The backyard is both a place and a state of being.
The front yard is partly for the neighbors. In the front yard, the grass must
be cut and the crabgrass kept to a minimum. Even if the homeowners think
dandelions are pretty, the neighbors will expect the flowers to be mowed before
they turn to seed. Children may play in the front yard from time to time, and
company is greeted there, but the real living takes place in the backyard.
In our first little white house, where we
lived until I was six, I loved our backyard. Mother planted wide beds of flowers
along both sides, and my parents grew vegetables—I liked the green peppers
best. My wading pool sat partway down the yard. One day I took my life-sized
doll, Susie, swimming with me; doing so made her seem like a real girl, and I
wanted Susie to share my fun.
When I was four, I came home from a
playmate’s late one afternoon to find my father brushing forest-green paint on
a wooden jungle gym he had just finished building. A long ladder with smooth
round rungs was suspended between shorter vertical ladders. I couldn’t believe
this magnificent structure was meant for me. On it, I could hang upside down
and then flip over to land on my feet. I could travel hand over hand down the
long horizontal ladder. I could swing over to the bars on the swing set. I was
fearless on the jungle gym, and my parents trusted me to stay alive.
At the far end of our backyard, where the
area known as “the mud” began, other neighborhood children and I wandered and
explored, stopping to look up when the occasional airplane passed overhead. One
afternoon, accompanied by Inky the spaniel, we children set off on a turtle
hunt. “Inky is going to find us a turtle!” I called to my mother. Against the
odds, Inky came through for us. After she helped us take off our muddy shoes,
Mother found a box for the turtle and lettuce for his lunch.
The backyard of our second little white house
did not include a jungle gym, which I was sad to leave behind, but half of our
new backyard was wooded. Wild plants, dry leaves, and boulders surrounded
hundred-foot-tall trees. When I was in the woods, it screened out all memory of
bullying classmates and teachers who piled on the homework.
The branches of an ironwood tree bent down to
meet the top of a tall granite rock, and in the space between, my friends and I
played house. A flat rock by the largest oak created a porch, as we called it,
for sitting a moment and deciding Native Americans had worn the nearby path.
Around us grew blueberry bushes, spring beauties, dog-toothed violets, and
jacks-in-the-pulpit. Tadpoles lived in the small pools of water left from the
spring rains. On the June morning when summer vacation began, the woods greeted
me with still-fresh, light-green
leaves. Sunlight illuminated the last of the mist from the cool overnight air.
In front of the
woods, on the backyard lawn, my friends and I played croquet and softball, sat
on another of the yard’s boulders to converse with our dolls, held handstand
and cartwheel contests, and swung on the swings. Unlike some parents, mine
didn’t mind that our feet wore away the grass. I
liked to swing high and then jump to the ground. The neighborhood girls shared
some traits with my classmates—as in, “We’re in a club, and you have to pay
five cents to join.”—but in our backyard, I never felt second-rate or thought
about needing to be different than I was.
Every summer, we visited our relatives in
Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The backyard I most loved there was behind Aunt Ruth and
Uncle Larry’s big white house on College Street. We ate dinner outdoors on long
tables: a big family eating late in the evening after Aunt Ruth’s lengthy
preparations—green beans cooked for hours with country ham, corn on the cob,
huge pieces of lemon-meringue pie. Two-year-old Kelly toddled toward the side
of the property, to be brought back and then start off again. Mark, a year
older, called me “Cussin Winnie” and wanted me to play with him. No one rushed
away. Nannie and Aunt Winnie had only to walk next door to be home.
One evening, my cousin Shirley and Shirley’s
husband, Duffy, danced for us all: Mother and Daddy and me, Nannie and Aunt
Winnie, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry, Cousin Carol, and Mark and Kelly—their
sister, Ruthie, was not yet born. The Landrums were there, too; Aunt Winnie
managed the Landrum Insurance office. The layers of Shirley’s party skirt
swirled as she and Duffy waltzed to the music from the record player.
Afterwards, Aunt Winnie and Mr. Landrum performed a comic routine. She stood in
back and extended her arms in front of him; he kept his arms hidden. As Mr.
Landrum told a story, Aunt Winnie spread her arms wide to emphasize the
dramatic points and wiped his eyes at the sad parts. Her dainty arms made an
incongruous contrast to her boss’ tall frame. Daddy told his story about the
hoarse ice-cream waitress. “Do you have laryngitis?” asks the customer. “No,”
the waitress replies, “just chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.”
The world in which summer evenings brought time to climb on the jungle gym, backyard games of Mother May I? and Harrodsburg family suppers has long since spun away. Present life includes more front yards than backyards. But in my mind, I see my dear ones gathered on the tranquil, broad, green lawn of Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s backyard, from which no one will be forced to leave, torn away from the pleasure and affection. Shirley dances; Nannie gives her saucy commentary; Mother tells a funny story; and Daddy soaks up the textures of the layered trees against a brilliant sky.
Pictures can be profoundly evocative and so may have an important role in telling your story. They will ignite your own memories, capture your readers’ imagination, and add to your readers’ knowledge and understanding.
Photographs carefully ordered and presented with explanatory captions could, by themselves, create a meaningful memoir. And if you have artistic skills, you might tell your story in part or wholly through drawings and paintings. More often, photographs and artwork are a captivating adjunct to a story told in words.
In his memoir Growing to 80, my father, Mason Hayek, makes extensive use of his drawings to help communicate his history. In some sections, the drawings carry most of the weight. More often, my father’s drawings, as well as photographs, supplement his prose and poetry.
Examples from Growing to 80 may give ideas of how you can use artwork and photographs to tell your story.
This drawing of my father’s boyhood home and his caption introduce us to his parents and to the setting for his childhood:
The drawing here 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 in 1922 to that shown here, using his skill in carpentry and bringing much of the material for the alteration on his bicycle.
Including photographs such as this one, which is of my father’s parents, also adds interest and depth to the memoir—and helps to ensure the photos’ preservation even if the originals are eventually lost:
Frank Hayek and Eugenia Lydon Hayek
In addition to photographs of people and places, the chapters about my father’s Minnesota boyhood include pictures of artifacts such as school documents, a letter to Santa that my father wrote when he was seven, and cards that he made for his mother:
In my father’s memoir, drawings help him convey some of the experiences he had while visiting the Kentucky village where my mother, Doris Lynn Burgess Hayek, lived until she was a young adult:
Doris’s friends from Paint Lick and nearby towns have remained her lifelong friends. I’m grateful that I have been accepted as a friend by Doris’s friends, and I feel bonds to them. Among these friends was Elizabeth Coy, who is now gone. Below is my pen-and-ink drawing of her home, located in Richmond, Kentucky.
