polly offered to help with the dishes, but Mme Meringue declined, much to Polly’s relief because time was getting tight. “No, dear, I have my own system in the kitchen. There will be some little chores for you some other time.”

Polly announced a strong desire to take a walk. “My parents and I nearly always take a walk after supper in the summertime,” she said. The statement would have been true if she’d substituted “sometimes” for “nearly always.” She wasn’t a bit comfortable stretching the truth anytime, much less so early in her relationship with Mme Meringue, but she also wasn’t about to miss meeting Sofia at the Leaning Tower.

“As long as you don’t mind my not walking with you,” said Mme Meringue quite amiably. “I’ll give you a key—you’ll need it for the summer in case I’m out sometimes when you come home.”

Polly wondered fleetingly if she had imagined the whole encounter with Sofia or if someone were playing a trick on her. But how could that be the case? Not one to follow other people’s notions of what she should do unless she agreed the plans made sense, Polly quickly dismissed any question in her mind about why she was going along with Sofia’s demand to meet her at the Leaning Tower. Polly knew why she’d agreed. She had always thought—and hoped—there were people like Sofia around, but she didn’t know anyone else who’d actually had an experience like the one she’d had that afternoon. If Sofia existed, maybe Polly’s grandfather, whom she missed like crazy, was sometimes around, too, and even ancestors she’d never had a chance to meet. Here was an incredible opportunity to find out how these things worked.

Mme Meringue continued, “I might as well alert you now: I don’t like to be disturbed in the evening because that is when I study my Bible—and watch my television shows,” she added candidly. “You’ll certainly be back well before dark, won’t you? I can’t imagine your parents would be happy about your running around Pisa after dark. After all, you have to be up early for your class tomorrow. I don’t suppose you’d be in any actual danger if you stay in the neighborhood, but it’s simply not proper for a girl of your age.” Fortunately she assumed Polly’s compliance and didn’t wait for an answer before continuing: “And I will never trust those Gypsies and extra-comunitari. Pisa would be so much more civilized without them.”

“What are ‘extracomunitari’?” asked Polly.

“Outsiders, strangers, people from distant places.”

“Then I’m an extracomunitaria?”

“Why of course I wouldn’t call you that, dear! I’m talking about people like those African merchants who sell hats and sunglasses and all manner of other nonsense. I can’t even walk to the train station without passing a half dozen of them along the sidewalk. Charles—the boy who carried up your luggage—is an extracomunitario. It’s true that he’s quite a good young man, but I don’t approve in the least of his selling souvenirs with the rest of that lot. He’s hanging around with a very bad crowd, I have no doubt. Their businesses—if you can call a collection of trinkets laid out on bedsheets ‘businesses’—should all be shut down, even Charles’s. It would be for his own good to make him take up a respectable trade.”

“Does he have a family here in Pisa?”

“Of course not. That’s not the way they do.”

“He doesn’t look very old. How would he earn a living if he gave up his business?”

“I could find him plenty of work as a houseboy, the way he works for me from time to time, but he makes ridiculous claims about his souvenir trade helping people back home. I can’t imagine there’s much left over after Charles pays his living expenses. Enough about that; I’m keeping you from your walk.

“Here’s my extra key—but don’t lose it,” Mme Meringue added after taking the key from a shelf next to the window. Polly hated it when adults cautioned her not to lose things. Both of Polly’s parents lost things more often than she did, but they, too, were always telling her to hold on to this or that.

“Have a nice walk, and please be quiet when you come in.”

No problem, thought Polly. She intended to be very, very quiet. The late-setting June sun would have long since disappeared below the horizon when she returned from her meeting at the tower. She fervently hoped Mme Meringue wouldn’t be checking her room to see if she’d safely arrived home.

Polly walked the three blocks to the train station through the warm early evening, the sun casting long shadows over the Pisans and tourists out for an after-supper stroll. A few of the street merchants that Mme Meringue had called extracomunitari still had their wares spread on the sidewalk under the arcade along Viale Gramsci, the boulevard leading to the station. She smiled at a middle-aged man who was sitting on a folding chair with his back to the wall. He returned her smile and “buona sera.” Polly would have liked to look more closely at the sun hats he was selling, but doing so would have to wait for another time. She hurried on to the station—where, she’d learned from the desk clerk at the Grand Hotel Duomo, one could catch a bus to the Leaning Tower. Clutching one of the bus tickets her parents had purchased for her at a newsstand near the hotel, she checked the posted routes, located the right stop, and read the schedule. Another bus to the tower would be along in fifteen minutes.

