It’s strange to grow old. I feel I’m the same person inside. All my life I was around people more or less my own age, and suddenly there are hardly any left. I think about death all the time. I guess you could say I’m apprehensive. I don’t want to suffer. I live my life as if my actions could make a difference, but I suppose at heart I’m a fatalist. Whatever happens, happens. I have to accept the fact that my efforts might not have the results I want them to have.
Images and impressions from different times in my life come to my mind, and I exist simultaneously in all of them. I am the short girl with the pale, round face posing in the family photo between Patricia and Eddie, who are between our parents, Martin and Mary Helen Wrightsman. I am right in the middle of the photo, and yet I am the least of them. I am the adopted child.
Most of the time it went unspoken, yet I was always aware of it. I felt it most acutely from Patricia. As the daughter of the family, her status was threatened by my addition more than anyone else’s. I was afraid of her, and I gave in to her. She could be fierce, and I couldn’t cope with that. Better let her keep her advantage.
All those years, I got used to staying out of the spotlight. Instinctively, I avoid attention. Let it come to people who believe that good will follow from their being noticed. I don’t. And who knows? Maybe that’s why I’ve survived so long, when others haven’t.
Eddie didn’t feel the same way about me as Patricia did, but neither were we particularly close. In our childhood, I was a dreamer, and he was a doer. He was off with other boys, playing games. It made a difference that Daddy taught at the school he went to, and it was an all boys’ school, whereas Patricia and I went to a girls’ school. We lived in a faculty house on the campus of Harrison, the boys’ school, so Eddie had a lot more opportunities to get together with friends than we did. But that didn’t stop Patricia from having a life chock-filled with activities, too. She was also sports-minded. She played lacrosse, tennis, basketball; she was a big, strong girl, and she’d try almost anything.
I, on the other hand, dodged sports like I’ve dodged so much else. I’ve learned that although I’m left-handed, my right eye is dominant, which makes it hard for me to aim or catch. My hand-eye coordination is a nightmare, and I’m right-footed, too. I’ve thought sometimes that my brain must be more strangely configured than other people’s. Maybe no one side is dominant; I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I was a bookish child, and introspective, and I tried to be obedient and agreeable and not cause anyone any trouble. There was a deep, lingering fear that I couldn’t give voice to, that Mother and Daddy might one day decide they didn’t want me after all, and send me back to the orphanage, or wherever it was I had come from.
Of my earliest days, I have no memory.
* * *
There’s a passage I once read in a book, The Lights of Earth, by Gina Berriault, that struck a deep chord in me:
“A dense fog covered the city, concealing the hills below this one. Only a few patches of neighborhoods could be seen, floating islets, appearing and vanishing, in a gray sea. She went down the hill trying not to shiver…She had inquired at every bookstore for a job, the secondhand ones, the antiquarian ones, the ones that sold only the latest, because to work in the midst of thousands of books, no matter how cluttered, how musty, how concrete-cold the store might be, was to feel cloistered and concealed from the world and yet in the world.”
Daddy would have been unhappy with my expressing this preference. He was forever encouraging me to be more involved and connected, the way he was, and the ways, after their own inclinations, Mother, Patricia, and Eddie were as well. They all had a tendency to throw themselves into things, whereas I have always held back.
Mother loved me, but hers was a tough love; I had to earn it. I tried hard, she tried hard, too; and this created a strain between us. I wouldn’t naturally go to her if I had a problem; in fact, I’d try to keep it from her, worried about lowering her assessment of me.
I sought out Daddy when I was in need of help or comfort. He was the one who loved me wholeheartedly, and I him in return. His father had died when he was six years old, and that fact brought us together as much as it indicated our differences. He knew firmly who he was. He had taken on the responsibilities for his mother and sister at a tender age. I, on the other hand, had been given away, and taken in, and reared up, like a grafted plant.
Maybe even more than Patricia and Eddie, I loved listening to Daddy’s stories of his past, with its deep roots in New England. In his boyhood, he knew the Civil War veterans who used to sit on the front porch of the general store in Ashland, New Hampshire, smoking and swapping stores and passing time. One man had only one leg; another was missing an eye. They’d all been wounded in one way or another, and they weren’t shy about showing Daddy their old wounds. Their wounds were evidence that they’d given their utmost to their country.
These men made a tremendous impression on Daddy when he was a boy and later influenced his attitudes when it came time for him to serve his country in World War II. He transferred from the Coast Guard into the Navy as Lieutenant Junior Grade and finished the war with his own command. He served on board the Clay at the battles of Saipan and Guam and on the Morrison at Truk and Okinawa without injury. He left the Morrison two weeks before it was sunk by a kami-kaze. Then he was given the job of writing to the families of all the men who had died, men whom he remembered and wrote about personally.
