An Album Quilt

It has somehow become 1978 and for 10 or 15 years I have been intending to attempt a piece of writing called “Six Princetons”—the school as it has variously appeared to someone who was born in Princeton and has lived in Princeton all his life. It would begin with the little kid who knew the location of every pool table and Hajoca urinal on the campus, the nine best ways to sneak into the gym, the gentlest method of removing a reunion costume from a sleeping drunk. Princeton through the eyes of a student in Princeton High School. Princeton from the 20-20 omnicomprehensive undergraduate perspective. Princeton from the point of view of a commuter absorbed with other worlds. (Once, in that era, I found myself saying to my wife, “What are all these young people doing on Nassau Street?”) The Princeton University library and campus studied from across the street by an incarcerated freelance who stares out an upstairs office window all through the day. (My next-door neighbor is the Swedish Massage Studio, a legitimate business which darkens at 5 p.m. Later in the evening, the Swedish Massage’s unwanted customers see my light and come tapping on my door. When I open up, their faces fall. “Is this the Swedish Massage?” they say incredulously, their disappointment all too apparent at the sight of the hoar in the beard.) Princeton a fixed foot, as it appears after long stays elsewhere. Princeton as witnessed by a perennial, paradoxical “visiting professor” who is neither visiting nor a professor, but in spring semester after spring semester is given tonic by a roomful of writing students who yield as much as they receive.

“Six Princetons” will never be written, though, because new Princetons keep coming along. “Dear Parent: We are pleased to inform you that your daughter has succeeded you as an editor of the Nassau Literary Review, and, incidentally, that her room-board-tuition for the academic year 1978-79 has been raised quinque per centum to $2,500,000.”

As I write this, in 1983, one of my daughters is somewhere in India, another is believed to be in Egypt, another is skating on a north Italian pond, and the oldest is working as a writer in Pittstown, New Jersey. There is a moral in this tale.

My children have always thought me mildly eccentric for living my whole life in one town, yet there is no need to move away from Princeton to get a change of scene. You stay here all your life and you get a new town every five years.

When you are young and getting married, or your daughter is getting married and your own youth is silt in the river, you turn to Nature for instruction and example. And so Laura and I, one truly fine day, went a couple of hundred kilometres into Iceland’s interior for the ritual purpose of consulting Nature to see what we might learn.

Along the way we stopped at Geysir, where a great hole in the ground is the world’s eponymous geyser. The old geyser is no longer forthcoming. It is full of water but not of action. It had literally been roped off. Close at hand was a young geyser. At five- to seven-minute intervals—no more than that—it swelled tumescently, let forth a series of heavy grunts, and into the sky shot a plume of flying steam. Meanwhile, the old geyser just sat there—boiling. We learned how—on special occasions—Icelanders make the old geyser do its thing. They throw soap into it, and it erupts.

Moving on, we passed a waterfall of the size of the American Niagara, and then we drove for an hour or two on the gravels of an outwash plain that was covered with rounded boulders and no vegetation, not so much as a clump of grass. Eventually, the car could go no farther, so we left it behind and proceeded north on foot. There was a stream to ford. Laura had running shoes, and I had boots. She got onto my back, and I carried her across. We then walked a couple of miles, also on rounded rocks, and up onto a high moraine, where, coming over the crest, we looked down into a lake backdropped by cliffs of blue ice. This was the edge not of a valley glacier but of an ice cap covering nearly 500 square miles. Above the lake, the ice wall rose about 150 feet, and was sheer. There came sounds like high-powered-rifle shots, as huge bergs calved away from the ice cap and plunged into the water. There was no going farther. On the way down the moraine and back toward the river ford, I attempted to increase my credit line by mentioning that glacial rivers grow in the afternoon with the day’s melt from the sun, and this time we could expect a larger river when I carried her across it. But this time she was having none of me. Apparently, she had forded her last river on her father’s back. She took off her shoes and negotiated the stream.

