Melancholy Autumn returns

I always loved Autumn. Even in junior high school I collected pictures of sweeping Vermont scenes, postcards of orange maples and calendar spreads of leaf-strewn villages, and hung them on the wall or pasted them into scrapbooks. Typical pages included a football game ticket, a pressed red leaf, and one of those liquor ads where the couple is sitting in a pile of raked leaves or cozying up on a plaid blanket. 

And in Autumn I read Autumn novels. Praise the Human Season by Don Robertson, the sweeping story of a couple’s long marriage. The Hunter’s Moon by Nathaniel Benchley, with its eerie undercurrent of sexual violence. Home from the Hill, the story of a Texas family by William Humphrey. These books left the taste of Autumn in my mouth, whether sour fear or loss or just the bittersweet reality of lives bravely lived. 

In this old house, October meant battening down the hatches. My father would have stacked the cordwood with his disciplined precision. The garden would be left to rot, or turned over and planted in winter rye, the last green tomatoes lined up on the kitchen window sills. Indoors my mother already would be tending the fires, the wood stove and kerosene range, taking the chill off the first frosty mornings. My father would have swapped out the screen doors for their glass counterparts and pulled down the storm windows. 

And I would be filling up notebooks, my journal and my five-subject Mead of school notes. Reading those novels and Glamour magazine. Putting together fall outfits of corduroy and flannel. And always the season’s change played on my emotions, Nature once again strumming a beat inside me.

The season always started brilliantly: a “pale gold shimmer on the trees’ tips,” “trees at last … red and pale gold,” against “slate blue folds of the clouds looming over the roof.” 

But the first tree to turn in the neighborhood, a maple across the street, started early – in late August – and by October was nearly bare. Too soon came the gales of mid-fall.

In October 1975, I noted “russet elms,” the “dirty blackness of the river,” a “black starless sky,” and “crumpled leaves” the “color of dried blood.” I could “almost feel the yearning of Earth’s breast beneath them.” 

In 1976, after a violent rainstorm not unlike the one we just had, I mourned the Indian summer that had been washed away. “Skeletal branches” had begun “to emerge bare,” leaves lying “like cereal flakes on the ground.” 

Once after a visit to my grandmother, to the place where my father was raised, I wrote, “I am committed to the land and what it symbolizes.” 

And I was. Although only a teenager, I sensed rather than understood my emotional connection to the countryside, the seasons, and what I can only call my inheritance of place. I felt it every time I drove along the dirt road that led to my grandmother’s house in the Tug Hollow section of Richmond. From the bus window, I watched as the leaves exploded into color on Shannock Hill. No matter where I was, I paid attention to the insistent heartbeat of the natural world. 

I had read Emerson, but not enough to understand his explanation in “Nature” of the relationship between our exterior and interior worlds, how Nature provides us the raw material to spin the metaphors that allow us to express emotions and ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible. But already I was trying to make that connection, to spin a web out of Autumn’s stimulus. This was what I meant by “commitment to the land and what it symbolizes.”

This week October once again did her turn. After days of gold came her bleak and barren hours. Even before the wind lashed the trees and the rain tumbled down, I felt unsettled. Out of sorts. Depressed. And before I realized it, I was back in those old sad Autumns. Three years ago, tending to my sister, sick and emaciated, right before her cancer diagnosis. Forty-one years ago, adjusting to a strange new place, a college campus where I was missing all the old rituals of home. Memories came tumbling back of Autumn’s ambivalence – the grand show before the final exit. 

So I did what my mother would have done. I gathered up the last of the green tomatoes. I picked as many cosmos and zinnias and roses and poppies as my arms could hold, and filled the house with vases of them, tall, short, milk glass, blue glass. I thought about all the loved ones I’ve lost. I remembered my sister in the glory of October, before December took her away from us. I pictured my mother raking up the garden, her hair under a kerchief. I could see my father carrying in an armload of wood or facing  the early-morning chill to warm up the car before I drove to school. No matter how the wind blew or the rain pounded, in this old farmhouse they kept us warm and safe and ready for the winter to come. And so, after thinking about that for a while, I felt a little more ready for it now.