He was assigned to navigate the empty tanker Androscoggin. On a return trip from Okinawa to Ulihi Atoll, they picked up the signal of a Japanese submarine on their sonar and outran it. Back on Guam, he learned that the cruiser Indianapolis had been sunk at that very spot with the loss of 1,300 lives.
He was on the St. Paul, part of Bull Halsey’s fleet. Ten miles from Honshu, planes took off, dropped bombs, and circled back to the fleet, steaming east away from Japan. Many ran out of fuel and didn’t make it; he saw them drop in the sea to be left behind.
He had no illusions about his survival. “It was a matter of pure chance,” he said, as we sat spellbound around him. As I recall, Mother didn’t take part, either as narrator or listener, in Daddy’s story hours, but neither did she discourage him, even though his stories were frightening to children—and to grown-ups, too. I think she recognized how important they were for him to tell and us to hear, and she tolerated them, even though they weren’t part of her world. She didn’t like to dwell on war and adventure and courageous deeds and grisly ends.
She had a Yankee background, too; her people were ministers and college professors. I admired both Mother and Daddy, and if I could have chosen my own family, I would have selected people like them. They knew where they came from, and they stood up for what they believed in.
* * *
Mother and Daddy were frugal to a fault. They practiced economies that most of their friends never considered. Mother mended and patched our clothes and darned our socks until they were falling apart. She bought dented cans at the grocery store to save a nickel. Anything that she and Daddy could make or repair themselves, they did. Never once did they buy a new car or appliance. The general opinion held that their attitude was a result of their having grown up during the Depression. I think that those experiences contributed, but it went deeper than that.
When Daddy was three years old, his father, a New Hampshire country doctor, contracted tuberculosis from a patient. For three years Dr. Wrightsman lingered in a worsening illness. Without success, he tried special diets, treatments, a sojourn at a sanitarium. His illness was a financial disaster for his family—Daddy, Daddy’s mother Alma, and sister Gertrude. He couldn’t practice medicine. His earnings dried up. For years, he had treated any patient who came to him, regardless of his or her ability to pay, with the result that many of his patients had accumulated quite substantial debts, and when he fell ill, none came forward to pay him. At the time of his death, when Daddy was six years old, he was owed about fifty thousand dollars, an enormous sum at that time. My grandmother never saw this money.
One of Daddy’s indelible memories was of being summoned to a family conference shortly after his father’s death. There he was, six years old, surrounded by his aunts and uncles. Uncle Henry, his mother’s sister’s husband, bent down so they were at eye level and, wagging a finger in Daddy’s face, he told Daddy that he was the man of the family now, and it was up to him to provide for his mother and sister.
Uncle Henry was the one who owned The Eaton, a rambling resort hotel in the White Mountains that catered to a rich city clientele escaping the summer heat. After his father died, Daddy and his mother and sister spent their summers there. But it was quickly understood that Daddy had to work—all day long he was required to be available to run errands and do odd jobs.
Grandma was a fragile woman, overwhelmed by grief. She was unequipped to take charge of the family’s affairs and unprepared to earn a living. I knew her, but not well; she died when I was ten. It certainly seems that she was content to be dependent and had few qualms about her young son going to work to support her. Daddy shoveled snow and split wood for the neighbors, and soon he was taking care of the horses that were used back then for road work or to pull the narrow-gauge railroad trains that plied the mountain valleys out of the snow drifts that stranded them in the bitter winters.
Daddy handed over all his earnings to his mother. He developed a life-long reluctance to spend money on himself. In old photographs I see a handsome youth with a painful smile. Yet sociability came easily to him, more easily than to me. He knew how to fit into a group and make himself indispensable. He was a natural leader. These qualities were evident in his Navy career and in his profession as a prep school master.
As a growing boy, Daddy had a mentor—a boyhood friend of his father, who was kinder to him than most of his relatives. This man had a house on Oyster Bay and kept a sailboat. It was he who taught Daddy how to sail in Long Island Sound and developed in him his life-long love of ships and the sea.
Daddy was a natural athlete (Patricia and Eddie take after him), and in his studies he discovered a talent for Latin. All college-bound boys needed Latin back then. As a high school student, Daddy tutored other students and coached sport teams for younger boys (which prevented him from playing on his school’s varsity teams). After The Eaton was sold out of the family, Daddy worked at various summer camps as a tennis, horseback riding, and canoe and sailing instructor. He loved these jobs and cherished happy memories of those relatively carefree summers.
