After reading the submission criteria for a host of literary magazines, I’ve decided to start my own.
I’ll call it The Grist Mill. It will grind up your submissions very fine and spit them back at you. Or maybe, once in a while, it will pluck one out of the slush pile and plump it up into a jonnycake.
What are we looking for? We are the journal for anyone left out of all the other literary magazines. In particular, self-identifying Swamp Yankees. It might help if you are female, older than 60, underemployed as an adjunct instructor, and a Capricorn. We might be willing to take a few people on the astrological cusp – a Sagittarius or Aquarius, but only when the moon is full and we are feeling magnanimous.
It will help if you are from New England. But not lobster-island New England, as in Maine, or mountain New England, as in Vermont and New Hampshire, or Yale New England, as in Connecticut, and not even Providence New England, which might as well be its own state.
Don’t submit your best work, or your worst work, or your weird stuff. Send us the piece you have been reworking for years that you are pretty sure will never see the light of day, or the printed page.
Here is our editorial calendar for the year, all metaphorical of course: 1. Tuxedo cats. 2. Dead ends, driftways, byways, dirt roads, ditches. 3. Long-dead distant cousins. 4. Vintage cars and trucks. 5. Anxiety in the age of the Weather Channel.
We might not have five issues, but take your chances. We might not even follow this editorial calendar. We might instead, on a whim, ask you to write about whatever flew into your head that day.
We probably won’t publish anyone’s work. We’ll just sift through the pile of slushy, hopeful entries and comfort ourselves with the notion that we are not the only writer out there sending her Swamp Yankee, January-born, Baby Boomer, nostalgic-but-not-edgy work out into the world in search of an audience.
But we are like all the other journals in one respect: At this time, we cannot pay you for your work.
It may seem hard to believe in this age of the Weather Channel, radar, and 24-hour news bulletins, but there was a time in the last century when hurricanes came with virtually no warning at all.
Such was the case on Sept. 21, 1938.
“It was a typical September day – almost picture postcard perfect,” remembered Margaret Terry of Matunuck in a reminiscence written for the South County Independent at the hurricane’s 60th anniversary. “The puffy clouds in the blue sky, the brisk wind, and the bright sunshine gave no hint of what was to come.”
Or, as writer Everett S. Allen put it in his 1976 book, A Wind to Shake the World: “What you have to remember first is that nobody expected anything to happen.”
At the Crandall farm in Westerly, it was just another Wednesday. My mother boarded the train in Bradford, headed for Rhode Island College of Education in Providence, where she was a sophomore studying elementary education. Her typical class load included Italian, mathematics, music, English, political science and health education.
I imagine her carrying her satchel of books and notebooks, then looking out the train window, perhaps daydreaming about a poem she was writing. She had no idea what a harrowing return journey awaited her.
Her sister Marg was at Rhode Island State College in Kingston (what is now URI), her sister Dot and brother Charlie were home on the farm, and her brother Tene was in high school. Their oldest sibling, Ruth, was married and living with her husband in Bradford.
With the weather good, my grandfather would have been working around the farm with Charlie. My grandmother was canning pears, just another in a long list of chores that filled her days.
In Richmond, my father, though 15 years old, was still in the primary school (eighth or ninth grade), along with his younger siblings. My grandmother would have been either working at one of the many textile mills where she labored or home baking the pies she sold to the summer colony of Narragansett.
All across South County, people went about their business. “Watch Hill on that fateful Wednesday was totally oblivious to danger,” wrote Charles F. Hammond in his Seaside Topics periodical. “Its shops were open and many cottages still occupied by those who love to stay on into the Fall.”
The women of Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly were having a picnic at a Misquamicut cottage. Housewives hung out laundry. People played golf, went to the movies, ate lunch.
The headlines in the Providence Journal that morning were the usual mix of politics and social news, and the ominous drumbeat was not of the weather: A Providence attorney had just given a talk on the Hitler menace; Warwick recorded its first case of polio (“infantile paralysis”) of the season; three men had escaped a Kennebec, Maine, prison by “elbow[ing] their way” past a guard. The weather map, crudely hand-drawn, gave no indication that a cyclone was barreling its way toward Rhode Island. The marine forecast, in one of the greatest understatements in newspaper history, mentioned a gale offshore and called for “overcast weather with rain Wednesday.”