Idaho Springs, Colorado, dawn. A white rented car. Alone, I toss my gear into the trunk and get going early. After a couple of miles, I note in the rear-view mirror that the back window is fogged over. “Condensation,” I tell myself. “Car dew. It will soon evaporate.” I get up onto Interstate 70 and head west. Now and again, I look in the mirror. Visibility zero. Evaporation has not yet kicked in. Twenty miles. Twenty-five. Climbing. Eventually, I realize that when I put my gear in the trunk I did not close the lid. I don’t know whatever else I was once. Now I’m a little, gray-bearded, absent-minded professor. With events like this one in mind, my daughter Jenny has long called me Lefty. I don’t think I’m going to recover. I don’t think I’m going to go backwards.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I collected material in Wyoming for a book about the geology there. Almost without exception, those journeys were made in the company of John David Love, of the United States Geological Survey, who had started life in 1913 on a solitary ranch in the center of the state and had long since achieved a reputation of preeminence among Rocky Mountain geologists. My intention was to try to present the natural history of his region through his eyes and his experience. It is not uncommon for a geologist to reflect in the style of his science the structure of his home terrain.

We had been making field trips together for a couple of years when he reached into a drawer in his office in Laramie and handed me a journal that had been started by his mother long before she was married—when she had first come to Wyoming. She had been born more than 100 years before I saw her manuscript, and needless to say I never met her, but, as I have noted elsewhere, the admiration and affection I came to feel toward her is probably matched by no one I’ve encountered in my professional life. This was not merely because she had the courage to venture as a young teacher into very distant country, or because she later educated her own bright children, or because she was more than equal to the considerable difficulties of ranch subsistence, but also because she recorded these things—in her journals and later writings—with such wit, insight, grace, irony, compassion, sarcasm, stylistic elegance and embracing humor that I could not resist her.

Her unpublished journal was a large gift to me, and with the permission of her son and daughter I used fragments from it to help recreate her family’s world. My work, though, did not include a hundredth part of what was there. My presentation could only suggest her. In years that have followed, two of her granddaughters have sifted through attics and other archives to discover packets of letters to and from her, various forms of writing by and about her and another journal. Their work in arranging, annotating, and editing what they found has not only been loving in nature but restrainedly skillful in accomplishment. In “Lady’s Choice,” they have elected to present her between 1905, when she began her first journal, and 1910, when she decided to marry John Galloway Love, a cowboy from Scotland who, in the Wind River Basin of Wyoming, had presented his credentials to her seemingly within moments of her arrival. The boundaries of this volume (another will follow) are deliberate and significant, for they enclose a young American woman of nearly a century ago in something like a complex of competing magnets. Self-possessed, cool, detached, she clearly knows that this is her time, and she takes it. As this chronological flow of journal entries, letters and poems progresses, she is not only wooed by the cowboy but also importuned by a Wyoming mother who sees the young schoolteacher as a match for her own son, and who attempts to assassinate the character of John Love by referring to him as a gossip. Possibly she helps to effectuate a marriage she hopes to prevent. Letters are arriving all the while from Wellesley friends who are now in places like medical school and Paris. She experiments with teaching jobs in other states, in one instance at a sort of nunnery in Wisconsin, with macabre, humorous results. Always, she is writing—an incidental skill that would later become an ambition. Always, as well, John Love is writing to her. Indirectly, she is being asked to choose between a very isolated family life and the realm of other possibilities easily within reach of (as someone puts it in a letter to John Love) “her combination of strength and the gentlest charm—welded by that flashing mind.”

Recently, when her granddaughters sent to me the annotated manuscript of this volume, I raced through the innumerable letters and the later journal that I had never seen, looking for that flashing mind and the person I felt I knew. When she described one of the faculty members at the school in Wisconsin as “a square prunes-and-prisms lady with a mouth like a buttonhole,” I was reassured that I had found her.

Elsewhere, when a difficult woodstove at last began to function properly, she wrote, “The stove has developed a conscience.”