He was a hardworking student, well-liked by his teachers, and it was a happy day for him when he was accepted into Harvard. He borrowed the tuition fees, $1,200 for the four years, from a great-aunt, with a promise to pay back every penny, which he eventually did. In addition to attending class, he had to work to earn his room and board, and the first semester he nearly flunked out. In his rural high school, he had not been taught how to write a formal essay. He was unprepared for the college curriculum. He nearly broke down from the stress, but he was lucky; a friend he had made, from a Boston Brahmin family, invited him to live rent-free in the apartment over the family garage, enabling him to quit some of his jobs and devote more time to his studies. For the rest of the year, Daddy had to commute from Boston, and he missed out on extracurricular campus life, but he learned to perform academically at the level expected of him. He graduated with honors in history.
As a teacher, Daddy was all for giving his students another chance—to a point. In the sixties, when Harrison began to accept more students from underprivileged backgrounds, Daddy held firm to the belief that Harrison could be the making of them. For students who refused to conform or put forth the effort, he had no patience. He let them know in no uncertain terms what opportunities they would be throwing away. Usually they would come to their senses, but if they didn’t, Harrison wasn’t the place for them, and they didn’t last there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not sure how Daddy became a history master and athletic coach. I know when he began teaching at Harrison before the war, he had earned his master’s degree in history and taught at two other schools. Knowing him as I do, I think that the first teaching job must have been offered to him, and that he probably accepted it because it promised work that appealed to him, benefits, and job security. After a few years, the war intervened and took him off to the adventure of his life, and by that time, I think, he already had earned tenure at Harrison.
In other words, I doubt prep school teaching was what he set out to do. I’m not sure what his aspirations were, but I think he would have liked a university career. But the life that chose him was suited for him. There’s no denying he had a gift for molding hearts and minds—particularly boys’. For several years, he’d handpick a group of six students and invite them on a summer sailing trip, charging their families only expenses. He’d drive the group from outside of Philadelphia, where we lived, to New London, Connecticut, where his boat, a navy surplus tender that he had bought after the war at auction and had refitted—would be ready. For a month they would sail up and down the New England coast, from Connecticut to Maine and back, stopping at ports of interest along the way. Some of those boys later cited Daddy as their single most important influence and kept in touch with him for the rest of his life.
While Daddy was on his sailing trips with his students, we stayed at the cottage on the Vermont lake that belonged to Mother’s family. All summer, friends and relatives dropped in—it was that kind of place. We loved it. It was paradise to us.
There was a day camp on the other side of the lake, with a swimming school, canoeing, hiking, and other activities that we all participated in, but most of the time we were free to wander.
By the time that Patricia was twelve and I was nine and Eddie seven, Daddy put an end to his summer sailing trips with his students. Instead, we all sailed together for a couple of summers, and then Daddy sold his boat and bought a smaller sailboat, named the Mary Helen for mother, for the lake. We also kept canoes and kayaks there. Back then motor boats weren’t allowed on the lake, and we eschewed them on principle.
There was a state forest bordering part of the lake, with steep trails up rocky slopes and streams that fell in small waterfalls on their courses into the lake. There were also deep underground springs that fed the lake, whose waters at that time were crystal clear. I remember summer nights, sleeping in the hammock on the screened-in porch. If I craned my neck, I could see the stars over the lake. On moonless nights they seemed to hang so close in the black sky that I found it hard to believe how many millions of miles away they really were.
* * *
Mother and Daddy had met while chaperoning a co-ed dance that brought together students from Chapin-Oakes, the all-girls’ school where Mother was teaching, and Harrison. Mother had reached her thirties without getting married and seemed destined for spinsterhood. In fact, that evening she had hoped to get out of going to the dance, but there weren’t enough chaperones.
No less than Harrison’s headmaster claimed the first dance from Mother. Daddy later said that he had noticed Mother right away and wanted to ask her first, but the headmaster’s rank was higher, and Daddy dared not presume on it. By this time he had already commanded a ship of three thousand men on Guam, and he was a scrupulous observer of courtesy and hierarchy.
It seemed to Mother that she had been waiting for Daddy all her life without knowing it. For the rest of the evening, they danced all the dances together, except when they stopped to talk to each other.
Mother instinctively felt that Daddy was a man who could be depended on, a man who had already proved his worth as an adult many times over, and who would be a good husband and father. She saw that he respected her intelligence, and she believed he would let himself be influenced by her opinions. When she learned of the hardships he had suffered in his youth and the burdens he had borne for others, her heart went out to him. She fell in love with him because she could tell he was a loving man who had been deprived of love. She believed that her love could rescue him from his unhappy past.
Consciously, they entered into marriage as an equal partnership. Mother came from a line of strong-minded men and women, who weren’t afraid to agitate for what they believed in. They were Abolitionists and women suffragists. One hundred fifty years ago, they had been Quakers; now they were Congregationalists. No matter the denomination, their religious ideals stressed works more than faith. They focused their efforts on building a better world in the here and now.
They were sober people, plain and respectable. They revered music, painting, poetry, drama—in a serious-minded way that was in keeping with their characters. Everything they did had a purpose of improvement. Their great values were humanism and education, yet they also indulged their children, allowing them long stretches of unstructured time in which to develop their interests as they wished.
