The Story of the Stories: Part II — Some Kids Have Cows for Pets: Other Kids Have Pigs

First Grade, State Street School. My mother put on her lipstick and headed out to parent teacher night to meet Mrs. Phillips.

“Don’t forget the bookfair,” I said.

I wanted one of the textbooks, Bright Horizons? Up and Away? Could someone really own a book that grand? But what other kinds of books would a school sell? Imagine being able to play school with my dolls (all of whose heads I’d shorn, imitating my sister Jeanne’s homework assignments from beauty school), my blue and orange stuffed cats with the jewel eyes, and my polka dotted clown, lined up on the sofa as I hoisted that impressive volume and read aloud to them!

Our house sat at the end of a long laneway. From my parents’ bedroom, I could watch for the headlights as cars turned off Franklin Street. Patiently, not so patiently, I waited for my mother. By the time she walked in, I had sprinted into the back entry to meet her.

The book she held out to me was far too small, too insubstantial a thing to be the answer to my prayers.

“What’s this?” I said. I had a temper. I was trying not to use it.

“Mrs. Phillips thought you would like this one. Besides, they don’t sell the ones you use in class. She said that would be against the law.”

My friend Jackie’s mother told us if we swallowed gum our bums would stick together. My own mother told me smoking would stunt my growth even though I never saw my Aunt Nancy without a cigarette and she was taller than my father. My cousin Kathy told me if you walked through a car’s exhaust, you would disappear. Sometimes, people said stuff just to scare you. (Sometimes, it worked).

I tossed the flimsy thing on my dresser, climbed into bed scowling. What kind of a mother let a teacher talk her out of what her kid really wanted? What kind of a writer called his book something as stupid as Charlotte’s Web?

***

Because my mother finally took Charlotte’s Web away from me (“You need to read something else,” she said, though I didn’t (still don’t) understand why), I had no choice but to start foraging for more material. In the face of the kind of friendship Wilbur and Charlotte possessed, basal readers lost their appeal. I loved that book because I believed it. That story was as true as any article I read in our Encyclopedia Brittanica. More so because it was hard to imagine something as homely as a frog could have such colorful innards, but a spider who saves your life with the help of a rat? How could that not become a kind of religion?

I thought I’d never find another book like it, but then I read chapter one of A Day No Pigs Would Die where a boy chases a prize Holstein through a briar patch and helps deliver her twin bulls. I thought our cows were the only ones stupid enough to labor amidst a patch of thorns, and that, aside from me and my brother and sisters, no other kid had seen anything like those pearly hooves poking out of the cow’s rear end, the way the muzzle emerged, nostrils quivering, eyes blinking before the calf was fully out into the world.

This is what I learned from E.B. White and Robert Newton Peck: Anything can become a story. Even unbelievably magical things. Even the kinds of things that happened to me.

The Story of the Stories: Part I — Just Because Your Only Friend is Imaginary Doesn’t Mean You’re Lonely

Part I

My father was the world’s most famous dairy farmer. He raised a bull named Osborndale Ivanhoe who changed the character of the Holstein breed. Long before his daughter dreamed of becoming a writer, my father made it into Esquire Magazine. That man and his celebrity bull. That bull and his starlet daughters grazing in pastures before admiring busloads of other farmers, of students of agriculture.

My mother, in a separate life, ran the lunch counter at Cap’s Cafe. The building still stands on the corner of Tower Street and Granite though now it’s a French bistro with outdoor seating that overlooks the intersection. My mother’s specialities included beef stew and American chop suey, things that, 60 years later, she still can’t prepare for fewer than a hundred people.

My parents met there, my mother the only person willing to wait on someone who smelled like a barnyard. I’m sure my parents, like any other couple, had dreams. I do not think those dreams included having a child who wanted to be a writer.

In our busy house, my mother fed hired hands, lining the counter with grinder rolls, cold cuts, lettuce she shredded into curling ribbons. Outside, my father’s trucks rumbled by full of corn, tractors roared past lugging wagonloads of hay. Milking machines pulsed. Cows bellowed. In summer, flies buzzed everywhere. Black ants dropped from the light over our kitchen table and landed in the sugar bowl. Winters, mice holed up in our cupboards; the dogs slept in mangers full of hay they wouldn’t let the heifers near. Season after season, I hunted down a good pen (nearly impossible to find), a piece of paper — phone book pages worked best, but any old envelope would do — and I scribbled. I loved the feel of ink on a page, the smell of a blue Bic, the loops and curls of letters.

“God damnit,” my mother would say, picking up a bill that hadn’t yet been paid. “How am I supposed to send this to someone when you’ve written all over it?”

But that carbon paper was as silky as my border collie’s ear, the rim of ribbon along the top of the blanket on my sister Jeannie’s bed. Things I also couldn’t resist. Writing felt as good as all the softest things on earth.

When people visited, I shut myself in my room. Read a book. Talked to my imaginary friend. Dr. Robinson told my mother she shouldn’t worry about me. “It’s a sign of an imaginative child,” she said. Tell that to my sister Barbara Ann who opened the Studebaker’s door to let me slide into the back seat. When she closed it behind me, I screamed.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“You closed my friend in the door,” I said, sobbing loud enough for the shoppers passing by on the sidewalk to stop and stare.

We didn’t close the toy box so that my dolls could breathe. Crayons had personalities depending on their colors. Blue was a loyal boy. Yellow a boy nobody liked. Red was very popular, a celebrity color. I believed our house was haunted, woke one night to see a knight in shining armor walk through my bedroom, watched a shadow dance through the hayloft’s open window when the barns should have been empty. When I disappeared into a cornfield (I was three) and ignored my mother’s frantic calls, it was because I sat staring at the way sunlight hit a patch of earth amidst the tall stalks.

“What are we going to do with this kid?” my mother asked.

After another of his endless days at work, I would say to my fahter:“Tell me a story,” I wanted to listen until I fell asleep, feared being the only one awake in our big house, all by itself at the end of a dark lane. “Tell me another story,” I would say to my father, who no doubt wanted to eat his maple walnut ice cream that melted in a bowl beside his chair. He’d want to catch the weather on the 11 o’clock news, maybe return to the barns to check on a sick cow.

When, finally, he got too tired, he would say: Why don’t you tell me a story, now, instead?