We all know how quickly this “overcast weather” became a Category 3 hurricane, with winds peeling off shingles and flattening barns, a storm surge washing away Napatree Point and other coastal settlements, and so many deaths that old Westerly High School had to be converted into a morgue.
By the time my mother boarded the train home, Providence streets were flooded. It took nearly six hours for her to travel the 45-mile route, as downed trees and flooded tracks slowed the train’s progress. By the time she reached the Westerly Train Station, the town was pitch black – power had been out for hours – and no one was waiting for her. She stumbled in the dark to her grandmother’s apartment on High Street, where her father rather nonchalantly came to claim her the next day.
Meanwhile, my father got off his school bus at the height of the storm. The driver let the students off at the intersection of Route 3 and Dawley Park Road, where they soon discovered live wires blocking the road. My father, as the eldest of the group, guided the younger ones on a lengthy detour down Tefft Hill Road.
My mother’s diary of this time records only the storm’s aftermath, the harrowing search for bodies (her father was among the few people who still had a boat), the days without electricity, the utter devastation at Weekapaug and Misquamicut. She wrote: “Charlie and Daddy came in last night from looking for bodies. They found none in Winnapaug Pond, although the Sanitary Corps with a big crew chopping through debris found many, including one without a head.”
In later life my mother was hyper-vigilant. The least sign of tropical weather would prompt her to fill jugs of water and get out the hurricane lamps. Although we made fun of her for this, I cannot fault her for it now.
Anyone who lived through that time – when an ordinary Wednesday turned into a cataclysm – would have behaved the same. She instilled that fear in me and my sisters. It’s no stretch to say that my Weather Channel obsession could be traced to a childhood of watching her line up hurricane lamps on the kitchen table.
And years later, when my son Perry got his master’s degree in emergency preparedness, he acknowledged that all those years of watching the Weather Channel with me must have rubbed off on him – the latest link in a chain stretching all the way back to 1938.
Today, as you fill up your car with gas or stock up on bread and milk, take a moment to think of the thousands of people in the path of that deadly hurricane, who had no time at all to prepare.
Recently I did a little online clothes shopping, an experience that quickly becomes discouraging. On the web site of a discount retailer (OK, it was Old Navy), I scrolled and scrolled and could find nothing that I had any desire to buy.
If the clothes don’t look good on the models, why would anyone want to wear them?
Old Navy puts absolutely no effort into their online catalog. The models all stand with a blank backdrop and in similar poses. The shirts and dresses either hang off them limply, giving no definition to their bodies, or cling stick-tight to their waifish figures.
What ever happened to fashion? Clothes that were well tailored, with style?
When I was (much) younger, there was a retailer called FBS – for French Boot Shop. Based in New Rochelle, N.Y., it was a mostly mail-order business started by a man named Murray Gerstein.
The FBS catalog was a master of marketing. It appealed to young, aspirational women who wanted to wear clothes that did not look off-the-rack but were nonetheless affordable.
FBS put an enormous amount of time and money into those catalogs: the fashion shoots were all in exotic locales like the Bahamas, Haiti, the Dominican Republic.
Gerstein, a silver fox who always appeared in at least one of the catalog layouts, was a savvy retailer. He knew that women wanted to picture themselves in the clothes, and he and his team obliged. The FBS woman could be seen stepping off an airplane, lounging on a hotel balcony, strolling down an exotic street.
Each layout contained a provocative message. “This summer get off the ground.” “This summer get your message across.” “This summer pull yourself together.”
Interestingly, the FBS catalog was shot in black and white, but this did not detract from its impact.
The clothes were a mix of bohemian smocks and tunics with wide-legged pants alongside tailored, double-knit suits and dresses. It was the seventies and the influences were myriad: India, 1940s film noir, bohemian chic.
The clothes, of course, were better made, and I would argue, far more attractive than the cheap, formless garbage women are being sold today. And they were modeled as an ensemble – with jewelry, hats, jackets and shoes.
It wasn’t just FBS that understood the importance of modeling. In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, catalogs like JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck took care with their fashion layouts. The only comparable retailer I can think of today would be LL Bean, which at least produces glossy catalogs that show people having fun.
Back in the day, my sister and I would pore over catalogs like FBS and India Imports, finally settling on the one item we could afford: a t-shirt, say, or cotton shirt. The item’s arrival was an occasion. Wearing those new shirts we would ascend into a new understanding of ourselves.