Mother was devoted to her parents and to her younger sister, who suffered from cerebral palsy, but because of the family’s care and support, lived a normal life. I was well into my teenaged years before I realized that Aunt Kat had a disability. It had not occurred to me before.
Mother’s father, Julius Phelps, was Professor of English and Philosophy at Swarthmore College, and his living room was often a gathering place for his students, where they were welcomed with cookies and conversation. Mother later created that atmosphere in our home, but with an inescapable difference, because Daddy’s students were all boys.
When Mother and Daddy met, she was French instructor at Chapin-Oakes. She had graduated from Bryn Mawr College with honors in French and continued her studies at the Sorbonne. That was in the thirties, before the war. Sensing that Europe was about to explode, she returned to the U.S. and found a teaching job. Chapin-Oakes had an excellent reputation and the added advantage of being near her family. She had been employed there for eight years when she met Daddy.
To hear Mother tell it, through her college and graduate years, she was too busy studying to think of young men, and once she found herself ensconced in a girls’ school, there were no young men around to meet. Then came the war, and all the young men were off fighting, and many didn’t come back. Eventually she had to face it; there weren’t a lot of men around, period. As I said, she’d just about given up when she met Daddy.
The dance was in November; by Christmas, they were engaged, but they had to conceal it, because if Mother’s principal knew, Mother would lose her job. School policy did not allow married teachers or even engaged teachers at Chapin-Oakes. But Mother and Daddy needed the salary from her job to start their married life with, and she was intending to finish out the year before resigning.
There followed a winter and spring of secrecy and subterfuge. Mother’s parents knew, but no one else did. Daddy was insistent that he wanted to be married in a small ceremony with only Mother’s immediate family attending. Mother felt guilty about excluding Daddy’s mother. She hadn’t yet met her future mother-in-law, yet felt she would never be forgiven. Daddy explained to her that his mother would insist on their having a fancy, expensive wedding, just the kind of wedding that they didn’t want and couldn’t afford, and she would involve herself in the planning of it, and the result would be an additional headache for them that they could well do without.
“Believe me,” he emphasized, “I know my mother. I’m certain what she’ll do.”
As Mother got to know Daddy better, she realized that he had an additional reason for not including his mother: she lived with a man that she wasn’t married to. She called herself Mrs. Bruce Aylmer; she had the name engraved on her calling cards and her stationery, but, in fact, there was already a Mrs. Bruce Aylmer, and that first Mrs. Bruce Aylmer clung to the name and refused to divorce, even though she and Bruce Aylmer hadn’t lived as man and wife for nearly twenty years.
Mother also learned that Daddy’s mother was still his chief financial burden. Since Bruce Aylmer was disabled by an injury and unable to resume employment as a train conductor, Daddy was obliged to contribute to maintain them. Gertrude, now married, also helped out when she could, but she had a young child and depended upon her husband’s salary.
Poor Martin! thought Mother. His family has caused him little but trouble! Almost all his life, Martin has been supporting his mother, and he still is, and he is ashamed of her.
Once Mother understood the sources of Daddy’s feelings, she willingly acceded to his wishes. They were married in early June, just after their school terms ended, in the Phelpses’ garden. A garland of roses was wound around a wire arch under which Mother walked, escorted by her father, on her way to Daddy. Mother wore a white, calf-length dress suitable for the afternoon, and perched on her head was a tiara sewn with pearls, anchoring a veil, that had been passed down in her family for four generations.
The service deliberately omitted the word “obey” from the vows.
Mother and Daddy spent their honeymoon at a summer camp in the Berkshires, where Daddy had worked, that hadn’t yet opened for the season. The owner had offered it to Daddy free of charge. They were the only people there, except for two workmen making repairs to the cabins. There was a large kitchen in the main building, but they had brought an ice chest with them and preferred to cook their dinner over an open fire and at breakfast and lunch sustain themselves on sandwiches and fruit.
There was a lake where Daddy took Mother rowing and canoeing. No sailboats were available, but Daddy promised Mother a future of many sails.
Following their honeymoon, they went to Amherst to pay a visit to Daddy’s mother and Bruce Aylmer, who were living there.
In my experience, Mother was always careful of what she said about her mother-in-law. “She’s had a hard life,” Mother was apt to remark, “we mustn’t blame her.” But a note of impatience invariably got into Mother’s voice when she mentioned Grandma; she couldn’t seem to help it.
When Mother married, she was in her thirties, past what was then considered childbearing age, and she and Daddy tried to start a family immediately. She suffered two miscarriages before she gave birth to Patricia, and then there was a long space before they had Eddie, during which time they adopted me.
