Friday, November 15, 2013

The Potter and His Wife

In the small town down the mountain from our village once lived a wonderful potter and his wife. We learned about them very soon in the village, our first year there, when neighbors, in thanks for us inviting their children to our house, gave us two of the potter’s bowls. They were very simple bowls, a lovely mottled beige, sandy like a seashore, perfectly round, reminiscent of monks’ bowls we have purchased at monasteries. Later, we went down ourselves to the potter and his wife’s house-studio. They had purchased an old ruin in the fifties and had rebuilt and restored it: creating the potter’s workshop and display room on the ground floor, and their home on the upper floors, all of it set in a garden of trees and flowers just on the eastern end of the town of Luc-en-Diois. We fell in love especially with the blue pottery, a very special dark blue with little dots of silver-white. To look at the potter’s blue was to gaze at starry skies, and little by little we purchased starry sky bowls, and starry sky cups, and starry sky vases and pitchers and, most beautiful of all, a starry sky teapot, an elongated oval teapot with a great loop of a handle and a special spout—developed by the potter himself—that pours as smoothly as a waterfall and never spills. When guests would come, we would take them down to the potter’s and often they would go away with their own teapots or bowls or vases or pitchers. Over the years, I purchased many pieces of Monsieur Dehoux’s pottery, making gifts to family and friends (often carrying a piece or two back with me on trips to the States). And so one brother has a beige teapot, one sister has a blue one, another brother got a large green pitcher for Christmas, I gave an elegant blue pitcher to my youngest sister for her marriage….and just last March my second sister came to our village with her family and as it was her birthday, I took her down and she chose her birthday gift—a graceful pitcher in the potter’s latest color, a deep dark delicious rosy pink.
Almost everyone in our village has something from the L’oiseau de feu, The Firebird Pottery shop. Because of my frequent visits there, I began to get to know the potter’s wife as well, a gentle and gracious woman with hazel eyes like pure transparent pools whose name is Marie-Claude. I remember her telling me one time that she had heard that there were wonderful vibrations up on our village mountainside, and I could well believe it, given the immense joy and peace we felt every time we arrived to stay at our cottage. I remember another time when she was having some serious trouble with those beautiful eyes of hers, and this was a concern as she too is an artist, making pieces of jewelry and bright colored lampshades for lamps that light up her husband’s pottery.
Last summer I met Marie-Claude in our little grocery store and we were very pleased to see one another and exchanged news (we had not seen each other since the March before when I had purchased the vase for my sister). But I began to notice there was something strange in her conversation, for instead of saying “we”, she was only saying “I” and finally I asked her, “but your husband is going with you to your daughter’s isn’t he?” And her luminous eyes grew liquid, had I not heard..? (No, I had not, that the potter had died just two months before, died at his potter’s wheel of an aneurism).
I was shocked, as we always are when we learn of the death of someone, even though we know that death is never far—yet we push away the thought of it until the next time, and are shocked anew, and push away the thought again. How could the potter be gone—he was a part of our small town, a part of all our lives, he was with us when we made our bouquets, when we had our breakfast cereal, when we set our tables with his dishes, when we poured tea from his perfect teapots. I was also deeply saddened, for I knew how close the potter and his wife had been—close in the way I am close to my own husband. I had heard the story of how they had met, about their whirlwind courtship, how they married less than two months from meeting one another, a marriage that had lasted 51 years.
I promised I would come by the studio, and did so a few days later. The display room looked much the same, pottery still lining the walls, all that had not yet been sold. In the back, in the workshop, were rows of unpainted bowls and pitchers and cups, pieces the potter was working on when he died—he had not had time to paint and re-fire those pieces. But his widow could not get rid of any of them, they remained on the shelves (and in fact, with a little sigh she said she should really not go back there, it was too hard for her to see all that). I purchased more of Monsieur Dehoux’s work, I would keep it for future gifts. Marie-Claude, knowing we had some of the big blue bowls, insisted I take two others, and would not take any money for them, telling me they had small imperfections, she would not be able to sell them. Later, we took tea together in her home upstairs (yes, of course, she poured from one of those remarkable teapots). The potter was our main subject, she missed him terribly, she found it hard to sleep at night, all alone in the house. Yet she was grateful, for his sake, that he had gone so quickly, and while working—it was, she told me, how he had wished to leave this world, in his studio, working on his unique pieces of pottery.
It’s a year later now, and I just went down to see Marie-Claude again. I’d heard she was having an art show in the studio. She was in there with a young friend who was taking pictures of the show. Marie-Claude had invited a sculptor and a painter and a watercolorist to display their works. Amid those works were last of the potter’s pieces. I purchased another little green pitcher-vase. I have one like it full of garden flowers just now, and I thought I would get another for someone else’s garden flowers. Marie-Claude insisted once again on giving me a gift—one of the unfinished pots, pure and white, which I could use, she said, for dried flowers.
While we were talking, two other women entered the shop and walked around looking at the works of art. Then one of them came up to Marie-Claude and asked, “Where is the potter? Where does he work?”
There was a deep pause while Marie-Claude gathered her words together, and then she told them. What they saw on the shelves were all that was left.
Both women looked stricken, and one of them seemed almost to crumple before our eyes, her face was a study in sorrow. The other woman, the one nearest me, a woman with clear chiseled features, said to us that her companion had just lost her husband too, only a couple months before. The newly-widowed woman was shaking her head, tears spilling from her eyes, whispering, “It is terrible, terrible.” My friend Marie-Claude, gentle soul, went to comfort her, and let her tell her story, the two of them—strangers just five minutes before—united in their grief. I talked to the other woman. She was a widow too—had been for a number of years. She was accompanying her friend who had been unable to go on vacation alone back to the place where she and her husband used to go—so instead, the two women were vacationing together. This woman (who had certainly been a very beautiful woman in her youth) said to me that losing one’s partner was like losing the other half of oneself. I told her it was my greatest fear—I could not imagine surviving it. She made no attempt to mitigate my fear. How could she? She knows what it is like to lose half of oneself. Nothing is ever the same again, she said. Nothing ever will be.
There I was, with three widows. I, who still had a husband back at my cottage. I knew he was home, perhaps printing photographs, perhaps stretched out reading on the couch, perhaps going up to see his favorite plant, the bamboo, giving it some water. I knew he was there and my heart filled with gratitude. There I was, the lucky one, the happy one. so conscious suddenly of my special privileged status. Unlike these three women with me, I was not alone. After the two visitors left, I made my purchase and talked a little more with Marie-Claude, she with her generosity of spirit, never a trace of self-pity or envy, simply glad for me that I am still “whole”, still have my other half, gently reminding me to cherish, and savor our time together.
I couldn’t get home fast enough. I parked and rushed up to the cottage. Where was he? No, not in the front yard. Not in the veranda. Not in the living room on his favorite pink couch. Not in the bedroom. Ah, there he was, out on the terrace now that the heat of day was gone, in the freshness of the late-afternoon shadows. You can imagine his astonishment when I embraced him as if we’d been separated for months—years even—instead of just a couple hours, and kissed his precious head, and told him I loved him. He looked at me as if I were a little crazy.
 Indeed I was. Crazy happy just to be alive and to have him be alive, and to be together in our own little corner of paradise. I let him put on his favorite Kate Bush music which I usually find a trifle too noisy for my tastes. Made him a nice dinner, opened a good bottle of wine. Knowing that one day…he…or I…. But no, let me just stay in the present moment, this one that exists right now, the two of us safe and together within it. Lucky me, oh lucky me.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