This is what I mean by aspirational: clothes may not make the woman, but they can expand her idea of who she might become. In one’s teens or early twenties, when identity is still being formed, a sharp-looking cotton suit or double-knit dress helps solidify an adult image.
But even “mature women” like me want to look good. And by that I do not mean wearing sweatshirts with lighthouses on them, or skinny jeans designed for women half our age.
Murray Gerstein is dead, and so is FBS. But if someone were to bring back its funky mix of cotton smocks and safari suits, its double-knit stripes and panama hats, I would be first in line to buy.
It was 96 degrees on our side porch at 9 o’clock this morning.
It should not be this hot. We have yet to watch Fourth of July fireworks, go to the beach, pick blueberries.
Growing up in this old farmhouse, we did not have central air or window air conditioners. You fought the heat with one creaky black fan. My mother opened the windows for a cross breeze, closed the shades to keep out the sun.
Here’s my account of a hot spell in August, 1975:
A heat wave has enveloped its sticky claws around us all. It was 105° in Providence, and our RC Cola thermometer registered 117° this afternoon. There is nothing to do but sit dormant on the sofa, wearing nothing but a sheer nightgown, and grasping a tall glass of iced tea. A deep, cool bath helped, but no sooner did I step out of the tub than the sticky air sent trickles of sweat pouring over me. Andi took refuge in the damp, cool cellar, and later, despite my fear of spiders and other bugs, I went down, too.
My father’s only concession to the heat was to take off his shirt. Too dangerous to work in shorts, when you’re hauling lumber and felling trees and operating a sawmill.
In the off hours when he did don shorts, we laughed at his comically white legs.
My mother believed in doing less. She sat in the darkened living room in her cotton shirt and polyester shorts, tackling the crossword puzzle or reading a book or watching Merv Griffin.
We would have a cold supper. Sliced tomatoes from the garden, cold cuts.
She watered the garden in the early morning or evening. Chores like laundry and ironing could be postponed.
We had no air conditioning in our car, either. The boat-size Pontiac Starchief and Mercury Montclair did not come with such amenities. You rolled down the window and let your hair blow in the wind.
Nights, especially upstairs, must have been brutal.
I read books about summer: “Summer of ’42” and “The Sound of Summer Voices.” Dandelion Wine” and “The Moonflower Vine.” “Delta Wedding” and “Nightmare County.”
When it was too hot to walk to the store for an ice-cold Pepsi, we languished in the house, playing Monopoly or Yahtzee. The neighbor girls, Deb and Karen, joined us. Sometimes my mother even played a game.
The mood was laconic. No one was in a rush to do anything. My mother would not leave the house for days at a time.
Now I wear a sweater in the icy central-air-conditioned house. The windows stay closed. When we do venture outside it feels like a blast furnace.
I would not give up this 21st-century comfort, but I know something has been lost when you no longer have to reckon with the elements.
I got word last night that the old house is being sold. Not this old house in which we live, but the house of my grandmother, a ramshackle Cape Cod in the hamlet of Tug Hollow where my father was raised.
Although I never lived there, the place looms large in my memory. I spent many hours with my grandmother poring over its contents – the piles of bound Harper’s Weeklys, the portraits of ancestors, the letters her sons wrote home during World War II.
I have used its four walls in novels and stories. I dreamed of living there. I dreamed of writing there.
My grandmother, Mary Angeline Woodmansee, and her first husband, Henry H. Thayer, bought the house in May 1925 from James Kennedy and Marie DeVere. They paid a few hundred dollars.
Although rundown then, the house would have been at its best in May. The lilacs must have been blooming, the maples birthing their first fragile leaves. The barn had yet to be blown down by the Hurricane of 1938. There probably was a chicken coop, a root cellar.
They must have arrived with hope, Mamie and Henry.
My father was nearly 2 that spring, his brother Sam 4. Their siblings Leona, Henry H. Jr., and Betty would be born in the house; so too would the youngest, Sylvia Louise, who lived only a few months before dying in her sleep on Dec. 10, 1932.
Most of the land was taken up by a bog. The house perched on a high point level with the road, and the land steeply descended behind it.
The well was almost in the road. That road was dirt, with so little traffic that a passing car would prompt my grandmother to cry out “Hark!” and run to the window.