After Mother and Daddy were married, Harrison rented them a house on the campus. This was the house we grew up in, a lovely center-hall colonial, painted white, with a dining room downstairs on one side, a living room on the other, and a kitchen at the back. Upstairs were three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Patricia and I shared a bedroom until Mother and Daddy created a room for Eddie in the attic, and I took his bedroom.
In the beginning of their marriage, in order to spare Mother the work of shopping and cooking, Mother and Daddy paid Harrison a boarding fee and took their meals in the dining hall with students and other faculty. They had calculated the costs, and they were more or less equivalent. But after Mother became pregnant, she wasn’t allowed to eat with the students. Apparently, these boys were of a tender age and not to be subjected to the sight of a pregnant woman.
For all Mother’s championship of women’s rights and equality, she was unable to continue to work after she was married, and, pregnant, she was banned from the dining hall at her husband’s school. The school refunded her portion of the board, and for the remainder of the term, Daddy ate his meals in the dining hall and Mother at home.
But this was an unsatisfactory situation, made infinitely worse when Mother lost the baby. From then on, Mother and Daddy ate their meals at home. Daddy washed the dishes and frequently assisted with food preparation. He preferred to cook what was simple and easy, and so did Mother, with an emphasis on what was good for you.
I admit, as teenagers, that Patricia and I were hard on Mother when we asked her how she could call herself a feminist and yet have put up with such discriminatory behavior from both schools. We once reproached her in this way as she sat at the sewing machine, mending a torn seam in a sheet so it could still be used. I recall, bent like that over the sprigged fabric, that she reminded me of nothing as much as a pioneer woman (although pioneer women didn’t have electric sewing machines). After we both upbraided her, she was silent for a moment. Raising her eyes to meet ours, she said, “One cannot bring about such a revolution in a year or even ten years. Or in my lifetime. Perhaps your generation will experience perfect equality between the sexes, but I doubt it.”
The glare of the sewing machine light was reflected upward on her face. It hurt my eyes to look back at her, but Patricia wasn’t fazed. “Women can’t continue to wait forever,” Patricia replied. “You’ll see.”
Patricia came of age at the exact break in our culture between cotillion balls and rock concerts, between padded bras and girdles and nylons (what was once called a “foundation”) and a loose, liberated, bra-less way of being and dressing—tie-dye, fringe on jeans, flowing blouses, and wavy hair. Mother was tolerant of Patricia’s appearance. Not Daddy. He said he’d had too much experience of men to trust them around his daughter with her looking the way she did when she went out.
Daddy and Patricia clashed. They each claimed the moral high ground, and they both had to be right. When they argued, I pictured two determined bulls locking horns. With Patricia, Daddy seemed to forget his tact, and once, when she had infuriated him, he lashed out at her in such a tone of voice I have never forgotten it. Until he got control of himself, it sounded as if he were strangling.
I think Daddy’s conflicts with Patricia must have triggered a reaction that awakened his complicated feelings about his mother. Daddy’s mother had been an intelligent and cultured woman; she’d read widely and had good taste. He admired her in many ways, and her discriminating nature had helped form his character. Yet she’d been a weight on him that dragged him down and a sorrow he had to bear.
His mother’s experiences indicated to Daddy that Patricia did not appreciate how hard life could be for a woman, and how, more than a man, she needed protection and support. An unblemished reputation, a good name—these were important assets, difficult to acquire, and essential to maintain. Daddy believed that Patricia valued these too lightly. He knew she was impulsive, and he didn’t trust her judgment.
There was something about Patricia that drove her to tangle with Daddy. She would oppose him even when she had no intention of disobeying him. Struggle with him seemed to energize her. Her excitement built, and Daddy would get angrier.
Eddie and I both took cautionary lessons from Patricia. Instead of welcoming confrontation, we try to avoid it. To give her credit, she blazed a trail for us as the eldest child. After Patricia opposed Mother and Daddy, there was no need for us to.
In many ways, I admired Patricia for her bravery. She was then—and remained—a crusader. She was too transparent to be a politician, but she had a politician’s ability to change people’s opinions. In the union office where she ran the literacy program, she attracted many followers, and they became the union’s next generation of leaders. For all that she conceived of herself in opposition to Daddy, she ended up transmitting Daddy’s essential values and his lessons in civic duties and responsibilities.
Yet I’ve always felt uncomfortable around her. I felt she judged me and found me lacking because I wasn’t like her. It’s not that I’m a cynic, or don’t believe in helping my fellow human being, but I’ve always avoided large public demonstrations. I guess I’m afraid of losing my individuality in the multitude. I invariably had an excuse for Patricia when she wanted me to join one of her marches, because I knew she wouldn’t understand or accept my real reasons for not participating.
