By Joe Haldeman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2001 Joe Haldeman
All rights reserved.
DECEMBER 29TH, 1952
I have started to write this down many times in the past twenty years — ever since I turned seventy, and felt that every day of life was a special gift. Like many an old woman, I've chosen, to spend that gift on my grandchildren and their children, with the odd moment or hour given over to the church, and do not regret any of that.
But last month I had a small stroke and though I have recovered most of my faculties, it's obvious that I have outstayed my welcome on this world. I do have a strange story to tell, and have put off telling it for too long.
Parts of the story would be embarrassing to my son, especially in his particular prominence — so I have agreed to leave this book in his keeping, not to be printed until after his death, or even after the death of his own son.
Perhaps from that distant perspective, the more fantastic parts of this account will seem less strange.
During the Depression, I helped support my family by writing stories for the pulp magazines, under a variety of male pseudonyms. I stopped writing during the War, paper shortages having closed most of my markets, and never went back to it. But I was skillful with dialogue in those days, and with the reader's indulgence I will have recourse to that artifice in this memoir. Of course I don't remember the exact words of conversations more than a half-century old. I do remember having had the conversations, though, and trust that I can reconstruct the sense of them.
My son has set me up in this unused parlor with a comfortable desk and chair and a bookshelf with all of my diaries. I count forty-three of them, most of them covering more than one year. The earliest starts in 1868, when I was ten, but nothing of much interest happens in my life until the nineties.
Still, a few things for the record, as they say nowadays. I was born in Helen's Mill, Georgia, in 1858, on a plantation with slaves. I remember almost nothing of that except the image of a large Negro woman, who I'm told was my nurse Daisy. I'm told I played with the slave children.
All of the children (the white children) in the family were sent to stay with relatives in Philadelphia after Fort Sumter, in 1861. My father correctly divined that the war would not go that far north. Though Gettysburg was close enough that we knew people who went out to watch the battle, and hear the speeches afterwards.
Sherman's troops burned our plantation just before Atlanta, and I suppose my mother and father died during that invasion. We never heard from them again.
There was really no room for myself and my sisters and brother with Aunt Karen and Uncle Claude, so I was sent to Dorothy Partridge's Boarding School, a strict Methodist place where I stayed until rescued by Wellesley in 1875.
Some of the girls complained about Wellesley's strictness, but to me it was emancipation. At Partridge's we had supervised prayer five times a day. Miss Partridge could read your mind, and she saw nothing there but sin. When we were actually caught in sin, we were sent to the Forgiveness Room, a dark closet with nothing but a large candle, a prayer rail, and a chamber pot with no cover. A truly bad sin, like sneaking in candy, would put you in that room for twenty-four hours, with no food or water and little air, sore from the switch or the rod. So to me the proctors and housemistresses of Wellesley were nothing. At worst, they might send me to a detention room, with only a Bible to contemplate. But that was no punishment at all. I've always enjoyed reading the Bible, trying to puzzle things out.
At this end of my life, there is much to puzzle over for which the Bible is little help. But I still read it daily, peering now through a magnifying glass. Even this large-type version is too difficult for my spectacles alone.
At Wellesley I studied natural philosophy and literature. I suppose it was as good a preparation as a woman could have, then or now, for the strange trials I was to face with the Raven.
I shouldn't call them trials, because they were not intended as such. My actual trials, most of a century's physical and mental pain, have been provided by myself and other humans, and they have not been as great as most people's.
The odd journey begins.
Wellesley was a gift from my parents and their slaves. Like many people in the South, they foresaw the end of our "peculiar institution" long before the Emancipation Proclamation. There was no shortage of investors willing to gamble that they were wrong, though, and so they sold all of the slaves, and leased the plantation as well. Father sold all of them as a group, though they would have brought much more at auction. He didn't want to break up families, and he was disgusted to learn that the babies would not only be separated from their mothers, but be sold by the pound, like so much beef.
My older brother Roland claimed that at least one of the Negro babies was Father's own. He was twelve when we came north, so perhaps he was old enough to know. But he also bore a grudge against Father, because each of us girl children got a larger stipend than his.
We were lucky to have anything. If Father had delayed the sale another year, he would have been paid in Confederate currency, ultimately worthless. As it was, he was paid partly in gold, and hired an agent to bear a small chest of double eagles to a Philadelphia bank, and there open trust accounts for each of us. We knew nothing of this until Ronald turned eighteen in 1866, and was granted access to his account, several hundred dollars, which he spent soon enough, living in a grand style.