The old house would remain in the family for more than 70 years. Like the Witness Houses of Concord and Lexington, it saw the boys go off to war, and thankfully return. It watched Henry leave and a new man take his place.
It sheltered my grandmother as she made home brew in the cellar, baked her famous pies, and wove rugs on an antique loom. It saw her age from her comely 20s and 30s to stout middle age and then a stooped old age.
And it watched itself be replaced by a new house on the best part of the property, which my grandmother’s second husband built for her in the 1970s.
This is all externals, the literal house where a family lived, grew up, and scattered. It is not the house in my mind.
I have roamed through its memory many times. Sometimes the rooms are as they were: my grandmother’s white iron bed with the clip-on light; the tiny bathroom made from a closet; the Glenwood range that provided the only heat.
I have imagined myself writing there. Even now, though the house will surely be torn down, I can picture it: a spare sort of cabin, not a place to live, but a destination, an escape.
A writing cabin needs little. A wood stove to take off the chill in fall and winter. A writing desk – any flat surface will do. Windows that let in the light.
But it is not a place for frippery. Henry David Thoreau discovered this at Walden Pond. “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”
You can visit a reproduction of his small house across the street from Walden Pond in Concord, and its simplicity is immediately apparent: there are replicas of the famous three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” A cot; a small table; a green desk; a hearth. That is all.
By Thoreau standards, the Tug Hollow house would seem commodious indeed. But it was a tight fit for a family of seven. The real estate ad lists only “one bedroom and one bathroom,” discounting entirely the second-floor space under the eaves where my father and his siblings slept.
But as a writing cabin? A thinking space? It is just the right size. A cozy parlor with a wood stove. A bedroom for napping. A squat kitchen for making a cup of tea or warming up soup.
I will never get to write in that house. My father inherited it, as it turned out, but reasoning that I already owned a house and my sister didn’t want it, he sold his half of the property. I learned of this after the fact.
I already have fulfilled one fantasy of redoing an old house, the one where I grew up, and there is neither money nor spousal patience for another. I have a lovely office with book shelves and a desk and a red upholstered chair.
But the Tug Hollow house will live on in my heart, along with the smell of lilacs, the drumming of rain on the roof, and the crackle of burning wood.
After the writer finishes a long, involved piece of work (novel, script, memoir, what-have-you), a pause sets in.
It should be a comfortable rest period. You know the cliched metaphors: recharge the batteries. The ebb and flow of creativity. Hibernation.
It does not feel like rest, however. Or being recharged, slipping slowly out to sea, falling asleep.
It’s more violent. Like being tossed off a moving train. Capsized into the ocean. Falling out of bed.
For weeks, months, years, you have been living this work. Carrying its story around in your head. You looked forward to the hours you would spend in the other world of your creation. Sometimes you have even dreamt about it.
Now, it is gone.
An ordinary person might be relieved. A nonwriter might say, Well, relax then! Take it easy! Enjoy life!
I am convinced that most writers do not think this way. That they relax into their creative minds, into words and other worlds, not away from them. That to a writer being untethered from any narrative is a disruption, not a relief.
Not much is written about this after-writing time. Writers’ diaries, advice magazines and craft books are full of discussion about how to write well, where to get ideas, and how to avoid writer’s block.
But this period of which I speak is distinct from writer’s block. It is not lack of craft or even ideas that characterize it. Writer’s block implies that a project has been begun, a narrative started, and then suddenly stopped the way a dam blocks water.
This hiatus is more of a desert than a dam. Geographically, the desert is marked by long stretches of arid land, lack of water, and sparse vegetation and animal life that have adapted to the harsh climate. In the same way, a writer’s desert is desiccated and extreme.
A writer who suddenly finds themselves in this desert is not a native species. He or she is away from the lush garden of their usual creative state and are ill-equipped to adapt. They may eventually walk out of the desert in the way lost campers sometimes do, dusty, thirsty, maybe even near death, but alive.
But what if they don’t?
The fear that marks the writer-nomad in this after-writing desert is that they will not escape. That never again will the Eden of creativity inspire them. That the task just completed can never be repeated. No more books, plays, biographies, poetry collections.
That they will continue to live in the desert, stuck between oases.