To pass the time, she stepped inside the station, called Pisa Centrale. Sounds boomed and echoed, and the loudspeaker announced a train in arrivo and then another in partenza. Polly bought a copy of the newspaper Il Tirreno at the newsstand so she could practice reading more Italian and then headed back outside to catch the bus.

After crossing the Arno River near Santa Maria della Spina—a tiny church right at the river’s edge—the bus continued on through city streets until it stopped by the Porta di Santa Maria archway in the old city wall. Just beyond, looking like a fantasy painting in the low-angled light, was the Campo dei Miracoli with its baptistery, cathedral, and bell tower—the Leaning Tower. The tower was framed by the deepening blue of dusk and illuminated softly from within to show the way for tourists still inside at this late hour.

“It looks like a candle made of moonlight, don’t you think?” a rather loud voice said in her ear.

“Sofia? You scared me!”

“Sorry. It’s just so pretty; it makes me proud. And I could tell you were impressed. Come and sit with me on the steps on the other side of the cathedral. We’ll find a place that’s private so no one thinks you’re talking to yourself and calls the police to take you away.” Sofia’s cackling laugh was disconcertingly piercing, and two women standing nearby looked around at Polly. “Don’t worry, I’ll follow you. Just pick a good spot.”

On the far side of the cathedral, Polly was eventually able to find a place to sit on a step where no one was in easy earshot. She settled herself and listened expectantly.

[1] In Italian, titles such as “signore” (spelled “signor” before a name) are not capitalized.

Pathway

I travel a path through the trees,
A golden path of leaf-filtered sunlight—
The clearing lined with beauty and decay—
A trail of hidden destinations,
Lonely when walked alone
Without companions
And seemingly without belonging,
Yet when I feel love, send love,
Into the trees, the clouds, the stars, the universe,
Love shines back on me
Though fear and fatigue
Feel more tangible, more present;
I strain to see where the path is taking me
And forget sometimes where it began,
Has been;
The rain comes;
Flowers bloom and die;
I run ahead
And circle back,
Throw myself on a boulder
To wail my misery,
But when I stand again
And look within,
The light has returned
And my companions are with me
As I am with them,
And even in the moments of lightning
Striking the ground at our feet,
Even as thunder recalls us to misery
Asking concern and kindness,
Our stepping into brambles
To comfort suffering creatures
And one another, strangers and friends,
The Moon bathes us in healing warmth
And the Sun pours out its rays;
So I will continue
Following my path,
Absorbing the steps and scenes,
Including the beasts that threaten,
Along the miraculous way.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 1

Leaning Tower Stairs
Inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa

At Home in the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Hey, Polly, I’ll see you up there!” Thinking her mother had called to her in amazingly good Italian, Polly was jolted out of her daydream. She’d been imagining what it would be like inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The high-pitched yapping of a small dog had muffled the voice a little, but who else could be calling her by name? It wasn’t a man’s voice; it couldn’t have been her father.

Polly looked around for the dog and for her mother. She finally spotted her parents talking together up at the head of the line of people waiting for a guide to lead them over to the tower. So who had spoken to Polly? She must be imagining things. That’s what comes from being excited. One of the world’s most amazing buildings, her geography book had called it. The tilting layers of white marble were just about the most incredible sight Polly had ever seen.

After the line began to move, she continued to hang back in the group of tourists with reservations to visit the Leaning Tower at one o’clock on that hot June afternoon. Her parents, used to her independent ways, entered the tower door ahead of her. Polly didn’t want anyone to distract her as she climbed. She was last to step through the entrance and onto the first stone step, which had been worn into a shallow trough. Over the centuries, who had gone before her up those stairs—how many thousands of men, women, and children? As she began climbing the spiral staircase lining the tower walls, she wasn’t really aware of the slant. The steps felt smooth and a little slippery beneath the rubber soles of her sandals.

