Nonfiction | June 01, 1993
During my twelfth summer, each excursion I made into the world of adults was followed by an even deeper retreat into myself. Learning about sex was one of those excursions. It began following a Little League baseball game, during which my brother, Jamie, sat on the bench while I sat beneath a tree with my nose in a book–as it would be most of the summer. Joy Adamson’s Born Free and Carson McCullers’ A Member of the Wedding interested me much more than baseball.
After the game, my mother, my little brother, John, and I were in the car listening to the radio while Jamie and my father, the assistant coach, packed the equipment. The disc jockey joked about the rhythm of a song he had just played (I remember neither the song nor the joke). He quipped that if the number of children they had was any measure, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy apparently had no rhythm at all. My mother found this amusing and observed that ever since the debut of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In–a risque television program she never missed–people could say anything on the air.
When I asked her what was so funny, she tried explaining the rhythm method of birth control, but realized it was futile since I knew so little about sex. She explained the mechanics of intercourse, a necessary prerequisite. What she described was worse than anything I could imagine. I wanted to believe this notion of people touching each other with their private parts wasn’t true, just as I hadn’t wanted to believe Walt Disney’s “The Story of Menstruation,” which the fifth-grade girls and their mothers had viewed in the Corse gymnasium. I hadn’t had a period yet, and wouldn’t until the summer I turned thirteen, but some of my friends had them, and certainly my mother did; I’d seen the evidence in the wastebasket. Menstruation, the first awful thing “they” had planned for my body would eventually happen to me. So, too this other, graver abomination. My only consolation was that when McCullers’ Frankie Addams heard about sex from her friends, she too had been horrified: “They were talking nasty lies about married people . . .” But I knew my mother wasn’t lying. The awkward and messy system she had described was too outlandish for anyone to have made up. It had to be true.
Nonetheless, I hated my mother for telling me about sex and I hated her for participating in it. I knew my parents had touched each other with their sexual organs four times because there were three of us and one miscarriage. It was a sacrifice they had to make, I supposed, but it was a sacrifice I didn’t want to think about anymore.
During that same summer, my family moved from a tiny Cape Cod in a seedy part of town to a California bungalow in an old, elegant neighborhood on South Main Street, halfway between downtown and the city parks–a physical change that coincided with and perhaps emphasized the mysterious inner changes I was experiencing.
This move represented a full step up on the socioeconomic ladder in Burlington, Iowa, but I knew nothing of socioeconomics at that time. I only knew that my father did not park the noisy, beat-up ’55 Chevy he drove to the railroad yards each day in our garage, or on the street in front of our new house. Instead, he parked a few blocks away on Sweeney Street, and stealthily walked home in his dirty overalls and heavy work boots, lunch-bucket in hand. He said he didn’t want our new neighbors to know that the decrepit, green monster belonged to us when he fired it up at 6:15 in the morning. A temporary arrangement, he assured us, until he could afford a newer, quieter second car, a ’64 Volkswagen bug which he did park in the garage: a clear sign to me that we had moved up in the world.
My mother was convinced that our new house was haunted, and my brothers and I believed her. My father just shook his head at her “ghostly” convictions, but she did have reasons for them. Sometimes the doorbell rang, though no one was there. My parents’ bedroom door slammed shut for no visible reason, scaring us silly. At night, we heard strange rustlings. It couldn’t be the previous owners, the Ringblooms, who were haunting us. They were divorcing, and eager to be rid of anything that attested to their life together. Besides, they weren’t dead yet. Most likely, my mother explained, our ghosts were Mr. and Mrs. Palmberg, who had moved into the house as newlyweds and lived there the rest of their lives. According to our neighbor Mr. Bresslau, Mrs. Palmberg had died in one of the upstairs bedrooms (not mine; that had been her sewing room). Mr. Palmberg had closed the upstairs following her death and converted the dining room into his bedroom, where he slept alone for several years. The first time that anyone other than the housekeeper saw Mr. Palmberg following his wife’s death was the day they carried his corpse out. Just what had he been doing shut up alone in that house those final years, Mr. Bresslau wondered.
My mother was convinced the Palmbergs meant us no harm. They merely wanted to remain where they’d spent so many years together. Sometimes, my mother talked to our ghosts, thanking Mr. Palmberg for installing indoor plumbing, asking Mrs. Palmberg for permission to replace the venetian blinds with sheer drapes; or to replace the gold and red floral carpet strips, whose seams had worn away, with thick shag carpeting; or to remove the wooden door that separated the kitchen from the dining room so air could circulate. Apparently, Mrs. Palmberg granted her leave, because gradually the house became lighter, cooler, airier, ours.