I spent my very first Christmas in the small town of Rushville, Illinois. I was a month old and my mother, Marijane Dill Duncan, was a Rushville girl, a 1938 graduate of Rushville High (at that nice old school torn down a few years ago). Two years before, in 1942, Marijane had married the handsome navy cadet Robert B. Duncan. And then, in the spring of 1945, my mother, believing her husband was going to be shipped to the Asian front, decided to accompany him to the West Coast leaving her six month old daughter—me—with her maternal grandparents, Charles and Florence Dill of 149 E. Washington Street, Rushville. And then the whole family was together again that November to celebrate my first birthday.
I believe my love affair with that little Illinois town of Rushville—and with my grandparents—began in those early formative years—and it has never waned. Though I never actually lived in Rushville—never went to school there, I have always considered it my hometown. I came visiting as a child at six, at twelve—swimming in Scripps Park, walking down to the drugstore for sodas, bicycling around the square, and spent almost my whole 16th summer there, getting to know grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins in Peoria and the town of Rushville. I was never bored: biking, going down to the square, learning to drive with Grandpa, teasing Grandpa, taking sunbaths, gardening with Grandma, talking to Grandma about the family past, meeting her friends, reading up in the middle bedroom papered with little roses, bedroom that had been my mother’s.
After that, there was a succession of summers, Christmases, summers, Christmases. In 1968 however my wonderful fun-loving grandfather Charlie Dill died. It was my first real loss—I was nineteen and I deeply mourned that grandpa of mine and do to this day.
Visits continued to Grandma Dill, to her Victorian house, by then painted blue. Year after year I would come, sometimes alone, often with other members of my family, all of whom loved Rushville too. As soon as the car bringing me “home” would reach the Rushville city limits, my heart would start beating, and  I would start to pick out all the familiar landmarks: the square, the bandstand, the courthouse, Penny’s, Vedder’s drugstore (Morland and Devitt later) and then, turning down Washington street, my grandparents’ house!
But life is change and grandmothers are as fragile as mimosa blossoms—one day they are with you and then, they are gone. I was lucky enough to have my grandmother for nearly fifty years of my existence—but she died in 1993, and the house was sold, and it seemed my life in Rushville and the life of my family there was over. At that time, I wrote an “Elegy to Rushville” published in the Rushville Times the week of my grandmother’s memorial service at the Methodist Church.
But my French husband François and myself are travelers. We live in France and every year we head somewhere in the world, east or south or north or west, and 1997 saw us crossing the USA from West to East and once we got close to Illinois, I knew I just had to stop in Rushville! We stayed a couple nights, and during that time visited my grandmother’s house, bought by the Cox family and entirely renovated to its original design (my grandmother had made many changes, not all of them exactly in keeping with the nature of a Victorian house!), and it was gratifying to see the house so lovingly restored. I also visited all my old haunts: the drugstores, Baker’s jewelry (every time I would come to Rushville, this was a favorite place to go, to buy a few things but also to get such fine repair from Jack Baker), visiting friends, putting flowers on the family graves, having a steam-burger and soda at the drugstore etc.
A second trip took place in 2001 just after Christmas when I came for a couple days with one of my cousins, daughter of my mother’s sister Betty. That time we saw Rushville blanketed in snow, recalling some of our happiest memories when we visited Grandma at Christmas. (We recalled in particular one time, when that same cousin, myself and my brother drove from the East Coast to spend Christmas in Rushville. During the long car trip, we formed a little Christmas carol trio! We arrived about 2 am and decided to awake our grandparents by singing to them—and so we did, positioning ourselves just at their bedroom window and bellowing out a few rousing carols. The shutters flew up and our grandparents thrilled but also alarmed faces appeared with their simultaneous thoughts: our grandchildren! the neighbors! And indeed, the wonderful Gertie who had the house next door at that time threw up her shutters too, shouting to us, “Merry Christmas, Kids.”)
François and I were back again in the States in the summer of 2007, on a quick road trip from SF to Chicago for my husband’s photography projects. Once in Chicago, of course we had to head down to Peoria and then to Rushville, though that visit was very brief, just an afternoon.
And now, in this summer of 2012 I’ve just made a fourth trip back to Rushville since our family closed up the house definitively in 1993. It seems I can’t stay away. We’re on another road trip, this one from East (we started in Washington DC) to West where we will end up in my “other” home of Oregon for my 50th high school reunion. (I remember attending with my mother her 40th in Rushville in 1978!) As we drove into the town from Peoria this time, I felt rising up within me the same excitement I’ve always felt—though accompanied with a little painful twist of my heart.  Such a visit back is always bittersweet, reminding me of happy memories but memories that are firmly in the past. I cannot just open the door to that blue Victorian house of my grandmother’s and go back in—I must forever remain on the outside.
We reached the square. It looked beautiful. I had read in the Rushville Times that the good people of Rushville had voted to retain the lovely brick streets though more expensive to maintain. I expected no less of Rushville, a town which cares about past and its heritage!
It was about 3:30 pm, the shops still open, among them Baker’s jewelry. I knew this shop when it was Jones’s—my grandmother worked part-time there in her younger days and my Christmas and birthday gifts were often jewelry when I was growing up. Then, 37 years ago, Jack Baker and his wife took it over—and I got into the habit of bringing jewelry to be fixed to him—all the way from France when I moved there! This time was no exception. I had two rings needing work and a silver chain. I was only going to be in Rushville a day or so but in I went. Jack was as usual just where I’d left him five years ago—behind his counter.
He saw me come in. “Nancy!” he exclaimed.
He couldn’t know how that pleased me. To be recognized immediately. I’m back in “my” town and the first person I see knows my name..
Next—we called on Marian Kindhart, with whom we would stay that night. Marian was for many years my grandmother’s guardian angel and with her cheerful open nature and news “from the outside” Marian’s daily visits to Grandma were a tonic for her—and for us as well when we were visiting. She and her husband Wilbur took us on a little tour of the town and surrounding countryside: first going by Grandma’s house. Marian, who knows everyone in town, didn’t know who was living there since the Coxes, purchasers from Grandma and restorers of the house, had sold it—but whoever it was (I would learn their names later) had repainted the house a lovely green with red trim—and had added two porches, one on the side, one on the back. Were they original to the house? I don’t know. But I had often said to Grandma how I regretted her taking off the front porch—now there were three to sit on! (And the next day, when I took a tour around the house I took the opportunity to sit—for the first, and last time—on Grandma’s restored front porch.) We then drove out past Scripp’s park, past the home where our good friend Elizabeth Stiver had lived—that gutsy independent art teacher who made the best butter from her cow Rachel and had the best eggs from her chickens. We drove on into the countryside where we sited a deer crossing a field. The sun was descending by then, turning everything golden—the end of day had always been my favorite time in Rushville, I loved to take my bike and ride out into the fields just at that time of day when things had cooled off a bit.
Marian had told me about some of our family’s friends in Rushville, all in their nineties, all still in their own homes and the next day, François and I went visiting! In the morning we stopped by Don Boehm’s big house with its pillared porch to say hello. Don’s wife Liz was my mother’s closest friend growing up, and they remained friends all their lives. I too came to be friends with Liz and would always see her on my visits to Rushville, loving to hear about her family but also about her work for her town of Rushville and the organization PRIDE that she founded. I knew Don well too—he was “my” banker in the town and I knew that I could always go into the bank on the corner of the square with a check from wherever (often Oregon) and could cash it with no problem there, for everyone knew me.
Don looked much the same only a little frailer, not quite so much the substantial banker as before. He was surprised of course to find us at his front door, but kindly invited us in and we chatted a little in his shadowy living room with curtains muffling the outside. The impression I had was of lots of imposing furniture, the three of us a little dwarfed by it, and especially Don, sunk into a huge armchair. He lives alone now—Liz died of Alzheimer’s a few years after my mother died. He and Liz once visited my parents out on the Oregon coast—I have the picture of the four of them, probably the age I am now, all looking healthy and happy. He is the only one left of them now. We talked a little of our trip, and of my past visits, how I loved to come to his bank, and he smiled at that, but throughout our visit,  I could feel the loneliness and the solitude of a house once lively with Liz’s presence. A house of shadows.
The second person we visited, after lunch, was Bill Tyree. Bill had been a special friend of my mother’s—they were in school together—and also of my grandmother’s. A visit from Bill to the house on Washington Street was always an event. Grandma would get out her best coffee and tea service, we would have goodies from Roger’s Bakery or Grandma would bake something herself, and we would sit out in the living room (instead of the back TV room!). I loved those visits too because of our great compatibility of spirit and thought with Bill in so many domains, and because of the liveliness and far-ranging scope of our conversations. Bill opened the door as soon as we knocked (we had called earlier and told the caretaker we’d stop by in the early afternoon), as dapper and elegant, in brown jacket and scarf, as I always have remembered him. Ninety-six years old and looking wonderful! And our conversation, joined by François, was as animated and far-reaching as ever, how many subjects we covered in our visit, from politics to family to writing to philosophy to literature and reading—and there was a special moment when Bill confessed to me, Marijane’s daughter, all these years later, about his high school crush on my mother, affection that did not wan with the years. How could I not love him for that even if I didn’t already love him for himself alone!
We talked too of my father, Bill had known him well and as a good Democrat, appreciated my father’s political accomplishments. He told me what a great admirer he had been of my father, yes, he repeated, a great great admirer. We were seated in Bill’s living room, full of shadows too, blinds down against the summer sun. I reminded Bill of how I had come there one day with Grandmother when his mother was still alive, how she had given us the best fudge I had ever tasted! Bill got up then to show me a photograph of his mother on the wall. We talked and we talked and we filled an hour, an hour and a half, and I didn’t want our time to be over, wanted our conversation to go on and on, I was so happy because being with Bill was as if I’d recovered, for that time, my whole life in Rushville: my mother, my grandmother, my own youth. I was bathed in the memories of that past, cherishing the illusion (while knowing it was illusion) that when I left Bill, I would just walk one block down St. Louis, turn left on Washington Street, go right into the big blue house and tell Grandma all about my visit.
But we actually left all together and in our car after taking some photographs of Bill and me on  his front porch. Bill and his companion had appointments to get their hair cut and asked if we could take them down to the square. We were only too happy to oblige (I used to drive Grandma to her hair appointment every week when I was visiting)—so our farewells were said in the hairdresser’s salon—making it just a little easier (but not much) to say goodbye to Bill. I knew he hated to say it as much as I did, and I knew we both had the same thought: we shall never have another such conversation. We shall never see each other again, and yet there is such love and tenderness between us. I have had other such poignant last moments with beloved friends, and they are always heart-breaking, imbibed with the knowledge you shall not meet again. How do we bear it? Yet at the same time this meeting between Bill and me was so miraculous, so unexpected for both of us, a divine gift. Nearly all my parents’ generation is already gone, and I had been sure Bill, even older than my parents, would not still be here. But he was! And we had our brief yet so precious time together, moments for both of us to cherish in memory. (And it would be recorded by a slightly altered text from this one that I would send to the Rushville Times, with a photo of Bill and myself, and that would be published on the front page a couple weeks after my visit. Thus Bill would see in black and white just how much I treasured our time together.)

