Authors: Heidi Jon Schmidt
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For Roger and Marisa
The belief that a person has a share in an unknown life to which his or her love may win us admission, is, of all the perquisites of love, the one which it values most highly.
up on a farm.”
I had said this so often in my life, trying to explain myself, that I barely heard it anymore. The images that came with itâthe hydrangea tree in our front yard with its loose, faded blossoms; my sister Sylvie feeding a new lamb from a bottle; the brilliant maple leaves swirling down out of the October skyâmeant everything to me; that I came from a beautiful, fertile place; that I was innocent rather than ignorant; ardent, not recklessÂ â¦ that I, like all things stamped “natural,” must be, essentially, good.
I was explaining myself right then to Philippa Sayres, my professor of Comparative Literature at Sweetriver College, bastion of cultural and political enlightenment. The year was 1974. Philippa (Sweetriver was antihierarchical; faculty members were to be treated as senior colleagues and addressed as peers) had yanked me into her office after class to explain the mistake I'd made in calling Causabon (the aged pedant to whom Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of
, is so grindingly yoked in marriage) dull.
,” she said. Being so small physically and so quick mentally, she had the aspect of a hummingbirdâone sensed that she kept still only by dint of great effort; in her case an effort of mind instead of wings. “He is not at all dull! He is,
, on a magnificent quest! âA Key to all Mythologies' [the manuscript onto which Causabon's head drops when he finally, mercifully, dies] would be invaluable if carried through. Here, let me show you a couple of essays.”
I sat before her, nodding
seriously. My life had moved by means of study. If I hadn't been a good student, I'd never have escaped from home. But here I was at Sweetriver, safely taking a note: Causabonâscholar/hero. When I looked up, I saw Philippa squinting at me, trying to puzzle me out. Where had I come from, where was I going?
And I had that feeling she was seeing all that was wretched in me, so made the standard farm answer. And saw her blink in surprise.
“On a farm? In, like, Iowa?”
“The wilds of Connecticut?” she asked, looking intently, for some reason, at my hands. I was proud of my handsâthey were slender and pale and seemed to speak of virtue. Someone had once told me they were perfect piano-playing hands, so they stood in my mind for all my undeveloped aptitudes, the possibilities latent in me. At home I'd sit under the mulberry tree, drawing on the back of my father's old stationery just to watch those hands at work. And to know my mother would look out the upper window and see meâdiligent girl in beautiful landscapeâand feel, for a minute, calm.
“You'd be surprised how wild it can get in Connecticut,” I told her, with some hint of insinuation which she caught with a raised eyebrow.
“What kind of a farm, though? Dairy?”
No one had ever asked me this question, and I barely had an answer. “AÂ â¦ sheep farm,” I said, “sort of. I mean, we have chickens too. And, a pony. And, you knowâ¦”
“I do? I know?” she asked, blinking rapidly, considering. “No, I don't think I do,” she decided, and fixed me with a piercing look. “Sheep, for mutton? Does one
“Mutton,” we both tried at once, and looked at each other amazed. Was it true there were two people on earth who would repeat the word “mutton” to catch its musty sound?
“One thinks of Hardy,” she said to herself. Then to me: “Or, sheep for wool? What breed of sheep, for instance?”
“IÂ â¦ I don't know.” Of course, there were different breeds, the kind with black faces, and others I'd seen at the county fair. Ours were all white, with wool so thick and oily you couldn't push your hands deep enough into it to touch their skin. They grazed and gamboled, the bells around their necks tinkling in a very authentic alpine way. One of my deepest satisfactions was to pretend I was herding them back from a high field after a long dayÂ â¦ to imagine how gratifying such work must feel. We had them sheared every spring, but I had no idea what breed they were, or what we had done with the wool. I didn't seem to have solid answers for any of Philippa's questions.
Curiosity was unheard of at Sweetriver. The students were from Westchester or Malibu, they summered in Cannes and the Hamptons, they knew
, and if they were ignorant of something that was only because it wasn't worth the bother.
Philippa found this amazingâshe was fascinated by whatever her eye lit on. The students laughed at her fast talk, her unseemly enthusiasm, but she was our teacher (though she was barely older than we were) andâshe was a lesbian. This gave her a mystique her more prosaic qualities couldn't dull; it made her seem dangerous and exotic even as she amassed notecards in the back corner of the library. Rumors swirled: Philippa had put a curse on a student who refused her advances and the girl developed a nervous condition, left school, and either committed suicide or became a Hare Krishna, no one was sure. Or: Philippa went to the East Village and bought “forty minutes for forty dollars.”