Polly ran her hand over the blocks of stone forming the inside wall of the stairwell. On one block, the surface had been worn away; the pebbly fill behind it would be lighter than solid rock. As it was, she’d read the Leaning Tower weighed nearly 18,000 tons—how anyone had figured that out, Polly couldn’t guess. After the third level, the climb seemed a little easier. She thought she was just getting into the rhythm of ascending but then saw the steps were not as high. With the rest of the group out of sight ahead, Polly could send her mind back four hundred, five hundred, six hundred years and more—to the time when the tower was finished in 1350, almost two hundred years after it was begun, and farther back still to the people of medieval Pisa watching their magnificent bell tower grow in fits and starts and lean long before it was complete.

Two hundred ninety, 291, 292, 293—a slightly scary giant step brought Polly from the stairwell to the floor surrounded by the tower bells. Beyond them, the rest of the Campo dei Miracoli—the Field of Miracles—spread out in front of her: the roof and lacy dome of the cathedral, the round hat-like baptistery, and the perfect wide, green lawn beneath the marble buildings. In the distance, she could see the high mountains from which this marble had come, the same mountains that later would give Michelangelo his carving stone. Lower and more rounded Tuscan hills led off toward the city of Florence.

Polly’s parents left her alone to bask in the Leaning Tower and its sights. By the time most of the group had already started back down the steps, Polly was still gazing at the marble mountains. Suddenly, startling her again, a friendly but slightly boisterous voice called out, “Ciao, Polly! Sono Sofia, la ragazza nella Torre Pendente.”—“Hi, Polly! I’m Sofia, the girl in the Leaning Tower.” The closest person to Polly just then was a middle-aged man taking pictures of a scene from the opposite side. “Stop looking around; you won’t find me,” said the same voice, still in Italian. Actually it really didn’t sound at all like Polly’s mother, even though Polly realized this was the same person who’d addressed her before. In spite of the noise from the barking dog, Polly had heard well enough to conclude in retrospect the Italian had come from a native speaker, and a young one at that.

Polly felt less unnerved than she might have expected to be, hearing a disembodied girl talking to her at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Maybe it was the tower’s aura of hundreds of years of history and the awareness it gave her of the countless lives that had filled that history. “Ciao,” Polly replied tentatively, hoping to be clued in about what was going on without having to ask for an explanation. She couldn’t stop herself from looking around again for some trace of the girl, but she saw only the man taking pictures, the guide—who was standing near the steps and looking a little bored—two older women about to enter the stairwell, puffy white clouds floating in the blue sky, the bells and arches surrounding her, and the Tuscan landscape fading into the distance.

“I remember when everywhere you looked, you saw forests, right up to the edge of the city, and great sailing ships in the harbor—ships back from places like Sicily and even Constantinople. Sometimes on a really quiet, starry night when I sneaked here to the tower alone—it wasn’t nearly so tall then—I heard wolves howling on the hillsides.”

Polly noticed the guide glance at her and then at the man taking pictures; they were now the only two from the group who hadn’t yet started down. “I have to go now,” she said urgently. “Please tell me who you are, but talk softly. That guide is giving me strange looks.”

“I told you: I’m Sofia.” The girl was still louder than Polly would have liked. “Meet me here tonight, about ten. We’ll be able to talk better without so many people around.”

Then Polly, too, had trouble keeping her voice down. She exclaimed, “But I can’t climb the tower that late! I’m going to be staying with a lady on the other side of the river. What will she say when I tell her, ‘I’ll be leaving after dark to meet some kind of ghost at the top of the Leaning Tower’? She’ll have me shipped back to New York so fast I won’t know what hit me, or down to join my parents—they’ll be in Naples by then. More likely I’d beat them there.” For the guide’s benefit, Polly tried to look fascinated by the nearest bell.

“Don’t be dumb—you’ll think of something better than that. But okay, make it nine o’clock. Any earlier and you won’t have time to finish supper and get back here. You’d better go now; that guide is giving you a funny look. He thinks you’re talking to yourself. Besides, kids are supposed to be with an adult.” Sofia finally switched to a whisper. “Naturally I don’t mean meet me up here. I’ll see you outside the tower—at nine sharp, remember. Hurry up; you’re almost the last one, not counting me, of course. Oh and by the way, I’m not just ‘some kind of ghost’!”

“And I’m not a kid,” Polly couldn’t resist adding. “I’m almost thirteen.”

“I know, but you look about ten. Now hurry up!”

“Woof!” said a small dog.

“Be quiet, Kinzica!” whispered Sofia before Polly had a chance to realize how out of place a “woof” was on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Both the guide and the man taking pictures looked over at Polly, and she saw the guide move toward her. She started on her way back down the stairs so fast she nearly stumbled on the top step.