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Pregnant and out of a job

 

In the spring of 1959, my mother had been a teacher for 18 years, with the previous 13 years spent teaching first grade at the same elementary school. There she had developed a reputation for having particular skill with students who had learning disabilities.

By now she was making about $5,600 a year. It’s quite possible she was the chief breadwinner in the family, as my father’s income as a logger and lumberman was modest at best.

After a difficult early marriage, they had settled into more peaceful times. My father had returned from World War II with what we would now label PTSD, and a drinking problem to boot. In the mid-1950s my mother had visited a divorce lawyer, but by 1959 my father had turned to AA and stopped drinking. They had added on to their tiny house, and their two incomes made life a little more comfortable for my two sisters, who were 11 and 8 years old – there was money for circus tickets, new clothing, Girl Scout uniforms.

But sometime in April or May of that year, my mother, then 39 years old, discovered she was pregnant.

In 1959, teachers who were visibly pregnant were expected to stay home, as my mother had done during her other two pregnancies. This would not change for some time, as Elizabeth Warren’s story of losing her teaching job because of her pregnancy in the early 1970s attests.

Small-town teachers like my mother also had no union protection. They signed “contracts” on a yearly basis but these simply set their salary. So when my mother gave notice that she would be out for the 1959-60 school year (she expected the baby in late December), the School Committee was under no obligation to rehire her after that.

In September 1959, she received a letter from Superintendent Phillip L. Kelly. He had tried to hire an elementary school teacher who would cover my mother’s class for a year, and then when she returned would go to the high school.

“However this proved to be impossible,” he wrote. “The school committee, at its meeting on September 8th, agreed to give you first consideration in employing a teacher at your teaching level. However they felt they couldn’t enter into an agreement to hire you.”

Doing so, he added, “could easily result, in our small system, in overstaffing the school.”

Of course, such situations are easily handled today. A long-term substitute is brought in until the regular teacher returns. Why he couldn’t do this is a mystery.

As it turned out, my mother did not try to return to her job. I was born later than expected, in January 1960. By then 40 years old, she was overwhelmed with a new baby and some postpartum health issues. She opted to cash out her retirement fund ($1,331) and quit working. 

How did she feel about this? It would be a stretch to say that she resented the circumstances that forced her to give up her career. Making pregnant women sit out the school year was just the way of the world in 1959. 

No, she did not seem heartbroken that her teaching career had ended, but I’m not sure it was particularly good for her. In some ways I think she would have been better off working – less isolated, more engaged. The school department also lost a veteran teacher. 

You could say I benefited from her decision, as I was the only one of her three children to have a stay-at-home mother. But life with my mother was not all story hours and craft projects. When she wasn’t doing housework, she was writing poetry, doing crossword puzzles, or reading, activities that did not involve a child in her lap. “I wasn’t put on this earth,” she used to say, “to entertain you.”

My sisters were at school all day, and our age differences were an insurmountable gulf. My mother’s regular presence afforded me a security my sisters did not enjoy as preschoolers, for when she taught, they had lived all week with my grandmother. But I learned early to occupy myself.

For years I felt responsible for ending my mother’s career. But I think the truth was a little more complicated. I think she could have returned to teaching eventually, if she’d wanted to. After all, hadn’t the superintendent offered to give her “first consideration” if there was an opening? But, though they needed the money, my mother never tried to go back. She might complain about their lack of money, but my birth had convinced her, rightly or wrongly, she could no longer be both mother and teacher.

Today, of course, the world is vastly different. Women often work right up until their delivery date. But in some ways nothing’s changed. Many women, sadly, still have to navigate all the conflicts that motherhood and career bring: arranging child care, completing housework, making dinner. Even in the most egalitarian households, both spouses struggle to be good parents and responsible employees. 

We say we’re a family-oriented culture, but sometimes I wonder.

