The Birth of a Grandfather: A Novel

The Birth of a Grandfather: A Novel

by May Sarton

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Grandfathers are generally produced by the birth of grandchildren. But Sprig Wyeth needed more than the arrival of his first grandchild to welcome that role.
This is the story of the Wyeth family, set in Cambridge, Massachusetts (and in the summer, Maine): the very old, who are looking back; Sprig and his wife Frances, who are finding their way in the midst

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Grandfathers are generally produced by the birth of grandchildren. But Sprig Wyeth needed more than the arrival of his first grandchild to welcome that role.
This is the story of the Wyeth family, set in Cambridge, Massachusetts (and in the summer, Maine): the very old, who are looking back; Sprig and his wife Frances, who are finding their way in the midst of youthful hopes that refuse to fade away; and the young, embarking on adulthood, sometimes with anger. As Sprig struggles to reach past his reserve so that he can be there for his wife and children, and for a friend who needs him, the other characters likewise find their way to what self-fulfillment means.

Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
“A serious novel of family relationships, particularly about the shifts and changes that occur in families in the middle years. . . . All of the Wyeths and their friends move and talk in that atmosphere of breadth and clarity which Sarton has made her own.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Shrewd and compassionate assessments. . . . Very good indeed.”

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Norton Paperback Ser.
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Birth of a Grandfather

A Novel

By May Sarton


Copyright © 1985 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1797-8


Where am I? Frances thought, opening her eyes to the faded flowered wallpaper, and then she remembered, smiled, closed her eyes again to let pleasure soak in, the sense of holiday; they were really here on the island, the long summer opening ahead, lazy and timeless. For just a few moments more she would indulge herself (it was only a quarter to seven) and then think about getting breakfast for the family. Far off she could hear chopping — Sprig must be out already. How fast asleep she must have been not to hear him get up! She turned over to contemplate his empty bed, to think how lonely it looked, to wonder if he had stooped over her sleeping face, almost kissed her, then tiptoed out instead, happier to be alone, anxious above all that she should not wake. It's so strange, she was thinking, as she lay there, her arms crossed under her head, staring at the ceiling and the band of sunlight that lay across it, that we are only ourselves alone, separated. Now, for instance, for a few moments she could be herself, fully herself, before she was pulled here and there by a thousand invisible threads; she could gather herself up into a quiet whole and be — what? For who am I? she asked herself, Frances Wyeth, forty-five years old who have somehow come to this place and this time with my husband, my two grown children, to this dear house where Sprig's father and grandfather have come and all the aunts and cousins and friends, for half a century of island-living — the comfort of it, the continuity. There had been world tragedies (two great wars), and there had been private tragedies (the death of Sprig's mother, the strong growing weak with age, the divorces, the fabric torn and made whole again over and over), yet the island had not changed. Here one took a candle to bed and lighted oil lamps to read by in the evening. The house with its faded wallpapers, its cretonne curtains, its old-fashioned bathrooms, its great stone fireplace, had remained intact, a fortress against time and change. The comfort of it, the continuity, she said to herself again. We are part of a great river — we flow down it — why was this depressing?

Because one also wished to be oneself, unique, solitary, quite unattached and free to make one's soul and find one's joy, Sprig with his axe, aboriginal man, remaking the world (if only a grove of pines that needed pruning) in his own image. It was strange to wake up after this night when she and Sprig had slept together at last after a long interval of sleeping apart, to wake to such thoughts, to ask, "Who am I?" Was the answer "Sprig's wife"?

Yet he was less hers than he had ever been. It took a moment of passion to break down the walls of silence between them. Even then, after he had gone back to his own bed and fallen asleep so quickly, so deeply, she had felt the tears running down her cheeks onto her pillow in the middle of the night, tears of relief that the tension between them had been broken at last, tears of childish despair because even when the walls fell down, she and Sprig seemed as distant from each other as two stars. Their union was not the flowing together of two deeply joined selves, but only a desperate moment of possession of each other, which disappointed because something was always withheld.

I wonder if we shall be able to give that, whatever it is, before we die. She had thought that people forty-five were old, had arrived, but now she realized with astonishment that she was still a child, that she was nowhere nearly grown-up, that there was still a long journey inward to be made, and would she ever arrive, whole, free and at peace? Did any one?

Who am I? she asked, jumping out of bed suddenly to go and peer into the rather dim mirror over the dresser. She had on a pair of mens' pajamas and in them, her brown boyish hair tousled, she looked as she always did to herself like a rather unfinished young man. "Dear me," and she chuckled, "how can I look like this and be all I have to be?" From the dresser, the photograph of Sprig's grandfather Wyeth in a small gold standing frame, judged her. She picked it up and stared back. "You made all this, didn't you?" she asked him. He was the founder, the man who had sent his ships to the Indies bearing ice from a New England pond through the tropical oceans, bought this island, built the first house here, left his children and grandchildren rich, and still, across the years, molded them. He had been much too busy about things to ask himself who he was, and so he towered in the background, character personified. He was; they merely hoped to be.