Polly barely noticed a thing about the descent, except that the steps seemed even slipperier going this way, and she wondered what would happen if she really lost her footing and slid all the way to the bottom. She didn’t, though, no thanks to her attentiveness. Instead, as she descended she puzzled about how Sofia had known her name and age and how she could possibly sneak out of Madame Meringue’s house to meet Sofia. Maybe Mme Minou Meringue would be an easygoing lady, but when Polly and her parents had called from New York to make the arrangements for Polly to stay with her, she’d sounded prim. Polly imagined her as strict and set in her ways. The fact that a lady living in Italy insisted on being called “Madame,” rather than “signora,” was certainly unexpected. It was true that Mme Meringue was originally from France, but her husband had been Italian and she’d told Polly and her parents, “I’ve lived in Pisa for forty years and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

“You must have really liked it up there,” Polly’s father said after she’d spotted her parents and joined them where they were waiting for her a few feet beyond the tower entrance.

“I was glad to come down,” said Polly’s mother, “even though I loved the view and the notion of being on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which I’ve read about my entire life. The whole time I was standing up there, I had the strange notion the tower could topple over at any moment.”

“The bells were so interesting,” said Polly rather distractedly. “Did you know they play a musical scale—one note for each of the seven bells?” she thought to add, to make her lingering on the top seem only a matter of fascination with details.

“For a girl who never cared much for history, you’ve done a great job of studying about the tower. We’ll miss having you with us in Naples for lots of reasons. You’re our tour guide!” said her father, giving her a hug. Polly thought her parents were more worried than she was about the prospect of spending a summer apart. She’d miss them a lot, but she also looked forward to adventures on her own—assuming Mme Meringue didn’t prove to be too formidable. As far as meeting Sofia was concerned, it would probably turn out to feel more comfortable working around even a formidable landlady than misleading her almost-always-reasonable parents. She didn’t think they’d be a bit keen on her showing up at the Leaning Tower alone at dusk, but by that time, they’d be settling into their apartment in Naples, where they were going to spend the summer buying contemporary Italian art and crafts for their gallery back in New York City.

A Hayek Trilogy

I would like to introduce you to my parents’ memoirs—Paint Lick, by Doris Burgess Hayek, and Growing to 80, by Mason Hayek—and to my own, A Woman in Time.  My parents and I were a team.  A clerk once asked the three of us if we were triplets.  When we were on a Hawaiian cruise, my father asked a new acquaintance which of my parents I looked like.  The acquaintance said, “You all three look alike.”  And so it just makes sense that our memoirs would be completed at the same time, December 2016.  The resemblance and closeness were more than skin deep.  We even referred to ourselves as the Triplets or the Three Musketeers.

I’ll be sharing our books and telling a little about our stories because I believe that every life is a story worth telling, both for the ways it contrasts with others’ and for the qualities we humans have in common.  My parents grew up in an era and in settings that would be lost if stories such as theirs were not told.  My life, too, has had its memorable times.  And like everyone, I see the world in my own, individual way.  So I share my parents’ and my books as part of a conversation.  The other half of the conversation is in readers’ memories as they—as you—compare lives and points of view.

Paint Lick Cover

While my mother’s memoir was finished in December, it had been in progress for decades.  Her book, called Paint Lick after the village in Kentucky where she grew up, is based on transcripts of tape recordings that she made about her experiences.  She was a gifted storyteller, and my father recorded many of her stories during the long drives between Delaware and Kentucky, to and from visits to our relatives’ homes.  In addition to transcribing the tapes, my father did preliminary editing for my mother’s book.  She herself turned several of the transcribed episodes into polished chapters.  Then I had the honor of completing the editing—of sorting and pulling together the transcripts and essays and of adding additional material from taped interviews with my mother that I had made, including several during the last few years before she passed away in February 2014.  The cover photograph shows my mother (with a gosling on her head) and her sisters, Ruth (six years older) and Winnie (three-and-a-half years younger).  I was named for my Aunt Winnie.