 

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A peek at others’ libraries

 

Naumkeag, the summer home of lawyer and ambassador Joseph Hodges Choate and later his daughter Mabel, sits perched on a dramatic overlook in Stockbridge, Mass. The gardens, which are lovingly tended by the Trustees of the Reservations, include a Linden Walk inspired by a trip to Germany; a series of terraced steps created by landscape architect Fletcher Steele; and a Chinese pagoda surrounded by Japanese maples.

On a recent visit my husband headed first for the Afternoon Garden, with its striking view of the Berkshire hills. I would get there eventually. 

Our stroll ticket included a self-guided tour of not just the gardens but the estate’s first floor. Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1885 in the shingle style, the mansion oozes casual elegance. There’s a Flemish tapestry from the sixteenth century and a Hadley chest where the family stashed its tennis balls.

And there are also books, a roomful of them, and that’s where I headed first.

I’ve seen a lot of famous people’s libraries. I’ve perused the volumes at Cross Creek, the Florida home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I’ve inhaled the rarefied air in Emerson’s study in Concord, where his floor-to-ceiling bookcase consists of a series of stacked bureau drawers, any one of which could be pulled out to cart along on a lecture tour. I’ve scrutinized the tattered books at Fruitlands, where Louisa May Alcott and her sisters shivered and starved their way through a long winter. 

In fact, in just about every author’s house I’ve toured – and there have been many, including the likes of Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, James Merrill, and Nathaniel Hawthorne – the books are what draw me. 

In many cases, they are not the author’s originals. Most of Emerson’s volumes are at Harvard, and Kinnan Rawlings’s collection is at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Either the collections have been edited, in Emerson’s case, or replicated, as at Cross Creek. 

Nonetheless, the titles give some clues as to their owners’ thoughts, feelings, and interests. At the Choate house, the books are imprisoned behind two rows of wire, like errant cattle. They include many titles on gardening, which of course makes sense, given the owners’ proclivities, as well as popular writers of the 20th century, including P.G. Wodehouse and Edith Sitwell.

I had three writers in mind as I scanned the shelves, which rose floor to ceiling. One: Since Mabel Choate, who hired Steele to create the Chinese Garden, owned books about gardens of the East, might she also have read the novels of Pearl Buck?

I had been listening to Hilary Spurling’s marvelous biography of the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Pearl Buck in China, so I eagerly looked for Imperial Woman, Dragon Seed, or The Good Earth, but found none of them.

Second, wouldn’t the Choates – whose Berlin trip in the late 1800s inspired the Linden Walk – have been familiar with Elizabeth von Arnim, the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden and A Solitary Summer? Von Arnim, whose real name was Mary Annette Beauchamp, was an Edwardian lady married to a German count, whose writings are Thoreavian in their celebration of nature.

Alas, no Elizabeth, either. The docent in the study knew nothing about her, but noted that Naumkeag was originally a summer house, so the family presumably had another library in their New York City home as well.

Finally, I wondered if the Choates knew Caroline Hazard, who served as president of Wellesley College from 1899 to 1910 and wrote books of poetry, history, and travel. 

I don’t think the docent had heard of her.

What would it have mattered to find Buck, von Arnim or Hazard on these shelves? For me such a discovery would be another thread weaving my reading life together. Just as the books in my own study lean into one another, the influence of one seeping into the next, so too do the volumes in these famous homes connect. Finding a book on Brazil in Emerson’s Concord house brought my mind immediately to Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, particularly the art of Martin Johnson Heade. If the writer of Nature was curious about Brazil, surely he was familiar with Heade’s magnificent portraits of the hummingbirds he found there. And when I later read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, her biography of Alexander von Humboldt, I thought again of that book on Emerson’s shelf.

The bookcase is a biography of a writer. Each volume is an intellectual touchstone, a literary influence. Perusing the libraries of others can only enrich our own experiences.