We had a third very moving visit later that afternoon. Marian drove us to see Harold Davis, who was also in the class of  1938 with my mother and I had the pleasure of hearing a second admission about Mom—Harold had a crush on her in 6th grade! Harold was a medic in France during WW II, he spent two years there, and so whenever I would come back to Rushville, I would always be greeted with a “Bonjour, comment ça va!” from Harold. And so it was on this visit—Harold greeting me in French with a delighted and cheerful welcome. I used to see Harold walking downtown—we’d stop and talk awhile—or taking collection at the Methodist church, but time has laid its heavy hand too on this most friendly and active of fellows. His feet and legs are giving out on him—he must use a walker to get around, though he’s pretty dexterous with it. This made me sad. And then right away he talked of his wife Martha—her absence, like Liz’s, loomed immense in this unpretentious ranch house. She has Altzeimer’s as Liz did and she’s now in the local retirement home—and Harold asks, “Did I do right to put her there?” with unusual anxiety in his voice? We all try to reassures him. He goes everyday to see his wife, and every day she asks him about coming home.
We recall happier times: his visit to Paris some years ago—he and his wife Martha came to our little fourth floor walk-up in Montmartre!
This is a sunny room, and I look around it. I thought I put up a lot of family pictures on my wall—and Grandma had a wonderful wall of photos going up the grand staircase, and another later (that I added for her) in the TV room—but Harold (and presumably Martha) have used family photos as their primary decoration—children and grandchildren hang everywhere in their house. Harold lifts himself up from his chair, grabs his walker, and he’s off to take me on a tour, to show me his family. Three very large color photos of three pretty girls hang in the place of honor in the living room. These are his three daughters. But when he says the name of the second one, his voice falters, tears come to his eyes. This daughter died of MS. And in the place of the cheerful Harold I’d always known is a mourning father with a breaking heart, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, certainly none of us here witnessing it. Sorrow lives in this house of the many photographs. (And I learn later from Marian that a second daughter is also ill with MS.) But I ask about other photos and Harold wipes away his tears and tells me proudly about each of his grandchildren. They are clearly the joy of his life. He would like to show me every single photo—we go into two other rooms including one where he eats his solitary meals in front of the TV—all the rooms are covered with framed photos. In a little back room he shows me something different however—a photo of a big black snake that he caught not long ago in a barn!
It’s now late afternoon, and yes, as with the other visits today, it’s time to go and it’s hard to leave. My heart feels sore and battered—I couldn’t take another such visit and with its accompanying goodbye. 
We all go outside for some photos. Harold has a big American flag hanging on his wall and he and I pose in front of it. He has recovered his cheerful demeanor—this is the fellow I would meet on every visit to Rushville with his bigger than life smile, this wonderful friendly man who has always been so kind to me and who was my mother’s schoolmate. Though I live in a county of “bonjours”, I believe his is the one I’ve most loved and will most miss.
The long day ended in returning to Baker’s jewelry shop on the town square where Jack had most kindly worked most of the day to repair my rings. We had also visited during the day the Rushville cemetery with a few sprigs of berries and flowers for my grandparents’ tomb, and I had gone into the Jail Museum as well (a wonderful museum that just keeps growing) where kind volunteers found information for me about the present owners of “Grandma’s house.” And then, as I was getting a few things in the grocery store, there was someone else I knew, Vic Jackson who formerly had Jackson’s shoe shop where my sister Bonnie worked for awhile. Yes, I was even running into people I knew in Rushville—is that not proof I still belong?!
All day long, my photographer husband recorded my encounters with my friends in Rushville so I would have those photo memories of the visit for my own walls, so far away in France. The last photo we took before we left the next morning was one of me at one of the entrances to the town, posing with the Rushville town signpost. I had my arms around it, a farewell embrace. Goodbye Rushville, little town of my heart.