Until the summer I turned twelve, reading was required and rewarded either by my teachers or by my participation in the summer reading program at the public library. That summer, my reasons for reading changed. Those of us entering junior high in the fall were no longer eligible for the summer reading program, but I continued to read partly because I had no friends in my new neighborhood. On Marietta Street, a huge Catholic family had lived across the alley from us. Seldom were my brother and I without playmates. But even if the Wests had still lived near us, I doubt that I would have wanted to climb trees or build club houses. Play pulled me outside of myself at a time when my energy and attention were increasingly being drawn inward. That spring, even before we moved, it hadn’t been noisy, sweaty games with the younger kids that filled my days, but shady afternoons on the Wests’ front porch with the oldest West girls, Kathy and Barbie, talking about “The Patty Duke Show,” the Beany Malone books, and Connie Dabney, the high school girl across the street who surprised us with a new boyfriend and a new hair color nearly every week.
After we moved, I was drawn inward even further. What I found inside was emptiness. Whether it was new or never before recognized, I cannot say. But I was as hollow as a gourd in December. It wasn’t playing I craved, but companionship. Yet, I’d grown so shy and uncertain that the very notion of scouting the neighborhood for girls my age and boldly asking them to go bike riding in the park with me, or downtown on the bus for a matinee at the Capitol Theater, made my stomach roll. So, I stayed home and read. Not because it was required. Not because it was rewarded. But because I was lonely (though seldom alone) and because the summer days stretched as long before me as a winter shadow.
I wasn’t in danger of running out of things to read. My peculiar Great-Aunt Florence, the relative everyone told me I most resembled (much to my displeasure), belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club from sometime during World War II until sometime during the Vietnam war. She delivered crates and boxes of hardback books for my mother and me. Few were what I’d now classify as “literature.” For the most part, they were just books. Yet each crate I opened was a Cracker Jack box chock full of prizes: Romance! War! Travel! Mystery! Biography! Nature! Humor! Some books, such as John Hershey’s Hiroshima and The Wall, were what my mother labeled “too old” for me, containing what we now call “adult situations,” though seldom did that mean sex. Unlike my Granny Parris, who delivered grocery sacks filled with lurid paperbacks that kept her awake during the night shift at the hospital where she tended the often empty nursery, my maidenly great-aunt apparently had no interest in copulation, either in her bedroom or in her library.
By the end of the summer, I was a full-fledged adult reader. Gone, temporarily, were my childhood days of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. Gone temporarily was my obsession with anything pertaining to the Holocaust, though I would continue to read Anne Frank’s diary for different reasons. Gone too was my obsession with stories about orphans, such as Heidi of the Alps; Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan; or that other Anne, of Anne of Green Gables. Instead, the books I read were about people like me, curious and troubled: Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Mary Katherine O’Flanagan in Benedict and Nancy Freedman’s Mrs. Mike; Clay-Boy in Earl Hamner’sSpencer’s Mountain; Natasha Rostov in a seriously abridged edition of War and Peace, and, of course, Frankie Addams.
I read everywhere. Lying down on the front porch swing, lazily pushing myself with my toe, and swatting mosquitoes with my free hand. On the living room davenport, while my father–who was born to push a plow–made furrows in the new, shag carpet, while my brothers cranked the television volume to new heights, and my mother screamed in the kitchen about the noise level. I read in the quiet of my bedroom. On a nylon-and-aluminum chaise lounge in our tiny backyard. In the back seat of the Volkswagen parked in the cool, dark, fly-infested garage. On the sun porch, in dreamy, rosy morning fight, or during the afternoon heat when the bamboo shades clattered and slapped in the breeze. No matter what setting I chose, within a matter of sentences, it was transformed utterly, and I was on a train bound for my uncle’s ranch near Calgary, Alberta, in the midst of the worst blizzard in fifty years; I was sharing my tent in the cold of Mount Kulal with the lion cub Elsa; I was burying my grandfather in the family cemetery on our mountain in Virginia.