I eventually wandered out to explore Naumkeag’s gardens. We marveled at the staggered blue steps Fletcher Steele built and the clumps of fragrant phlox that bloomed below them. But the stacked shelves remained in the back of my mind, leading me somewhere too – to the books gathered there, which issue a different sort of fragrance and blossoms just as lovely. 

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Input vs. Output

 

I have two boards in my office: one is a whiteboard of due dates and projects, the other is a bulletin board of colorful images clipped from magazines, books, and catalogs. The whiteboard is a to-do list of crossouts and dates, and it looks important. The bulletin board is where my eye goes, however, with its mix of vintage maps, postcards, advertisements and book covers.

The whiteboard represents where most writers focus their time: Output. Whether mounted on the wall, tucked into a notebook or etched into their brains, the to-do list looms importantly. We should be producing something, we should have goals, we should get published.

My whiteboard contains a list of free-lance stories due over the course of this year; some short creative projects I’ve been submitting; and a novel that’s still under revision.

But just as important is Input, an area to which we pay scant attention. Arguably without Input there will be no Output. Input is where we get our ideas, our spark, our inspiration. Because it seems to come out of the ether, we are loathe to quantify it. But Input can be listed and analyzed; we can boost our Input to increase our Output.

My list of both might look something like this:

 

Reading “Emerson and his Eccentrics”; rereading Thoreau’s journal – Thinking with intention about my memoir

Research into medicine – Free-lance stories on hospital history

Reading the New York Times and other papers – Ideas for op-eds and letters to the editor

Browsing the Times archive – Random sparks of interest for fiction and nonfiction

Posting on the Creativity Bulletin Board and collecting new images – Same 

Reading books about moonshining – Novel on moonshining in Rhode Island

Gardening on this homestead where I grew up – Ideas for my memoir

Plays and books – Writing reviews of same

 

Most of this Input comes from magazines, newspapers, online sources, and vintage ephemera. I’m low on one vital source of Input: experiences. Other than gardening and the theater, I don’t list any. A few trips to museums, hiking trails, and art galleries will boost my Input considerably.

In her seminal work on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron refers to these experiences as the “artist date.” She prescribes a weekly foray that will feed the artist within us. “Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to,” she writes, suggesting long walks, a visit to a new neighborhood or browsing through a secondhand store as possibilities. 

My list of experiences will not be your list. I find a trip to the dump shack (where used books are dropped off and picked up) or an antique bookstore is always rewarding, as is any cultural experience that doesn’t involve reading or writing: a play, art gallery opening or musical performance. 

Sometimes these experiences sneak up on you. A family outing, a bulletin board in a coffee shop or a trip to the post office can provide that sudden “aha!” moment that writers need. You increase your odds of benefiting from these experiences if, instead of spending all day at your computer, you take time to mingle in the real world.

We cannot minimize the power of images and texts, either. I’m in the middle of reading two books (one on Emerson, another a novel I’m reviewing) and listening to a third book on audio (Pearl Buck in China, a fabulous biography by Hilary Spurling). My bulletin board is saturated with images: a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville ad; a postcard of a motel in Rutland, Vt.; a Nancy Drew cover; a vintage map of New England; one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s poppies; and photography by Maurine Sutter, an artist who spent two weeks in the dune shacks of Provincetown. All of these speak to me on some level, and all of them in some small way fuel my writing thoughts.

The conventional to-do list is a necessary evil, especially for those of us writing free-lance on deadline. But spend some time on another kind of to-do list – the experiences and interactions that fertilize your mind – and you’ll find your writing will benefit enormously.

 

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Other days, other lives

 

My parents were married 72 years ago, on July 12, 1947. All that survives of that day are a few black and white snapshots – my mother standing awkwardly in her ill-fitting wool suit (I know it was blue only because she told me so); a blurry photo of the couple cutting the wedding cake, in the dining room of her father’s farm; a snapshot of them together. I cannot look at these without thinking: 

Weren’t they roasting? I know she bought the suit out of practicality, so she could wear it later, but … wool in July? (The high temperature that day was 79 degrees, according to the weather station at Quonset Point.)