When we were growing up, she definitely let me know that my accomplishments were a threat to her, except in areas she did not care about, and I did my best to avoid arousing her feelings of competition. There’s no denying that I was a plump, mousy, stay-at-home girl. While part of me longed to be pretty and popular, another part of me was relieved not to be. I was only twelve when Patricia started going out with boys, and I had plenty of opportunities to witness examples of her jealousy and possessiveness. I wasn’t eager to stimulate them, nor, after the anxieties that she’d caused Mother and Daddy, did I want to be the source of any more trouble for them.
I never have been willing to reveal my private feelings and motives in the same way Patricia did. Patricia, who was touchy about so many things—her prerogatives as the eldest, her principles when she felt they were being compromised—did not seem to feel sensitive at all about what other people knew about her.
Mother was more like me, circumspect. Patricia sometimes shocked her. She considered Patricia headstrong and occasionally thoughtless. She knew I was not, but I don’t think she was at all aware of the fear I lived with, of having been an unwanted child. I was good at concealing my feelings. I succeeded in concealing them from myself.
* * *
I was a little afraid and in awe of Harrison students when I was young. Sometimes I’d be crossing the campus with Mother and Daddy, and I’d see some of them chasing after each other or throwing a football or butting into each other in the way that boys do, and I’d worry that I’d somehow get in their way and get hurt. I tended to avoid them and knew little at all about them, except for occasional details that Daddy shared with us at the dinner table. It wasn’t until I began to attend Daddy’s “Cookies and Conversations” that I became acquainted with any of them.
As I mentioned, the idea for Daddy’s “Cookies and Conversations” was really Mother’s, because it was inspired by Professor Phelps’s evenings with his students in his home. But while Professor Phelps’s gatherings had a literary purpose—one particularly notable evening was his reading from The Turn of the Screw, in which he frightened some of his students so much they couldn’t go to sleep—Daddy’s meetings had a wholly different raison d’être. Daddy was deeply interested in his students as individuals, and he welcomed opportunities for frank and stimulating exchange. I believe he had in mind Socrates’ Academy when he spoke of education as a kind of conversation. This was the lofty ideal behind his “Cookies and Conversations.”
They were memorable evenings, not so much, I think, for what was said, but for their relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. Daddy laid some ground rules: no one could monopolize the conversation or interrupt anyone else; each had to speak in turn and give all a chance to have their say. It sounds simple, but I think it was the rare quality of Daddy’s encouragement—and Mother’s, too, for she always participated at these gatherings—that left us feeling uplifted.
Daddy never asked, “Do you mean?” He made a statement, “You mean,” and when he finished, he had not only expressed the thought clearly and simply but had made it sound as though it had been entirely the other person’s, with no contribution from him. He was a generous teacher, and that was why his students revered him.
There’s a story Daddy used to tell from his days in Guam that illustrates some of his qualities. A Japanese sampan, a fifty-foot fishing boat, had been stranded a hundred feet up on the beach of the base where Daddy was stationed. One of Daddy’s young ensigns rounded up a motor machinist and several others and went to work on the engine. Daddy regarded this as good recreation. They got the engine going, and they began digging up the beach to get the boat into the water. Daddy saw what they were doing, and he also saw that they had to cope with a hard coral beach below the sand.
One afternoon Daddy heard a loud explosion, and he knew there would be trouble. When he got back from the beach, he had to return a call to Naval Supply Command and report that the explosion was unauthorized and wouldn’t happen again. He thought the boys would give up in the hundred-degree heat, but two days later he noticed that the boat was not on the beach. In fact, it was out in the water inside the reef at anchor.
At the Officers’ Club, the Captain informed Daddy that he had no authorization to increase the size of the United States Navy, and further, Daddy was to get rid of the boat even if he had to sink it.
Daddy bargained with him to let him give it to Captain Olaf, the Swedish husband of a native lady with whom Daddy had been working to set up a school for the native children. The Captain approved and said Daddy could let those boys cruise on the sampan with Captain Olaf if they had an officer present in charge and did not go more than a half mile beyond the reef and only in perfect weather. Captain Olaf was glad of the boat and took the boys for their well-earned outing. It was a great boost to their morale, said Daddy.
Daddy enjoyed telling this story to his students because he believed it was important not to discourage young people. He didn’t let his deep, unfulfilled need for a father prevent him from becoming the kind of fatherly man that two generations of young men looked up to. It was only with Patricia that Daddy’s ideals came into painful conflict with his behavior, and I think it was because Patricia was able to hurt him in ways that no one else had except his mother.
But at the “Cookies and Conversations,” Daddy took a calmer, more measured attitude to Patricia. He seemed to listen to her more carefully and weigh her opinions, which were sometimes extreme, more judiciously than he might at other times. Thus, these evenings had a salutary effect on him as well, and he was able to be more accepting of Patricia as an individual.