ON SHADOW LAKE with John Bruce and Bona

My uncle’s directions given over the phone were perfect down to every twist and curve in the road, the long winding way through woods, the garbage cans at a crossroads where we were to turn, the sign leading to the cottage. Though we knew the house was on a lake, we had no glimpse of water during the drive, the lake remained invisible—we would only see it once arrived at the house. Down the last little lane, then the woods opened up to show us a grassy parking space and a little pathway leading down to the cottage. We had arrived just about on time. I had said end of afternoon but hadn’t been able to call for my cell phone didn’t work in Canada—and it was just six pm.
As we were getting out of the car I heard the happy and excited voice of my aunt. “They’re here, they’re here!” And then, there was my aunt Bona, already at the screen door of the porch, a slim pale woman in pink shorts, rushing out, followed more slowly by my uncle John Bruce, never a tall man but who as a Presbyterian pastor had always stood straight and proud, now tapping his way out with a cane, legs discolored and swollen, bent over by arthritis to gnome size, and indeed his whole demeanor from his crinkling twinkling eyes to his slightly twisted shape to his happy smile—his face youthful still—was adorably elf like (albeit a grey bearded elf!). I had not seen him, my father’s youngest and last living brother nor my aunt Bona in some 35 years. My father, the second of four boys, had died in April just the year before out in Oregon at the age of ninety. By some prodigious miracle, I had arrived in time to spend my father’s last ten days with him. It had been I who had been the one to call my uncle to tell him of the death of his last brother. Yes, this was a little bit of a pilgrimage; my uncle being my last link to my father’s family.
There were of course the usual hugs, smiles, exclamations, all the cheerful kinds of things one says to one’s family after a long separation, and then my aunt and uncle led us into the cottage, cottage built by Bona’s father in the 1930s and practically unchanged since then, a small rustic green and white wooden house amid a fragrant pine and fir woods. In we traipsed, through the porch (my uncle’s workshop), through the small immaculate kitchen and into the living cluttered with magazines and books (the best kind of clutter), it opening out onto a sun porch all in glass. And there, through the open windows, in all its simple glory, was the lake, a brilliant cool blue jewel in a setting of thick dark woods. The house is constructed on a rocky promontory jutting out into the water, we could hear the slap and flap of water hitting the rocks: the cottage felt like a little boat floating on the lake.
Aunt Bona showed us to our room. There were only two very small bedrooms, one on the woodsy side of the house—hers and my uncle’s (it was Bona’s and her sister’s as little girls, Bona, now 78, has come every year to this cottage since her childhood), and another tiny bedroom on the lake side to be ours for our stay, with view not only of the lake but of a thickly forested little island straight across. Late afternoon sun was pouring in through the window and we gave a mutual sigh of contentment and pleasure as we rolled in our bags. Oh, we were going to like it here!
 Then to take a little tour around the yard. My aunt and uncle have their own little beach, with a rowboat tied up to it. A chair hammock was lying on the ground, not yet up, and I told my uncle we would help him get it up but he said it was broken and he had to take some rope and repair it. I said I thought I was hearing my father talk, and then Bona said, “But will he ever do it?” and I said that now I was hearing my mother talk! That my father had been exactly the same, wanting to do it all himself (but when?!), with Mother just wanting the chore to be done (preferably by someone else on a schedule).
Two wooden armchairs are set out on the western side of the promontory and my aunt and I sink down into them as sunset is approaching, talking of our families, of my grandmother Kitty Duncan (I learn that not only did she name me Nancy Jane by sending embroidered baby blankets and engraved bracelets with that name before my birth, but she also did the same thing with them, sending all kinds of things when Bona was pregnant addressed to Sarah Jane—and so named my cousin too!), talking of the Duncan men, of their famous tempers, of their eccentricities, talking also of my father’s last days. Bona, a nurse, says to me, “He was waiting for you.” She said she has seen many people do that. I told her how my father at one point, though unable to speak anymore, had managed to reach his arms around me and hold me, and my aunt got tears in her eyes and hugged me too. Later, going into the little lakeside bedroom, she told me about her mother. Her parents married at Shadow Lake, and this little room was theirs. And it was to that room that Bona’s mother came to spend the last months of her life. She had breast cancer and died at the age of 48. Bona was only eight years old. There is a picture in the room of the mother in bed there. And I thought, here is where she lived her last moments of life, this was the lake view she saw, at this same little window I’m looking out of now, in this house which is unchanged except that it now has a small deck at the back, water and plumbing. (Before there was only an outhouse. Now there is a very tiny bathroom. The only hitch is that it has two doors, one going into our lakeside bedroom, the other going into the living room. This means that whoever enters the bathroom from whichever room must lock both doors inside if not to be suddenly and embarrassingly surprised by someone else coming in the other door. But must then remember to unlock both doors when leaving so as not to keep anyone from being able to get into the bathroom!)
It happens that our arrival coincided with our marriage anniversary—33 years—and we had brought a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate both it and our reunion with my aunt and uncle. We sit down at the table in the sunroom, the lake shimmering up at us from below. My uncle gives grace, a most moving one. We all hold hands as he gives thanks not only for the food and drink, but for this visit of his niece and niece’s husband, for our common family, for these good times shared. The sun is just setting over the little island which F and I have already began to call the “island of the dead” after the famous Böcklin painting and which François has already begun to photograph (he will photograph it endless times during our three days at the cottage).
Dinner is a feast—salads and meats and Brown Betty for dessert. Aunt Bona has a number of allergies and eats very little but the rest of us tuck in. My uncle says he has given up all diets. He says that at his age he should be able to eat what he wants—and he does! We open the champagne and toast our family gathering and our anniversary, and the latter leads us to talk of how our two respective couples met. My uncle tells how he met my aunt at college in Canada after he had decided to become a minister, and of how he made the decision to remain in Canada. As he is telling their story, sometimes I hear the voice of oldest Duncan brother, my uncle Carter, other times I hear my grandfather Duncan’s voice, other times I hear my own father’s voice. A deep growly crustiness common to all those Duncan men voices, with a little of my grandmother Duncan’s sing-songing up-and-down-the-scale voice mixed into the brew. My uncle then asks us how we met—and I have to tell the whole tale of our meeting in Calcutta, and François trip up to Katmandu to find me again. They love the story of course!
After we have finished our meal, the sun gone but night not quite descended yet, we see a marvelous sight out on the water: an adult goose followed by four or five little goslings followed by another adult goose, followed by more little ones, with a last adult goose bringing up the rear. Down the lake the procession goes, we watch it until it disappears into the gathering shadows of the night.
We go to sleep with the window wide open and all night long I hear the hooting of an owl and the songs of loons.
The next morning, François and I have breakfast outside sitting in the wooden arm chairs facing the lapping water. My aunt has had to go to town, my uncle hasn’t yet gotten up. I am writing in my journal, François is reading a book. We are very peaceful here. After a little while, I look toward the cottage and see that my little elf uncle has gotten up—he is wearing a purple bathroom, just to his knees. He comes outside to the terrace, and with that voice that is a combination of Uncle Carter, Grandpa Duncan and Dad, calls out to us, “Those chairs will cost you 25 cents an hour.” And then, the hearty Duncan laughter that makes us laugh too!
Later, my uncle wants to take us into the nearby village where they have their main home, their “winter” home. The house is all made of stone and my uncle is very proud of it. Woodstone House was built entirely by a Swiss man in his eighties who had just time to finish it before he died. The home was later sold to John Bruce by the man’s children. This is a much bigger house than the cottage and my uncle wants to show it all to us: the beautiful grounds (a large terrace in the back overlooking a river), the pine wood floors, the big carved table my uncle uses as his desk (covered with papers just like my father’s), the huge collection of books, the beautiful beds, the basement with the tool room (like my father’s tool shop that was in his garage), and to complete the similarity, boxes and boxes of stuff on shelves, papers my uncle intends to go through, just like the boxes of my father’s I’ve spent so many weeks going through myself.
The walls are covered with family pictures, and there are many antiques in the house. I am able to identify almost all of Grandma’s things: the cabinet where she had her china pieces, the Kitty chair in needlepoint, pictures of our ancestors (a couple of which I borrow to copy), lots of her lamps and spool tables. In John Bruce’s bedroom he has drawings and photos of his whole family, all in elegant gold frames: a drawing of my grandmother Kitty, two smaller drawings of himself and Clark as children, photos of Carter and my father as children, and a photo of my grandfather. This collection of drawings and photographs hung in all of Kitty and Gene’s homes. Here on my uncle’s wall is my father’s whole family. And as I am gazing at the pictures, I  think of my uncle, that he is nearly 86 and yet that I knew his parents, knew them well, knew them for many years: they were my grandparents! This makes me not so very young myself. My uncle also has a copy of The Rubaiyat like mine, beautifully framed, like the original. It hangs above a couch in the TV room. The original was bought by my grandfather for my grandmother soon after their marriage in 1912 and that too hung in all their living rooms and finally hung in Kitty’s last dwelling place, a room in Westminister retirement center.
