The woes of my lingering malady

If I were writing a 19th-century account of recent days, I might begin something like this:

For the past month I have suffered an injury to my shoulder that has restricted my movement most awfully and, worse still dear reader, afflicted my very ability to write.

Or, in 21st-century parlance, I have tendinitis in my shoulder. And it sucks.

I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t fall down the stairs or pick up a bowling ball or pitch a softball game. Two out of three of those things are quite unlikely, anyway.

All I know is that sometime before Easter, my right arm started to ache. I was whipping up some blueberry muffins and it hurt to stir the batter. Then I had trouble lifting my arm over my head. Eventually I noticed a golf ball-sized lump on my shoulder.

Nineteenth-century digression: Why are bodily swellings always compared to the circular equipment of athletes? Why isn’t the lump the size of poor Yorick’s skull? Or Oliver Twist’s empty bowl of porridge? Or Amy March’s pickled limes?

No, there was no inciting incident. The truth is that my neck, back, and arms have not been well since I started teaching a decade ago. As an adjunct, with no real office, I was always schlepping around campus with my valise, crammed with books and student papers, slung over my arm. What I thought would make me stronger had the opposite effect. For the past three years I’ve used a rolling bag, but undoing the damage of all that toting and lifting has been difficult. Visits to the chiropractor and physical therapy helped, until this latest episode, that is.

The pain and lack of mobility worsened as the semester crawled to a close. I took the precaution of emptying my rolling bag before removing it from or returning it to the car. I began to use my left arm to open doors, pick up plates, empty the washing machine. My husband became my de facto servant, buttoning buttons and picking up dropped pens and carrying books out to my car.

Nineteenth-century digression: But no ladies maid to dress oneself – no cook or housemaid – no gardener even!

None of that, the housework or gardening or wardrobe challenges, bothers me as much as the difficulty of writing.

Why does it have to be my right arm? So that holding a pen sends shooting pains to my shoulder, and using the mouse pulls on the swollen tendon.

Because as all you writers out there know, this has not stopped me from writing.

I can type fairly well – the shoulder remains locked into place next to the body. It’s using the mouse that proves difficult. Writing by hand can be excruciating. I weigh every word. Some days I simply stop in mid-sentence. All of that is the antithesis of journal writing, which should be free, expansive, even rushed as the hand tries to keep up with the brain.

And I know I shouldn’t complain. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and beloved children’s writer Louisa May Alcott both wrote through the debilitating symptoms of mercury poisoning.

Alcott, nursing Civil War soldiers in Washington, D.C., came down with typhoid fever. The remedy of the day was calomel, which contained mercury. For the rest of her life she would suffer intermittent symptoms of this poison.

Alcott wrote “The Old-Fashioned Girl,” she reported, “with left hand in a sling, one foot up, head aching, and no voice.”

Beecher Stowe also suffered myriad symptoms, including chills, a cough, vomiting and what she described as rheumatism. Some of this was probably caused by her treatment. Visiting her brother in Indianapolis in 1844, she wrote to her husband that she was “reduced to calomel & gruel.”

Depressed and worn out from having four children in seven years, in 1846 she moved to Brattleboro, Vt., for nearly a year, to take the “water cure.” This may have had the unintended effect of flushing the mercury from her system.

Both women wrote their greatest works after the onset of their symptoms. So I soldier on: It could be worse.

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A trip back to 1950

It took some digging. Some scrolling and head-scratching. But at last, there they were, on Enumeration Map 5-1, page 55: S. Warren Thayer, Eleanor C. Thayer, and Mary Jane Thayer.

The 1950 census records were made public this week by the National Archives. For genealogists, the digitized pages are a treasure trove of locations, ages, and occupations.

For the merely curious, such as myself, the 1950 Census is a trip back in time. It doesn’t tell us anything we probably don’t already know. But it inspires interest, nonetheless.

Before I found those three names, I paged and paged through the wrong, adjacent census tract. It was like driving down a street of familiar names. There was Dr. Howard Laskey, the family doctor who practiced in a building next to his home in Carolina.

He was 47 in 1950, and among his children was listed Patricia – who now has a trail named in her honor behind the former Laskey home. He was something of a pioneer, a father who didn’t believe in kindergarten, an organic gardener who eschewed pesticides. How well I remember his waiting room, the chairs a bright orange vinyl.

There were the Tougases, two of them already working as “grocery clerks.” When I was growing up they operated the Pioneer Store in Shannock.

Chester and Irene Whitman were 25 years old and living in Shannock village. They only had one child at this point, a daughter, and eventually divorced, but not before having more children, including a son, Richard, in 1961. He was a great friend to me, a math genius, an able guitar player and a real wit. He died way too young, in his 40s.