My father introduces a section called “Northern Scenes” this way:
During parts of the years when Winnie was in camp in Maine, Doris and I vacationed at “David’s Folly,” a salt-water farm that had been converted to an inn by Minerva Cutler. The enjoyable times in David’s Folly were augmented by drives to Blue Hill, Stonington, and Castine and by walks to nearby woods and the beautiful coves, inlets of Penobscot Bay. Enchanting scenes were everywhere, subjects for drawing. Then during the years that Winnie lived in Maine and Massachusetts, Doris and I visited her many times, and we three enjoyed the scenery of the New England states.
Then he shares numerous drawings, such as this one:
Penobscot Bay cove, West Brooksville, Maine
The section also has this photograph:
Mason Hayek sitting by Penobscot Bay
My father’s prose and poetry are captivating in themselves, but his drawings and photographs add dimensions that cannot easily be communicated in words.
What visual elements are available to you to help you tell your story?
Instead of creating a traditional narrative memoir, you could decide to present your story as a long letter or a series of letters. You could either be addressing a single person or group or be addressing letters to the full range of people who have been important in your life so far. Using letters as a memoir-writing strategy can offer advantages.
Imagining that you are writing to a specific person (a child or grandchild, a friend or spouse, the daughter you never had . . .) or group (your grandchildren, people facing the same challenges you have faced, your former boyfriends/girlfriends . . .) may help you to focus your writing. By writing directly to a person or group, you will keep that person’s/group’s needs and interests in mind as you compose your work. Your “recipient”/”recipients” for the letter or letters that become your memoir will, in effect, become a character or characters in your essay or book. Other readers will enjoy eavesdropping on your one-sided letter-conversation.
Instead of seeing your memoir as a long letter or series of letters to a single person or group, you may want to write separate “letters” to many of the important people in your life, past and present. These letters can then be compiled and organized into a memoir. Writing letters to the people who have affected you (for good or ill or some of each) can be powerful. You will not only be exploring significant parts of your life but also be clarifying for yourself your memories and feelings—from loving and grateful to furious and resentful. It is, of course, important to avoid libel and to consider whether disguising or even omitting some parts of your story is appropriate.
Here are excerpts from three letters that illustrate what can emerge from “writing to” people who played memorable roles, whether fleeting or long lasting. In these letters, I address a small girl who became an indelible memory, “talk” to a former boss, and revisit my relationship with a man with whom I was once engaged. Maybe these excerpts will bring to mind letters you, too, would like to write (for your memoir rather than the mail!).
Dear Little Girl,
Do you remember me now? You seemed to know me then. I call you “Little Girl,” but you’re almost grown by now, nearly fifteen years after that October day in New York City. You and your mother were together in a waiting room where my parents and I also sat. You, a tiny storybook child of two or three, walked over to me and laid your head on my knees, staying beside me until embarrassment seemed to call you back to your mother.
Who was I to you? To me, you were affection and acceptance, but I’ve wondered since if you were more. I’ve wondered if you and I were more, more than a chance encounter. As bizarre as some may think this question: did you remember me from a life before the one we share as strangers now? Were you my daughter then?
I have longed for you in this life, longed for the daughter who was not to be. I have felt that I failed, failed to find a husband, form a family, mother a child. . . .
I have been thinking back on the years I wrote for you and their weight in my life. Let me first recognize that you have admirable qualities as an administrator and boss. . . . I don’t know if you realize, however, how difficult I found working for you. I would like for you to understand.
I should first explain my views on the right and wrong use of ghostwriters. A ghostwriter fills a useful and ethical role by helping leaders express their own ideas effectively. In contrast, leaders who cannot or will not articulate the main points to be conveyed in a book, report, article, blog, or other project are asking their writers to do their thinking for them. . . . While I appreciate your graciousness in acknowledging my role as a member of your team, I wish you had assumed your full share of the teamwork. . . .
I wonder what life has brought you. Can you believe we’re now in our 60s? It feels like just a few summers ago that we met in Dr. Andrew’s course on drama. He always wore sandals and Bermuda shorts to class. You were starting your master’s degree in English and would begin teaching in the fall, and I was a semester away from completing my undergraduate English degree. My hair was long then, and I often wore it in a bun, which you later criticized as severe and proper. You seemed to like my looks well enough to ask me out, however, and I agreed to your invitation with reluctance. With your slim height, fine features, and beautiful hair, you could have been attractive. . . .
I remember studying in Millstone Hall one afternoon and seeing you walk by outside. I’d agreed to meet you but was tempted to disappear instead; I wish I had. I do find some pleasure in being able to say I was once engaged and had set a wedding date. (This month we would have celebrated our forty-fifth wedding anniversary in the unlikely event that we had stayed married.) But when I review our year-long acquaintance in my memory, I experience resentment toward us both. . . .
If you feel inclined, try jumpstarting your memoir by writing a letter to include in your essay or book. Will letter writing be the key to your writing and finishing your memoir?
Next: Nontraditional memoirs—photographs and drawings
The poem and story I’m sharing here make a companion to my recent post “Embracing Now,” in which I tell about hearing my mother’s voice, in spite of the veil between worlds that separates us for now.
I would know for sure.
Would become vistas
Over all sides of creation.
I could help others,
But above all,
Doubt would disappear
To be replaced by knowing,
By reaching out to you
And finding you,
Not just sometimes
And then forever.
In the fourth grade, our teacher taught us about the Navajos. I loved drawing pictures of pueblos and became fascinated by Native American jewelry.
Under the tree at Christmastime that year, 1958, I found an interesting-looking gift about four inches square and an inch deep. The tag said the present was for me from Mother and Daddy. On one of the long days before Christmas, my impatience overwhelmed my self-control. I slipped off the package’s ribbon and carefully unstuck the tape on the wrapping paper. The box inside was stamped “Marjorie Speakman,” the name of a local store selling children’s clothing. In the box was a turquoise-and-silver pin. My parents had forgotten to remove the price tag, which gave the cost as eight dollars. Thrilled and awed by the present, I reassembled the paper and ribbon around it.