When she taught Latin and Greek for a time at Central High School in Pueblo, Colorado, and lived in the home of one Mrs. Butler, she wrote to John Love:

Mrs. Butler … is a little war-horse of a woman with a long, thin husband. I’m telling you about her, because she has been improving him for about 20 years, and it is beginning to tell on him.

Reading again the journal that she kept when she was 23, I found everywhere the sense of landscape that resembled her touch with people:

The dampness had brought out the darkness of the red soil, and the blackness of the green cedars. The sagebrush, too, along the way, was as black about the branches as if a fire had passed over the hills. The bluffs loomed dark and moody against the gray sky, but far away at the Big Bend the hills were the color of pale straw. The mountain looked yellowish green, softened by a sifting of snow. It is strange how the whole face of the country will be changed by a little dampness, like the face of a person intensified but softened by tears.

It should be said that while this lady’s choice was a classic dilemma, John Love’s side of it was something close to an all-or-nothing gamble. He was 35 years old when he fell in love with her. He lived in a place so far from community that he did not glimpse a woman for months at a time. He presented himself to her without guile, and she dealt in kind with him. For five years, he took no for an answer but never changed his question. When his letters developed closing salutations that were unacceptably intimate—for example, “Ever Yours”—and she verbally rapped his knuckles for it, thereafter he said, “Sincerely.” Abidingly, he carried within him the heart and the humor, not to mention the brain, of the Scots. He was a match for her. Evidently, she knew it.

As this volume ends, she accepts him, his ranch and a fulfillable vision of their life together. Her granddaughters quote from something she wrote years later, describing an embroidered sampler that existed only in her imagination and depicted the ranch and its hands and her family and certain symbols of a time in the Wind River Basin.

I will wait impatiently for the sampler. Meanwhile, these distinct themes from her single life will more than do.

I used to go to New Hampshire in the summertime with a stack of New Yorkers a foot and a half high. I would paddle straight over the lake until I was 27 yards out of earshot, and then I would lie down and go through those magazines like a drill bit, looking for things I particularly remembered, looking for things I’d missed on journeys during the year. Trillin in Provence fighting bulls in water—Taureaux Piscine! Mark Singer and the Puerto Rican rooster in the window of the Israeli locksmith shop on Seventh Avenue. Ackerman and the albatross, Iglauer and the salmon, Frazier’s metaphysical bears. Barich up, in the eighth at Santa Anita, wearing our silks. Updike on the eighth, parring. Angell in the eighth, relieving.

Finished with the animals, I started on the vegetables, and once in a while I paddled ashore and called up the New Yorker library. Hello, Helen, in what issue did Whiteside tee up the American-latex tomato? Whose was the thing about the grass at Wimbledon? When was Kahn in the rice paddy? Helen Stark knew everything, but her line was often busy with calls from other canoes.

Speaking of libraries: A big open-stack academic or public library is no small pleasure to work in. You’re, say, trying to do a piece on something in Nevada, and you go down to C Floor, deep in the earth, and out to what a miner would call a remote working face. You find 10995.497S just where the card catalog and the on-line computer thought it would be, but that is only the initial nick. The book you knew about has led you to others you did not know about. To the ceiling the shelves are loaded with books about Nevada. You pull them down, one at a time, and sit on the floor and look them over until you are sitting on a pile 5 feet high, at which point you are late home for dinner and you get up and walk away. It’s an incomparable boon to research, all that; but it is also a reason why there are almost no large open-stack libraries left in the world.

When your mother is 99 years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur. It is extremely difficult to single out one or two, impossible to remember any that exemplify the whole.

It has been alleged that when I was in college she heard that I had stayed up all night playing poker and wrote me a letter that used the word “shame” 42 times. I do not recall this.

I do not recall being pulled out of my college room and into the church next door.

It has been alleged that on December 24, 1936, when I was five years old, she sent me to my room at or close to 7 p.m. for using four-letter words while trimming the Christmas tree. I do not recall that.