A lot of Shannock names sounded familiar: the Sonntags and Westons, the Richards who lived across the street from us, and my neighbor Bob Jordan, 5 years old when the census was taken.

So many names! The life of the town spread out before my eyes. Wave to Charlie Link, who would become the town’s building inspector. There’s heavy equipment operator Wallace Burdick, the insurance agent Walter K. Shute, and contractor LeRoy Grinnell and his wife, Lillian. All names I grew up hearing, people who floated in and out of our lives.

And the families! The Flynns, the Pirhonens, the Websters, the Mageaus. Many of their children my mother taught in school, including Jim Mageau, 11 years old when the census was taken.

And there, at last, were my parents. My father, S. Warren Thayer (the S stood for Silas, a name he never used), 26 years old. He had been out of the Army since 1946; his occupation was listed as “saw operator” at a “sawmill” (which was in his backyard). My mother, Eleanor C. Thayer, 30, a “grade school teacher” at the “grammar school.” She reported working 30 hours a week, my father 40. They only had one child at that point: Mary Jane, not quite 2 years old.

My grandfather, who lived down the road, I found two pages later. Henry H. Thayer was 55 years old and listed his occupation as “lumberman” at a “lumber camp.” He had worked 32 hours the previous week.

Of all the marital statuses, his stood out: “Sep.,” or separated. He and my grandmother had not lived together for years; she, in fact, was seeing someone else, Howard Perkins. Eventually she would scare up the money for a divorce and marry Howard, but my grandfather carried a torch for her his entire life.

She, too, was listed as “Sep.” She was living in the house in Tug Hollow, Richmond (the census says “New London Turnpike,” although she really lived nearby on Dawley Park Road), where they had raised their children; she listed her occupation as “burling and sewing” at a “wool cloth manufacturer” – although she had not worked in the previous week.

So many things had yet to happen, in 1950. My sister Andi and I did not exist. My parents were still living in the cottage on Route 2, a three-room shack with no indoor plumbing (eventually my father added two bedrooms and a bathroom). We had yet to move to Shannock.

Charlestown was a smaller place.

Almost all the houses down to the beach were vacant when the census was taken. The year-round residents knew each other, and they knew most of the summer folks, who returned like robins every year.

If I were to review the 2020 census, how many names would I recognize? I certainly don’t know any of the summer people, and after moving back to Shannock in 2018, I barely know any of my neighbors. I still refer to houses by who used to live there.

1950. A snapshot in time. And for those of us looking back now, it might as well be an episode of the Twilight Zone.

Visit this link to start your own census search.

What we always called “The Little House,” on Route 2 (South County Trail) in Charlestown, R.I. This picture was probably taken in the mid-1950s when my father was building the addition. The family car was a Hudson.
Mary Jane, taken about the time of the 1950 Census. She died in 1967 at age 19.

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The Secret of Nancy Drew

The covers pop out beguilingly, a sea of blonde hair, lurking men, and mysterious objects. I wouldn’t normally write “beguilingly,” or any other unnecessary adverb, but it’s fitting for my subject: The Nancy Drew mystery books of my childhood.

They were full of adverbs. No one gazed unless wistfully; no question could be asked unless curiously; no retort came out save indignantly. The only places absent this puffery were the titles, which were a master of concision – so that they beckoned, I hate to say it, alluringly.

Last week I finished a jigsaw puzzle of Nancy Drew covers. As I tried to match the shade of a puzzle piece to Nancy’s hair (platinum? Golden? Or, as some of the early books describe it, Titian?), the titles and familiar images began to take shape, each one a vague but evocative memory of a beloved childhood reading experience.

My first Nancy Drew mystery – indeed, my first full-length chapter book – was The Secret of Red Gate Farm. I still remember the basic plot, as Nancy foils a group of counterfeiters posing as a wacky nature cult called the Black Snake Colony. Looking at the artwork now, the ghostly figures look suspiciously like the Ku Klux Klan.

Like a chocolate bar, one Nancy Drew mystery led to the next. Soon I was reading down the shelf of our tiny village library: The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, The Whispering Statue, The Clue in the Diary, The Secret of the Wooden Lady.

On and one they went, a litany of secrets, clues, and mysteries, each one irresistible.

By opening their covers I had been initiated into a club to which my older sisters already belonged: There is even a picture of Andi visiting me in my crib, as she clutches The Secret of the Golden Pavilion.

The puzzle map features more than 20 Nancy Drew covers from 1930s artwork. The manufacturer is Cobble Hill; the puzzle is available at the Vermont Country Store.
Detail from the finished puzzle.