So it is useless, I think, to counsel the writer who is between projects to relax and enjoy a desert stroll. No sane person would choose to spend months under the hot sun in Death Valley, waiting for the one day of the year when the rains come and desert flowers bloom. No. For all but the most intrepid, the goal is to get the hell out of there as fast and as safely as possible.
What’s that up ahead? Is it the shimmering waves of heat over a desert highway? Or just another mirage of civilization?
The only way to find out is to keep walking. By which I mean: putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard every day, until the possibility of another project begins to take shape. To dabble in short, quick works, like an en plein air painter chasing the light. To literally walk, if that is your wont. To read, if that is all you can manage.
Do not expect to enjoy the nonwriting. Do not feel guilty if the completion of your magnum opus has left you depressed, restless, uncertain, anxious, or any of the emotions that flood in when the writing ebbs. Accept that walking across the desert is the price you for living a year or two in another world, a lush and vivid place that already has taken on the feel of a dream.
The writer and naturalist Donald Culross Peattie came to the Mojave Desert at the outbreak of World War II. At the trip’s outset, he and his wife set up crude housekeeping in an adobe shack at a friend’s ranch. Peattie arrived haunted and conflicted over the state of the world and his own part in it; the first thing he did was to unplug the radio, but he could not unplug his mind. How could a naturalist justify his existence when all able-bodied men were being called to serve their country?
In this literal desert, however, Peattie continues to follow his life’s work of observing Nature and writing about it. By the end of his journey across the West, he has come to terms with himself. In The Road of a Naturalist, he writes: “I do not know how to justify my way of life, any more than I know how long it can continue. I can only say that this too is reality; this too is truth, this also is the business of a man, and its own wage.”
Crossing the desert, the writer loses sight of her own purpose. Neither does the writer know how long it will take to embark on a life’s work again. All the writer can do is keep moving.
First published in 1941, Donald Culross Peattie’s The Road of a Naturalist was reissued in 2013 by Trinity University Press.
When most public libraries closed for months, I turned to my own book collection – adding to it, mining it, rereading it. The year of the pandemic was the year of the home library.
My office has two walls of books, and they spill out into two more bookcases in the hall. These are the riches I dreamed of as child, when visits to our tiny village library ignited a love of words. And they would sustain me in ways I could only imagine when the lockdown began during the second week of March.
At first, I had so many books backed up on my to-read list that even a pandemic seemed insufficient to get through them. I still had books to review (that supply would soon dry up) and a stack of volumes to study for my biography of Caroline Hazard.
But by May, all the pages of duty had been turned. One evening, restless and with nothing to read, I wandered upstairs to see what I could find. Scanning the shelves, I longed for a certain type of escape – into comfort and familiarity.
I turned to May Sarton.
Re-reading the journals At Seventy (1982), After the Stroke (1984) and Endgame (1992), I re-entered Sarton’s familiar world in York, Maine, where her cat Bramble and dog Tamas accompany her on winter walks; where hundreds of daffodils bloom each spring; and where the writer and poet struggles with twin impulses to engage with the world, through readings and travel, and retreat from it, writing in her upstairs studio with a view of the sea.
And so began my excursion into my own book collection. I thought I knew what I had amassed and why, but these shelves contained many surprises. Some were old favorites that still had something to say. Others had gone unread for years though I had been unwilling to part with them, as though I knew someday they would open their secrets to me at just the right time.
I had owned Dream Catcher, Margaret A. Salinger’s memoir of J. D. Salinger, since it was published in 2000. But I couldn’t get past the early chapters, which felt flat and detached, an attempt to analyze how World War II combat and years of anti-Semitism may have led her famous father to retreat from life. But now those pages came alive.
I had just spent two months with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose diaries and letters live a few shelves way from Dream Catcher yet must have sent out invisible threads of connection. Lindbergh’s early memoirs had touched a cord within me at 14, but now I devoured all of them, from the double tragedies (the kidnapping and death of her first son, Charles Lindbergh Jr., in 1932, and her sister’s death two years later) to the World War II years, when the couple’s isolationist views made them pariahs in intellectual circles. In War Within and Without, it became clear that while Anne did not believe her husband was anti-Semitic, it is hard to defend that view today.
The Lindberghs, I discovered, not only were deeply affected by the war, they shared other commonalities with Salinger. Both were hounded by the press and retreated from public view, Salinger to New Hampshire and the Lindberghs to England and France. Both Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Salinger felt misunderstood by critics and tired of the attention and demands that publishing brought. Even more curious, the couple shared close friends with Salinger, Judge and Mrs. Learned Hand, among the few people the reclusive author let into his circle.