It is an indication of the difference between Patricia and me that at these gatherings she liked to sit in the center of the room, where everyone could see her, and I preferred to remain at the periphery. Eddie, when he was old enough to be included, was rarely still, but liked to be petted and made much of by the young men. It excited him to be around them. It excited all of us. Patricia’s face glowed in the lamplight, and even Mother relaxed and grew more animated than usual.
I was excited, too. Listening to the high-minded talk gave me a sense of security and contentment, and I rarely felt the need to add any idea of my own. I was shy and unconfident of my ability to express myself. I preferred to watch the others; I hardly thought they noticed me.
I noticed them, of course. And so it is that now I find myself approaching the other subject, as yet unmentioned, underlying these pages.
Paden. Paden Powell. Just saying his name aloud affects me strongly.
At Harrison, one of my first memories of Paden was of him kneeling on the rug in front of the coffee table in our living room, pouring out tea and passing around the cups. Paden had beautiful hands, with long, slender, tapering fingers, and he loved tea and the ceremonial aspects of tea drinking. The reason for his presence in our living room was that he was one of a group of Daddy’s students invited over for “Cookies and Conversations.” Yet from the beginning Paden was more than a student. He was almost like a member of the family.
One reason was because the Powells had become our neighbors at the lake. They had bought a three-acre lot on the water a quarter-mile down from us. The first year after Daddy had stopped taking his students sailing up the New England coast and had taken us instead, we visited the lake at Labor Day to find the Powells already well-established.
Augustus Powell had first seen the lake many years before that, when he had been one of Mother’s father’s favorite students and had come to stay for a week one summer and assist Professor Phelps in his research. When I knew Augustus, he was Professor of Philosophy at Columbia. He had piercing blue eyes under bushy eyebrows and an abrupt way of coming up behind me when I wasn’t looking and surprising me with direct questions. I felt uncomfortable around him, because he seemed to enjoy embarrassing me, and I never knew what he would say.
His wife Sally was blonde and curvy, as different from him as could be. When I think of her, I think of a de Kooning painting, all chaos and bright colors. She liked to make outrageous statements for effect. Much of the time Augustus barely seemed to pay attention to her. Paden knew just how to calm her down when she was upset. “Now, Sally,” he’d begin, with that silky note in his voice, slightly teasing and flirtatious, and it worked every time.
Paden had always called his parents by their first names. They didn’t seem to mind—quite the opposite. Sarah, Paden’s junior by nine years, followed his example, and so did everyone else in Paden’s circle.
* * *
Another memory I have of Paden is of when he was building his treehouse at the lake that summer after his freshman year at Columbia, before he went to France. He said he’d always wanted a treehouse. It would be his place, where no one else could come unless invited. He was making it purposely hard to get to. He’d found the tree—a tall red maple out of sight of the lake and the Powells’ house. The first thing he did was nail a ladder up the trunk. Fifteen feet up, he constructed the treehouse’s platform. He brought the boards up on a pulley, and he used a hammer, nails, wood screws, and a cordless drill.
Once Paden had built the platform, he’d sleep up there sometimes, even before there were any walls. He wasn’t afraid of falling out of the tree in his sleep. He said that he just told himself not to move, and he never did. He buried his head in his sleeping bag to keep off the insects, and he said he’d never slept so soundly.
There was a path through the woods that went near Paden’s treehouse, and during the day sometimes I would pass by there to observe his progress. By mid-August, he’d gotten the roof and three walls up.
The day I’m remembering was hot and sunny. The sun filtered down through the trees, creating a dappled pattern on the forest floor. It was so pronounced it was almost like an optical illusion. I had lost track of where I was when I came on the small clearing where Paden’s tree had grown so tall. Shielding my eyes with my hand, I peered up at the treehouse. In my angle of vision, it was in front of the sun, and I was dazzled. I made out a dark shape—it was Paden—waving his arms, in greeting or in warning, I couldn’t tell. Then I saw part of a shape moving behind him, the glimpse of a bare shoulder and a woman’s hair.
I knew who it was. I hadn’t spoken, and neither had Paden, but he had seen me, and I had seen him. Very quietly, I turned my back and retraced my steps the way I had come. I didn’t think the woman he was with had seen me.
That’s how I found out that Patricia was sleeping with Paden.
* * *
It was a long time after Paden was dead, and I was living on my own, when I discovered a new connection to him. Oliver had been Paden’s friend at Columbia. When Paden went to France, they had kept up the friendship for a while and then lost track of each other—so Oliver told me when we met. They were out of touch when Oliver had learned of Paden’s death. He hadn’t even known that Paden had gone to Chile.
Apparently, even years later, Oliver remained affected by Paden, because he’d spoken about him to his girlfriend, Renée, who was the high school friend of my friend, Maria, which is how I learned of it.
