Grannies in the Wainscot

“In all their time as such close neighbors they never exchanged a word.”

Bring up the topic of neighbor, and one story comes to my mind.

Grannies in the Wainscot, as short story—an essay of remembrance—is included in the sublime collection Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. If it seems strange to have written a memoir of one’s life at age 23, as did Lee, his tender recall of the story of two enemy grannies is even stranger.

The setting could not be more romantic, with or without Laurie Lee’s lush prose. An old seventeenth century Cotswold manor house, had, by the late nineteenth century become a sagging but picturesque relic, and subdivided into three living quarters for poorer, less exalted folk. In the pre-war years of his childhood, young Lee and his family inhabited one section, while the other two parts of the home were each dominated by an old crone.

‘Granny Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed much of my early days. With their sickle bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair, they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike.’

There is nothing lovable in this description of the two old ladies, and yet, with Lee’s gift for nostalgic writing, you feel you recognize this pair, and a curious warble of affection begins to play.

Laurie Lee, poet

‘They communicated to each other by means of boots and brooms—jumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as ‘Er-Down-Under’ and ‘Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint’.

Yes, a stranger pair of neighbors you never did ‘hear the like of’ as my grandmother would have said. And speaking of my grandma Josie, she knew how to wield a broom with a fair bit of precision. I can also remember her little ‘war’ going on for years with the old neighbor lady in the back of the property.

So perhaps such stories of neighbors resonates a bit with all our memories. Lee’s recounting of the old beech tree I found particularly beautiful.

‘“Me dad planted that tree,” [Granny Trill] said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.

‘The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house. Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth; I never dreamed that a man could make them. Yet it was Granny Trill’s dad who had planted this tree, who had thrust in the seed with his finger. How old must he have been to leave such a mark? Think of Granny’s age, and add his on top, and you were back at the beginning of the world.’

The poignant part of Lee’s recounting, comes, of course, at the end.

One day Granny Trill stumbled and broke her hip.

illustration by John Ward

“She went to bed then forever.”

Granny Wallon came a’crowing… “her’s going you mark my words.”

But Granny Trill’s death knell was Granny Wallon’s, too. In the oddest, most neighborly act between the two rival crones in the decades they had lived next to each other without speaking, Granny Wallon soon went, too.

‘Granny Wallon had triumphed, she had buried her rival, and now there was no more to do. From then on she faded and diminished daily, kept to her house and would not be seen. The wine fires sank and died in the kitchen, as did the sweet fires of obsession….there was nothing, in fact, to keep her alive. No cause, no bite, no fury. Er-Down-Under had joined Er-Up-Atop, having lived closer than anyone knew.’

Odysseus Was Just Here (plus a haiku)

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That one perfect drop
Shimmers with just a sweet trace
Of yesterday’s sun

Last night I strolled through the garden, enjoying the air freshened from the rain, the golden light of pre-dusk, and the intense scattering of water droplets.

In a fanciful mood, and with a glass of scotch in hand, one might call to mind history’s greatest criers, in fact and fiction. You could imagine, for example, that the mighty Odysseus had just wandered, (brooding) through the garden previous to my own visit, shedding his epic tears; lamenting his lost friends.

‘His eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away with tears…’ [Odyssey, Book V]

Or that Dorothy Parker had just wafted past, weeping while exuding brilliantly tragic commentary, (she, crying, while everyone else is laughing delightedly at her wit) trailing long, drifty caftan sleeves and drinking gin. The largest, most lustrous rain droplets would surely have been her tears.

In truth, yesterday’s rainstorm left ‘tears’ of the happiest kind. Here are a few pictures I took in the early evening.

Vibrant

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Since this is rather a bookish blog, it is no surprise that, even when I go to the museum, I take pictures of ‘things that have writing on them’…but I loved the rich colors of this painting, and the personality of the hand that is expressive of so many possibilities.

She might just be pointing out, for example, that vibrate is a Curious Word…and the secret to its charm comes from an unpronounceable Indo European root from whence comes words like vibrant, vibrato, viper, wife, womanly, wave, and whiplash.

(Her partner is wondering if the Broncos are really going to go all the way to the SuperBowl…but he just caught the part about ‘whiplash’).paintingpouringwater

 

The Smoke of Opinion: Another Look at Thoreau

 

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“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” – Walden

You asked: When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?

To go against popular opinion brings Henry David Thoreau readily to mind. He was a man who thrived on going against critical consensus. Yet it was Thoreau who gave me my first major reading disappointment. Yes, you, Thoreau. You who said, (and I remember it well):

‘Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.’ 