Is it true my father hated the floral hat she wears? And if so, why does it turn up in her honeymoon pictures?

What happened on July 13? and July 14? and the next day, and the next?

I know they honeymooned in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a journey they took in my father’s new truck. (The high the next day was 84 degrees.) A few photos of this occasion survive, too: My mother in front of a tourist cabin; my father in front of the same cabin; his truck parked beneath a majestic sweep of mountain. When we were young, my sisters and I loved to point out the primacy of that big logging truck of which he was so enamored.

Their tourist cabin was typical of the time period. It had a front porch with a few simple pillars and an apron wall. I have scrutinized postcards of the time period but cannot place it. The cabin is so like, yet not like, all the postcards I found: The Green Granite Cabins of North Conway, the Chester Lodge and Cabins in Jefferson, Rowin’s Cabins and Guest House in Franconia. It could be any of these, but in each one some detail is off or the picture too obscured for a positive identification.

I don’t know how long they stayed, but I’m guessing only a few days. Whenever they journeyed north, even for their 30th anniversary, they only stayed a day or two. The times I accompanied them on these trips were interminable – long stretches of highway, my father making time, and me growing bored and antsy in the back seat.

The truth is my parents’ wedding and honeymoon belonged to them, and them only, and anything that can be known about that time faded away with their deaths. I can admire my mother’s traveling outfit, a white blouse and jaunty Mexican skirt; I can take a magnifying glass to my father’s face, searching out the inscrutable expression beneath his gangster-like fedora. But I can never know what they knew, or feel what they felt.

This, of course, is why we write. Not to tell about the days well remembered – the anniversaries, for example, or the births or holidays – but the ones that came afterward. To answer the questions: What happened then? What happened after that? How did it all turn out? 

And for that task our imaginations are all we have.

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The friendships that last

 

I spent the last week with a friend. In fact, it was a week full of friends, and it reminded me of how important they are, particularly those closest to us.

I have five very close friends. I have many more good friends. The difference between the two is subtle but important, and in no way does the intimacy of one group detract from the value of another. We need all sorts of friends, I’ve found. There are the casual friends with whom we might enjoy a common interest. There are the old friends who saw us through a transformative era of our lives, and even though we don’t see much of them any more, we still care about them. There are former friends, and there’s no shame in having a few of those – people whose values you may no longer share but with whom you once had a rapport. There are childhood friends, and work friends, and situational friends.

But I am most interested today in the deepest friendships, the ones that have outlasted time, other relationships, and distance. One of those friends came to stay with us last week. Patti and I have been friends since college. Our bond has survived a long drought where we barely wrote to each other or saw each other. It was forged in our carefree college years, tempered by tragedy, and has mellowed to a deep understanding.

No one teaches us about friendship. Although our early friendships are usually made in school, there is no class in being, or making, a friend. It is all trial and error. Yet we know from the first day we set foot on a playground that finding and keeping a friend will be the difference between acceptance and social ignominy. How well I remember the two girls who whispered quickly together before running away and leaving me sitting alone on the swings! Yet just as well I remember the sudden bonds that would spring up with other girls and make school suddenly bearable. When I made a friend in third grade, we decided that when we grew up, we would live in Florida together! A year later she moved away and I never heard from her again.

Our family experiences don’t seem to matter much, either. My father had a cadre of friends, of all ages, but my mother had none at all – her three sisters were her confidants, if you could call them that. When I was in junior high school, she complained, in my earshot, that I had “so many friends,” her tone indicating it was some kind of character failing. So I did not learn at her knee to be a friend, and my father’s relationship with his old-time Yankee buddies – with all its tobacco-spitting and story-telling – did not provide much guidance, either.

As I grew older, the way of friendship seemed to lie in the written word. It is no coincidence that of my five closest friends, four have at one time been correspondents. Some of us still write to each other. There is a closeness that letters engender. They require reflection on the other person’s point of view (that is, what is shared in their latest letter), as well as empathy and understanding. Letters inspire a more thoughtful confidence than face-to-face conversation. They require deeper thinking. All of that thought and emotion brings us closer together.

