Essays on my latest book, The Blue Box, a family history centered around three women from three generations spanning the Civil War through the Jazz Age.
What a grandmother she was! Small, plump, heavily girdled! I often found her when I came home from school sitting on a lace-draped chaise-longue, intently stitching a party dress. If the dress was for one of my cousins, a flash of insane jealousy would scorch me, the flash instantly suppressed; if it was for me, my reaction was equally powerful. The dresses she made were decidedly old-fashioned, with sashes and lace berthas, embarrassing to wear to the dancing classes of my adolescence, which were what we had in the place of parties. But of course I could never breath a word of that to Munda—as we called our grandmother.
The stitching served as backdrop to her stories, which were also pieced together from memory, anecdote and fairy tales, especially from the Northern Ireland she had visited as a child, her father’s country.
In her imagination, it was a wild land where gypsies camped and attracted adventurous children from nearby estates, a place where a butler carved adorable animals from turnips for Helena and her nurse to give to the offspring of impoverished villagers; she never realized that, only a few decades after the potato feminine, country people in Ireland were still desperately poor.
It was also a place where she learned the extent of her duty as a Christian when she went, with her nurse, to the local hospital, taking what she felt was a pitiful bouquet of flowers to comfort a girl her age who was dying of tuberculosis, and whose deathbed vision of a savior gave Helena the basis for her lifelong faith.
Ireland was also a place where, in another example of her duty, Helena went with her nurse to the local women’s madhouse (as it was called at the time) and beheld with barely suppressed giggles the antics of a woman who believed she was a goat.
How hardy she was, this little grandmother of mine, in childhood and all through her life, which included bearing six children and surviving genteel poverty; how her example both terrified and enthralled me! She warned me solemnly against marrying, since for her marriage had provided the first stumbling block to her ambition to be a writer; and, she went on, if I was so unfortunate as to marry, surely I would be wise enough not the bear children! Her six had put a quietus to her dream.
I obeyed neither of her commands, biology and the culture of my young adulthood providing few excuses for avoiding the conventions. My three sons put a halt to my career for a couple of decades, as indeed they had to; I always wrote short stories and poems, even when it meant getting up at four in the morning, but the business of getting them published was beyond me, both because of the dreadful fatigue of motherhood and the lack of opportunity for women writers.
But, unlike my dear little grandmother, I was able due to hard work and luck to recreate my career when my sons were half grown, finding a place at the Macdowell Colony in southern New Hampshire where, like so many other stalled writers, I discovered the faith and the support and the energy to begin again.
The stories Helena did manage to get published would set a contemporary reader’s teeth on edge, but that is not important to me. What mattered and will always matter is her staunch defense of a dream she couldn’t fulfill but never abandoned.