From December 1958 until May 2007, the turquoise-and-silver pin from my parents was my favorite piece of jewelry. The pin—about an inch tall and just over an inch across at its widest point—was in the shape of a three-branch spray of little turquoise leaves, fifteen in total. The silver branches joined toward the bottom and ended in two little silver knobs. I wore my pin on the collars of my blouses, dresses, and sweaters. It came with me to college and to my first apartments. When I was twenty-eight, my parents gave me turquoise earrings for my newly pierced ears, and from then on I wore the earrings with my pin as it continued with me through my years in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Delaware. When my father died in 2004, I moved back into our Wilmington, Delaware, family home to be with my mother. I continued to wear my pretty pin.
On May 7, 2007, my mother moved to the Maris Grove retirement community, and I went to an apartment in nearby West Chester. We shared the same moving van. The movers delivered my mother’s furniture and boxes and then drove the seven miles up Route 202 to my new home.
I had left my clothes, jewelry, and other possessions in place in the dresser drawers. But in my new West Chester apartment, the first time that I opened the drawer where I kept my turquoise-and-silver pin, it wasn’t there. The missing small pin left a cavernous gap. Perhaps the drawer had come open while the men were loading or unloading my dresser. I imagined my pin lying on the bottom of the van, crushed now under the legs of other people’s furniture. Or perhaps, I hoped, I had put the pin in a different drawer or left it on a collar the last time I’d worn it. I searched every drawer and examined every collar I owned, without success. The pin seemed irrevocably lost.
For the four years and three months I lived in West Chester, I missed my sweet pin. In my mind, I saw it as it had been for five decades, among my other jewelry and decorating my clothes. How could I have been careless enough to allow its loss by any means?
In August 2011, I prepared to move in with my mother at Maris Grove. As I was readying my belongings for the movers, I opened my jewelry drawer. Sitting in an open box in clear view at the front of the drawer was my turquoise-and-silver pin.
I cannot unequivocally explain how my pin returned to my drawer after being gone for more than four years. But I have chosen to adopt one of the possible explanations. I choose to believe my late father somehow recovered the pin and returned it to me. The idea is not preposterous. My father in several ways showed my mother and me that he continued to be a part of our lives—as both my parents now continue to be in my life. I believe my father found the means for me to have the pin again. This time, instead of honoring my interest in the Navajos, the gift honored the life my mother and I were to live together, always with my father in our hearts.
“My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin” and the poem “Being Psychic” are from my book A Woman in Time. If you wish to read more about afterlife communication, I recommend the four books I’ve listed at the end of “Embracing Now.”
This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side. If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.
Returning to the Patio
I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together. Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing. But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me. The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring. While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.
The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together. We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then. I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home. Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors. This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.
On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now. Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together. And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.
Holding Back, Weighted Down
In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life. Yet I’m already what most would consider old. If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.” I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly. I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation. It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least. What am I waiting for?
Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.” Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.
You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness. And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what. Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.
Turning Blessings into Joy
I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests. I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian. I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient. I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness. I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces. I have lines to master for the play that I’m in. And on and on. But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.
When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage. I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books. I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment. It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately. And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.
Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings. If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do. I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.
As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what. And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face. Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.
And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy. Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived. Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality. I now choose contentment and serenity. And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.
Hearing an Answer to My Prayer
Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity. In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real. I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known. And then my prayer was answered.
I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady. (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.) To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder. Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC. I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”
When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script. And the singing voice is not mine. To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer. During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep. Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer. On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.
In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice. Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard. Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage. How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in. I am blessed by this gift beyond words. I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible. Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever. And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.
If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec (In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit. I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
In this short story, two sisters confront memories and their strained relationship.
Sarah Bright opened the door to her sister and gave her a welcoming hug. Hugging Rebecca was like hugging a straight-backed chair. Rebecca had never been affectionate, even as a girl, but Sarah tried to act as if the sisterly bond she so much desired actually existed. “Your house smells like cats,” said Rebecca before she removed her coat.
“How’s life at Westside Manor these days?” said Sarah, trying to rescue her sister’s visit from early disaster.
Rebecca rejected Sarah’s offer to hang her coat in the closet. She painstakingly draped the pale-blue coat over the back of the chair nearest the front door, as if to be ready to leave any time.
“I’ve joined a new duplicate-bridge group. They were eager to have me, but I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy a group Marge Amstel organized. She always has to be the center of attention. I decided to go ahead since Helen Clark was joining too.” Rebecca finished smoothing the pleats in her gray skirt and sat down with her handbag beside her on the chair.
“Relax, Rebecca,” Sarah wanted to say. “You look as if you’ve come for a job interview.” Rebecca did not take kidding well, so Sarah said instead, “I don’t believe I met Helen when I visited you last summer.”
“Yes you did. She was at our table for at least two meals. She’s the tall, well-dressed woman—a little younger than you are—who always wears beige.”
Sarah recalled a woman who had not spoken to her except to request something from across the table. “How come your friends seem so unfriendly?” she asked, knowing she was venturing into a risky area.
“I prefer friends who know how to keep their distance. Rebecca looked around at Sarah’s tidy but battered living room. Sarah was still using some of the same furniture their parents had brought to the cottage when it had been the family summer home. “I suppose we’ve each selected friends appropriate to our personalities. That woman I met at your house last year—what was her name—Louisa something?”
“That was it. She looked as faded and sagging as some of your furniture.”
“Louisa’s my closest friend. You’d like her if you got to know her.”
“I can’t imagine wanting to get to know her.”
“We’re picking at each other already. Come sit over here by me on the window seat. I want you to see how pretty the mountain looks with snow on it.”
“I saw snow on the mountain last year,” said Rebecca, but she moved over next to Sarah. Rebecca brought her purse with her to the window seat and placed it between her sister and herself. She straightened her skirt again. “I’ve got to look decent for dinner. I’m sure I won’t get back in time to change.”
“You only come to see me once or twice a year, even though we live just fifteen miles apart, and then you can’t even stay through dinner time.” Sarah gave up pretending to be pleased with her sister. “Every time we finally make arrangements to see each other, I hope this time the visit will be different, but you never change.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t come to see me any more often than I come to see you.”
“That’s because you can never find time for me to visit. In the past year I can think of at least five occasions when you called at the last moment and told me not to come.”