I have many of these letters, and reread them from time to time. They remind me where my friends and I have been together, what we have shared and what serves as the foundation of our friendship. Some of my former correspondents are no longer friends, and some, sadly, have passed away. I treasure our letters, evidence of an earlier bond, one that enriched us both, if only for a short time.

I wonder what sort of friendships this up-and-coming generation will form, out of the raw materials of fleeting online commentary and texts. Facebook turned friend into a verb, but most of the people we “friend” are not the sort of companions I’m talking about. They are situational acquaintances, or casual friends; some might be good or even close friends, but the relationship formed outside social media.

The word friend can be traced to the German, frijon, to love. Curious, because we think of love as romantic, and forget the importance of its other permutations. I do love my close friends and tell them so. Maybe that’s because, at 59, I’ve learned how fleeting life is, and how important it is to tell people they are valued. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen friendships endure long after my family members have passed away. Maybe it is just the gratitude we feel toward those who know us best but do not shrink from our faults.

I was thinking of friendship while Patti and I sat on the porch at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., the birthplace of American Impressionism, both of us reveling in our shared appreciation of art and creativity. Beyond the porch it rained, but on the porch we beamed. Like the walrus and the carpenter, we talked of many things.

I thought of it Friday evening, when my old friend Andrea gave me an unexpected gift. It was a t-shirt with Coca-Cola, “The Real Thing,” written on it, and with the shorthand that lasting friendships allow, she referenced so much from our long-ago past: how Coke ads were a kind of talisman of happiness for us, which we sometimes grasped all too briefly. It brought back trips to Misquamicut Beach, skipping school and flying kites and making up phrases that only we understood. Our friendship was the “real thing.”

There is no way, I think, to predict who we will bond with. Neither age, nor religion, nor occupation seem to matter much. Perhaps it is a shared attitude. Maybe it is just the good fortune of making it through all the stages of friendship intact – the early days of shared interests and experiences, midlife when we become too distracted to connect, the later years when we realize the jewel that close friendship is.

However we got here, I’m glad my friendships have endured. Glad when Patti comes to visit every summer and warms our home with Portuguese wine and deep laughter. Glad when Andrea agrees to some spontaneous jaunt. Glad when Cheryl reaches out to offer a hand when I need one. Glad when Tara writes me long letters full of books and writing and politics. Glad when Laura and I share some special occasion, whether it be a dinner out or a celebration that envelops our two families. All of these meetings end in a hug and a fond farewell, a salute to the friendships that endure, and gratitude that we are still around to enjoy them.

 

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The letters of a complicated man

 

For the past couple of weeks, I have been driving to 1945, as I listen to the audio version of Christopher Dodd’s Letters from Nuremberg: My Father’s Narrative of a Quest for Justice. First published in 2007, the book (cowritten by Lary Bloom) is comprised of the correspondence of Thomas Dodd, who was one of the U.S. prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Dodd, junior and senior, is a familiar name in these parts. A native of Norwich, Conn., Thomas Dodd had a storied career that included a brief stint in the FBI and service in the U.S. Senate. Norwich’s AAA baseball stadium is named after him, and his son Christopher followed in his footsteps as a U.S. senator from 1981 to 2011.

In some ways, the book is an attempt to reclaim Dodd’s legacy after his career ended in ignominy. Accused of appropriating campaign finance funds for personal use, he was censured by his colleagues in 1967. When the Democratic party refused to endorse him for re-election, he ran as an independent in 1970, but lost his seat. He died suddenly of a heart attack less than a year later, at age 64.

It is easy to see why the Dodd family would want to salvage his reputation. When Dodd died, his censure and defeat were still fresh news, and the New York Times obituary was almost entirely devoted to his Senate career and the accusations of cronyism and misuse of funds. His triumph at Nuremberg – for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – was consigned to one paragraph on an inside page.