The summer I turned twelve, I became every character I read about. Not only was I Scout Finch, but when my father read the newspaper he was Atticus; when my mother rattled pans in the kitchen, she was our maid, Calpurnia; when I hadn’t seen old Mr. Bresslau for days, it was because he was tending to his ghostly and reclusive brother, Boo Radley. When my mother sent me to Naifeh’s grocery for a pound of margarine and a can of stewed tomatoes, I was Clay-Boy, running for the country doctor after my baby brother plunged head first from the high chair. When lightning and thunder awakened me, I recognized it for what it was: nothing short of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, my homeland at that moment. But the problem arose that when I became a character, I often failed to make a quick, smooth transition back to ordinary reality. If I ran into Mrs. Naifeh, our next-door neighbor, walking home from her shift at the grocery, I might answer her polite, “How are you?” with a hurried, “No time to talk. Emergency back home.”
When books ended, I grieved–a reaction, that happens, I’m sorry to say, too seldom these days. Perhaps the reading experience was more intense then because the books I read my twelfth summer had more pages and finer print than the ones I was used to reading, and consequently, required a greater investment of time and self. Also, reading may have been more intense because everything I read was absolutely new, and I didn’t yet recognize that like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many other tales I’d read before, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Member of the Wedding were stories about a child’s initiation into adulthood, and thus were reworkings of an old, old theme. But more likely my loneliness caused me to attach myself to those who peopled the books I read. By the end of the second chapter, they were my friends, my family, my enemies. Needless to say, I postponed the last page as long as I could. I rationed myself by nibbling instead of gulping, which meant that if I were to have enough reading to fill the day, I had to have several books going at the same time. Still, the endings inevitably came.
By the end of the summer, I developed a method that prevented characters from “dying” with the last word on the last page, and lessened the difficult transition between the fictional world and the real one. In addition, it provided me with friends. Instead of irnagining myself as the protagonist and becoming Mrs. Mike or Frankie Addams or Natasha Rostov, I permitted the protagonist to remain a separate being, a companion and a confidante who chatted with me between chapters on the sun porch, helped me with the dinner dishes, or biked with me through Crapo Park. These friends were not so different from the imaginary friend, Ging-gold, who had played with me, slept and eaten with me when I was three. As is often the case with magical beings, Ging-gold remained invisible in the presence of those who doubted. My mother couldn’t see Ging-gold, and neither could she see the imaginary friends who haunted me my twelfth summer. The difference was, she didn’t know about the latter. At twelve, I had sense enough not to talk out loud to Mrs. Mike, Frankie, or Natasha; our conversations were for my ears alone.
My companions were intensely interested in my life. Mrs. Mike didn’t just speak to me about the friends she left behind when she and her new husband, a Canadian mounted policeman, moved to his station in the wild north country, reachable only by a seven-hundred-mile dog-sled trip. She wanted to know about the friends I’d left behind, too. Frankie didn’t just speak about the rage and disappointment she felt when her brother and his new wife refused to take her along on their honeymoon, but about my brother, too, who drove me crazy with his nine-year-old’s ways. Natasha Rostov consulted me about deciding between the arrogant Prince Andrey Bolkonsky and the rakish Anatole Kuragin, but she was also curious about my mother’s noisy, unseen ghosts. No wonder my “ghosts” were curious. They probably collided with my mother’s as the two spectral groups roamed our house at night.
When I was twenty-five, my therapist asked me to list what I believed to be the most significant occurrences during my formative years. Among those experiences I considered to be “transforming,” were encounters with specific books. (“As I look back,” writes essayist Sam Pickering, “my childhood seems marked not so much by physical awakenings or developing abilities as by books . . .”) This was not exactly what the therapist was after. She wanted to know if my parents had ever abandoned me, literally or figuratively. However, my identification not with the vivacious, pampered, pouty Scarlett O’Hara, but with the gentle, tolerant, self-effacing Melanie Wilkes, revealed more about my character than any sort of fictionalized “abandonment” my therapist and I might have been able to devise. Reading was not peripheral to the life I was living; it was central.
Nothing interfered with my reading that summer except for the affair my mother had with the Reverend Henry T. (“T. for tall,” he once said) Mohr, the leader of our flock at Grace United Methodist Church. Several afternoons each week while my father was at the railroad, Reverend Mohr paid a pastoral visit. My mother put my younger brother, John, to bed for a nap, gave my other brother, Jamie, and me each a dollar to cover bus fare, admittance to the swimming pool, and a candy bar from the vending machine, and kissed us good-bye.
