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A HOOSIER HOLIDAY
THE ROSE WINDOW
It was at a modest evening reception I happened to be giving to a new poet of renown that the idea of the holiday was first conceived. I had not seen Franklin, subsequent companion of this pilgrimage, in all of eight or nine months, his work calling him in one direction, mine in another. He is an illustrator of repute, a master of pen and ink, what you would call a really successful artist. He has a studio in New York, another in Indiana--his home town--a car, a chauffeur, and so on.
I first met Franklin ten years before, when he was fresh from Indiana and working on the Sunday supplement of a now defunct New York paper. I was doing the same. I was drawn to him then because he had such an air of unsophisticated and genial simplicity while looking so much the artist. I liked his long, strong aquiline nose, and his hair of a fine black and silver, though he was then only twenty-seven or eight. It is now white--a soft, artistic shock of it, glistening white. Franklin is a Christian Scientist, or dreamy metaphysician, a fact which may not commend him in the eyes of many, though one would do better to await a full metaphysical interpretation of his belief. It would do almost as well to call him a Buddhist or a follower of the Bhagavad Gita. He has no hard and fast Christian dogmas in mind. In fact, he is not a Christian at all, in the accepted sense, but a genial, liberal, platonic metaphysician. I know of no better way to describe him. Socalled sin, as something wherewith to reproach one, does not exist for him. He has few complaints to make concerning people's weaknesses or errors. Nearly everything is well. He lives happily along, sketching landscapes and trees and drawing many fine simplicities and perfections. There is about him a soothing repose which is not religious but human, which I felt, during all the two thousand miles we subsequently idled together. Franklin is also a very liberal liver, one who does not believe in stinting himself of the good things of the world as he goes--a very excellent conclusion, I take it.
At the beginning of this particular evening nothing was farther from my mind than the idea of going back to Indiana. Twentyeight years before, at the age of sixteen, I had left Warsaw, the last place in the state where I had resided. I had not been in the town of my birth, Terre Haute, Indiana, since I was seven. I had not returned since I was twelve to Sullivan or Evansville on the Ohio River, each of which towns had been my home for two years. The State University of Indiana at Bloomington, in the south central portion of the state, which had known me for one year when I was eighteen, had been free of my presence for twentysix years.
And in that time what illusions had I not built up in connection with my native state! Who does not allow fancy to color his primary experiences in the world? Terre Haute! A small city in which, during my first seven years, we lived in four houses. Sullivan, where we had lived from my seventh to my tenth year, in one house, a picturesque white frame on the edge of the town. In Evansville, at 1413 East Franklin Street, in a small brick, we had lived one year, and in Warsaw, in the northern part of the state, in a comparatively large brick house set in a grove of pines, we had spent four years. My mother's relatives were all residents of this northern section. There had been three months, between the time we left Evansville and the time we settled in Warsaw, Kosciusko County, which we spent in Chicago--my mother and nearly all of the children; also six weeks, between the time we left Terre Haute and the time we settled in Sullivan, which we spent in Vincennes, Indiana, visiting a kindly friend.
We were very poor in those days. My father had only comparatively recently suffered severe reverses, from which he really never recovered. My mother, a dreamy, poetic, impractical soul, was serving to the best of her ability as the captain of the family ship. Most of the ten children had achieved comparative maturity and had departed, or were preparing to depart, to shift for themselves. Before us--us little ones--were all our lives. At home, in a kind of intimacy which did not seem to concern the others because we were the youngest, were my brother Ed, two years younger than myself; my sister Claire (or Tillie), two years older, and occasionally my brother Albert, two years older than Claire, or my sister Sylvia, four years older, alternating as it were in the family home life. At other times they were out in the world working. Sometimes there appeared on the scene, usually one at a time, my elder brothers, Mark and Paul, and my elder sisters, Emma, Theresa, and Mary, each named in the order of their ascending ages. As I have said, there were ten all told--a restless, determined, halfeducated family who, had each been properly trained according to his or her capacities, I have always thought might have made a considerable stir in the world. As it was--but I will try not to become too technical.
But in regard to all this and the material and spiritual character of our life at that time, and what I had done and said, and what others had done and said, what notions had not arisen! They were highly colored ones, which might or might not have some relationship to the character of the country out there as I had known it. I did not know. Anyhow, it had been one of my dearly cherished ideas that some day, when I had the time and the money to spare, I was going to pay a return visit to Indiana. My father had once owned a woolen mill at Sullivan, still standing, I understood (or its duplicate built after a fire), and he also had managed another at Terre Haute. I had a vague recollection of seeing him at work in this one at Terre Haute, and of being shown about, having a spinning jenny and a carder and a weaver explained to me. I had fished in the Busseron near Sullivan, nearly lost my life in the Ohio at Evansville in the dead of winter, fallen in love with the first girls I ever loved at Warsaw. The first girl who ever kissed me and the first girl I ever ventured to kiss were at Warsaw. Would not that cast a celestial light over any midwestern village, however homely?