“Things come up,” said Rebecca. She examined the nail on the ring finger of her left hand, took a file out of her handbag, and repaired a corner of the nail that had not been to her liking. “You know how busy I am. I have responsibilities. Why don’t you give up this place and move out to Westside Manor yourself? You complain about not seeing me. Seems to me you couldn’t see much of anyone way out here. One reason I don’t come more often is that terrible road. I’m sure it’s damaged the suspension on my car already.”
“I have lots of friends, and Louisa lives less than half a mile away. We walk over to each other’s house nearly every day.”
“You’re not a young woman anymore, Sarah. If you’re not careful you’re going to turn into one of those eccentric old ladies who live in some forsaken hovel with a dozen cats—the kind who keep money in the mattress and never wash the dishes.”
“Perhaps I am an eccentric old lady, but I keep one cat, not twelve, and you know I’ve always been as neat and clean as anyone. You’re the one who never straightened her room when we were growing up. As for my home being a hovel, have you forgotten that our own father built this house?”
“For a summer place. It was never intended for year-round living. What if you were sick or fell? Who would find you out here?” Rebecca picked up the cat that had jumped on the window seat to greet her and threw him to the floor. “After I visit you, it takes me a week to get the cat hairs out of my clothes.”
“Why do you dislike my home so much? Every time you come to visit you try to talk me into coming to live in your retirement community. I can’t believe it’s because you’d like to see more of me. When we were little, you never could stand it when I made up my own mind about what I wanted. I don’t think you’ve changed a bit. I was your big sister, so I was supposed to be ready for all your commands. If I wanted to ride my bicycle and you wanted to play princess, I had to play princess with you because you needed me to be the ugly stepsister, or the prince, or some other undesirable part. If I didn’t do what you wanted, you ran to Mother, and together you shamed me into compliance.”
“I won’t have you criticizing our poor mother,” said Rebecca. She had turned in her seat to face out the window at the snowy meadow, with the woods and mountain beyond. She stared at the scene as if it drew her into it. Sarah had seen that vacant, distracted look many times before, however. Rebecca was not absorbing the natural beauty; she was doing her best to shut out a discussion she did not want to continue.
“I’m not criticizing Mother,” said Sarah. “I’m talking about you and me. You even told me where I had to go to college. I was accepted up at Bates, but you fixed it so I had to stay home and commute. That way I could continue to be at your service.”
“I didn’t make you do anything.”
“You got Mother and Father to talk to me about responsibility and how you needed me. Sure you needed me—to do your homework for you, to do your chores, to drive you on your dates. I think you still can’t stand not to have me standing by just in case I might be useful.” By now Sarah, too, had turned toward the snow and the mountain. She looked at the scene for the courage to keep trying to tell her sister what she had been attempting to tell her for more than fifty years. At eighteen Sarah had finally begun to understand that Rebecca was controlling her life and that—as much as her parents believed it and forced her to believe it, too—Rebecca was not helpless.
For more than fifty years her relationship with her sister had shifted back and forth from anticipation of her visits, to tolerance of her insults, to determination never to see her again. She did not know what had made her feel so resolved to try once more to explain, unless it had been going through the old picture albums yesterday with Louisa: all those pictures of people who were gone; all those people she had loved, tried to understand, and too often resented for the ways they had sometimes made her childhood difficult. Her mother had been a woman who never seemed to want anything but what was best for her family. She had not seen that by making Rebecca the eternally helpless darling, she had doomed her daughters to spending their adult lives as distant acquaintances. Their brother, Jeremy, had left home as soon as he was eighteen because he thought he was a failure in his parents’ eyes. Her father had loved his older daughter best and then, because he was ashamed to have a favorite, had expected more of her than she could give. Her father had never forgiven his son for leaving them and had never stopped blaming himself.
She and Rebecca were the only ones left, but when she looked at the photographs, Sarah could barely connect Rebecca to the tiny girl in the white ruffled dress and pink hair ribbons. They had all loved her so dearly. And finally Sarah had seen photos of herself, almost as tall and big boned at fourteen as she was now at seventy. After Louisa had left yesterday, Sarah had gone through the pictures again. It was something much more than a little lingering resentment that made her ache.
“Do you think Mother was happy?”
Rebecca seemed startled by the question. “I imagine so. She loved our father. She loved us. I suppose Jeremy’s leaving so young and moving across the country hurt her. She never talked about him much after he left. I guess she was about as happy as most women of her day.”
“Yes, but what did she want out of life? What did she want to achieve? You wanted the prestige of a wealthy husband and socially prominent friends. That wasn’t for me, but I always assumed you found pretty much the life you were looking for. I wanted a career, and the chance to be as independent as I pleased. I’m still living that kind of life. I even feel I’ve been a little bit useful to some of my students and not such a bad friend to my neighbors. But what was Mother looking to find? We always just expected her to be our mother, even after we were grown. The year before she died I was still calling her up for advice about handling my students.”
“What’s gotten into you, Sarah? I think you’re making a whole lot out of nothing. Women’s lives were different then.”
“Their lives were different, but were the women themselves so different? Inside, what did they think and feel? We never asked ourselves that about our own mother.”
“I’m getting uncomfortable sitting here,” said Rebecca, who had turned back away from the wide window. She picked up her purse and moved to an overstuffed chair by the stairs. She sat forward in her chair, as if she were waiting for a convenient moment to stand and say goodbye.
The big Burmese cat settled into Rebecca’s vacant spot on the window seat. Sarah scratched him between his ears. She forced herself to keep talking. She had lost the chance to say all she wanted—all she wished she had said—to her parents and brother, but Rebecca was alive. “For years I’ve been saving some things to show you. Come with me. Don’t worry about your purse or your coat. Willy doesn’t claw things.” Sarah walked over to Rebecca and extended her hand.
Rebecca stood but ignored Sarah’s hand. “I really can’t stay long. I promised to pick up a pair of gloves for Helen at the new shop that just opened next to the bookstore.”
Sarah led Rebecca up the stairs to the large bedroom over the living room. “I bet you haven’t been upstairs more than a dozen times since the summers we spent here as girls. This was our parents’ room. Do you remember?”
“Of course I remember. I’m not senile, although I’m beginning to wonder about you. You’re starting to live in the past. The past is dead and gone. Why bring up what can’t be changed or brought back?”
“Mother and Father kept this wedding picture here. I’ve tried to keep everything on the bureau the same as it was. I guess it’s because Mother’s fancy little bottles, and Father’s mirror and brush, and the wedding picture are part of the people Mother and Father were, part of the complete human beings, with likes and dislikes and disappointments and plans for the future that I never thought much about because they were just Mother and Father. They fed me and kept me safe and made me be nice to you when I wanted you to disappear. In my world they were just parents.