I did not like swimming in the public pool. Actually, I did not like standing around in the water at the public pool since neither my brother nor I knew how to swim. People spat in the water, little kids peed in it, and the chlorinated water wasn’t gray and fragrant and friendly like the real water in Lake Geode. My brother always found someone to splash around with in a matter of minutes, so I sat on a towel on the hot cement and watched teenage girls riding through the water in their boyfriends’ arms and kissing with open mouths. Their togetherness made me even more aware of my loneliness. With the sun glaring off the water and my eyes stinging from the chlorine, I couldn’t withdraw into a novel. Nonetheless, I carried a book to hide behind whenever I imagined someone staring at me. Concealed by this screen, I conversed with my ghosts. By the end of the summer, my brother and I were brown as potatoes, our hair bleached yellow-white and coarse like straw, and Natasha and I were closer than kin.
I didn’t know at the time that my mother and Reverend Mohr were having an affair. In fact, I didn’t even know what an affair was. I only knew that whenever Reverend Mohr visited, out came my swimming suit. A few years later, my mother confided in me about her liaison (because she needed a confessor, I now believe). “You don’t think any less of me, do you?” she had asked. Methodists confess silently, en masse, and the sins of the entire congregation are pardoned in one fell swoop, with no penances to make one feel really shriven. Perhaps the Methodist method, with her inamorato in command, didn’t give my mother the feeling of absolution she may have craved.
My mother’s rationale for this affair was that it “preserved her sanity,” a phrase she used so often that I pictured sanity as a side of pork or a peck of cucumbers that would go bad fast without salt or vinegar. What placed her sanity in such danger was her marriage to my father. She found him dull.
In part, this was Henry’s fault. When he first climbed into our pulpit with the David Niven waves in his dark hair, my mother was a secretary in a hospital that offered long-term care for those who had had strokes, or brain or spinal cord injuries. For intellectual stimulation, she played bridge with three other women with similar tastes–and equally voracious appetites–for reading. They spent more time swapping copies of Irving Stone’s fictionalized biographies of Michelangelo and Vincent Van Gogh, or discussing the philosophies of Ayn Rand’s protagonists, than they did bidding and trumping. My mother was tired of taking dictation and filing letters all day. Since she’d been good at high school science and loved an audience, she wanted to become a biology teacher. With Reverend Mohr’s encouragement, she enrolled in a few classes each semester at the community college. With Reverend Mohr’s assistance a few years later, she applied for a scholarship to Iowa Wesleyan College, twenty-five miles away, the only B.A.-granting institution in our part of the state. Reverend Mohr arranged for my mother to teach eighth-grade Sunday School and because of this contribution to the Methodist Church, the scholarship was hers. For his birthday, my mother bought Reverend Mohr a decorated cake that read, “To Sir, with Love,” the title of a Sidney Poitier movie my parents had seen with Henry and Lorraine Mohr, about a black West Indian who taught in a tough and racist London slum. I read the book at once and was astonished at my mother’s cleverness in using its title to show her gratitude. For Christmas, she knitted two pullover sweaters: a brown one for my father, a green one for her Henry Higgins.
My parents had little in common. My mother was strong-willed, temperamental (she broke furniture and cracked doors in angry moments), funny, attractive, red-headed, big-boned, with bright, expressive blue-green eyes. She was not merely outgoing; she was the center of attention. My father, on the other hand, was silent and dutiful. He provided a secure paycheck, cleaned up my mother’s messes whether they were stove top fires, or angry explosions at the neighbors. He was generally agreeable regarding her studies, since teachers made more money than secretaries. When they drank, my father became even more taciturn, my mother less volatile, but even more loquacious. My father’s drinking was the reason, my mother claimed, she could never divorce him: “He’d drink himself to death. But don’t think that’d give us a minute’s peace. He’d haunt us alive or dead.”
As my mother became more educated and chose more educated friends, the chasm between my parents yawned even wider. My father was content to drink beer, talk about the railroad, and weed his garden. My mother wanted everything. Consequently, an affair.
The summer I turned twelve, I was ignorant of my mother’s affair with Reverend Mohr on two counts. First, I had no idea that my mother and the minister had any personal interest in each other. Since my parents and Henry and Lorraine Mohr socialized often, and sometimes our entire families gathered for backyard cook-outs, I believed Reverend Mohr’s visits to be either extensions of the family friendship–or discussions that pertained to my mother’s schooling. Secondly, the idea of sex for pleasure was still inconceivable to me. Consequently, I had no notion of what my mother and Reverend Mohr did alone in our house those summer afternoons.