At that time I was not in close contact with the Powells, and the wish to talk about Paden with someone who had been his friend overwhelmed me. Through my grapevine connection between Maria and Renée, I sent out feelers to learn if Oliver would be willing to meet with me to share our reminiscences. It took about a month for the answer to come back in the affirmative and another week for us to set a time and place.
Over the phone Oliver had a deep voice, and I tried to picture him. I had seen his likeness in a photograph Maria showed me of him and Renée. He was handsome, there was no doubt about it, with dark hair and eyes, and easily as tall as Paden.
Impulsively, I told him about the letters and asked him if he and Paden had ever corresponded.
“Oh yes, I believe we did,” he replied. “Paden was a great one for writing letters.”
“I have some wonderful letters from him,” I said. “I’ll bring them to show you, if you show me yours.”
To my surprise, he and Renée didn’t live far from me. I agreed to meet him at a neighborhood bar later that week after he got off from work.
I was nervous when the time came, and I deliberately arrived late so I wouldn’t have to wait alone for him. He was sitting at a booth with a bowl of peanuts in front of him when I walked in. It was winter, and he was wearing a heavy knit turtleneck sweater, like one Paden might have worn.
In person, Oliver was even handsomer than in his picture, and I felt nervous, the way I often feel with someone that physically attractive, that I won’t be able to measure up to the same standard. The lighting in the room was deliberately dim, and I was glad of it, since it made it harder for us to scrutinize each other. Immediately I brought the conversation to Paden.
I wanted so much to understand Paden, and I thought perhaps Oliver could provide me with some keys to knowing him that would give me new insights.
“I have to hand it to Paden that he was a serious scholar and thorough in his studies. He wasn’t afraid of hard work. For example, he was determined to read the Greek and Roman philosophers in the original, and he would do it,” Oliver recalled. “And yet, I wonder if there wasn’t something lacking in him. That he just didn’t have that spark of creativity, and all his diligence couldn’t make up for it.”
What Oliver said caused me pain. I didn’t want to believe it. To my mind, there had been no one like Paden, no one with his brilliance. Why, it was even legend in our family. I remembered what Daddy had said about him as his prize student.
I also remembered, of course, how later Paden lost much of his luster. But that had been due to his illness.
At this thought, I felt sadness cloud my feelings—sadness, and nostalgia. It was then that I offered to show Oliver my letters. It turned out he had none to show me in return. I accepted the disappointment.
As I handed him the small collection of thin, light-blue aerogrammes and white, blue-lined envelopes, they seemed to me as delicate and fragile as butterfly wings. Paden had had a small, careful handwriting, and Oliver had to put on glasses and strain close to read in the dim light of the bar. For a while I looked at him reading, and then I looked away. I couldn’t see his expression, but I felt embarrassed all the same. I wondered if I had made a mistake in showing him the letters, and if I would regret it.
Oliver read one letter, and then another, and another, perhaps half a dozen in all, before he folded them, arranged them in a neat stack, and carefully laid his hand over them. There was a silence as I sensed him struggling for what to say.
I could feel his eyes on me, and his voice was so gentle I could barely make it out. “Were you Paden’s lover?”
His question astonished me. “Oh no, no…nothing like that,” I stammered. “You don’t understand. He was so much older than I. Four years…”
Oliver’s expression turned to disbelief, and I suddenly remembered that he was six years older than Renée.
“Well, it seemed a big difference back then,” I lamely tried to explain.
It was clear that Oliver didn’t believe me. “But these are intimate letters,” he said. “Letters you would write to a lover. Paden never wrote letters like these to me.”
Our hands touched briefly as he gave me back my letters, but it was his words that had opened up a well of feeling. I had never allowed myself to admit how much I loved Paden. That I had been afraid of Patricia, afraid of her anger, long after she and Paden broke apart—that was one reason. I’d also believed that, because of Patricia, Mother and Daddy wouldn’t have approved. But the main reason was Paden himself. I couldn’t comprehend that he could really have been interested in me as a lover. He always seemed lofty and unapproachable, far above me. For years I had treasured his letters and kept them separate from other letters, but the thought that they might have been as important to him—that was a new thought, and an answer I’ll never know.
Oliver and I never met again, but he helped me see what had passed between me and Paden in a new light. The ancient Greeks whom Paden revered believed that what happens to you after you die can affect how well your life has gone. Most people today would scoff at the notion that what you say about a man after he is dead can make a difference to him, yet the ancient Greeks took it for granted.
One purpose in writing this memoir is to learn about myself and explain myself to me. Another is to make a gesture of love and affection to Paden in perpetuating his memory. I ask his forgiveness from beyond the grave for not being as good to him as I might have been, for not understanding what he was suffering when I should have, and not helping him when I could have.
At last I acknowledge the love for him that I never allowed myself to express to him directly.