By then we were dismally sure that our parents were dead. We had last heard from them in 1864, a hasty note my mother sent to Aunt Karen. They were abandoning the general store in Helen's Mill (which they had bought after leaving the plantation), because Sherman's monsters were only a day away. They moved into Atlanta for protection.
The Philadelphia paper with Mathew Brady's photographs of the ruins of Atlanta was kept from me, as I was only eight. Of course, I found them soon enough on my own. This century's images of Hiroshima and Dresden have a similar impact now. But I knew no one in those places. The sepia landscapes of Atlanta's ashes are the only memorial of my parents' time and place of death.
I've visited many places in this world, and elsewhere, but I've never been to Atlanta. I did drive down to Georgia in the 1920s, to find what was left of Helen's Mill — not even memories — but managed to do it on dirt roads that didn't go through that horrible city.
By the time I was seventeen, I believe Dorothy Partridge was as tired of me as I was of her. I was told that there was a sum available adequate to see me through college, and I took the examinations for Mount Holyoke and Wellesley.
I passed both, but wound up choosing Wellesley, for various reasons. Both Boston and Harvard were nearby, and Philadelphia was agreeably distant. It was a new school then, beginning its fifth year.
Perhaps it was not the best choice for me; perhaps I would not have been an outstanding scholar anywhere. I made no lasting friendships there, and was an indifferent student and terrible athlete. We were encouraged to engage in physical activities like gymnastics and the newly fashionable lawn tennis, which at the time seemed mannish and unnatural to me. (Could I have foreseen my coarse life to come, in Kansas and Alaska, I wouldn't have believed it.)
At the time there were critics of female higher education who claimed that athletics would overexcite us and lead us into unwholesome practices. I found it boring and tiring — and, I have to admit, more than half believed that overexertion would lead me into some mysterious nameless state of sin, which terrified me. I knew almost nothing about sex, except that it was all about sin and shame and pain.
If at any time in my life I needed a friend, it was then. I was surrounded by girls and young women who were sophisticated and cosmopolitan, who might have brought me fast into real life. But my background cut me off from them — I was a slow-witted Southern belle with no social graces and no family connections — and once ostracized, I tried to make a virtue out of my separateness.
I was also beautiful in those days, at least to people other than myself, which didn't help. To the boys I was an exotic Southern flower, and I can see now that my terror of them, and subsequent awkward rejection, made me a valuable prize, and further cut me off from the other women — who of course saw my clumsiness as shameless and artful seduction.
So my fondest memories of college are all times of solitude. Reading in the library or long walks in the woods and fields. When the weather was fine I would paint or draw, but I enjoyed the walks even when it was storming or I had to pick my way through the snow. Most Saturdays I would walk unescorted around Boston and Cambridge, which produced a little tingle of danger.
My original plan had been to study theology, both out of a natural inclination and a sense that I might eventually do some good with it. But my inability with languages, which had earned me beatings and confinement at the hands of Mrs. Partridge, kept me from that course of study. I had no Latin and less Greek, as someone said. Most of my classmates had studied both for years. I had just managed to drag my way through French.
As if in compensation, I discovered an ability with mathematics, losing myself for hours at a time in trigonometry, geometry plane and not so plain, algebra, and calculus. I also had enthusiasm for natural philosophy and natural history, both terms subsumed under "science" long since.
I studied as much biology and astronomy as was offered at the non-specialist level, and then pursued astronomy as far as my mathematics would allow. It was a congenial study for me, solitary under the night sky at the school's small observatory, making careful measurements, and doing pencil and ink drawings of the moon and planets. I didn't feel I had the intellect or drive to become a professional astronomer — there were only two or three women so employed in the whole country — but I did aspire to teach.
(Professor Sarah Whiting was my mentor there, an intense, energetic woman who wanted more for me than I wanted for myself. The year I graduated, she found her true protégée in Annie Jump Cannon, who wound up, at Harvard, becoming the first famous woman astronomer in America. I met Annie some years later, and she confided that her whole career pivoted on a fluke of fate: she was getting through Harvard working as a maid, when an exasperated astronomer yelled at his assistant, "My maid could do a better job than that!" She could indeed, and she got the job.)
Insofar as I could divine my future, I saw a period of teaching in a school for girls somewhere in New England, eventually to meet a man whom I could tolerate or even love, and settle into the roles of wife and mother. At Wellesley I fell into church work, teaching Bible class to children aged six through nine, and I adored it, and assumed that would continue as well. Of course the only reliable thing that one can say about one's future is that it will not turn out the way you planned it. People who have no interest in your future pass through your life and change it forever.