What was it about these books that fascinated? There is no one answer. It’s all wrapped up in the character of Nancy herself, an independent teen-ager with a driver’s license, no mother to hamper her adventures, and an ability to negotiate the scariest situation. To enter a Nancy Drew book is to experience frightening scenarios in a manageable way. No matter the peril, Nancy always escapes danger and solves the mystery.

In his one-act play The Blizzard, David Ives attempts to get at the power of the mystery genre. His characters are trapped in a cottage during a storm when a mysterious couple show up, who may or may not do them harm. Ives plays with our expectations by introducing all the tropes of the haunted-house story, yet he never resolves them – he purposely does not reveal what malice, if any, the guests intend. But before all that, the wife in the play takes pleasure in their being stranded, and says: “I think the reason people like murder mysteries is that, in a murder mystery, everything is significant. The people in murder mysteries are living in a significant world. A world where everything is there for a reason.”

Nancy Drew’s world was like this. Every encounter, every object held meaning. Each scene led, inexorably, to the climax, where Nancy inevitably would be kidnapped, tied up, or in some other way menaced by the bad guys.

But the Nancy Drew stories were not murder mysteries. The antagonists, although they had the appearance of thugs, were typically guilty of property crimes, such as theft, counterfeiting, or extortion. Nancy would catch them by dint of her superior reasoning (aided by Socratic conversations with her father, the lawyer Carson Drew) and daring sleuthing (which often included eavesdropping, spying, and trespassing).

I loved all of it: the frantic pace, Nancy’s deft handling of her sleek roadster, and the settings that were at once familiar but strange: sea-filled caves, haunted mansions, creaking ships.

And the books were full of words I didn’t know, like sleuthing, and pursuit, and a strange thing called luncheon. Nancy’s world was not mine; she had no mother but a housekeeper, the fretful Hannah Gruen, and her father treated her like a peer. Instead of sisters or friends she had two “chums” – the cousins George Fayne, described as “an attractive girl with a boy’s name,” and Bess Marvin, whose weight was a constant source of teasing.

I inhaled these books, one after another, until one day they (mysteriously!) disappeared from the middle shelf of our village library’s children’s section. They also could not be found at our school library. What was going on?

The American Library Association, it turns out, frowned upon the series. The books were no longer considered appropriate fare for grade-school students. I was crushed.

The books had never enjoyed much support from adults. The early editions, beginning in the 1930s, were full of racist stereotypes and language, and were rewritten for later editions. Those are probably the ones I was reading; they had bright yellow covers. But something else about them must have rankled. Were they not “enriching” enough? Were the crimes considered too lurid for youngsters?

In recent years I’ve snapped up some older copies at used bookstores, and I reread “The Secret of Red Gate Farm.” Alas, the magic of discovering Nancy Drew could not be replicated. You can only read a book for the first time once, and I was no longer nine years old. The world of Nancy seemed contrived and full of coincidence, the writing hackneyed.

But there was something about these books that turned me, and thousands of youngsters like me, into readers. We rode along with Nancy in that roadster, looking for the evil cult, the missing jewels, the secret entrance. How could a statue whisper? Who stole the ship’s wooden lady? Who is ringing the mysterious tolling bell?

The books were not perfect, but Nancy’s independence and daring inspired girls into believing they could be heroines of their own stories. And that’s enough to earn the Nancy Drew books a rightful place on any child’s bookshelf.

Even as a baby, I was curious about books. Andi holds The Secret of the Golden Pavilion.

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A journal of one’s own

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.

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When storms came with no warning

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.

The writer’s mother, Eleanor Crandall, in 1938 before the hurricane. In this photograph by her sister Dorothy, she is standing on the dunes of Weekapaug, which were destroyed by the storm.
Seaside Topics details the suddenness with which the storm arose.
Eleanor Crandall’s yearbook photo, Rhode Island College of Education, Class of 1941.
The Crandall barn, from Dorothy Crandall Bliss’s A New England Childhood.

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What happened to fashion?

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.

FBS founder Murray Gerstein in a 1974 spring/summer catalog shoot.
FBS, Summer of 1974, when clothes had style.

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Heat waves of yore

Have the dog days come to June?

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.

Circa 1974, my father poses for a picture because wearing shorts was such a rarity.
The RC Cola thermometer lives on, although the bulb of mercury is long gone.
Another ancient thermometer we saved, this one now on the outhouse. Registering 100 degrees at 3 in the afternoon.

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The old house

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.

The Tug Hollow house, 83 Dawley Park Road, Richmond, from the road.

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In the desert

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.

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The year of the home library

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 The Stillmeadow 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.”

Ada Clapham Govan’s inspiring story invites the reader to look out the window and engage with their feathered friends, an appropriate activity during pandemic isolation.
The diaries and letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh still speak with a clear and eloquent voice on the powers of introspection.

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