Well, be that as it may, I had this illusion. Someday I was going back, only in my plans I saw myself taking a train and loafing around in each village and hamlet hours or days, or weeks if necessary. At Warsaw I would try to find out about all the people I had ever known, particularly the boys and girls who went to school with me. At Terre Haute I would look up the house where I was born and our old house in Seventh Street, somewhere near a lumber yard and some railroad tracks, where, in a cool, roomy, musty cellar, I had swung in a swing hung from one of the rafters. Also in this lumber yard and among these tracks where the cars were, I had played with Al and Ed and other boys. Also in Thirteenth Street, Terre Haute, somewhere there was a small house (those were the darkest days of our poverty), where I had been sick with the measles. My father was an ardent Catholic. For the first fifteen years of my life I was horrified by the grim spiritual punishments enunciated by that faith. In this house in Thirteenth Street I had been visited by a long, lank priest in black, who held a silver crucifix to my lips to be kissed. That little house remains the apotheosis of earthly gloom to me even now.
At Sullivan I intended to go out to the Basler House, where we lived, several blocks from the local or old Evansville and Terre Haute depot. This house, as I recalled, was a charming thing of six or seven rooms with a large lawn, in which roses flourished, and with a truck garden north of it and a wonderful clover field to the rear (or east) of it. This clover field--how shall I describe it?--but I can't. It wasn't a clover field at all as I had come to think of it, but a honey trove in Arcady. An army of humble bees came here to gather honey. In those early dawns of spring, summer and autumn, when, for some reason not clear to me now, I was given to rising at dawn, it was canopied by a wonderful veil of clouds (tinted cirrus and nimbus effects), which seemed, as I looked at them, too wonderful for words. Across the fields was a grove of maples concealing a sugar camp (not ours), where I would go in the early dawn to bring home a bucket of maple sap. And directly to the north of us was a large, bare Gethsemane of a field, in the weedy hollows of which were endless whitening bones, for here stood a small village slaughter house, the sacrificial altar of one local butcher. It was not so gruesome as it sounds--only dramatic.
But this field and the atmosphere of that home! I shall have to tell you about them or the import of returning there will be as nothing. It was between my seventh and my tenth year that we lived there, among the most impressionable of all my youth. We were very hard pressed, as I understood it later, but I was too young and too dreamy to feel the pinch of poverty. This lower Wabash valley is an Egyptian realm--not very cold in winter, and drowsy with heat in summer. Corn and wheat and hay and melons grow here in heavy, plethoric fashion. Rains come infrequently, then only in deluging storms. The spring comes early, the autumn lingers until quite New Year's time. In the beech and ash and hickory groves are many turtle doves. Great hawks and buzzards and eagles soar high in the air. House and barn martins circle in covies. The bluejay and scarlet tanager flash and cry. In the eaves of our cottage were bluebirds and wrens, and to our trumpet vines and purple clematis came wondrous humming birds to poise and glitter, tropic in their radiance. In old Kirkwood's orchard, a quarter of a mile away over the clover field, I can still hear the guinea fowls and the peacocks "calling for rain."
Sometimes the experiences of delicious years make a stained glass window--the rose window of the west--in the cathedral of our life. These three years in "dirty old Sullivan," as one of my sisters once called it (with a lip-curl of contempt thrown in for good measure), form such a flower of stained glass in mine. They are my rose window. In symphonies of leaded glass, blue, violet, gold and rose are the sweet harmonies of memory with all the ills of youth discarded. A bare-foot boy is sitting astride a high board fence at dawn. Above him are the tinted fleeces of heaven, those golden argosies of youthful seas of dream. Over the blooming clover are scudding the swallows, "my heart remembers how." I look, and in a fence corner is a spider web impearled with dew, a great yellow spider somewhere on its surface is repairing a strand. At a window commanding the field, a window in the kitchen, is my mother. My brother Ed has not risen yet, nor my sister Tillie. The boy looks at the sky. He loves the feel of the dawn. He knows nothing of whence he is coming or where he is going, only all is sensuously, deliriously gay and beautiful. Youth is his: the tingle and response of a new body; the bloom and fragrance of the clover in the air; the sense of the mystery of flying. He sits and sings some tuneless tune. Of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Or it is a great tree, say, a hundred yards from the house. In its thick leaves and widespreading branches the wind is stirring. Under its shade Ed and Tillie and I are playing house. What am I? Oh, a son, a husband, or indeed anything that the occasion requires. We play at duties--getting breakfast, or going to work, or coming home. Why? But a turtle dove is calling somewhere in the depths of a woodland, and that gives me pause. "Bob white" cries and I think of strange and faroff things to come. A buzzard is poised in the high blue above and I wish I might soar on wings as wide.
Or is it a day with a pet dog? Now they are running side by side over a stubbly field. Now the dog has wandered away and the boy is calling. Now the boy is sitting in a rocking chair by a window and holding the dog in his lap, studying a gnarled tree in the distance, where sits a hawk all day, meditating no doubt on his midnight crimes. Now the dog is gone forever, shot somewhere for chasing sheep, and the boy, disconsolate, is standing under a tree, calling, calling, calling, until the sadness of his own voice and the futility of his cries moves him nearly to tears.
These and many scenes like these make my rose window of the west.