Other treasures awaited on my shelves. I finally finished Katherine Towler’s Snow Island trilogy, set in Rhode Island, which brought me a shelf up to Norman G. Gautreau’s novel about Maine fishermen, Sea Room. One poet’s biography, William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey by Reed Whittemore led to two others, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke by Allan Seager and The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani.
Some of these neglected books were gifts. My friend Arline had given me three books in Jacqueline Winspear’s historical fiction series about Maisie Dobbs. I thought I would read them “some day” and then the pandemic turned into an endless string of “some days.” What a treasure awaited in these tales of a detective (she calls herself “a private inquiry agent”) working in post-World War I London. Winspear breaks all the writing rules with her lush descriptions, long flashbacks and recurring characters. Which is to say, she gives us everything true readers savor and editors these days frown upon.
Of course, I added to my library in 2020. Once started on Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I had to find the three of her journals I did not own. Three Maisie Dobbs mysteries led to two more (there are 15 in all – I’m going to need a bigger bookcase). In an antiques store I spotted a bright yellow cover in a box; it turned out to be Ada Clapham Govan’s charming memoir, Wings at My Window (originally published in 1940), about how bird-watching saved her from depression after the deaths of two of her three children.
Govan’s memoir sent me a few dozen books down the shelf to Gladys Taber’s TheStillmeadow Road, her classic about sharing life with her friend Jill in a Connecticut farmhouse. Filled with loving descriptions of the natural world, it is a tribute to both companionship and the quiet pleasures of solitude.
Of course, not all the books in my home library have been read. Others await rereading after long years closed. Even now, some book somewhere is sending out a tentative signal to another, whispering shared confidences. “Maybe,” it is saying, “she will discover us together.”
Away from our world of political discontent and pandemic disaster lies another place, of snow-covered hills, fat red cardinals and horse-drawn sleighs. Come with me, then, and enter the Christmas card, a place of country farms and villages, perfect and isolated as a snow globe, where each December arrives dressed in the same snowfall as the last, and no hallmarks of civilization – UPS trucks, utility wires, or blow-up plastic Santas – can ever intrude.
I speak of a certain type of card, with no Madonnas, St. Nicks or elves. The dominant image is a white country house. Cape Cod or Colonial, it typically features a small porch or ell and multiple chimneys emitting a wisp of smoke. Its windows glow with yellow light, and the sky – which ranges from a pale pink to smoky blue – suggests dusk. There’s an outbuilding or two, a wood shed or barn, red of course, and a trail of fencing outlined in white.
The smaller details vary but might include powdered evergreens, snow-dusted berries, and in the foreground two cardinals – a papa (red) and mama (bisque).
If there are people, they are: sledding downhill; skating; riding in a horse-drawn sleigh; or (most popular) dragging home a freshly cut Christmas tree. In one card (Thomas R. Nelson, Hallmark), a lone boy in a tomato-colored parka and blue hat pulls a tree behind him, his dog tramping ahead; in another (Paper Magic, Bill Breedon), it’s a boy and his father, the boy toting a small hack saw.
The prototype card is the Currier & Ives etching, “American Winter Scene,” which features dozens of people, including ice skaters, sledders, and two horse-drawn sleighs.
The one sign of civilization allowed is a (snow-capped) mailbox, Rural Free Delivery being the only acceptable connection to the outside world. For how else would you get your Christmas cards?
Although the farms might sport a red ribbon here and there, these images are devoid of commercialism. No presents under a tree, no tacky icicle lights hanging from the eaves. If you can ignore the fact that Christmas card publishing is a $7.5 billion industry, the message is that the true holiday is about home, not money.
I save these cards from year to year and post them on my creativity bulletin board after Thanksgiving. Their scenes remind me not only of simpler times – perhaps my childhood idea of Christmas, not its actuality – but of the people who sent them: my mother (two cardinals, her favorite bird); her sister, my Aunt Marg (the aforementioned Breedon painting, the whole scene illuminated in gilt); my sister (one lit-up house, two lines of fencing, three outbuildings). They are all gone now, but their Christmas greetings live on.
