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Tolstoy was tremendously mistaken: happy families are unlike in their happiness. I feel a glad burst writing that blasphemy—Tolstoy was tremendously mistaken—like a child making a rude sign when at last the policeman turns his back.
A lifelong task of authors is to notice and engrave the ten or twelve percent dissenting opinion about anything that counts. If Tolstoy was simply wonderful, and he was, he must still have been ten or twelve percent mistaken about something—in this case about happiness in families. Authors' work is to honor some insights so peculiar that we are not sure it is all right even to harbor such thoughts. In this sense, authors keep on doing work that meditative adolescents start—harboring dissenting opinion, feeling uneasy about it, then trusting it for a time. Happy families are not alike, for example.
In my family the extroverts were courteous to the introverts! I especially noticed our family courtesy at Christmas, because Christmas is a season when outward-going people, at least in ordinary places like Duluth, Minnesota, most tend to be cruel to private people. In "A Christmas Carol," the nephew Fred doesn't complain about Scrooge's being tight-fisted at all: why should he? He is probably a Conservative himself—perhaps out of pocket, as Scrooge reminds him, but a Conservative. His morals are to do with family togetherness and a general affection for humankind. But how odd it is that Fred feels absolutely within his rights to insist that Scrooge be sociable—be talking and carrying on and eating in a largecheerful group. If Scrooge had been Goethe, that extroverted nephew would have tried just as hard to override the man's own temperament. "Forget all that about the Gipfeln, Uncle!" he would have cried, "Come stick with the rest of us on the low ground!" Or the Duluth parents of my old elementary-school friends: "Come down! come down!" these complacent extroverted parents had a way of shouting up the staircase. "Don't skulk about in your room! It's Christmas! We want to be all together!"
But in my father's household no one used the phrase "skulk about in your room," and it was all right to do it. It was all right to skulk about for hours and hours of the Christmas holidays home from school, or in my youngest brother's case, home from Notre Dame where the Navy had sent him. In fact, that house, big, ill-afforded, what with our now dead mother's doctors' bills, was perfect for skulking about in. Our father did it himself. He never promoted sociability—except for this: we had to meet the formal occasion. He had a way of mustering us—the two children he had left home to muster. Step up to meet someone, he would say. Square your shoulders. Don't give adults such a handshake that they feel as if they've got hold of a dead mouse. Don't do it! he'd cry.
At five o'clock on Christmas Eve we would toast those who had left us and those now in danger, but we must stand up straight, please. Speak up clearly. Don't simper when we are toasting anyone, especially Mother. And don't grin. My widowed father liked form.
Covertly, he liked his office better than anywhere else, much as he loved the house. Even though his fourteen-year-old daughter had just got home from Massachusetts, he wanted to return to his office. He half-disguised the longing. I told him I was happy to have him leave. I told him, I will bring down the créche, Dad. I have homework to do, Dad.
Homework—not really—only Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." This was the only poem I knew that plainly said it was just freak circumstance that Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Slavs, and other political prisoners were dying by the millions in Nazi camps and we were safe at ninety-two-and-a-half degrees of West longitude. I would memorize the poem.
My brothers and I came home from our schools in the 1940s on a Chicago and Northwestern Railroad train called The Duluth-Superior Ltd. It left Chicago in the afternoon, went all night through Wisconsin, paused in Superior, in the morning, and then came across the bay to Duluth at eight.
Our dad stood on the brick platform. He was always there, never late. He never wore his scarf high around his neck where it would do him any good: he kept his greatcoat collar down. White shirt-collar and foulard showed. He was fifty-seven, a big, hale man with a face red with cold. He had met us at Christmas so many times—all three boys from their schools and their colleges, and now, in 1944, me, and the next day, my youngest brother, that he knew exactly where the Pullman cars stopped.
Dad drove me slowly home through the cold morning. "There's your city," he would point out happily, a little loudly. "There she blows! There's the old aerial bridge! They may have good things at Abbot (or The Hill School or Asheville, as the case might be—this year it was my school, Abbot) but they haven't got the aerial bridge!" He was advertising Duluth to me, since I would be home for two weeks. He was advertising his life to me, to welcome me back home.