The letters he wrote home from July 1945, when he flew to England to begin work on the trial, to September 1946 are a fascinating, day-by-day look at the struggle to bring Nazi leaders to justice. But they are far more than that.

In his correspondence, Tom Dodd is revealed as a complicated man whose devotion to his wife and family was often at odds with his duty to country. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he was an ambitious lawyer already looking ahead to parlaying this assignment into a legal and political career.

The letters exist on two levels, and Dodd was aware of this as he wrote: they are first and foremost love letters to his wife, Grace, and simultaneously a recording of historic events as they unfolded. So Tom Dodd wrote both for his wife’s ears, and history’s.

Each of the letters begins not with the conventional “Dear Grace” but “Grace, my dearest one,” or alternatively, “Grace, my loveliest one.” In the very first letter, he paints a picture of her face as she waves him goodbye from a train platform in New York, an image he calls upon again and again to get him through his dreary days interrogating Nazis and negotiating Army politics.

Dodd’s wife, the former Grace Murphy, also was a local girl. From Westerly, Rhode Island, she graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. (her husband was a graduate of Providence College and Yale Law School). They married in 1934. When Tom left on his Nuremberg assignment, they were living in Lebanon, Conn., with their five children – Thomas Jr., Carolyn, Jeremy, Martha, and Christopher, who was a little over a year old when his father left for Nuremberg (a sixth child, Nicholas, was born after he returned).

Although they had been married 11 years in 1945, Tom Dodd writes to Grace like a besotted newlywed. She is the only woman he could ever love; he cannot bear to be apart from her; he will cut this assignment short just to be with her, and the children. The highlight of his day is writing to her.

Her responses are not included in the volume, if they survive, but we get hints of them from his letters. It takes weeks for her first letters to reach Dodd, who travels to France before arriving in Nuremberg. When they do arrive, he finds Grace’s letters wonderful but short; several times he asks plaintively if she won’t write on both sides of the stationery. Grace comes across as a good humored, capable woman who surely misses her husband but is hardly sitting at home pining away for him – she gets her hair done and attends cocktail parties in New York City, for example, excursions he encourages bravely but not too convincingly.

Dodd tries to reassert his role as man of the house. It comes out that instead of leaving her access to his bank account, he expects her to mail him checks overseas, which he will sign and return to her by post. This clearly is unworkable, and eventually he gives in and suggests she forge his signature when necessary. It is good for a wife, he opines, to have to pay the bills once in a while to understand the responsibilities on a husband’s shoulders. Several times, he admonishes her not to pay the handyman until he has painted all the window sills and installed the storm windows.

Thinking of Grace Dodd at home with five children and a large house, with bills to pay and no ready access to the family’s savings, one can only speculate at her reaction to this.

Dodd was, of course, a man of his time, and the gender roles in his marriage were typical for the 1940s. It is hard to criticize a husband so deeply in love with his wife that he thinks about her night and day, hoping that someday they can see the sights of Europe together.

But Dodd was a man of contradictions: He despised anti-Semitism, but complained that too many Jews were on the legal team (he feared this would make the trial seem unfair). He claimed to want no role in the trial itself, content to do the interrogations, but he denounced the Army brass for sidelining him. Already, he saw the high-profile case as a stepping-stone.

Yet: Dodd was a brilliant jurist whose systematic interrogations, moral outrage and trial experience helped secure the 19 convictions (three defendants were acquitted). He was able to cut through the dry documents to show the human toll of genocide, at one point brandishing the shrunken head of a murdered prisoner that had been used as a paperweight by the commandant at Buchenwald.

In this case, the New York Times got it wrong. Although the Senate censure of Dodd led to tighter campaign finance laws, his real legacy was secured in the days after World War II, when he helped hold war criminals to account and proved that the rule of law can triumph over despotism. Reading his letters all these decades later, one admires him as a good husband, a principled lawyer, and a decent man. His subsequent failings make him human, but do not undo his finest hour in Nuremberg.

 

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