The assertion is absolutely false that when I came home from high school with an A-minus she demanded an explanation for the minus.

It has been alleged that she spoiled me with protectionism, because I was the youngest child and therefore the most vulnerable to attack from overhead—an assertion that I cannot confirm or confute, except to say that the facts don’t lie.

We lived only a few blocks from the elementary school and routinely ate lunch at home. It is reported that the following dialogue and ensuing action occurred on January 22, 1941:

“Eat your sandwich.”

“I don’t want to eat my sandwich.”

“I made that sandwich, and you are going to eat it, Mister Man. You filled yourself up on penny candy on the way home, and now you’re not hungry.”

“I’m late. I have to go. I’ll eat the sandwich on the way back to school.”



Allegedly, I went up the street with the sandwich in my hand and buried it in a snowbank in front of Dr. Wright’s house. My mother, holding back the curtain in the window of the side door, was watching. She came out in the bitter cold, wearing only a light dress, ran to the snowbank, dug out the sandwich, chased me up Nassau Street, and rammed the sandwich down my throat, snow and all. I do not recall any detail of that story. I believe it to be a total fabrication.

There was the case of the missing Cracker Jack at Lindel’s corner store. Flimsy evidence pointed to Mrs. McPhee’s smallest child. It has been averred that she laid the guilt on with the following words: “’Like mother like son’ is a saying so true, the world will judge largely of mother by you.” It has been asserted that she immediately repeated that proverb three times, and also recited it on other occasions too numerous to count. I have absolutely no recollection of her saying that about the Cracker Jack or any other controlled substance.

We have now covered everything even faintly unsavory that has been reported about this person in 99  years, and even those items are a collection of rumors, half-truths, prevarications, false allegations, inaccuracies, innuendos, and canards.

This is the mother who—when Alfred Knopf wrote her 22-year-old son a letter saying, “the readers’ reports in the case of your manuscript would not be very helpful, and I think might discourage you completely”—said, “Don’t listen to Alfred Knopf. Who does Alfred Knopf think he is, anyway? Someone should go in there and k-nock his block off.” To the best of my recollection, that is what she said.

I also recall her taking me, on or about March 8th, my birthday, to the theater in New York every year, beginning in childhood. I remember those journeys as if they were today. I remember “A Connecticut Yankee.” Wednesday, March 8, 1944. Evidently, my father had written for the tickets, because she and I sat in the last row of the second balcony. Mother knew what to do about that. She gave me for my birthday an elegant spyglass, sufficient in power to bring the Connecticut Yankee back from Vermont. I sat there watching the play through my telescope, drawing as many guffaws from the surrounding audience as the comedy on stage.

On one of those theater days—when I was 11 or 12—I asked her if we could start for the city early and go out to La Guardia Field to see the comings and goings of airplanes. The temperature was well below the freeze point and the March winds were so blustery that the wind-chill factor was 40 below zero. Or seemed to be. My mother figured out how to take the subway to a stop in Jackson Heights and a bus from there—a feat I am unable to duplicate to this day. At LaGuardia, she accompanied me to the observation deck and stood there in the icy wind for at least an hour, maybe two, while I, spellbound, watched the DC-3s coming in on final, their wings flapping in the gusts. When we at last left the observation deck, we went downstairs into the terminal, where she bought me what appeared to be a black rubber ball but on closer inspection was a pair of hollow hemispheres hinged on one side and folded together. They contained a silk parachute. Opposite the hinge, each hemisphere had a small nib. A piece of string wrapped round and round the two nibs kept the ball closed. If you threw it high into the air, the string unwound and the parachute blossomed. If you sent it up with a tennis racquet, you could put it into the clouds. Not until the development of the ten-megabyte hard disk would the world know such a fabulous toy. Folded just so, the parachute never failed. Always, it floated back to you—silkily, beautifully—to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard—gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.

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John McPhee

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