In my case it was nothing so direct and dramatic as Annie Jump Cannon's exasperated astronomer. I was asked — ordered — to go to dinner and the opera.
Meeting the monster.
It happened to be St. Valentine's Day, and most of the women in my dormitory were getting ready for a ball at Harvard. The housemistress came knocking on doors, totally flustered, asking whether anyone was free — her brother was in Boston on business, and he needed a companion. He'd accepted an invitation to dinner and the opera with two associates and their wives, and didn't want to be a fifth wheel, odd man out; whatever it was we said in those days. I was the only one who had no plans for the evening, so there was no room for discussion: I was "it."
I didn't much like the housemistress, a prissy stern woman; nor was I in any mood to be sociable, cross with my flux just starting — but I agreed sweetly, privately promising myself that I would give her brother an engagement he would not soon forget.
The evening began impressively. When I came down I found not the usual hired cab, but a well-appointed Brewster coach, complete with footman. (That would be like a liveried driver in a Cadillac today.) It was even warm inside, with a brazier.
It was a swift and comfortable ride into the city, but I held on to my resolve to make this Mr. Tolliver pay dearly for taking me away from my studies. Warned by the ostentatious coach that he would be wealthy and not modest, I was not surprised when we pulled up at the Parker House.
A servant led me to a lounge where the great man was waiting with his guests. I was not immediately impressed. Edward Tolliver was a tall, powerful-looking man, coarse-featured and loud. He was cordial but stiff with me and the other women; hearty with the men.
At dinner I was only as ladylike as I had to be, offering opinions more freely than I normally would do, but he actually seemed to like that, and was amused by my unladylike appetite. I was starving, hours past my normal suppertime, and had a large Porterhouse steak and plenty of claret with it — actually one of the most enjoyable meals I'd ever been served. And one of the best I would ever have, as a human.
He was nine years older than me, too young to have fought in the war. He had a law degree from Harvard but practiced in Philadelphia, so we did have that in common, as well as Southern origins, which surprised both of us. Neither of us retained much of the South in our speech, at least around Northerners; he sounded as Bostonian as any of the others.
I was afraid that the heavy meal and wine might put me to sleep at the theater, especially if we rode there in the warm coach, so I asked whether we might walk, and meet the others there. He readily agreed; it was only a few blocks down Tremont. The night was brisk and he was much more at ease, witty and almost charming, away from the others.
I should not have worried about sleeping through the opera, which was Carmen, new that year to these shores and most exciting. Afterwards, we went back to the Parker House and had coffee and cakes, and I returned to Wellesley scandalously late, after one in the morning.
Edward wrote me weekly from Philadelphia, letters that were friendly rather than romantic, but soon it was obvious what his intentions were. I was afraid that the woman he was attracted to was not actually me, but rather the consciously forward "modern" girl I had masqueraded as, and eventually I got up the courage to write him to that effect. He responded by returning to Boston, ostensibly to meet whoever the actual "me" was.
This was the Easter break of my senior year. We saw each other daily for more than a week. Savory lunches at the Parker House and other ostentatious places.
In the evenings we had to be chaperoned by his sister, my housemistress, which was annoying. I felt capable of protecting my own virtue, and besides had had more than enough of her company.
I might have been grateful for her interference, had I known him as well as I came to. On the other hand, if he had shown his true colors during that courtship, I never would have married him.
Sometimes I consider that: what if I had married a nice man instead, and settled down to a regular life in Boston or Philadelphia, or wherever. The worlds I would have missed. This world would have been far different, too.
If Gordon had never been born, this world could be a lifeless radioactive ball.
But I didn't have a crystal ball. I was swept away by his attentions and charmed by his clumsy gallantry — he was much more attractive to me than a more polished, polite man would have been, with his obvious struggle to do and say the right things, keeping in check an elemental force that intrigued me.
I was too naive to see that force for what it was: raw sexual desire, and the need to dominate.
It was an unusually clement spring — I remember a blizzard on Easter morning, another year — and we ranged all around the area in a nimble calash that he hired and drove himself. Downtown Boston was a noisome cesspool in the thaw, as always, so most of our travels were out in the country, going as far as Salem on occasion. We picnicked and chatted; I learned a lot about the masculine worlds of finance and law, and he paid polite attention to my ramblings about nature and art and literature. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Guardian by Joe Haldeman. Copyright © 2001 Joe Haldeman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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