My uncle goes everywhere in the house—just slowly. He doesn’t want to be helped anywhere—he can do it himself. Like Dad. Like Grandma. He has a little motorized elevator which he can sit in and which lifts him to the upper floor where the bedrooms are. He says he now needs one to go down to the basement where he has an office, also with a mess of papers, just like Dad’s. I doubt he will never get through all those papers and those boxes but he believes he will and that is wonderful and who am I to doubt him? He has many projects, household projects, writing projects. Though he’s been retired for many years, life remains very full for him. “I’ve never been bored a minute since my retirement,” he tells me. He chose not to stay in church work (“when one retires, one retires!”) but to concentrate on writing projects, one of which is about death. His theory is that fear of death is the only sin, for it’s that fear that leads to crime—war—cruelty etc. If man would lose his fear of death, believing in an eternal life, much of the world’s woes, he believes, would vanish.
Again that evening, we hold hands while my uncle says grace in his firm strong voice. He gives thanks for the food, for the beautiful day, for his guests, for family being together. Though we are not ourselves grace-sayers, it seems right and natural here and we are again touched by my uncle’s words. Again we have a wonderful dinner (prepared every day by a woman who comes in to help my aunt and uncle), chicken and rice and salads, and to accompany the food, lively and far-ranging conversation. And then, to our collective astonishment, just at dusk, at almost the same time as the night before, we see again the geese and goslings, serenely sailing by us on the lake. And later, the loons and owls begin their evening songs, serenading us through the night. It seems more and more magical here.
Originally we had only planned to stay two days with my aunt and uncle—we have a long drive across the country ahead of us, and many people to see along the way and must be in Oregon by a certain date—but we love Shadow Lake and this little cottage’s occupants so much we decide to stay an extra day. That will also give us a day with my cousin Sarah Jane who lives and works a couple hours away.
Our third day is a little cooler. Bona sleeps in this morning and so I fix breakfast for the two men, toast and cereal and some rice cakes for my uncle. Afterwards, F and I go to sit on the tip of the promontory wearing light sweaters, reading our books. About mid-morning, Sarah arrives and we get up to greet here. She is round and wreathed in smiles and wearing delicious colors, bright red skirt and bright yellow T-shirt She has a sweet smooth face, intelligent eyes. We go inside and Bona makes us tea and we get to know each other—I last saw her as a little girl. Mostly our conversation concerns her two sons and the many problems of custody she has faced since her very difficult divorce. We have lunch of crackers and some wonderful cheese Sarah has brought and white wine, and the talk goes on and on. My aunt and uncle are very affectionate and loving to their daughter, and sympathetic about her problems with her ex-husband and children. Later we drive with my cousin into the nearest village, pick up some more wine, go to the Carpe Diem café for drinks and so that I can check my emails.
When we get back, we see that my uncle is out in the yard down by the lake hanging the hammocks. Darned if he hasn’t found the rope and repaired what needed repairing. He’s now tying back a little tree that is under the hammock so the hammock can swing free.
We have an early dinner of meat loaf with red wine, and then Sarah must leave—she has to get back to her dog and her work (she is a teacher). My uncle goes out into the yard, F is reading in a corner, and I go to wash up the dishes and talk with Bona about how we found our own cottage in southern France (earlier I had shown my uncle and aunt and Sarah pictures of our place). It’s getting dark by then and when the dishes are finished, we realize that my uncle is still outside. As I go back into the living room, I see him come in, pick up a hammer, and start out again. “Why are you going out with a hammer?” I ask him. “Come and see,” he answers. I follow him out. The hammer is for fixing another hammock to a tree. But once that’s taken care of, off goes my uncle again, headed toward the beach, moving like a little sand crab over the knotty earth and tree roots and I hold my breath, afraid he’s going to take a tumble. I follow. A young fellow took the boat out that afternoon to test it, and what my uncle wants to do now is bring the boat closer up on the beach. He apparently intends to do this himself although it’s dark and the boat is heavy! I call to François and get him down to the beach and he gets the boat pulled up (not without effort!) We head back to the cottage, but Uncle John Bruce doesn’t follow. Out we go again, this time to find him half lying in the boat.
“Are you planning to sleep here? Shall I get a blanket?” I ask him. He laughs but doesn’t move to get out. He wants to pull out the plug (in case someone would want to sneak up here at night and steal the boat!!!). So I go into the boat myself and rummage around until I find the plug (not easy) and get it pulled out. My uncle wants to get up from the boat himself and does but then he almost falls once he’s out and I grab him, it’s now dark and the earth is full of tree roots he could stumble over. He lets me guide him up to the stairs, while François gathers up hammer and tool box and takes them in. I feel all the poignancy of my uncle’s situation. I take his arm to help him cross the yard, just as I took my father’s arm up at the cabin the day of his 89th birthday to help him cross that yard (also full of stumbling block tree roots). Once strong and stalwart men, and proud of it, neither was any longer so steady on his feet, both needing a helping arm, though neither wanted one or wanted to admit they needed one. Both determined to hold onto their autonomy! 
I sit up a long time with my uncle that last evening, listening to him talk of his projects, his philosophy, and responding to his questions about our lives as well. The thing that has struck me in this visit is how interested both my uncle and aunt are in our lives, mine and François’s.  They don't just talk about themselves, they ask questions, and even better, they listen to the answers! They are both so well-informed, so well-read. We’ve had real conversations, we’ve talked about our families, our ancestors, our encounters, our travels, our couples, we’ve talked about writing, about photography, about creating art, about relationships, about being free, about love, about death and finality. We’ve covered the whole width and breadth and length of life in these three days on Shadow Lake. It’s been an intoxicating, a refreshing, a stimulating, and a very loving encounter between myself, my husband, my uncle and my aunt.
We go to sleep again in the little room looking out on Shadow Lake. Once again our dreams are full of the hooting of owls and the oboe sounds of loons, punctuated by the lapping of water against our little promontory. These sounds have been the summer sounds in this cottage since before either of us was born, nothing has changed here except that the people living here have gotten older and older.
But all dreams end, and the morning of our departure inevitably dawns. Sun is already splashed liberally over the lake, its shadows put away for the day. My aunt and uncle are up early for our departure, John Bruce wearing a brown polar suit and red shirt. We have a hearty breakfast, oatmeal, toast, juice, tea, and talk of our plans for the trip, of the adventures up ahead us that we are about to go toward, of our “wonderful life” as my aunt describes it. “You are free,” she says. “Have you been everywhere? How do you decide where to go?”
Well, no, not everywhere, we laugh. Lots of places, but not everywhere. But now, at last, we’ve been to Shadow Lake!
Then we must make our farewells and they are not easy to make. We walk out the porch, into the shady yard near our car. My aunt Bona hugs me, tears in her eyes. “I just love you,” she whispers. “I love you too, Aunt Bona,” I whisper back.
As for my uncle, he’s been saying all morning, “I don’t want you to go!” Oh Uncle Bruce, oh Aunt Bona, I don’t want to go either. And when I say I don’t want to go, my uncle says very simply, “so don’t go!”
I hug him again, this last and very precious uncle of mine, and I feel like saying to him, “Don’t you go either, Uncle John Bruce, not ever!”
Earlier, sometime soon after we had arrived at my uncle and aunt’s cottage, I asked them if they had ever seen the movie On Golden Pond with Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda as an old long-married couple arriving for a stay at their cottage on their lake! With songs of loons at night as well! How many times I’ve thought of that film these three days, of crusty yet tender-hearted Henry Fonda as my crusty and tender-hearted uncle, of patient calm matter-of-fact loving Katherine Hepburn as my loving aunt.
“Oh yes,” they both laughed. “We’ve seen it lots of times!” And Aunt Bona went on to say that Norman (Henry Fonda) starting the boat backwards was exactly John Bruce!
We had just spent three very special days on Shadow Lake, and now it was about to become memory. We got in the car, smiling and waving to my aunt and uncle. Life is marked on both their faces—as time marks trees with its concentric circles—but the image I take back of the two of them is of amazing and resilient youth and vigor. And of an intense and unwavering love of existence. They may not have traveled the world (my uncle explained to me one evening that he’s not much of a traveler, he prefers to be an armchair voyager) but they’ve traveled existence with its sorrows and its joys, still together, still waking up every morning to the glories of the world and appreciating them. The geese sliding down along the still waters of Shadow Lake. The haunting music of loons. Meals in the heart of nature’s beauty. The solace of literature—books, oh the solace of books! Their love and admiration for their daughters. Their devotion to their respective pasts, to their parents, their grandparents, to the linage that led to them and to their family. And their wonderful curiosity still about everything, still seekers after knowledge. My uncle, eighty-six this August 2012 planning his treatise on death to explain the mystery of evil in this world.
When God—or whoever or whatever—created human beings, the brilliant stroke was to give each of us memory. Here’s another subject for you, Uncle, human memory! Get your teeth into that one. So although François and I drove away from Beau Soleil cottage (Beautiful Sun) and its echo, Shadow Lake, not knowing if or whether we will get to return, yet—because of the mysterious and unfathomable nature of memory—we took the lake and the little green and white wooden cottage with us, and we took Uncle and Aunt as well, the two of them safely tucked forever into their little lakeside paradise.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Elegy for letters: the lost art of letter-writing

