Jabberwocky set up 74 chairs for Friday night’s Bewildered book launch party. When they were filled, people sat on the stairs. They stood in the hallway. My students held signs. My in-laws and my best friend, Lauren, braved what even what the we’ve-seen-it-all-Boston traffic reporters deemed a gruesome deadlock. My colleagues came, the woman who sold me my house 19 years ago. My neighbors and my book club members arrived. My friends drove from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New York, Boston. My daughter’s coach stood in the back. My fellow soccer parents turned out. The two writers who were part of my first and only writers group came. Friends of Dennis’s who are now my friends, too, showed up. Even a few strangers straggled in. My own family called me before the big night to say good luck, to say they wished they could be there (though they will be at the next celebration). To express my gratitude at this crowd is beyond my grasp of the English language. Impossible to describe what it was like to look up from twenty-two years of putting this collection together and seeing how completely un-alone I am. I will never get over this night.
But no matter how many people are present in any gathering, there are always those who are missing. Mrs. Jacobs, for example. How I wish she could have been there, front row, peering at me from the same opera glasses she toted with her from her mansion in Watch Hill to ringside at the Rhode Island Holstein Show in the summer of ’86.
I was home from my freshman year at college and had just gotten my first job off the farm waitressing the breakfast shift at Paddy’s Wigwam. Mrs. Jacobs was in her eighties and had lost so much of her vision that, during her winters in New York City’s upper east side, she hired someone to read to her for an hour a day. At her summer residence, she sought the same, and my Aunt Nan, who managed her household, suggested her niece, the English major slash writer. So I went for what you might say was an interview. We sat on her sunporch, the overstuffed sofas as faded as her espadrilles. She wore a bandana like a headband, her white hair springing out from behind it.
“Come closer so I can see you,” she said. I did. “Yes. You look like your Aunt Nan.”
What book we began with, I don’t remember, only that it was strange to read aloud to anyone, let alone a total stranger who looked past me with her milky eyes. I do remember that whatever we began the summer with, we ended it reading all of Hardy. When she dozed off, I called her name softly and she stirred, laughed, took a drink of water. Out the windows behind her, a swan sailed across the brackish pond. In the kitchen, Anna the cook, banged pots. We were interrupted by deliveries of white wine and gin from the liquor store, by the barking of her equally blind and also quite deaf Yorkie.
We read together for several years. She loved non-fiction and I did, too, because she would stop me often to comment on the people whose stories we peered into. She had spent a weekend with Pearl Buck, had met JFK during her work on civil rights, knew everyone from Indira Ghandi, to Bowzer from Sha Na Na. After a few years, reading for an hour after my shift at Paddy’s wasn’t enough. She hired me full time. “We’ll call you,” she said, “my companion.”
We started our days in the sunporch where her housemate, Miss Kimbrough, interrupted the Times’ crossword puzzle to print out the day’s menu in a leatherbound journal. Their decisions determined the course of our mornings. We might drive her to the cheese store for cheese, to the fruit stand for fruit, to the farm stand for vegetables. At the grocery store, I pushed the carriage, handing Mrs. Jacobs packages so she could peer closely at the labels. Some days, I filled the car with women whose families had made their money in coal mines and railroads and drove them to chamber music concerts and musicals. I lifeguarded Mrs. Jacobs’ daily swims, helped her pick out birthday presents for her family. I drove her to drop her grandson off at sailing camp. “You’ll know what to say to him,” she said. I set up our chairs beside the bed of impatiens so she could water them as I read. When spring arrived, she told the gardener to leave the plants. “Italians have such a green thumb,” she said to me. “I’d rather you planted them.” She pinched the plants from their containers and tossed them where she wanted them and, dutifully, I dug, complimenting her on her throwing arm. When we didn’t have access to the car they rented each summer, I drove her around in my family’s old Impala. She didn’t mind that the ceiling fabric hung low over her head, sprinkling her hair with green fuzz. On Wednesdays, Alice the hairdresser would take care of that while I dropped the dog off at the groomers.
She sent me home for a three hour lunch. “Go write something,” she’d say. We’d end most days in her bedroom, she reclining on her bed, resting before a night of cocktails with the neighborhood widows, dinner served by my aunt and her staff, me reading beside a window opened to the salt air. “Now,” she’d say when she’d decided it was time to dress for dinner, “go see your young man.” I’d drop the book on her table and she’d add, “And make sure he’s your intellectual equal.”
I visited her in New York one winter where she treated me to lunch at the Cosmopolitan Club. She did come, ringside, to watch me show my cows at the Washington County Fair and, when I took one of the 1200 pound beauties over to meet her, she peered as closely at the cow’s face as she had mine that first day.
Part of one summer was spent re-organizing her library. She wanted one section reserved for books written by her friends. That was more miraculous to me than her four hundred year old dining table, the window into the summer home crowd of people who shared bloodlines with presidents and corporate icons. “You have potential,” she told me often. “Don’t squander it.” I wanted my book to be on her shelf one day.
The last time I saw her, she was summering with her son in Northeast Harbor, Maine. I hadn’t written much, had published only one poem (“Oh dear,” she had said, when I told her I was going to graduate school for poetry. “I had hoped you would write something that would allow you to make a living.”).
The almost twenty years that elapsed between that meeting and the publication of my first book, I thought of her often, wondered if I had somehow let her down, wasted all the opportunities she had given me to go home and write. And maybe it did take me longer than she thought it might. But the key is, she believed I would do this. Why wouldn’t she? So many other people she knew were writers, why not this awkward farm girl with whom she spent her final summer days in Watch Hill?
So, yes, I wanted her there last week. And, of course, she was there. She is another one of those people who will accompany me always.