Paint Lick is the story of a village just inside the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky and of the life that Doris Burgess Hayek lived there from her birth in 1917 through the 1920s and 30s.  In Doris’s Paint Lick, neighbors are family and entertainment includes “sitting ‘til bedtime” with friends, pie suppers, community plays, music at school and in the churches, WSBS (whose call letters stand for “World’s Smallest Broadcasting Station”), a visit to Coffee Grounds Lucy, games of croquet under the maple tree in the Burgess family’s front yard, and—for the children—the thrill of rolling downhill in an oversized tire.  More challenging are a bank robbery, fearsome horses, sisterly disputes, chores such as churning and cleaning coal dust off white woodwork, a nighttime intruder, and Mrs. Smith’s driving.  In Paint Lick, we meet the memorable Burgess family and their friends and some of the village’s most colorful characters.

My mother’s book begins:

In my memory I see Paint Lick on a summer afternoon. From the street I hear the laughter of women as they sit visiting by the big window in Mrs. Logsdon’s store. I see my father going into Cox’s Store to talk with the men who are gathered there. Dr. Smith is returning to his office, and the bread truck from Berea has just come in with loaves of warm, salt-rising bread. My sister Ruth is entering Burl Hammock’s barbershop as children play nearby. Mr. Grady sits dozing on his favorite bench. Farmers are approaching in trucks and buggies to trade in the stores before closing time.

In 1917, when I was born, and during my childhood in the 1920s and 30s, roughly two-hundred people lived in Paint Lick and the immediate vicinity. This community was everything to us and to our neighbors. Each part of the village and nearby countryside was a living part of our days. Our livelihood was there. Our social life was there. Much of the food we ate came right from the land of our home places. Every building was a home or business for our friends and a place where we gathered and shared our experiences.

One such experience is captured in my mother’s account of “The Bank Robbery”:

Paint Lick life was not without adventure. This is the story of some amateur desperadoes who outwitted some village vigilantes but, in the end, fell into the hands of the sheriff and one of Paint Lick’s little ladies.

In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to pick up the phone receiver planning to make a call and hear a conversation on another line. This we called “crosstalk.” One such time, a Paint Lick resident heard over crosstalk a conversation between two men planning to rob a bank. One man told the other that Paint Lick was unincorporated and the bank was strong. They set a date. The news from the crosstalk spread in the community, and several men planned a warm welcome for the robbers.

On the morning of the day the robbers were supposed to come, the Paint Lick men, each with a shotgun, assembled at second-floor windows across from the bank. They planned to shoot out the tires on the robbers’ car. The men waited and waited, and the robbers didn’t come. This time crosstalk had helped the robbers. They had been tipped off that the Paint Lick men were waiting for them.

Time passed, and everyone assumed the threat was over.

One morning when I was playing croquet in our front yard with my sister, her girlfriend Polly, and Joe, a young neighbor boy, we looked up to see a big black car pass by. We wondered why the occupants were moving around. Polly said, “Ooh, those mean-looking men,” and she danced around, swinging her mallet and singing, “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you.”  Shortly, Mrs. Roop, Joe’s mother, called, “Joe-oh, come home.”

The Burgess Home
The Burgess family’s home and front yard

Word spread quickly: The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.

Soon, we heard Mrs. Logsdon’s account. She was standing in the doorway of her general store, next to the bank, when the robbers arrived. While three of the men entered the bank, a fourth stood outside holding his gun. In Mrs. Logsdon’s words, “I knew I was covered.” She stood motionless until the car had pulled away, and then she went straight to the phone.

The robbers abandoned their stolen car on the Cartersville Road, a few miles from Paint Lick, but two of them weren’t able to elude the sheriff and his men for long. They were caught, and they went to prison on Mrs. Logsdon’s testimony.

Eventually the two robbers were out of prison. One day, Mrs. Logsdon was visiting with Mrs. Goodman in Dr. Goodman’s waiting room when who should walk in but one of the robbers. Mrs. Logsdon recognized him at once. While the three waited for the doctor to come in, Mrs. Logsdon cringed every time Mrs. Goodman said “Mrs. Logsdon,” but there was no obvious recognition by the robber.

In this brief recording, my mother explains that Paint Lick people left their doors unlocked.  Obviously robberies were out of character for the community:

(The first audio in the sidebar is the longer recording from which the above clip was taken.  The longer recording includes an account of the bank robbery and of other Paint Lick adventures that became part of my mother’s memoir.)

Like the village itself, the book Paint Lick is filled with memorable characters.  I only have time to give you a taste.  Among those we get to know is Virginia Beasley and her sons.  Mrs. Beasley was proud and loved picture hats:

When she was a young woman, she asked her friend Anna Walsh which suitor to choose. The friends had attended a girls’ finishing school together. Virginia said to Anna, “I’ve had two proposals for marriage. One is for money and one is for love. Which should I take?”