I’m in my little mountain village this month of February, 2011, and am feeling even more isolated than usual—for the first time ever, my Internet server is down—it’s been four days now without a connection. So no emails for four days going in or out—nor can I get news of the world via the NY Times site and others.(We do not have television in our cottage, we rely on the radio and the computer.)

It makes me realize—if I needed to—how dependent I’ve become upon my Mac and its magical properties of connecting me instantly to the world, how it has become my main means of communication. The first thing I do in the morning is turn on the computer and check emails.

It didn’t use to be like that of course. Before Internet (and before Jonchères), the first thing I would do in the morning, often even before a cup of tea, would be to go down my four fights of stairs to see if I had any mail. I often did have letters (being an inveterate letter writer myself) and would happily leap back up the stairs with a letter or two for breakfast. Turning on the computer has replaced that trip down my Paris apartment stairway.

Yesterday, the fourth day without Internet, I became anxious about what I might not be receiving (I was expecting a translation to do) so François and I drove down our mountain (23 curves, 400 meters) to the nearest town—Die (pronounced Dee, not Die!). I’d been told there was a café there where WIFI was available. The café is on Die’s main little street and is charming—an old café in wood and chrome—and was open. We entered. Four ladies were knitting and chatting at one table, among them the owner. We got drinks and I turned on my Mac, and presto—in flew my messages from the past four days. I quickly checked Facebook too and there saw a comment from a friend of mine—actually the younger brother of one of my closest friends since childhood. John was lamenting about Facebook (on Facebook!), and even about emails, expressing regret for the demise of letter-writing!

I have these same regrets and this is why I decided to go back to my “Net-less” cottage and contemplate the lost art of letter writing.

But first, I must write about a rather amazing communication I received recently. I have a blog called Guri’s Great Granddaughter:

( I don’t actually do regular updates on it as I had originally intended—it’s not an on-going “journal”—but I do post pieces periodically as the mood takes me to write about one thing or another—pieces which are then automatically downloaded onto my Facebook page. As most of my readers are Facebook friends, I get comments to my writings there rather than through my blog. But in early January I received a message via my blog from someone I didn’t know who had stumbled upon it in looking up Jane Austen’s Persuasion (mentioned in one of my pieces). My correspondent introduced himself as Paul, French, 15 years old. He had read my blog, found it interesting, wondered if he might correspond with me. Surprised, I replied at once, and again received a message from Paul—he would like to correspond but not by email, rather by writing letters! In addition he told me he was very interested in Mail Art and had a blog on the subject!

I love Mail Art too—the practice of decorating one’s envelope, of making “art” of one’s letters, and have practiced this over the years with my artist calligrapher cousin Diana. I have innumerable beautiful envelopes from her, many of which I have saved, some of which I’ve even framed. (Diana and I were once great letter correspondents—before email!)

But I was astonished to find a fifteen-year old boy who wanted to write “real” letters and loved Mail Art! Not to mention Jane Austen! Astonished and delighted. We have so far exchanged two letters with one another—and have discovered more than letters in common, but also a love of great literature. We’ve just exchanged our respective “lists of favorite books.”

So John’s comment about letter writing, and Paul’s appearance in my life have made me want to write a new piece, this one about letters—ah, yes, for my blog and Facebook! (We can’t get away from the electronic media, no matter what we do!)

I began my epistolary career very young and my first correspondents were my two grandmothers, Grandma Dill and Grandma Duncan. I wrote to them both all of my life, but Grandma Dill was my first great correspondent, replying with long letters. (Grandma Duncan always wrote back too, but her replies were shorter, often written on cards with pictures of cats—her name was Catherine and everyone called her Kitty. I should add that I also corresponded with Grandfather Duncan who had a beautiful flowing handwriting and did the bulk of the family letter-writing.) Both grandmothers saved letters, meaning that later I found many of mine to them from over the years, precious inheritance! Here is the first letter of mine that I possess, letter written to both sets of grandparents—the exact same letter! This is the letter which begins my Letters and Journals (which by now runs volumes!). I was seven years old.

October 1951: Dear Grandmother and Grandfather, Angus and David are fine. I am in Miss Howell’s room. I like school. I would like you to come here. I hope you had a nice birthday. David has two teeth. Mother is making a new dress. There are lots of birds in the back yard. Angus is playing a game with David. Daddy will be in court today. Love, Nancy Jane Duncan

What I found interesting in this letter is that it is not a thank-you letter for birthday or Christmas gifts as many of the following letters were—but seems to be a spontaneous letter written to give information about myself and my family. I was in the second grade. There were three children at the time, myself and my two brothers Angus and David. I find it also interesting to note that I give information about each member of the family. It’s a short but very compact letter! Little Nancy Jane (Guri far up in the future) was already tasting the pleasures of writing.

(Let me add that even at this moment as I am writing this piece about letters, there are lots of birds in my front yard and on my terrace at the bird feeders! Birds seem to have been a constant in my life from early on!)

The next few letters are indeed thank-you letters. In each of them, I thank my grandparents for the specific gifts they sent. But again I do not neglect the family, relating what each person also received and in one I proudly add that I got all “A’s and B’s” on my report card”.

If letters are a dying art, thank-you notes and letters share the same unfortunate fate. I am not resigned over this. Thank-you letters were something that in the past were a part of learning the rules of courtesy and politeness—one always gives thanks for gifts or services received. If I wrote many thank-you letters (preciously conserved by my grandmothers!), it was certainly because my mother taught me to do so. And I was taught also by her example, for she was an excellent and thoughtful letter writer. I remember Christmas mornings, how Mother had a notebook and pen and how she wrote down gifts received and who they came from—in the confusion of present-opening, this was important, to know who sent what! Afterwards, we would all write our thank-you letters. I don’t have grandchildren but I do have nephews and nieces. Some of them were taught to write thank-you letters, others were not. I always noticed who did and who did not. However short the thank-you, it was always gratifying, to have that childish scrawl acknowledging Auntie Nance’s gift and, like my grandparents before me, I have saved them all. Silence to a gift seems very discourteous to me. But young people are not learning many of these “old fashioned” courtesies, even as most will never know what it is to write a “real letter.”!!! The slow and courteous pleasures of life have been replaced by “fast-food” pleasures, haste and hurry, impatience and neglect.