Whatever my mother did involved everyone around her. If she was angry or ecstatic or depressed, we all were. When she had a migraine, the entire house was dark and silent, nauseous and pounding. If an examination was scheduled in one of her classes, we all had knots in our necks and slept fitfully. When the test was over, we too felt expansive and buoyant. Before the arrival of Reverend Mohr, my father used to drop my brother and me off at church school most Sundays and pick us up afterward; occasionally, the whole family attended worship service. Even this sporadic attendance was considered excessive in our extended family. No one on either my mother’s or my father’s side (except an uncle who’d turned Catholic) attended church even on Easter. Certainly, religion was not something we took seriously. Yet, when Reverend Mohr assumed leadership, we were present at every worship service, every Sunday School and Bible school class, every pot luck dinner, every ice cream social, every Holy Communion. Now I find that my happiest, most vivid, and abundant childhood memories of that period are my memories of church.
We all participated in my mother’s schooling, too. I occasionally attended classes with her that summer; while she took notes on her philosophy lectures I read Robert Nathan’s A Portrait of Jenny. The whole family participated in her field trips, chipping brachiopods in rock quarries; tromping through woods and city parks, while my mother memorized tree silhouettes for her dendrology class; scooping algae from scummy farm ponds which would later dazzle us as brilliant green gems floating beneath the microscope lens at our dining room table. At my mother’s persistent urging, my father enrolled in a photography class at night school in order to “enrich” himself. On the field trips, he brought up the rear, snapping black and white photos.
Because all our friends and neighbors knew of my mother’s interest in biology, we acquired a sizeable collection of injured or abandoned birds: mourning doves, blue jays, sparrows, a great horned owl, chimney swifts, robins, and more robins. My favorite was Melody, a tiny horned meadowlark, who raised and lowered her feathered tufts and sang sweetly. She lived in a wire cage in the dining room, next to the terrarium where iguanas and chameleons basked beneath an electric bulb and feasted on mealworms. The one time I saw my parents in the sex act was when I interrupted one of their Sunday afternoon naps to explain a domestic problem: an iguana was on the loose–and it wasn’t one of the ghostly Palmbergs ringing the doorbell, but the Encyclopedia Britannica sales representative, who refused to enter until the lizard was contained. Yet it wasn’t until a few years later, that I attached the correct explanation to my parents’ startled and annoyed expressions.
In addition to the birds and lizards were the twenty-some box turtles my mother had acquired on a fishing-camping trip she and my father had taken near Branson, Missouri. While the turtles had been attempting to cross the highway, many had been hit by cars (in some cases, intentionally, my mother said), which left their shells cracked and oozing. If my parents had left them near the highway, it would have meant certain death, so my mother gathered them up and brought them home. Initially, the turtles lumbered about the living room, sleeping beneath the davenport, eating cantaloupe and raw hamburger on a newspaper, pooping in the bath tub after drinking deeply, and thumping about at top speed just before a thunderstorm. One Sunday morning, we watched Arky and Red Eye mate; weeks later, we buried Arky’s eggs in damp sand where we hoped they would hatch, but instead, they slowly rotted. Another Sunday morning we awakened to find that the turtles had breakfasted on the chimney swift nestlings my mother and I had left on the floor after feeding them. My father poured a cement pool and confine for the turtles in the basement where they remained until their shells were healed and they could be adopted by friends. Those that weren’t adopted we released into wilds, not nearly as spectacular an event to watch as releasing lions or eagles, or even a horned meadowlark. My father only complained about my mother’s menagerie when he found a snake in his sock drawer one day. He insisted that it be gone by the end of the day, and moreover, that no other legless slithering beast ever cross our threshold. Snakes and caves mortified him. My mother complied.
Caring for these creatures, and the companionship they offered, was so satisfying that I decided to be a biologist, too–though not the teaching type. I wanted to follow Charles Darwin and sail to the Galapagos Islands, where the iguanas ran free and wild, and the natural order was reversed: in the Galapagos, the birds ate newly hatched tortoises. My job would be to help the latter swiftly and safely reach the sea. During the off-seasons, I, too, would study variations in finch beaks. Or I would work on a game preserve in Kenya, like George and Joy Adamson, and I’d protect my charges from poachers and ivory hunters.