“Now when I touch this little violet perfume bottle, I see Mother picking it out and setting it here so the room will be pretty and homey. I imagine Father brushing that wavy dark hair of his each morning so he’ll look handsome for Mother.”
“What else do you have to show me? I don’t have much more time.”
“Remember that wicker chair by the window? You probably hated it because Father made you paint it once. That was the only real work I ever remember him asking of you, but I had the flu and for some reason he wanted it painted right away. Do you recall how you and I used to pretend that chair was a throne? We’d put our dolls in it so they could hold audiences with their subjects. Of course your doll always got to be the young queen. But we didn’t fight every time. We made up some lovely stories using that chair. Beyond the mountain was the Kingdom of Flavoria, and we had to protect our people from the evil Flavorian count.” Rebecca looked at the chair, but Sarah could not guess what she was thinking.
“Come across the hall a moment,” said Sarah.
Rebecca stood at the door, and at first Sarah thought she would refuse to enter the tiny room that Sarah now used as a study because it had the morning sun. “I told you I don’t like to think about the past,” said Rebecca. “Why have you kept my room this way when you hate me? I think you’ve planned this little tour so you could have lots of opportunities to remind me how awful I’ve been to you. Do you think I need reminding?” Sarah was not sure, but she thought Rebecca’s voice was a little unsteady.
Sarah sat down on the single bed in the far corner. “I know you won’t believe it, but I kept your bed just as you had it because I like to think of you in this room the way you were when we first started coming here. You were the daintiest, prettiest little girl I’d ever seen. I was so proud of you. I wanted all my friends to see my beautiful little sister.”
“I was five when father finished this cottage,” said Rebecca. “Mother and Father let me pick out the bedspread and bring up my favorite doll to set on the pillow. Why don’t you get rid of that spread? It looks as if it will disintegrate with one more washing. I don’t know why I liked that silly doll so much; she’s really quite hideous.” Rebecca picked up the cloth doll and turned her over to examine the back. “There’s the place where I ripped her dress trying to yank her away from you. I wouldn’t stop crying until Mother made you mend the hole. I could be a brat sometimes, couldn’t I?” For the first time all afternoon, Rebecca smiled.
Rebecca continued to speak as she sat down on the bed next to Sarah. “The first summer here doesn’t seem like over sixty years ago, does it? I don’t remember when I stopped playing with this doll. One day she wasn’t a toy anymore, just a decoration for my room, and then before long my room wasn’t my room any longer. I married Jim, we made a life together, and then that life was over. You think I’ve just bulldozed my way along, getting what I want and not caring about anyone but myself. If I’m so selfish, why is it I feel so terrible right now, thinking about everything that’s gone by?” Rebecca stood and walked over to the side window, where she looked down at the brown remains of the garden poking through the snow. Sarah came up beside her, and Rebecca let Sarah put her arm around her waist. Unlike earlier, Sarah felt she was holding a living woman and not a piece of furniture.
“Even by the time we started coming here, the losses had begun. Jeremy had left the year before. That’s one of the reasons why Father wanted to build this cottage, so Mother could get away from our house where he had grown up. We only saw him once after that, so I always felt I’d lost my brother before I could ever know him. At least you were old enough to remember him.”
Without conversation Sarah led Rebecca into the third bedroom and sat down on the battered hope chest at the foot of the twin bed that matched the one in Rebecca’s old room. Rebecca sat beside her.
“Sometimes when I was sure you wouldn’t catch me, I used to come in here and just sit,” said Rebecca. “I used to imagine that I was you, that I was tall and sophisticated and beautiful like you, and that I was smart in school and had lots of friends. I was sure you’d marry someone handsome and rich and then you’d leave me. I thought I’d be stuck at home and be the baby sister forever, always waiting for you to come back and pay attention to me so I’d be happy again. I envied you because you always knew what you wanted to do without asking anyone. Mother even helped me choose my clothes until I was married, and you told me which boys were nice and which ones to watch out for. Except for painting that one chair, Father never made me do any real work. I just helped with little chores like making beds and setting the table. I remember when you and Father built those bookcases you still have in your living room. I thought I’d never be old enough or smart enough to do something like that.”
Sarah and Rebecca sat quietly. Sarah could hear the old clock downstairs tick and then strike the quarter hour. When they had been girls that clock had stood on the mantel in their home outside Manchester. Sarah remembered early mornings when she would get up before the rest of the family in order to sit on the red velvet sofa and read while the clock made its comfortable, family sounds. Sarah had liked being up alone but knowing her parents and sister were just up the stairs.
“I could never live here,” said Rebecca eventually. “There are too many ghosts.”
“It’s because of the ghosts that I want to be here. I can look at the mountain and think of climbing it with Father, and whenever I bake bread I imagine Mother’s perfect loaves in place of my lopsided ones. Even Jeremy’s here a little. That desk in your old room used to be his. And just as much as I think of Mother and Father and Jeremy, I think of you.”
“I’m no ghost.”
“Until today, you were to me. I sometimes walk through the house thinking of all the things I might be able to tell you to bring you back so you’d be my sister again—not just some woman who disapproves of me and whose life I can’t understand. Mother and Father and Jeremy are gone, but we still have time together.”
Once again Rebecca was quiet. She let Sarah take her hand.
The clock struck the half hour. “I have to be going,” said Rebecca. “I promised Helen I’d be back through town before that shop closes.”
Sarah followed her down the stairs. Rebecca checked her coat for cat hairs, let Sarah help her into it, and picked up her purse. She was almost to the door when she turned back to Sarah and gave her a tentative hug. “I may have a free afternoon next week,” she said. “Do you still have those picture albums Mother put together? I might like to see them.”
Here is another of my short stories about an older woman who is determined to stay fully involved with life, in spite of the challenges. I envision Montreal as the setting for the story.
Emily felt a little stiff as she climbed the steps to the restaurant, but she made a point of keeping up with the young couple ahead of her. Saturday evenings were lovely at the restaurant. Musicians came to entertain the patrons. It was only a cafeteria, but a nice one with wholesome food. Emily liked cafeterias because she could eat just what she wanted and not feel self-conscious about staying long after she’d finished her meal.