The August I was nine, I wrote another letter to my grandparents Dill, and what is interesting to me about this letter is that I mention an event that happened when my family was camping in the redwoods, how Mother, my brother Angus and I got “lost” during the night in the campsite, event which a few months later became my first school composition. Subsequently, I had the thrill of having my teacher select my composition to read out loud to the whole class. Two things here: first of all, I wrote about the event first in a letter. In other words, letters as preliminary “writing”, informal writing leading to more formal writing. And second, the thrill of hearing my words read out loud sealed my destiny—I would be a writer!

Here is that little composition:

The weird darkness closed in on us. My Mother, Brother and I were lost.

The swift stream was on our right side, the darkness of the forest was on our left. We were camping out that night in California in their pretty redwoods. We had gone to the campfire circle and were now coming back to go to bed. All the people had found their way through the darkness to their campsites. Our lantern was out. Even the stars were blotted out by the drifting fog. The wild creatures were hiding behind trees when we walked by, making ugly noises.

We finally saw a light. When we got nearer, we saw it was a neighbor’s camp. He quickly showed us our camp. We were so glad to get back. We saw that our daddy was already in his sleeping bag.

From then on, I wrote not only letters, but I tried my hand at stories, essays, poetry, and journal keeping (beginning my first journal at age ten). My letters to my grandmother Dill got longer and longer. I could always be sure of a prompt reply—and letter writers know that the pleasure of writing letters is only equaled by the pleasure of receiving them. Grandma Dill was a modern Granny, often typing her letters on her typewriter. She wrote as she talked, so that when you got a letter from Grandma, her voice was right in your ear, she came completely to life through her letters. As I got older, as I moved from place to place, a constant was Grandma’s letters following me. When I went to SE Asia for two years, I knew that in every Poste Restante, I would have a letter from Grandma, or two or three. When we went to Japan in 1989—Grandma was 91 then and having more and more trouble getting letters written—she still managed to figure out the complicated Japanese addresses I had sent her, her letters still followed me. I kept all Grandma’s letters, and later, I typed them all up onto the computer, and made a book of them for the family, calling it In Her Own Words. The letters span fifty years, and form a marvelous portrait of that marvelous grandmother of ours. But for the art of letter writing, my grandmother’s life would have been lost to us—but thanks to those letters, it’s all there on paper, and her grandchildren and great grandchildren can go to that book, and—Grandma is there! It’s her voice, her humor, her liveliness—captured by herself in the steady accumulation of letters written to her granddaughter and her daughter.

For her daughter Marijane, my mother, was my second great correspondent and a great correspondent of Grandma’s too. My correspondence with Mom began later of course, given that Mother and I were not separated until I was older. The first letters I can find written to my mother were from the summer I was sixteen and was living my first adventure. I had saved my babysitting money and that summer, went out to Illinois by myself (taking a four day train trip from Portland to Chicago) to visit my grandparents and relatives there. I wrote from Rushville, Illinois, home of my maternal grandparents, the little town where my mother grew up and which she loved so much. My first letter is informative and also teasing. I write about meeting one of my mother’s old friends there.

“Liz told me to tell you that their minister met LEROY (your old boyfriend!) in California and he is a big-wig in the Methodist Church now. I have found out some interesting things about you from the grandparents about your teen-age life that will be of use to me in the coming year. Too bad you have such gabby parents.”

I write about how my grandparents are “spoiling me rotten” and how I love it there. I ask for advice too—I am being taken to New York by my grandparents, and I ask what I should do when I get back, saying the grandparents want me to stay longer, to go to Chicago, to see the other relatives. At the same time, I’m conscious my mother might need me—there are now six of us, including a little baby, Bonnie Dee, and as the eldest child, I helped Mother in managing the big family. (There will be one more little sister to come!) Of course Mother insisted I stay longer—I was gone most of that summer. My next letter to my mother was from New York City—I had fallen in love with the city, and describe my experiences there. And indeed, a few years later I found myself living in that grand city, attending NYU, and later Columbia.

Mother’s letters too followed me around the world. I think I can safely say that Mother’s letters and Grandmother’s helped sustain me once I had left home and country, first during my two years of traveling around SE Asia, and later, when I moved to France to live. Those letters were my lifeline home, they were my connection to all I had loved and left. At that time, people telephoned infrequently—it was expensive. We relied almost entirely upon letter writing. And in fact, when I first moved to France, we did not even have a telephone. It’s hard to believe, but it could take years to get a phone line at that time! I believe we were without a phone for the first two or three years I lived in Paris. And a few months after I had arrived in France, there was a postal strike. This postal strike went on for at least two months and it was horrible for me—suddenly, all communication with my family was entirely cut off. No more letters in my transparent red mailbox in the entrance of my apartment building—just transparent nothing. It was one of the most unhappy times of my life. I felt truly cut off then (unlike now when everyone is just a quick and easy telephone call away).

Both Mother and Grandmother wrote long generous letters, pages and pages, that I read thirstily, and then reread and reread. They wrote to me dependably, regularly, and I answered in kind, writing long letters back. Our letters were full of specific events and doings, as well as of thoughts and feelings. They were rich and satisfying letters, letters of mind and heart. When I came to do my mother’s book, My Mother’s Arm Swings the Broom with Mine, those letters of hers were absolutely precious. I had much other writing from her—she kept a journal periodically, and she had also written lots of short stories, essays and even a family history, but there was also much in those letters I could use to fill out the portrait of that wonderful, intelligent and tolerant woman who by the greatest of luck was my mother. I still have all her letters—even though most have been transcribed onto the computer, I cannot bring myself to throw away the originals—those “real” letters with the so familiar and beloved handwriting—I keep them tied up with red ribbons in one of my cupboards here in Jonchères. (And while putting together my mother’s book, I discovered in my father’s Chinese chest all her letters to him and many of his to her—that discovery was one of the thrills of my life! And of course I incorporated many into her book.)

It was certainly Mother and Grandmother who taught me letter-writing. And in going through some old letters just now of my grandfather Duncan’s I came across an old letter of his to my father in which he wrote, “We hear from Nancy frequently. She is the most punctual one of the family when it comes to writing.” I had, at twenty-two, acquired the art of letter-writing!

One of the things I quickly learned in life however was that not everyone likes to write letters, and that I was particularly lucky in my mother and my grandmother in that respect. For others, my friends, my siblings, my other relatives, letters were more infrequent, the correspondence was much sketchier. Nevertheless, I maintained a correspondence with many of my friends and my siblings—if I didn’t hear for awhile, I would write again to jog their memories—and eventually, the pressure of my letters and their guilt at not replying would force them to their desks to answer me! I also kept most of those letters—and just recently, saw again how precious such documents are, at least for a writer. When not long ago I decided I wanted to write a book about some of my high school classmates, I went back to the things I had saved (and asked classmates for anything they had saved as well)—I would not have been able to write the book were it not for my journal entries and old letters!! And letters I had saved from my first love affair I transmitted many years later to the daughter of that first love, and she, also being a writer, took inspiration from them to write a play! And my most latest writing project (about love, and gardens!), I wrote as a series of “unsent” letters

I have had, along with my mother and grandmother, four other great letter writing correspondents in my life, all of whom had the passion. Two are cousins, and sisters to each other. When living in New York, I spent a lot of time with my mother’s sister Betty’s family—a family of four girls. My first close friendship was with the second daughter Bonnie, and once I had left New York, she and I wrote long letters over the years to one another—her collected letters eventually filled three huge notebooks. (Now however she never writes letters—but is an excellent email correspondent). Later, I became very close as well to her younger sister Diana—she and François and I collaborated on some artistic projects together. Diana loves letter writing as I do, and for a number of years, we wrote long letters to each other every month—that’s when I got interested also in Mail Art. Unfortunately, with the advent of email, our letters began to dwindle, from one or two a month, down to a couple a year! Yet we both miss “real” letters. And I think also that we are getting tired of email communications, so often written in haste, and read in haste, always on a machine, without any of the tactile pleasures of letters. We don’t write the same kinds of things at all in letters as in emails—email communications are more down to earth, more practical, a quick recounting of what has been happening, or a transmitting of and requesting information. One rarely writes one’s thoughts and feelings in an email, or lets one mind wander from subject to subject as it will do in a letter. So Diana and I have decided to try to write less on the computer, and to go back to letter writing. Will we succeed? Letters take a week or longer to arrive, email is immediate. But we are trying. I have recently sent her two long letters, and I know that her reply is in the mail—every day I gaze down the hill at my mailbox to see if the red flag is up yet or not!