I told my mother of my travel plans. Good idea, she said. Maybe the whole family could go. I took her seriously. We were going to Africa! When my Granny Parris, who always shopped in bulk, gave me three pairs of pointed-toe tennis shoes (one pair, a psychedelic paisley–this was 1968), I put them aside, saving them for Africa. My mother asked me why I insisted upon wearing my old sneakers instead of my new ones, and I reminded her of our trip to Africa, which by now I had fleshed out in detail. The five of us would unearth ancient bones in Tanzania like the Leakeys, with me writing the field notes. My mother deflated my fantasy: “By the time we get to Africa,” she predicted, “you won’t be able to get those shoes on your little toe.”
Watching my mother prepare for her career as a biology teacher made me think about my own career. Of course, I wanted to be a scientist diving into the coral sea like Jacques Cousteau, or living on tea and bread in a Paris garret while studying physics, like Marie Curie. I anticipated long years of schooling before I’d be ready for fieldwork, but in the meantime, I read biographies of scientists, paid careful attention on my mother’s field trips, and performed simple scientific experiments that answered such pressing questions as: Are tomatoes sweeter when the plants are watered with orange juice or milk?
Of course, I wanted to be a writer, too, but that wasn’t a career one prepared for. You were born to it as some are born into royalty, and therefore, authoring was something you did instinctively. Even if you seldom or never wrote, you were still an author. After all, when a king abdicated, he was still royalty. Harper Lee had only written one book and no matter what she had done with her life in the meantime, first and foremost, she was a writer. The best evidence I could find that I was elected for the writing life was my loneliness and inner turmoil. From the biographies I’d read of authors such as Emily Dickinson whose cryptic poetry I did not understand, and Edgar Allan Poe whose ghostly poems and stories I thought I understood, the suffering I was enduring was the type that yielded ageless literary classics.
In truth, I had already begun practicing my craft. In fourth grade, I’d written A Ballerina You Shall Bein my spiral notebook. The book was based on my own fantasy of being whisked to fame, after a few years of Saturday morning ballet lessons by the incongruous appearance of a dance company talent agent at the Burlington, Iowa, YWCA. Like the prince’s emissaries in “Cinderella,” he would come to the door of my house late one night and ask if a talented young lady lived within. My parents would lead him to my bedroom where he would fling back the covers and find me sleeping mid jete. Before I had even rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I was on stage, slimmer, taller, older, and tutued.
While A Ballerina You Shall Be was only a novella, my fifth-grade endeavor, Scotland Calls, written and illustrated on a tablet of stationery and divided into chapters with a table of contents, was a bona fide novel. It featured a Scottish couple who immigrated to America where they bore two sets of twins, each set containing a boy and a girl whose names now escape me. They did everything I thought an Americanized family should do: ate hot dogs, rode Ferris wheels at carnivals, learned to use slang such as “cool” and “neat,” and drove fast on the highway. But in the predictable denouement, their homeland called, and the family returned to bonny Scotland.
When we prepared to move to our new house on Main Street, my father had the odious task of clearing all our long-abandoned, though valuable possessions from the basement. He pitched and burned all the papers in the old desk where I’d been storing my “books” between work sessions in one of the deep drawers. “Just write another,” he replied when I complained. I believe it was then that I first suspected that those who do not read are of a different ilk.
The summer I turned twelve, I turned my writing attention to poetry. Each day, I composed a poem–always two quatrains, rhymed–on any old sheet of paper. I printed the poems neatly and illustrated them in my spiral notebook. The sources of my inspiration were pictures and descriptions of flowers in the brand-spanking new set ofEncyclopedia Britannica we had bought from the sales representative who arrived at our front door on the Sunday when the iguana busted out. I had taken the liberty of filling out a postcard (NO POSTAGE NECESSARY IF MAILED IN THE UNITED STATES) that I’d found in a magazine at the doctor’s office while I was waiting for my junior high physical, expressing my interest in purchasing a set of the books. Sunday afternoon was the best time to catch me at home. And yes, I would take my free print of one of the world’s best loved art treasures. Since my mother loved the diffused light and turbulent waters of J.M.W. Turner’s seascapes, I requested a print of The Harbor of Dieppe, though I’d never seen the print and hadn’t any idea what or where Dieppe was. By the time theBritannica representative arrived, my mother had already framed and hung the print. “You’re sure we don’t have to buy anything?” she had inquired.