“Forty minutes of what?” I'd asked, but the question was unanswerable somehow, though its dark suggestions were clear. And seductive. It was impossible not to keep an eye on Philippa, because you knew she was going to surprise you. Though you'd never expect her to do anything as jaw-dropping as taking an interest in me.
I was there on a scholarship. My cheeks were still pink, I was still young and hopeful, and the dean felt Sweetriver students needed exposure to such a person. They managed to overlook me, thoughâit was pretty clear that I was not going to become a useful contact. Catching my reflection in a dorm window, I'd see myself burrowing along, face screwed up tight like a mole in fear of weasels. Dressed up for a dance, I looked like a braless Little Bo-peep.
Philippa saw me as raw material. And (this, it would take me years to understand) as a kindred spirit, one of those few others on earth who would repeat the word “mutton” until she'd heard every one of its implications. I wracked my brain, knowing she was truly interested in what kind of sheep we'd been raising, that she would attach as much meaning to my answer as she did to Causabon's dry pamphlets, so I couldn't get away with being vague.
“I mean, it's not just farming, we have a little ping-pong ball factory too,” I said, trying to prove my legitimacy, but her eyes widened hugely.
So there. I'd surprised her; I'd had an effect. Somewhere my mother must be feeling a little spring of happiness: her dreams for me were coming true.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
âmy motherâhad not only given me my life, but had saved it, saved me from a heinous crime even before I was born! I'd heard the story a thousand times: my father had wanted to kill me, to kill all three of us in fact. How else could it be, that when he was driving her to the obstetrician (on a wide, newly paved road, on a dry, sunny afternoon), he swerved “to avoid a rabbit” and ran utterly off the road?
was no rabbit
,” she'd tell me, and Sylvie and Dolly and Ted, her poor little childrenÂ â¦ children conceived, alas, with a man she despised, children sitting quietly, waiting for their dinner while this man washed his (very nearly bloodstained) hands at the kitchen sinkÂ â¦
I glanced at Philippa, to see if she liked the story, and saw her face was full of suppressed laughter. My mother played even her own misery for laughs, though one had to give just the right laughâone that denigrated my father and pitied her, while admiring the joke too. A single false note and one would be banished to her internal Siberia, to break rocks in the frigid dark. So I was glad I'd found a good tone for Philippa: it was becoming imperative to me to entertain her.
“Okay, homicidal father, got it. Pray continue.”
She leaned back. I was the perfect butterfly for her pinâa representative of that rare, unlovely species, the American. She had been lectured on such creatures from birth, by her father the bricklayer and her mother the file clerk, who had come together from Naples, anglicized
, and undertaken to immerse themselves in their new culture, as soon as they could find it. They never did. To become ordinary Americans would have been to achieve grace, but everywhere they looked they saw only other immigrants searching for ordinary Americans to emulate. So they went on in perplexity, keeping their bushes trimmed neater every year, trying to live within an outline whose contours they couldn't see, bent on one thing: that their daughters (they had no sons) should have a full, “American” education. So here Philippa was with her Ph.D., still getting it all figured out, and she had stumbled into meâmy family that wasn't striving for anything. She'd never seen such a spectacle. She wanted to hear it all.
And there is no flattery to compete with true listening. My mother used to listen so closely; I'd run down the dirt road from the school bus, full of stories, each a bright gift for her. She rarely set foot off our land by then, and I realized she was seeing the world through my eyesÂ â¦ that I could shape it to please or comfort her, to keep her from crumbling. She was so fragile, but listening to me she'd seem to grow stronger: How intelligent the art teacher was, after all, to have noticed my pig! Yes, I
got the exact shade, not pink, not tan, but a perfect pale pig color. And could it be that Chip Murray had really brought a live mouse to school in his lunchbox? She laughed, she who was usually so sad.
Recalling her for Philippa, I kept to the laughter. I'd have gone on about the beauties of farm life too (I was as grateful to recall it now as I'd been to escape it the year before), but Philippa would cry “Wordsworth, too Wordsworth!” to pull me back from the pastoral abyss.