I had two other wonderful letter correspondents. The first, Clif, was a family friend. His family and mine lived on the same street, Terrace Drive, in Medford, Oregon and he was a lawyer like my father. I babysat his children sometimes. Later he was my father’s campaign manager for the political races, and Dad’s right-hand man in the congressional office and that is when Clif and I became friends too. Our letters began once I left to live in France, and our correspondence continued until Clif’s death in August of 2009. I had never imagined our letters ever ceasing—I had come to count on them, one of my last tangible links of epistolary friendship. Clif was an original soul, someone who definitely marched to his own drummer, and I loved his insights on life, politics, books, poetry, and also on me. He was absolutely supportive of whatever I did or thought—much like my mother and grandmother—someone you know is always in your corner, always proud, always glad, always there for you. In recent years, his letters were among the few I continued to receive in my mailbox—for he never wrote emails, didn’t like them, never really adapted to the computer. We saw each other every time I returned to Oregon, but I would say that our friendship was nourished and sustained by letters. It was a true epistolary friendship—without those letters, it would have been less intense, less profound.

The other great correspondent—and sadly, this too is in the past—was my friend Josh. I should say our friend, for François adored Josh as well. We met him a few years ago when we were traveling in the Philippines—Josh was the best traveler either of us ever met. He had been all over the world. He was the ultimate voyager. We traveled with Josh a little in the Philippines and then in Thailand, and after that saw each other in England, France, New York and San Francisco. In between visits, we wrote letters. That is, Josh and I wrote letters which François read. (He’s one of those non-letter writers!). Josh loved writing letters and they were imbued with his unique humor and vision of the world, both loving and sardonic! We also shared a love of books through our letters. Our correspondence endured until the very end of his life—my last letter to him arrived just three days before he died. I have kept all Josh’s letters too and intend to go through them when I am able to, when I can read them without too much pain. And perhaps, as I have done with other treasured letters, I may also put them onto the computer for friends and family.

I’ve written a lot about Josh elsewhere because he so marked our lives. When François and I went to Ethiopia in the spring of 2009, it was our first big trip since Josh had died (too young, of cancer). Always before, we wrote him from our trips as he did us from his. I still wanted to write him so I wrote my journal as a series of letters to him (posted later as Letters to Josh from Ethiopia on my blog). That is not the only time I have written letters to those who are gone. There have been times over the years since I lost my mother and my grandmother when I feel the need to write them—I have a series of Letters to my Mother, and have also written a few letters addressed to both my grandmother and my mother. They were my first correspondents, it was terrible to lose them both, and continuing to write them letters is a way of keeping them close to me.

I’ve touched a little upon the pleasures of letter writing—how one lets one’s mind wander down the page, how the quiet and silence of letter writing induces reflection and contemplation, and so leads one to topics one would never touch on in an email. There are also the tactile pleasures—what a joy to find a letter in one’s mailbox. To reach in, take it out, hold it, examine the handwriting, determine who it is from, tuck it in a pocket and go back to the house or apartment. I make a ritual of letter reading. I do not rip the letter open right away. I make a cup of tea—or I pour a glass of wine—and I find a comfortable place to sit, on the couch in Paris, by the fire (in winter) in Jonchères, or in the veranda, or, if it’s warm enough, on the terrace out in the sun. I open the letter carefully, protecting the stamps (which are a part of the pleasure of a letter, bright pictures bringing their color and tone to the missive). And then I read, slowly, savoring every word. I always hate coming to the end of a letter—and most often, I will go through it a second time right then and there. Letters are to be kept and cherished as well—not like email correspondence (although I admit, I do keep some emails—I have computer files for my major correspondents). But it’s not the same thing, reading through emails on the computer, and reading through hand-written letters). Writing a letter has tactile pleasure too—choosing the stationary, the pen, choosing the place to write the letter. Here too, if the weather is good, I often write outside in my garden. Or, again, by the fire. Or in my veranda, where I can gaze at the mountains and the cliff while writing. The tea or the wine goes as well with letter writing as with letter reading. And then, if one has the time and inclination, comes the decoration of the envelope, finding pictures or quotations with which to decorate it, trying one’s best handwriting, adding some block stamps, using color, imagination, whimsy.

But what do to when one isn’t getting any letters? Well there is always the option of reading other people’s letters. Published collections in other words. I’m very fond of reading about people’s lives and so letter collections, autobiographies and journals are among my favorite reading (along with fiction of course). Just now I am reading a book about Emily Dickinson which relies a great deal upon her letters—and in the pile of books under it, I have a book of her letters which I intend to read next. Whenever I read about letters of favorite writers having been destroyed, I feel almost ill, it represents such a loss!—and such is the case for many of Jane Austen’s letters and some of Emily’s as well.

I once told my writing class students about my great interest in letters and journals. I told them how I had had some years before a heated discussion with members of my own family, my mother and a couple siblings, about personal writings. I had told my family that if I came across someone else’s letters—or journal—I wouldn’t hesitate to read them! My curiosity would get the better of my discretion. My family was a little bit shocked. I remember telling them that if they didn’t want their papers read, they should be careful where they left them!

Sometime after that, one of my writing students (and a wonderful writer too), Carolyn Dupuis, invited me to lunch at her house. I arrived, and she seated me on the couch, and then excused herself to get lunch ready, and went into the kitchen, leaving me sitting alone in the living room. There was a table just in front of the couch and after a few moments, I glanced down at it. And what did I see there, first to my amazement, and then, to my high amusement? Several letters casually scattered over the table! I laughed out loud—Carolyn had put them out there especially for my curiosity and edification!

The computer and Internet are a wonderful inventions, do not get me wrong. Although they have helped kill letter writing which is a shame, it is also true that thanks to the Web and email, I am in touch with many more friends than I would be through letter-writing. I have found lost friends through Internet, and other friends who were never much at writing letters always seem to manage to write emails. I have an extended and rich correspondence via email and now Facebook. And I must mention one more great correspondent, although he is almost exclusively a correspondent via the computer, and this is my good friend Carl, friend who was lost to me for many years, whom I “found” again some six years ago now, and who is a marvelous correspondent, never leaving a message unanswered, replying thoughtfully and fully to everything. Had we not lost touch during the years after high school, I am sure he and I would have had a rich letter correspondence as well. But we found each other too late for that—we’re both locked into the computer now!

But nothing can replace letters. I should like to have both. And it seems I will continue to have both. Thanks to my new friend Paul, and my cousin Diana, I’m back into the mode of letter writing. Am rediscovering all its pleasures, and all its differences with email. Am acquiring some interesting and varied stationary. Getting special stamps at the post office. So if there are any others of you out there who want to try your hand at it, I will be more than happy to add you to my list of letter correspondents. The more letters in my mailbox, the happier that box is and its owner!

I purchased a wooden block stamp somewhere a few years ago—certainly after the inception of email—with a message that I often like to stamp onto the envelopes of letters I have written. It shows a hand holding a pen and underneath it says, “Revive a lost art. Write someone a letter.”