Not surprisingly, some of these cards I myself picked out – I found them among my mother’s things when she died: A farmhouse with the Christmas tree lighting up the window and a snow-covered pile of wood; the Nelson card with that lone boy bringing home his tree. These are the New England images of Christmas I carry in my heart.
And this was the dream my father carried in his: a farm in Vermont, dusted with snow and heated with wood, far from a paved road or pesky neighbors. No wonder the images still speak to me.
Outside my window, a real Christmas card unfolds. Thick snow blankets the ground and continues to whirl down. Juncos, chickadees and a lone red cardinal flutter on the ground beneath the bird feeder. The road is empty of all but the occasional plow. And in the distance, I can almost see a small figure dragging home his tree, and a pair of horses pulling a sleigh.
When I was 12 years old, our Thanksgiving shrank from my grandmother’s wildly excessive extended family celebrations to a turkey dinner at home with the four of us – my father, my mother, my sister Andi, and me. The year was 1972.
My grandmother was getting older (69) and she and her husband, my step-grandfather, had moved from his Cape Cod farmhouse to a new one-story ranch. She no longer had room to host all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Gone were the two turkeys, the sideboard laden with pies (squash, mincemeat, apple), the mounds of vegetables (potatoes, squash, turnip, carrots, green beans).
I recorded the change matter-of-factly in my five-year diary. “Today was Thanksgiving Day. Andi and I did the dishes afterward, and Gosh! were there a lot of dishes! Granny had Thanksgiving at Arlene’s and Sam’s.”
Sam was our uncle. In subsequent years my grandmother would go to Sam’s or another relative’s; one year my Aunt Betty took her to (as Granny put it in her diary) “Plymouth Rock” for the holiday. She still invited us up for Sunday dinner, when we would cram into the tiny dining room in her new house – two or three aunts or uncles plus the four of us. But her tradition of making Thanksgiving dinner had ended.
I bet she missed those days. I know I did. There was nothing wrong with the four of us having our own dinner. My mother made a decent turkey, along with the requisite mashed potatoes, carrots, yam casserole (topped with melted marshmallows) and, for her and my father, turnips. There were rolls and gravy and a pie or two, although my mother did hate to bake pies, and you knew to stay out of the pantry when she was wrestling with dough.
My sister and I actually enjoyed doing the dishes – the large yellow Pyrex bowl that held the mashed potatoes; the aluminum roasting pan flecked with turkey skin; the glass plate stained with cranberry sauce. We took turns washing or drying while we traded information about family members or my father’s latest story from his childhood.
Still, something was missing. My grandmother, for one, who spent most of her Thanksgiving urging people to eat more. I missed Aunt Betty’s booming voice, Uncle Sam’s cigar-puffing and story-telling, Uncle Junior’s antics, Aunt Leona’s deep, mischievous chuckle. They didn’t always get along – you wouldn’t put Betty and Leona in the same kitchen – but together they added up to more than the sum of their parts. They were a rollicking Thayer sideshow, complete with Parcheesi playing, Junior’s soft shoe as he awaited his turn at the outhouse, and a thundering laugh track.
But they were all getting older. I was the youngest child; some of my cousins already had children of their own. I did not realize it then, but the holiday traditions that seemed so inviolate then were as evanscent as steam from a serving platter.
Soon enough I was married with children and inviting my parents to our house for the holiday. I loved those years, when we sometimes had both sets of our parents, my sister, and one of my brothers-in-law in addition to our three children. They echoed the Thanksgivings of old, which seemed so perfect in my memory. But these, too, were only snapshots in time.
This year our Thanksgiving has been reduced to three: my husband, my middle son who lives with us, and me. My daughter and her fiance are staying home; so is my oldest son and his wife. They are all out there in the working world, exposed, and they know it’s prudent to obey our governor’s coronavirus order.
Just as I did on my 12th Thanksgiving, I will enjoy the small family I have. But the dining room will not be as full, the laughter not as loud. We will sense, as I did in 1972, the diminishing that comes when the whole family cannot be together.
When Election Week arrived in 2016, I already was a nervous wreck. Not because I feared the outcome – on the contrary, I was convinced Hillary Clinton would win. I had other things on my mind.
My daughter and I voted together that Tuesday. At 21, Mary was casting her first presidential ballot. We walked out of the polling place wearing our “I Voted” stickers and took a selfie.What a proud moment to share with my daughter, voting for the candidate we assumed was about to become the first woman president of the United States.