Two young men played flute and guitar duets. Some of the melodies were familiar, though she didn’t know the titles of most of them. The traffic on the street below was muted; the melodies drifted above the soft clattering of dishes and whispered conversations. The flute player looked like the sort of young man she’d have liked for a grandson. The smile he gave the audience between pieces was not conceited, and his flute had a sweet tone. If she had been young, she would have hoped he’d notice her.
Over the musicians was a garish painting of a woman with two heads. The pictures in the restaurant changed every few months. Emily studied them to see if any would speak to her, but most were hard to understand. Sometimes she could admire the colors or a whimsical figure. Both faces of the two-headed woman grimaced, although one was young and beautiful. The artist must have been very angry, thought Emily.
Emily placed her book and umbrella conspicuously on the table so no one would take her seat while she went for a second cup of tea. She always had three cups of tea with her dinner. Her little rituals, like the sliver of pie with the third cup, were part of the joy. “Don’t you feel guilty taking up a whole table?” her neighbor Laura had asked recently. Emily had told Laura she’d feel more guilty not getting out to enjoy life—and what was she supposed to do, stand all through her meals?
At a nearby table, a young family with two children finished their dinner. The girl and boy had started a game of rock-paper-scissors while their parents listened to the music. Emily had played the game when she was a girl, all those years before. The woman was sturdy, not beautiful but healthy and self-possessed. Her husband watched her as she watched the musicians. The little boy, the younger of the children, whispered to his mother, and the family cleared their table and left. Emily saw them pass on the sidewalk below, each child on a parent’s shoulders.
Three girls sitting in a corner of the room stared worshipfully at the young musicians. One of the girls was heavy, with long dark hair; she wore a startlingly skimpy pink top over her jeans. Her companions were slim and attractive, a gift of their youth. Emily wished the heavy girl would realize that she was lovely, too; it pained Emily to see young people trying too hard to be accepted.
Among the many couples were a man and woman of nearly her own age. The man had plenty of white hair; Emily liked a good head of hair on a man. The woman was smartly dressed in a blue linen suit that didn’t even look wrinkled. She had artistically draped a gauzy scarf around her neck and anchored it with a gold sunburst pin. To Emily’s mind, the most fashionable women were the ones who used scarves and jewelry dramatically. Emily felt her own attempts at fashion flare were notably unsuccessful. She always looked so prim: the perfect slim little old lady whose only extravagance was her refusal to wear sensible shoes. Oh well, she didn’t much mind. She was hardly unique.
During the day Emily saw many other older women alone. Independent old men were somewhat rarer. This morning, walking along one of the city’s most fashionable streets, she had passed a woman with jaundiced skin and dirty, torn clothes. How long could the woman survive—certainly not through another long northern winter. How long had the woman survived in the streets, with nobody?
Strictly speaking, Emily had nobody, either. Most of her friends had moved in with children or found a retirement home to suit them. Emily kept up with her friends, but she rarely got to see them. An only child who had never married, Emily didn’t find it strange to be alone.
On Saturday mornings in mild weather, she visited the open-air market near her apartment. She never tired of seeing the rows of flowers and lush fruits and vegetables, or of watching women from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods buy the ingredients they’d combine in a thousand different ways. She had so many places she liked to visit, especially the bookshops near the university. Tonight they’d be open late.
Fifty and more years ago she’d walked near the university with her young men. She’d had her opportunities, but in the end she chose none of them. Without a husband and children, she’d had more freedoms than most women of her generation. Summers she had traveled, teaching herself to read a map and to make her needs known in other languages.
Young women who live alone have an easier time as old women, Emily believed. She knew women who wouldn’t leave their apartments after dark, who were afraid to ride the Metro. Until they were old they’d never been alone. They didn’t know how to learn self-confidence now.
The evening world was a world of couples and companionable groups. If she wasn’t on her guard, the useless melancholy would find her. She was lucky not to be hiding in her apartment like so many of the others.
The young men were playing another familiar melody. Her parents would have liked it here this evening. Her father had loved music, and her mother had loved people. It would be easy to be sad; they’d been gone so long. The hardest times were early in the morning and late at night, just before sleep. The trick was knowing which memories to let in.
When she was twenty, she’d had long hair, and at least a couple of boys had thought her pretty. One had wanted to marry her. They’d picnicked by the river and played duets on her parents’ old upright. Silly girl—it had seemed so important to her to be pretty and to have a fiancé. But he’d had a temper that she knew one day he’d turn on her, so she had broken the engagement.
Her parents had paid for her to go back to college when she was twenty-five. Already she had a teaching degree, when many girls of her time never had a chance to go past high school. The master’s degree made her more determined to be an independent and strong woman, but then she turned thirty and the longing for a child grew more instead of less. Still the men were not right for her, and she turned forty and moved forward into spinsterhood. She had a career and parents who loved her and never pushed her to be like other daughters. Nearly every fair Saturday night up through the summer of her forty-fifth year, the three of them had gone together to hear the orchestra play in the park. The smell of warm August nights still carried on its fragrance the memory of her family and those Saturday evenings.
It was better not to walk down the street where she’d grown up, at least not to pass the house after the lights were on and Emily could glimpse the life going on inside. It was too easy then to believe her life had ended in another era.
She wouldn’t let herself feel like an intruder in the young people’s world, in the world of couples. From where she was sitting, Emily could see the old couple holding hands under their table. She turned and looked at the girls. They had so much life to get through.
While Emily was finishing her third cup of tea and slice of walnut pie, the musicians put away their instruments. Maybe in one of the shops she could find a good copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She’d never read enough from the reclusive poet who shared her name. In her master’s degree, she’d concentrated on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, never realizing then that no man, no matter how perceptive, can prepare a woman for the life she will live.
Near the bookshops she would watch young people milling around outside their music clubs and hear their rhythms spill out on the sidewalk. The floating flute and guitar melodies mustn’t make her forget that life still drives forward.
I meditated this morning,
Listening to Andrea as I did twenty years ago
—“Una furtive lagrima,” “Che gelida manina,” “Addio, fiorito asil”—
When his place in my life was new
And the world, too, was fresh
In spite of my incapacities
To be as I wished,
To be as I might have been.
Those mornings I heard sweet Mother
Dressing in the adjoining room,
Beyond the wall against which I leaned;
By that hour dear Daddy was in the kitchen,
Preparing breakfast for us three—
We shared our home:
Are we together now?
I tell myself,
“Not only are we three still one,
United in every place and time,
But my beloveds reside in joy,
In peace and absolute fulfillment.”