Anna replied, “Oh, Virgie, by all means take the one for love.”

But Virginia decided differently. She accepted Mr. Beasley’s proposal.

We also meet airy Mrs. Smith, who thought it necessary to turn the steering wheel on her Chevrolet back and forth continually as she dodged traffic, and Miss Mary Walker, whose family raised famous hunting hounds and knew Neville Chamberlain—Miss Mary imperiously drove her buggy into the village and then called to the merchants to come out and take her orders.  We meet a wealthy merchant who was such a skinflint that he wore paper bags on his feet to avoid buying overshoes.  We get to know Miss Kate, whose parrot served as her receptionist, hollering “Miss Kate out” when the (rather inept) dressmaker was unavailable.  And Mother introduces Mr. Treadway, who would stop women driving into Paint Lick and ask, “Does your man make you a good living?”  Among the dozens of other Paint Lick notables was Mr. Grady, a reclusive housepainter who carved peach pits for the children, for five cents each.  Here is a monkey he carved for my mother:

Mr. Grady's monkey 2

Education was a value in my mother’s home.  The recollections in Paint Lick include school-day adventures, misadventures, teachers, and classmates.  The picture here is of her class in 1924, when my mother had just turned seven; she is in the second row on the left:

Mother's elementary-school class

The picture on the left below shows my mother in seventh grade. In the middle photograph, she is in high school and is wearing a dress made by her mother, Martha Jane Spurlock Burgess. To the right, we see my mother in her college band uniform.

Doris Lynn Burgess, 7th Grade - Wind-blown haircut by Berl Hammock, Paint Lick Barber Shop        Doris Lynn Burgess in high school - wearing a dress made by Martha Burgess        Doris Burgess in her band uniform

To close this overview of my mother’s book, I’ll share a little bit of a recording that found its way into her book.  Here my mother is telling my father, Mason Hayek, about her father’s—Ulysses McClure Burgess’—amazing knowledge of history and her own shortcuts to some of her school assignments:

Growing to 80 Cover

My father, Mason Hayek, explained his choice of Growing to 80 as the title for his memoir:

From childhood on, most of us have stories to tell about our lives, and those stories tell far more than a chronological record. Facts, themselves, are only the sets for the many acts in one life. Essays, poems, truth told through fiction, drawings or sketches, and photographs individually and collectively communicate a personality. In my case, all of these means of communication describe who I am (an ordinary person) and how I have grown to 80.

The photograph on the cover shows my father and his dog Jerry in 1927.

Much of my father’s story is told through his drawings.  I have been very concerned to preserve my father’s artwork—as well as his and my mother’s stories and writings—so that it will survive after I’m gone.  I hope that by publishing my parents’ work in their books, their histories and artistry will have permanence beyond my lifetime.  My father had finished about two-thirds of his memoir by the time of his passing in August 2004.  To complete the book, I added other writings of his that I found, as well as numerous additional drawings and photographs.

My father grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota.  As he explains:

The drawing here [below] shows our house, 317 Superior Street (formerly Yankee Street), St. Paul. Mother and Dad bought a cottage at this address shortly after their marriage, in 1904. Dad then enlarged the house to that shown here, using his skill in carpentry and bringing much of the material for the alteration on his bicycle in 1922.

Daddy's boyhood home

As a boy—and throughout his life—Mason loved trains and nature.  This piece is one of several telling why trains lived in the center of my father’s boyhood.  It’s called “The Trains, 1930”:

The trains were more than trains for me, watching from the railing at the cliff two blocks from home. I watched the locomotives belching smoke as they struggled to pull the long passenger trains or freights leaving the city and climbed the two-mile grade from the depot to the “short line,” the street-car crossing at Seventh Street. Trains coming into the city glided down the grade to the sound of the bell at the crossing, the click . . . click . . . click . . . click of the wheels on the track, and the wheezing of the air breaks.

I knew the schedule: the Pioneer Limited from Chicago at 7:15 in the morning, the Rock Island to Rock Island coming down ten minutes later, followed by the Soo Line to Chicago, then perhaps a freight. But best of all was the Olympian to Seattle at 9:20.