Just then Frances heard a groan from the room next door, a groan followed by a roar of pain. Old Mr. Wyeth, this man's son, was awake. He wanted someone to come in and commiserate with his arthritis. "Damn it," she heard him say.

"Are you all right, Gran-Quan?" she called from the hall. "I'll be dressed and in to help you in half a shake of a lamb's tail." She heard her own cheerful managing voice with dismay, as it rang out. She felt the mask of her family self come down and lock over the fluid, hesitating, probing person she had been a few moments before. Now her job was to sustain, to center, to be everyone's security and comfort. But, as she dragged on a pair of blue jeans and a shirt, and tied double knots in the laces of her old sneakers, she felt suddenly happy, and began to sing, "What shall we do with the lazy sailor, early in the morning?"

This voice took possession of the house, floated into every room, unlocking doors into cupboards, flooding the downstairs living room — always rather dark in the daytime because it was entirely surrounded by a vast porch — like sunlight. Hannah, the old beagle who slept in the kitchen, gave two sharp barks and thumped her tail on the floor. Mr. Silence, the immense tiger cat who had been curled into a tight ball in an armchair, yawned, stretched, and jumped down to wait for Frances at the swing door into the kitchen.

"Early in the morning," she sang, as she pushed open Gran-Quan's door.

"Go away, you're much too cheerful." He was sitting up in bed reading, lifted his eyes for a moment, raised his bushy gray eyebrows at her, and smiled. "Sprig woke me at dawn with that chopping," he complained. "No respect for the old," he added, enjoying himself now he had her attention. "I thought I was a goner when I woke, couldn't move a muscle, lay there like a log. You have no idea!"

"It's the change of air," she said.

"Best air in the world. A tonic. Nothing wrong with the air. Old age, that's what's wrong."

They all flew to the defense of the island of course. And Frances withdrew, seeing that he was after all in a good mood, complaining in this way being only a form of joy.

"Time to get up, Caleb!" she called down the hall. There was no answer from Caleb, but she could hear the water running in the bathroom.

She went in to Betsy, who lay fast asleep, her face buried in her pillow, the soft reddish hair flung out around her head like a halo. Frances stood a moment at the door, moved by the helplessness of this grown child of hers. Let her sleep, she thought to herself. It was an unusual indulgence, for most of the time Betsy's indolence made her fearfully impatient. But this morning, this holiday morning, let Betsy sleep — her young man would be turning up this evening. Frances turned and ran down the stairs, shutting off the thought of Tom Dorgan as too complicated for the hour, too complicated when scrambled eggs and coffee should be uppermost in her mind.

She paused at the top of the stairs and listened. Great Aunt must be up already — her door was open. And indeed when Frances pushed back the swing door, the two animals were being fed and Aunt Jane was just filling the coffeepot.

"You angel!" Frances said, "you shouldn't!" taking the coffeepot out of the trembling hands and stopping to kiss Aunt Jane's cheek. "This is my job."

"Couldn't sit still another minute," Aunt Jane said. "Too bright a morning altogether. My, doesn't that sun pull one out of bed! I've been up since six," she said. "Is Quincy all right?"

"Giving yelps of pain and enjoying it thoroughly."

The two women exchanged a glance, the immemorial glance of women about the frailty of men.

"I'd better give him a look-in."

"Don't take the stairs again. He's all right."

"Limbers me up, don't you know?" and she turned to go. "I'm stiff in the mornings," she said as if this were unheard of. But she was ninety, ten years older than her brother, Frances thought, as she laid the table, the sun pouring all over her hands like a blessing and getting in her eyes, so she felt quite blinded in glory. The kitchen window looked straight into a tall grove of spruce, well pruned these, by every man on the island since grandfather himself. The patch of brilliant green lawn that surrounded the house made it an island within the island, an island of humanness all surrounded by the sea of great trees, moss of every kind and softness spread out below them, and lichen-covered boulders lying here and there to remind one that this was a granite world, primeval, still wild, to which the deer swam over in the fall to escape the hunters.

"Yes, Hannah, dear," she said to the old dog whose tail was thumping a request to go out. "You shall. Go and find Sprig!" she called. "Tell him to come home for breakfast." But Hannah's nose was fastened to a lane in the grasses and she was off after a vole, giving short excited barks, her tail wagging furiously all the time. No errands for her, not today, not on this holiday.

Mr. Silence sat in a patch of sunlight, washing his face, and for a moment Frances stood still in the middle of the big kitchen, the jar of orange juice in her hands, stood there arrested by the joy of it all, the being here, the summer opening out ahead. It seemed too precious suddenly to go uncelebrated, and she bowed her head in a wordless prayer.

For would it be the last? Aunt Jane wouldn't live forever, Gran-Quan sometimes seemed to be slipping off into a world of his own, full of demons. Would Betsy be married to her Irishman by this time next year? And Caleb gone off somewhere into his lonely life? It's all so perilous, she thought, this brief moment in the sunlight, when we are still all together, safe.