Am I correct,
Or am I the remnant, alone
Until my days run down,
Maybe in another twenty years?
And what then?
I see now why I’d avoided meditation
And why I ration music:
Both bring me into this moment, yes,
But also within the moments, the years,
When I was whole,
Or might have been
If not for the hollow places
I allowed to grow within.
If truly my mother, father, and I remain as one
And they are themselves, in bliss,
Then I will meditate and live inside
The loveliness and possibilities
Of life as it goes on:
My shining, treasured friends,
The things I love to do and learn,
Spring rebirth, summer evenings, autumn frosts, and winter quietness,
The chance to find my ways to serve,
The challenges through which the soul
Can strengthen and gain wisdom.
Others seek conviction of God;
I seek assurance of my parents’ eternal being;
They are my sunshine, my moonlight and starlight,
The beauty and pulse of the universe.
My lifelong-learning French course (which a late friend began more than thirty years ago) is now run like an ongoing book group conducted in French. This week was my turn to lead the class—a daunting prospect because of my miscellaneous insecurities and deficiencies. Some in the class are native French speakers; many of the others are retired French teachers or lived in France for an extended time. I merely studied some French in high school and college, lived for a year and a half in a dorm where we were supposed to speak French all of the time, and spent three miraculous weeks in France in January 1972.
But I prepared carefully for Monday’s class, and my classmates were kind and encouraging, so I survived and even enjoyed the experience. We were talking about the last four chapters of Philippe Claudel’s novel Quelques-uns des cent regrets (Some of My One Hundred Regrets), which prompted lively discussion. In the novel, the narrator describes his return to his childhood town for the funeral and burial of his mother, with whom he has been estranged for half of his thirty-two years. The short novel (154 pages) is not available in English. Its vivid scenes and characters—including some elements reminiscent of magic realism—account for both the book’s difficulty for non-native French speakers and its power. Quelques-uns des cent regrets is well worth the effort if you have a fairly solid reading knowledge of French.
The title comes from a parable-like story that the hotel owner in the novel tells the narrator: Human regrets are like the pearls that oysters create, treasures “qui possèdent le souvenir, la mémoire de la blessure”—“that possess the recollection, the memory of the injury.” Each person, according to the legend, is allotted one-hundred regrets in a lifetime. Each regret is written into a magnificent illuminated book called The Book of Debts. Shortly after a person’s one-hundredth regret has been written in the book, the person dies.
Making Meaning Out of My Entries in The Book of Debts
I imagine that I have company—billions of companions—in struggling with guilt, with how to move from inundating guilt to regrets transformed into meaningful memories. And so I have asked my higher self and guides for their advice. Here is the response (which I’ve also included in my book A Woman in Time):
Making mistakes to learn from is part of the point of it all. As you know, of course, you can’t change the past, but if you look back, you will see that you made your mistakes out of a lack of understanding, knowledge, and insight, not from a desire to hurt or harm others. As you have grown in wisdom, you have made better choices. You have more to learn, more to grow, but that is why you are on Earth: to learn and to grow. If you allow the past to weigh you down, you will restrict the potential inherent in the present and future. Some of the wisdom you have now grew out of your errors and mistakes. Such is the way of life on Earth. If you were perfect, you would not be here.
See the attitudes that misled—and mislead—you. Because of things that happened to you in school and your lack of understanding at the time, you grew to believe that even small faults or infractions make you unacceptable to others. You thought—and to a degree still believe—that some inherent flaw in you meant you had to be even more careful of slipping up than others needed to be. Others could make mistakes and do or say wrong things and still be acceptable, but you had to be pretty much perfect even to have a chance of being accepted. And to an extent—too great an extent—you still feel that way. Even though you have close friends, you fear you are one gaffe away from having them throw you overboard.
Because they loved you—and love you—your parents disliked your reflex of saying “I’m sorry,” but you even now continue to fear and act as if failing to sprinkle the magic powder of “sorry” over what feel to you like your slipups and transgressions will mean the loss of the possibility of forgiveness and continued inclusion by those you want to please and whose company you value.
Your attitudes have brought you great suffering and pressure and have contributed, to a large measure, to the hurt and harm you have inflicted on others, especially your dearest ones. It is hard to live under such pressure to be perfect as you have endured and not have negative symptoms appear from the strain. And the irony is, of course, that your behavior was anything but perfect as a result. But it and you were and are very human, as are all people on this Earth: getting along as you can, given your level of insight and experience.
Creating Pearls Out of Pain
About some things you know better now. As hard as it is to change ingrained conditioning, it can be done, and you can do it. But if you allow yourself to live in regret, you will never become the whole, mature, compassionate, confident, loving, creative person you wish to be. You gave up smoking and other destructive behaviors; you can also give up thinking you have to be perfect to find even the hope of approval by others. And you can learn to release regret, letting the sad thoughts float through your mind and out again without anchoring there.
You want to make up for all the causes for regret in your life, and while doing so per se is impossible, you will make up for your past lack of wisdom by moving forward buoyed by what the years have taught you. Find missing courage and be yourself, doing the best you can but not beating yourself when you stumble. You will stumble less if you refuse to see yourself as less than others, refuse to look down on yourself, mourn what is lost without wallowing in guilt and fear, and celebrate what your errors and unhappiness have taught you. The way to find your way is to be, knowing that life is about becoming, not about figuring it all out at the start.
When you make a mistake, consider the lesson and move on. Keep going. Hold your head high. Have compassion for yourself, as well as for others. Expect yourself to be a good human being, not a perfect being.
Those you love will be cheering you on, are cheering you now. They are not counting your flaws and failures; they are celebrating your courage and your victories.
 Philippe Claudel, Quelques-uns des cent regrets (Paris : Éditions Stock, 2007).
The idea of rereading a novel by Helen MacInnes—whose books I first enjoyed several decades ago—came while I was reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Thirty-Nine Steps has been included on some lists of the 100 best books and so had made my list of books I should read. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is an early version of the spy-novel genre into which Helen MacInnes’s The Venetian Affair (1963) falls, and the books contain some of the same elements, including ruthless pursuers driven by their ideology and heroes who must use intelligence and subterfuge to avoid capture and certain death. The Thirty-Nine Steps, however, is almost entirely male, with barely a mention of a woman, much less one in any sustained role. Even the servants are men.