My reading tastes, and naturally, by extension, writing style, lean toward the older genre of literature. The previous generations had so much of interest to say, and in a way, they are still speaking. The Great Conversation is still ongoing if we but want to tune in. I learned this from my parents and grandparents, and grew up surrounded by old books.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not...Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not…Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers. Grandpa Duncan is alone with his thoughts, though, which I’m sure Thoreau would have praised.

I enjoy many highlights from Thoreau today, but that was not always the case. It has been a long time since I picked up one of his books for a serious read.

‘For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of men? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.
To read well—that is, to read true books in a true spirit—is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.’ [Walden]

However, years ago, when I first took my mom’s beloved copy of Walden off the bookshelf and sat down to read, I was crushingly disappointed with this man—this self appointed lifestyle coach of the nineteenth century so often spoken of in reverential tones. He seemed to me to be pompous, cranky, smug, and terribly irresponsible.

His self-satisfied musings rang shrill in their efforts to convince. He contradicted himself. The old ways are best one day, then thumb your nose at ancient traditions as valueless the next day. On the third day, spend time with yourself as the best company in the world. But know this, he intones—at heart man is a social animal. ‘Believe me today for tomorrow I will have changed my mind’ he appeared to be saying.

What Thoreau had indulged in was luxury—taking time out from the rest of the world to read, write, think. ‘For I was rich, if not in luxury, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly. Nor did I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop…’

And ‘procreation’ i.e. sex? ‘It dissipates, and makes one unclean…’ ‘Far better to be invigorated and inspired by nature.

Hmmm. This was beginning to sound like the ravings of a mad man indulged by his mommy.

And don’t even get him started on the reading of popular fiction. He likens it to a sort of daily baked gingerbread, fresh from the oven, read eagerly

with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard‘.

Yes, Thoreau, you disappointed me. And I don’t even know what an unwearied gizzard is.

Even E.B. White, an enthusiastic Thoreauvian, admitted that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected”.

What did people see in this book?

‘How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world—how deep the the ruts of tradition and conformity!’

My reaction, in some part, had less to do with my teenage spunk and umbrage than it did that I took exception to Thoreau’s dismissive comments about the working man. We all know the quote; ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

Thoreau crafted well, in pious prose, an image of the poor dullard slogging away in his intellectually deprived life while he put food on the table. Food that his slack jawed wife then slopped into the waiting mouths of his many children who swallowed it greedily like nestlings given a worm. Or words to that effect. Something like the literary equivalent of ‘The Potato Eaters’—only Van Gogh had a more respectful approach, if you can call it that, in his troglodytic rendering of the common herd.

The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh

I thought about my father—how deeply intelligent he was, how enthusiastic about life. He was a natural woodsman and fisherman, and how he would have loved to live in a little cabin in the woods, tend a garden, read, and fish. Especially fish. There was never a man more at peace than when he was standing hip deep in a stream, casting out.

But inner peace as a laudatory pursuit, self-fulfillment as an object in itself, being self-aware as though this somehow brought one in touch with an inner god—? Not sure Dad gave those ideas a lot of thought. Six children, and his own sense of responsibility kept him in a job and a lifestyle of domesticity and workaday worries. He made sacrifices.

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I remember putting Walden firmly back on the shelf, feeling protective of my father, and a bit angry with Thoreau. Thoreau with his hand built cabin and his peaceful fishing and his studies of ice and lazy pondering of a water bug from a quarter mile away; ‘Thoreau the Great’  who had been able to indulge himself in simple luxuries that my father would have loved.

Well, now it is time to forgive the young man. For that is what he was—Thoreau was young and idealistic, both foolish and incredibly wise. We forget that fact at times, when we read the writers from a long ago age. They were often younger than we are now. But still we look to them for wisdom. In the case of Thoreau, when he lived the experiences at Walden Pond, he was only 27. He was just trying to ‘find himself’, as the saying goes. He hadn’t learned to temper his deep understanding, his ‘knowingness’ with empathy, as yet, but how much better off people would be if they lived by a few of his dreams.

For he also said, “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed…?”

Now that is something to strive for. A deeply felt happiness that not just a few, but all could enjoy. In that case, ‘the mass of men’ could lead lives of quiet inspiration. That, I believe, is what Thoreau dreamed of.

I have my mom’s old prized copy of Walden in my own collection. It has beautifully rendered engravings and thick, creamy paper that give a bit of resistance when you try to turn the page. Very nice.

I’m giving Thoreau another go.

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”   ―  Thoreau