Then she hurried to pour the juice and went to the door to ring the gong Grandfather Wyeth had brought home from China eighty years before.

At half past eleven when she had taken a cup of hot bouillon out to Gran-Quan and Aunt Jane and found them deep in an argument over a point in the New Testament in Greek, and fetched a dictionary and set up a little table for them; and after she had unearthed Betsy who was apparently composing a poem, lying on her stomach on the unmade bed, and told her what to get ready for lunch, Frances filled a small thermos with sherry and stole out by the back door, running when she heard the telephone ring, so she would be safely out of sight. It was a feat to get away, a triumph of speed and organization to have managed it at all. Now the question was, could she find Sprig? She stopped on the path, drew in a deep breath of pine, and listened. There was no sound of chopping. No sound at all except the yank-yank of a nuthatch, then far off a woodpecker hammering. Sunlight came through a gap in the branches and rested on her hand like a caress. After all, this was it. This standing alone and taking time to breathe and smell and look was it. Even if she couldn't find Sprig, she would have a half hour now in which to be herself; not hurry; received whatever was coming toward her out of the day. She came past the overgrown flower garden (I must get to weeding tomorrow) and out onto grassy meadows, the one stretch of open field on the island, with a farmhouse at the end out on the point. From here one could see the mainland clearly, a detached scene as in a picture, the smoke coming out of the chimneys and going straight up into the blue air, and someone raising a sail by a pier. The soft uncut grass stroked her ankles. Crickets chirped. She walked very slowly, drinking in the gentle, ample curve of the meadows as they swept down to the shore, the pink and beige rocks and the dark sparkling water, all this lying low under the dazzling sky. So much air and light, she half closed her eyes, felt a little drunk, and on an impulse lay down where she was, wanting to feel hard earth under her, to give up entirely — make no more effort for a moment, even that of looking for Sprig. Here low on the earth, her hands felt for the tiny roughnesses, the wild cranberry which would ripen before they left, reindeer moss, a small stone. Somewhere very near a cricket chirped loudly. She was startled by it and lifted her head — and there she saw Sprig, as if in a dream, walking toward her across the meadow smiling and waving, as he caught her answering smile.

"Well," he said, dropping down beside her, "you look very cosy."

"I was looking for you. I brought some sherry in the thermos." She felt shy. She couldn't move, even to open the sherry, as if she had been caught in some violent gesture of abandon, so strange must it seem to him to find her lying all alone in the grass on such a busy day.

"Good," he said, pouring out two tumblers carefully.

Still she lay there, looking up into the sky, catching in the focus just the line of his chin and shoulder, feeling his presence all through her like the sunlight.

"I cleared out a big patch; amazing how you have to keep at it."

"Yes." She felt she was in a dream. "I married an island," she said out of the dream.

"Rather a nice one, you must admit."

She turned over and leaned on her elbow, looking up at him.

"Strange," she said, "very strange."

He looked down at her for just a second, then looked away, half shutting his eyes as a sailor does before the sea glare. But in the second she knew she disturbed him, and he did not want to be disturbed, or to be reminded of that hour of passion in the night. So she sat up, pulled herself back out of the dream, drank her sherry, and was silent.

A small sail flapped in the distance, struggling to catch the wind, tautened as the boat came about and stood toward them across the channel.

"There he is," Sprig said, watching this maneuver intensely. "There's Caleb."

"Yes," she sighed. The sail in the distance meant responsibility, the thread tightened that held one all around and could never be broken, and so she turned to Sprig and said, "I wish you would have a talk with Caleb. I think really that's what he wants, though he doesn't know it."

"He makes it rather difficult." Sprig was watching the boat as Caleb tacked again, skillfully, and she knew he was thinking, He learned that from me.

"Besides," he added, "talk to him about what?"

"He's become an alien," Frances said. "It's too painful. For him. For us."

"He graduates next year."

"What has that got to do with it?"

"He's gone already — off there in the boat. We can watch him."

"But that's all we can do?" Frances asked. It was a beautiful day, why worry at it? Why spoil it by digging down under the surface? She silenced the questions, at least did not say them aloud to Sprig, but only to herself: Your grandfather, who bought this island, would not have let Caleb get away with being so rude at breakfast. He would have commanded and expected to be obeyed. "If Caleb were happy, it would be different," was what she said aloud.

"No one who's any good is happy at that age."

Just then the little boat ran in dangerously near to the rocks. Caleb stood up and waved.

Sprig was on his feet in an instant waving back, making a wide happy gesture with his right arm.

"He's too close to shore, Sprig!" Her voice was sharp with anxiety.

"Nonsense, he knows every rock by heart — look at that!" Sprig cried, exultant, as the little boat came about, barely not grazing an island of seaweed which concealed a reef. "Nice work, boy!"


Excerpted from The Birth of a Grandfather by May Sarton. Copyright © 1985 May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

May Sarton (1912-1995) was an acclaimed poet, novelist, and memoirist.

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