With hindsight, I realize those poems based on the encyclopedia pictures were the first indication that I was a Calvinist at heart, despite my Wesleyan upbringing. In secular terms, I was a workaholic and felt that my existence–or rather, the existence of hefty, oxblood leather volumes in our home–could only be justified by what they yielded. And so, a poem a day based on the pictures and descriptions in those books. But not everyone sees writing as a validating act, now or then. Once I took my notebook out of hiding (the shelf in the back of my closet: I’d learned my lesson), to show my Grandma Knopp. She wet her crooked, arthritic forefinger before flipping each page and peered through the bottom of her bifocals, just as she did when she studied The Old Farmer’s Almanac orNational Enquirer. “Beautiful handwriting,” she remarked. “Helps you pass the time, don’t it?” But she hadn’t read a single poem. The best part was lost on her.
I aspired to God’s work, too. I read biographies of Albert Schweitzer healing the lepers in Africa, and of Peter Marshall tending the spiritually sick in the United States. My Sunday School teachers kindled the flame, too. Cleo Hassell’s eyes burned when she announced, “The most beautiful word in the English language is Messiah! Messiah! Messiah!” and she asked us to chant the word with her. Betty Scott narrated unforgettable episodes in the lives of the remarkable Wesley brothers. Charles, the eighteenth son of Susanna and Samuel, an Anglican priest, wrote zillions of hymns, some of which I knew by heart: “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”; “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”; “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”; “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” His brother John, the fifteenth son, was plucked from a parsonage fire, which he read as a sign from God that he was saved for extraordinary work: nothing short of the revitalization of a then corrupt and spiritless church. I savored the story of John Wesley’s boat ride to Governor Oglethorpe’s colony in America, where he and the other circuit riders preached the gospel such long hours that they sometimes fell asleep in their saddles.
Reverend Mohr also inspired me, with his funny, though largely secular sermons that kept us all awake. But on Maundy Thursday, when he delivered candlelight communion, reading the words of the Last Supper, he was more than just Reverend Mohr; he was a channel through which something greater and more pure was expressed. Through him, the Holy Ghost moved among us. I fought back the tears when I received my ounce of Welch’s grape juice and a tidy, crustless square of white bread.
For the sake of accuracy, I must admit I had a “friend” that summer. Cindy Schweiger lived three blocks away. She rode her bicycle tirelessly, knew most of the girls in the neighborhood who went to Prospect Elementary, and was absolutely boy crazy.
Of course, I did not meet her on my own. Our parents had met on a double, blind date some fifteen years earlier, when my father had been paired with the future Mary Schweiger and my mother with my father’s friend, Dick. By the end of the evening, they’d switched partners (“Your father was so quiet, so enigmatic, so unlike anyone I’d ever known,” my mother explained). When we moved into our new neighborhood, we visited the Schweigers, and for old time’s sake both sets of parents encouraged Cindy and me and Dickie and my brother to be pals. Cindy and I rode bikes together, I listened to her talk about making out with boys, and several times she asked if we could practice making out with each other. After all, she and her neighbor, Peggy MacLeod, practiced all the time so they would know what to do on a date–should the occasion ever arise. Later in the summer, when Cindy stayed overnight at my house and we slept in sleeping bags on the sun porch, we practiced kissing. First, I was the boy, then, she was. We put our arms around each others’ backs and shoulders and positioned our heads so our noses wouldn’t hit. These were dry, tight-lipped kisses. Wet, open-mouthed kisses were something I had only observed in the swimming pool, and wouldn’t try myself for several years, and then not with a pretend boy.
Mostly I found the Schweigers dull. Neither Cindy nor Dickie participated in the summer reading program, though they were eligible. My “ghosts” always disappeared in Cindy’s presence, so I didn’t even try to tell her about them when she asked who my friends were and how I spent my time. Cindy’s mother didn’t read books, go on field trips, study, or entertain the pastor. Instead, she ironed great piles of shirts in front of the television. My mother ironed on a demand basis only. Sometimes I wondered if Mrs. Schweiger would have been more to my father’s liking than my mother was.
In truth, Cindy was a very minor character in the story of my twelfth summer and I only remember her because recently my parents learned that Dick Schweiger had undergone open-heart surgery for the second time. I strained to remember her, and eventually I recalled her freckled face, the starchy smell of freshly ironed cotton shirts, our noses bumping when we kissed. My initial portrait of that summer remains true: I had no friends of the flesh-and-blood type. The books I fell into and out of, the way some people fall in and out of love affairs, made the loneliness tolerable and filled my summer with a rich, memorable assortment of characters, the likes of which I’d never meet on any street in Burlington, Iowa.