I could see the Olympian coming up the grade at Chestnut Street, a mile away, two engines at the head working to pull seventeen or eighteen cars, an observation car with an open platform at the rear.

The magic of imagination put me on the observation platform, watching the rails slip away. But, however fine it was to be a passenger, it was not as fine as being the engineer, my hand on the throttle as I looked past the engine side to the clear track ahead, saw the tall wheels below the cab, wheels as narrow as your hand riding smoothly over narrow ribbons of steel that stretched from coast to coast. The cars in a long line that followed in imagination were filled with happy passengers going somewhere.

At night, as engineer, I saw the powerful headlight piercing the darkness, illuminating the track a mile ahead, opening the way for the train to push aside the night until night followed the last car.

Whether days for me were difficult or easy, the trains were always there: strength and order, order and strength, dependability; narrow wheels on narrow tracks, steel against steel. Whatever feelings lingered from the day, after bedtime I could be on the night train to Omaha on the tracks over the river. Two short blasts from the engine’s whistle responded to the bridge tender’s signal that all was clear. Faint sounds like distant thunder said the train was crossing the bridge. Minutes later, the train whistled at the Lillydale junction. Then silence. The train would be in Omaha the next morning.

The trains are gone. The engineers and most of the passengers are gone. Though time has stolen all the outward sights and sounds and smoke, in my mind I still can hear the crossing bell at Seventh Street. There’s barely time to run to the railing to see the train.

In his book, my father describes outdoor explorations with his father and friends.  Often the walks were along the banks of the Mississippi, including visiting a cave where his father had played as a boy and other caves where hobos lived.  Many of the poems that my father continued to write throughout his years describe his experiences with the natural world.  Here is “Dusk in April”:

The last of day sinks slowly in the west
and draws night’s blanket from the east.
A robin pours its last, sweet song of day
across the dusk, the only sound
except our quiet steps.

This is spring.
Against the western, fading light
the silhouettes of trees’ bare branches show
last winter’s nakedness, soon to be
covered by summer’s garments.

Light fades. Then Sirius and Venus reveal
a universe hidden since dawn.
This mirror of the Sun, the Moon, now just
beyond first quarter overhead, illuminates our path.
Our faint shadows join those of trees
to emphasize the calm of coming night.

The scene recalls affection for times long gone
and places far away—
fragile, fleeting, quiet joy.

All life around us seems asleep until
an owl asks, “Who?”
And then we know the night lives too.

 

Many of my father’s drawings, too, are scenes in nature.

My parents met in May 1943 in Louisville, Kentucky, where they were both working.  Daddy grew to love Kentucky and to consider my mother’s family as his second family.  Here are my parents around the time of their marriage:

 

Mother and Daddy

Much of my father’s love of Kentucky is expressed through his art, including this drawing of a farm near Paint Lick:

Farm near Paint Lick

Because my father was hired by the DuPont Company, my parents moved to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1947.  As with Kentucky, in addition to his essays and poems, my father’s drawings tell much of the story of his time in Delaware, including my parents’ travels.  I’ll share three examples:

Blue Ball Barn
Blue Ball Barn, near Wilmington, Delaware
Wilmington Meetinghouse
Wilmington, Delaware, Quaker Meetinghouse
Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey, Scotland

A Woman in Time Cover

I’ve called my memoir A Woman in Time because the time, places, people, and circumstances of our lives are part of the essence of who we are.  The first section of my book, “How It Has Been,” describes scenes and situations that give a sense of the people, places, and circumstances that have mattered most to me over the years.

My book’s second section, called “Longing and Romance,” begins with a poem titled “The Rogue’s Gallery,” which pretty much says it all about my romantic life:

Sam, with your dark-red mustache and handsome face,
You were almost an attractive man.
You were my big strong knight;
For you I wore ribbons in my long brown hair.
But you swept the Scrabble pieces to the floor when I won;
You hogged the piano, panned my friends,
And decided three weeks before the wedding that a church ceremony was not for you.
So I returned you to your loving mother.

Sheldon, you were my lost soul, my romantic invalid—
Until your body healed and your mind settled back down into its customary trough.
As I rode around Philadelphia in the backseat of your car—
While you impressed a friend who was allowed to sit up front—
It came to me: perhaps I wasn’t ready for a life of waiting for you to have time for me.
And so I returned you to your loving mother.