The euphoria was short-lived.
The next day, one of my students at the community college approached me after class. In a whisper she told me she would not be returning to school – she and her mother are Muslim and escaped Syria to come here illegally. Her mother speaks only Arabic. She was convinced that under a Trump administration they would be arrested.
I was beside myself. In the assistant dean’s office, relating this, I broke down. The community college where I teach English is a haven, and the classroom is a sacred space. That this fine young woman – who had fled a civil war to come to America and get an education – so feared our incoming president that she would drop out of school made me both furious and frustrated.
Later, in the cafeteria, I sipped hot tea and poured my anxiety onto the page. “How anybody – any human being – could think of treating people like cattle – they are human beings,” I wrote. “ … all the waste, Hillary who knows so much, who is so wise and calming, all of her knowledge and experience repudiated.”
But something else was on my mind. “My thoughts are disjointed today. I have to take Andi to the doctor, and I’m afraid the news won’t be good.”
Andi was my sister. At 65, she lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment that appeared neat but was crammed with knickknacks, books, and a spare of everything (in one cupboard I would later find seven flashlights). She had never married, and her longtime boyfriend had disappeared four years earlier, an apparent suicide. Her closest friend, Angel, lived upstairs. Every Monday they watched “Dancing with the Stars” in their respective apartments while talking on the phone.
“She is a skeleton,” I wrote. “Having difficulty walking. That she agreed to go [to the doctor] is probably a sign she has even more symptoms I don’t know about. She said she barely sleeps. I brought her groceries Tuesday. The larder was bare. She said she’d been eating ice cream for breakfast. When I bring her food she always immediately eats something. She walks very gingerly down the stairs.”
All summer, Andi had grown more and more reclusive. She ceased her two favorite activities, hiking and thrift shopping. At first, her weight loss seemed intentional, and when she brought me clothes that were too big for her (“They’ll fit you”), I was a little irritated.
In early October, I visited her after the infamous Trump “pussy tape.” In those heady “Me Too” days, I was haunted by the memory of being attacked by an acquaintance in college. “He threw me down and I barely got away from him,” I told her, and she froze in mid-step, finally settling her too-thin body into a kitchen chair. The same thing, she said, had happened to her, at a church event when she was 15. She told me the harrowing story she had kept to herself for 50 years.
Now she was so sick she could not vote. Something had to be done.
That Thursday I showed up at her apartment. She could barely walk and confessed she had fallen while walking downstairs to unlock the door. When we arrived at the walk-in clinic, I put her in a wheelchair. By evening, we had the worst of all possible news: Andi had an inoperable tumor. The cancer was advanced; it had entered her bones. She was being sent by ambulance to Women & Infants Hospital in Providence for more testing.
She would be quickly discharged (as uninsured patients often are) and moved into our living room. Although the doctors said she might live a year, she died Dec. 6, less than a month after her diagnosis.
Those dark days are all mixed up in my mind. At school, I waited for my student to return, but she did not. At home, I washed Andi’s hair and made her scrambled eggs just the way she liked them. Cousins came to visit. Doctors gave advice over the phone. While I sat at the dining room table grading papers, Andi languished on our love seat in an Oxycontin cocoon.
“Maybe this illness is so terrible so you are distracted from its essential meaning: the end of a life,” I wrote a week after her diagnosis. “The loss of my sister. So instead we grow weary: fill our days fretting about all the things that need to get done, the laundry, the diabetes testing, the cooking, the doctor’s appointments, the grocery shopping.”
For most of my life, I had had only one sister. And though she was so much older – nearly nine years – we grew closer as the years went by. Who else understood our Swamp Yankee parents and their strange ways? Who else knew all the family stories and jokes (and, I suspected, secrets)? Andi was my link to our late parents and my childhood.
So many times since that election I wished I could talk to her. With each new Trump insult against women, people of color, Democrats, the FBI, or anyone who dares to speak out against him, I have imagined picking up the phone and dialing her number. I pictured us watching CNN together, as we sometimes did, and finding solace in our shared outrage.
As we wait for the results today, my mind is back in those dark days of 2016, a time that will be forever linked in my mind to two losses – of the terrified student who wanted a chance at the American dream, and the sister who never got to the polls.