My mother was concerned about my shyness and my preference for a quiet corner in a room of my own, where I could retreat into a book. “Living vicariously,” she called it. Reverend Mohr gave an entirely Freudian explanation for my behavior: I was threatened by my mother’s beauty, wit, and intelligence, but I preferred “flight” to “fight.” My father said nothing.
Another Fruedian, Bruno Bettelhiem, says that during the months before first menstruation and sometimes immediately after, girls are “passive, seem sleepy, and withdraw into themselves.” In other words, they exhibit behavior similar to mine, though perhaps less extreme. Internal mental processes become very important, Bettelheim continues. The girl has no energy for “outwardly directed action” and appears passive, though inside, she’s positively churning.
I have never placed much stock in psychological explanations, but I recognize a grain of truth in this theory of turning inward. And I suspect the natural period of dormancy was exacerbated, in my case, by my new loneliness, which made the world of books appear richer to me than it might have otherwise appeared if we had not moved. If I could have biked to my schoolmates’ houses that summer or run into them and swapped rumors on my way to Roy’s Corner Grocery about what life would be like at Horace Mann Junior High, I might not have read so much.
Whatever the reasons, that summer I divided the world into two groups: those who read–epitomized by my mother who made romance wherever she went–and those who did not, epitomized by my father, who not only lived in a lackluster world, but could not understand those who did not. Several years later, I would recognize a finer division between two types of readers: those who read to escape and those who read to confront. The former need books that entertain, and help them pass the time. The latter need books that, as Kafka wrote, “affect us like disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.” Books that are “the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
Bv the end of the summer, my father had explained away my mother’s ghosts to his satisfaction. The strange rustling we heard at night was mice in the attic. The doorbell rang at odd times because of a wiring problem that he fixed when he laid new carpeting. The door on my parents’ bedroom “fell” shut because the floor was slightly uneven. Nothing supernatural in our house, he said. But my ghosts remained, and so did my mother’s. They were part of us and we needed them, the way Mr. Palmberg, alone in our house during his final years, had needed the company of the woman with whom he’d already spent so much of his life.
When school took up again, I realized the cumulative effect of my summer’s reading. Before classes started in the morning, and again after lunch, students were corralled in a large lobby, where we waited until the bell rang. Then, we could enter the halls where our lockers and classrooms were located. Most students gossiped in clusters or pairs. Some talked about sex in slang, some of which I deciphered from the context, some of which I remembered but would not understand for a few more years. I began to suspect that sex wasn’t as awful as I originally imagined. My new friends, Scarlett O’Hara, Huw Morgan, and Juliet Capulet, confirmed my growing suspicion that sex was something to invite, not avoid.
I never joined into conversations with other students during the entire year I was twelve. I did not know what to say to them or how to act, and I didn’t want to risk the humiliation of being turned away. My ghosts walked to school with me in the mornings, and accompanied me home again in the afternoons, but always disappeared in the presence of non-believers, leaving me more alone than ever. I was embarrassed about my aloneness, so I stood behind a cement pillar in the school lobby, playing ostrich with my nose in a book, wishing that I too, could turn into a pillar of salt with a simple backward glance. I did not know then that during my thirteenth summer, another change would take place that would turn my energy and attention outward again. My ghosts would vanish once and for all in the presence of flesh-and-blood friends. Yet even social acceptance wouldn’t stop me from reading.
Seventh-grade science was a disappointment that ruined my enthusiasm for becoming a scientist. Nothing we studied was half as interesting as what I’d read that summer about Darwin, the Curies, or the Adamsons, and we took no field trips. The only fun we had all semester was during the two weeks following Mr. O’Conner’s emergency appendectomy, when the substitute teacher, who apparently knew little about science, staged mock trials in which we played the parts of prosecuting and defending attorneys, witnesses, alleged murderers, and jury members, while she banged the gavel. I gave up on becoming another Peter Marshall or John Wesley or Cleo Hassell or Betty Scott. I was too shy to ever stand before an audience, much less preach to them. Instead, I turned my complete attention to English, where I was rewarded and recognized for what was by then second nature: breathing life into ink and paper creations.
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