Hank, you were the last of the big spenders, the lavish tippers, the tellers of tall tales.
We would marry and live in Italy in a quaint red house you had found for us.
The ring?
Oh yes, the ring was coming—only a short delay putting your hands on the perfect stone.
The wedding date?
Oh dear, some slight annoyance about a previous marriage that had not quite ended
But just never seemed to have come up in conversation.
So I returned you to your wife, who, I am sure, left the package unclaimed.

Robby, you were the little teacher I picked out for myself.
Whatever I thought of the others, I did love you.
Too bad you had eyes only for your guru,
Who answered all the questions of life
And saved you from actually having to think.
Time cleared the mantras from my eyes.
Even so, I did not want to return you to his holiness,
But you were his already—body, bank account, and soul.

Carl, in you I found another redhead, though a foot shorter than the first.
When you set eyes on me, like all nerds, you fell under my spell.
You were a Ph.D. from Stanford—but A.D.D. in human relationships.
“You’re certainly not known for your looks,” you said to me—
And found yourself whimpering on the wrong side of my closed front door.
I returned you to your nice impersonal computer.

Fred, in you—at last—I found a man who loved concerts, ethnic food, and travel.
Well, you loved all these as long as we used my car and my money.
You gave me plenty of advice on how to drive, where to park,
And when to visit the restroom.
Too bad I waited so long to return you to your solitary Sunday afternoons
So you could listen to your favorite operas on the Walkman I had bought for you.

Jack, you distilled the essence of all who came before.
In my mind’s eye, I still see you in your baggy polyester trousers,
The ensemble set off by a giant pair of Nikes with worn-out soles.
Your idea of a good time was doing absolutely nothing.
Perhaps you liked having someone next to you
While your mind was away somewhere mathematical and manly.
You, too, had a computer with whom you had much in common,
So I stopped keeping you from your intended.

Sam, Sheldon, Hank, Robby, Carl, Fred, and Jack,
In response to your portraits in my rogues’ gallery,
I have returned to Saturday-evening dates with men on whom I can depend:
Maigret, Poirot, Dalglish;
The Beatles and Bocelli;
Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.
Who says there aren’t good men out there?

 

In addition to covering misguided romance, the section talks about my passions such as Italy and writing.

The third section—“Leaving and Loss”—is especially about the loss of my parents and about leaving behind the life we had together.  Here are my parents in the kitchen of our family home:

Mother in the Kitchen, 1986

Daddy in the kitchen, 1986

I have written about losing my father, and during my mother’s last few weeks in this life, I wrote a brief free-verse poem each evening.  The poem “Unknown” is one of them:

We are suspended in the unknown,
Sliding toward it,
Holding back.
Time,
The day,
The date,
The Earth circling the Sun,
The lives being lived
Next door and across the globe
Continue on without us
As we wait and wonder,
Wrapped in anxiety and love.

 

Loss is a part of aging, but renewal can be, as well.  And my book’s fourth section—“Aging and Renewal”—considers the paths still opening up.  Quakers believe in what we call the “Inner Light,” also known as “that of God in everyone.”  The Inner Light can also be thought of as our higher self, as that which connects us with the loving energy of the Universe.  In some of the essays and poems, I consider what my Inner Light has to say to me about getting on with life and doing better.

The poet, essayist, and cleric John Donne said in a well-known meditation written in 1624, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”[1]  Like Donne, I believe, as my parents also expressed, that we are part of a whole.  I believe that all humankind—in fact all creation—is tangibly linked.  And so the last section of my book is called “All One.”  Some of the pieces in the section consider the lives of other people, from the Bible’s Eve to a woman I observed in a natural-foods café in Philadelphia.  Other entries, like the piece that ends the book, are additional examples of my recording what I sense the Inner Light—which links us all—is telling me.  Here is a little of the closing essay:

If you love and I love and we reach those around us so that their love grows and is shared, we will change the world. Love is shared in many ways—writing a poem, encouraging a friend, speaking up kindly but firmly in the face of unkindness and injustice, refusing to go along with behavior and attitudes that harm, building a soup kitchen, teaching children to read, creating music and art. All of these can be an expression of love. . . .

So many ways of being are possible. There is not one right way but infinite right ways along the path of caring and kindness. Each such way amplifies love in the world, helping to spread it where it might not have gone before. From here on throughout our years, let each of us light the lamp and show the way according to our map and journey.

[1] http://www.online-literature.com/donne/409/