Claire Connor Langley, in The Venetian Affair, is an important and intelligent personage in her own right, even if Bill Fenner, the other central character, does rescue her in the end. Claire is no Emma Peel, from the 1960s television series The Avengers; Emma Peel’s formidable karate skills never let her down. But while Claire is always feminine in her dress and decorous in her behavior, she is neither helpless nor subordinate. She and Bill end the novel not only with the bad guys defeated but also with love for one another, a situation I prefer over the simple defeat of the villains by the ever-manly Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps. But rereading The Venetian Affair pleased me in more personal ways, as well. Along with presenting a world into which my imagination could escape, the novel led me back into cities, sights, memories, and a time that I myself have known.
The Venetian Affair takes place at the end of the summer of 1961, over fifty-five years ago. And yet the world of the book—minus the high-stakes intrigue—in some ways feels more comfortable and familiar to me than the world I inhabit now. In 1961, documents are prepared on typewriters, and copies are made with carbon paper. Miniature tape recorders are high tech. Phones are anchored to the wall. Well-dressed women wear gloves all year around (I can do without the gloves), and dining on the train is an elegant experience.
The first part of the novel takes place in Paris. It would be ten years later—the last day of 1971 and the first twenty days of 1972—that I would be in France. The Paris that my roommate, Karin, and I explored on foot and by Métro and that my friend Louis Henri and I whirled through in his Deux Chevaux Citroën was certainly more like the Paris Bill Fenner and Claire Connor Langley know than the Paris of today, with the Centre Pompidou—built just after I was there—now forcing itself into the central-Paris skyline. The Paris I knew seemed to be a place that would never change because it was already perfect just as it was.
As Karin and I would do, Helen MacInnes’s Bill and Claire visit cafés near Boulevard Saint-Germain. They wouldn’t have stayed in a place as small and plain as the Grand Hôtel des Deux Continents was in the early 70s, but they would have passed nearby as they walked through the Latin Quarter. Claire’s apartment is on the Ile Saint-Louis, where Karin and I found the best strawberry ice cream in the Western World. The Grand Hôtel des Deux Continents still exists (with “Grand” removed from its name), considerably gussied up from the version we knew, with its minuterie lighting the halls for just one minute as we climbed the stairs to our room and with small sandpaper-like sheets of toilet paper stocking the tiny WC located one floor below our room. We paid $3.60 each per night, including breakfast of café au lait and croissants. Judging by photos on the Internet, rooms at the Hôtel des Deux Continents are now amenity filled and priced accordingly. We had no television and no toilet, just the one downstairs, although we did have a sink and a bidet. We made much use of the former and none of the latter. We had no need of air conditioning in January, but the room was warm and cozy, if exceedingly plain.
While Karin and I were in Paris, I met Louis Henri at a party hosted by the affluent parents of his cousin, who was spending the year at the University of Delaware. Louis Henri’s light-yellow hair bushed out like a dandelion gone to seed, and his large red bowtie contested his reserved white sports coat. He was almost as small as I am and was known as “Petit Louis.” We danced to “The Sound of Silence” and “Country Roads” as Louis Henri sang along softly (“Almost heaven, West Virginia”), and we ate macaroons, talked, and drank champagne. After the other guests had left, Louis Henri and I stayed on to chat with his cousin and aunt and uncle (I mostly listened, lost in the setting and the rapid French) before Louis Henri drove me to my hotel. He sped the wrong way down half a block of one-way Rue Jacob and parked with the Deux Chevaux’s two left wheels on the sidewalk. Karin didn’t wake up to let me into our room, so the toothless little man from the front desk fiddled with his collection of keys until he found the one to open the door.
In The Venetian Affair, Bill considers playing “the complete tourist” by entering the Café Deux Magots, “where the existentialists had established their original beachhead.” Karin and I had a drink of some sort there, envisioning Camus and Sartre sitting where we sat, and I returned once on my own, probably to drink coffee. The waiter tried to convince me I owed an additional service charge, but I had enough savvy to know I’d already paid everything in full. Karin and I were back in the Café Deux Magots when Louis Henri found me after the gap of a few days while Karin and I had been in Marseilles. I don’t know how he figured out where I was in all of Paris. Karin and I had moved for our last couple of nights in France to the Grand Hôtel des Étrangers, which cost us each just two dollars a night. The overhead light in our room had burned out and was not replaced during our stay. Our stay was also not enough time for Louis Henri and me to remain a couple after my three weeks in France concluded.
The Venice that Bill and Claire experience in The Venetian Affair probably had not changed much by the time I paid my brief visit in 2002. Venetian buildings can be rescued, repaired, even renovated, but not much new can be added to the floating city. As it is for Bill and Claire, in 2002, the vaporetti still served as water-borne buses, and gondoliers with straw hats and striped shirts wooed the tourists. The arches of the Rialto Bridge across the Grand Canal were just as beautiful, and the houses along the canal equally ethereal, as they certainly had been in 1961.
Like Bill and Claire, I was in Venice in late summer. On that breezy, sunny day after heavy rain, Venice shimmered like a mirage hovering just on top of the sea, a vision that might not be there again if I turned away. I had just enough time in Venice to ride a vaporetto around the outside of the city, past tankers and cruise ships and on to a stop by St. Mark’s Square. I ran through the crowds and the square’s ankle-deep water to stand for a few moments in front of the cathedral, with its lacy and flamboyant angles, arches, swirls, and ornaments. Then the vaporetto floated up the dreamway that is the Grand Canal, passed under the Rialto Bridge, and docked by the station, where the Eurostar to Rome had already arrived.
In The Venetian Affair, Bill and Claire are helping to foil a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. When Louis Henri and I were a star in the Arc de Triomphe’s spinning galaxy of car lights, de Gaulle had been gone just over a year. His term as president had ended less than three years earlier. A man who helped Karin and me find our way to the correct Métro stop complained that the Étoile Station had been renamed Charles de Gaulle-Étoile. The man was clearly not a de Gaulle fan. Probably now the name is from too far back in history for many to care one way or another.
Bill and Claire’s world is the world of the Cold War, with vicious, power-hungry men (and the expendable women who support them) trying to take over the democratic world. Balance and order in favor of freedom are restored at the end of the novel, but we know that eventually someone will step into the villain Kalganov’s empty place and threaten the world again. In The Venetian Affair’s universe, the bad guys and good guys are unambiguously delineated. By the time I was in Venice, I’d learned that the world is much less clearly sorted, and happy endings are even more transient.
It is our memories and the present moments seized that continue to endure.