No one would salt the streets of Duluth for another two decades, so we drove on fair whiteness, handily, snow-tires creaking, my father brimming. We couldn't see them from where we were, but Dad reminded me that middle-aged men under his tutelage, the Temporary Coast Guard Reserve, were patrolling the docks and ways along the Harbor.
The deep motor of my own life got quieter and quieter. Now I was far from my boarding school, where people paid attention to an invisible part of me. I thought of my school as the car went along. I thought of the animal gentleness of that school, now that its mutterings and comfortable growlings were sinking away from me.
I felt the way you feel when you have been fathoming for something in deep lake water. You let down the weighted rope or netting, and for the fun of it, you imagine the deep water and whatever else might be down there. And next, you have the queer impression that what happens underwater is part and parcel of what happens in our medium, the air, and that you will never forget that part-and-parcelness, and will try all your life to keep your other thoughts connected with that impression, like an eider bird's nest, giving all the future insights you ever will have an invaluable warm surround. But you do forget. You forget fast as snow, and life strokes its way upward, back to the surface, secular as ever. Already in the car I felt that secularity joggling and grinning inside me as we drove along.
Here we were, then, going home—not many friends left here, but a few good ones. [What's a good friend? It is any girl who bothers to fix you up with a boy whose looks move you.]
Mother was dead two years now, but Dad was here and Malcolm was coming tomorrow. My elder two brothers were away at war but they were alive. Our father had had only the good kind of telegram. On behalf of the President of the United States, the Secretary of War wished to assure my father that his John was making a satisfactory recovery from appendicitis surgery at Anzio, and would soon rejoin his unit.
Cheer up then. None of us had been killed. Now it was snowing on the tongue-in-groove yellow streetcar, and the streetcar—beloved, howling type of transport—joined us from Wallace Avenue and was grinding itself along with us. Being in Duluth for Christmas, I said to myself as we passed Lewis Street, is enough for now. Like most adolescent people, I could do a quick-change mood act.
Still, I missed my absent life.
At fourteen I was a devoted writer of bad poetry. I framed up little sonnets, one after another, my three favorite subjects being the Gestapo, of whom I was terrified; Christmas, which I loved; and the war in the North Atlantic. My sources were, respectively, an issue of Time from three or four years before, my own life, and March of Time newsreels of destroyers attending troop convoys. I wrote pretty well on U-boats snaking along blackly in among our convoys. I didn't know anything one might do with feeling in a poem: I wasn't much interested. My idea was, state a point and get it right. I was willing to rewrite tirelessly. I forced my sturdy, dull ideas into the five-beat iambic line. Even though I was a fourteen-year-old girl, I had the love that old, educated, but unartistic males so often have: the love of sonnet writing. I preferred the Italian rhyme scheme to the Shakespearean.
At Abbot, my school, boarders had to be quiet from 4:40 to 5:20 in the afternoons and from 7:30 to 9:15 at night. I wrote my dull poems. "The Christmas bells are ringing once again," I wrote, then some other lines—then "something something is here once more—" then "something something something our brave men," and "Soon coming home from years of war." That last line being only four feet I needed another, so I handily added "and years" to the years I already had. "Soon coming home from years and years of war." New England seemed old, firm, and intellectual to me. I was glad enough to be home, but the school, the school, always the school, lay just under the skin of Christmas.
Our dad, glancing across Woodland Avenue, said, "There she is, waiting for the streetcar, to go to work as usual." He looked a little wistful. He always picked this neighbor up on the way to work. If he had been going downtown instead of home at this hour he would have picked her up. He gave her a tiny tank-commander wave. He would have talked some more. He gave me a covert glance, but I had a fourteen-year-old meanness about me. You would think I could at least ask him who she was. Adolescents are quite wonderful in their way, but they tend to be pigs too. I was too much a pig to let Dad fill me in on a fellow Duluthian, someone part of his daily life.