A neat and lavish, if constricting, childhood in the lush landscapes of North Carolina. Summers at a calm, remote beach house. A proper and religiously influenced prep school in Washington. Years at Bryn Mawr, an impulsive study trip to Paris, further education at Yale, married life, and divorced life. These are the settings for Mary Ann Caws’s passionate memoir, in which she recounts the highs and lows of her journey through life. Marked by complicated relationships and a passion for learning, Caws’s story is one that resonates not only with writers like herself, but with all who have struggled with determining their path within the surrounding world.
Caws writes of her formal, stylish parents, her rebellious and deeply admired sister, and her artistic grandmother, whom she respected and idolized more than anyone else. She describes her marriage and subsequent divorce, her bouts with therapy, her children, and her growth as a student and writer. Throughout the memoir is evidence of her love for writing, teaching, art, and poetry as well as her deep respect for the people in her life that ultimately guided her into her career.
Mary Ann Caws describes Southern society and her own life with fondness, nostalgia, and a tinge of honest criticism. The carefully selected details and delicate balance of sentiment and fact bring readers into the fascinating, complicated, and all-too-real world of Caws’sand our ownpast.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature in the Graduate School of City University of New York. She has held Guggenheim, Rockefeller, N.E.H., and Getty Foundation fellowships and is the author of Picasso’s Weeping Woman: The Life and Art of Dora Maar, Marcel Proust, Surprised in Translation and Virginia Woolf.
Read an Excerpt
To the Boathouse
By Mary Ann Caws
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
What was it like in the South, my northern friends ask. How to explain it? I could, for a start, quote to them one southern woman's memory of "downhome" as an example of the landscape and mindscape: "It's made up of particular smells: honeysuckle and nasturtium, spring arriving early and staying late, wet woods, pine fire, cigar smoke and tobacco juice, the inside of mountain cabins, hot irons on starched dresses, dusty dirt roads, a jarful of lightning bugs, ... and tastes: spring water, a Dr. Pepper drunk outside a filling station on a summer afternoon, greens, butter beans." But my memories are very different.
Much of what I felt about the South I knew when I was young carried with it a special, valuable kind of loneliness: the mimosa scent everywhere, and what we called the banana shrub, the rituals of society and church, the heavy shade trees, dripping with silvery gray moss, the sun setting over the mournful swamps with the cypress stumps lurking in them. The magnolias for climbing in and hiding in, for smelling the enormous creamy blossoms with their yellow center; the pine forests with the tall trunks standing so prickly against the sky, their gobbets of sap you could feel, protruding from the trunks; the bay trees with the leaves you could crumple and smell, like some place far away; those clumps of bamboo and cedar with hollow middles, rising so high that you could sit alone and not be reached. I never wanted to be reached.
I understood all too well what Walker Percy meant by "the placeness of the South" becoming too suffocating for some writers. That was not the reason for my leaving. Yet that placeness seems to nourish everything I remember now.
Our town looked, so long ago, like a lot of towns in North Carolina, I expect. It was quiet and you could usually make time for what you wanted to do. I remember most, growing up in an outlying part called Oleander, how my sister, Peg, and I would make time for going down to the river. It wasn't much of a river, really, sort of a creek, with insects flitting back and forth. But we called it "the river."
Bright green wings I remember, and the water a muddy brown. And vines growing up along the trees and winding down again in a dark tangle. You would take hold of the one that seemed the right length for that particular day, swing on it way out over the water, and drop down on the other side. Right before you would grab it, you would get a terror in your knees, and worse right before dropping. I never got over it. What Peg felt, I don't know. I couldn't seem to ask her about it. Right now, I can feel that swoop in the pit of my stomach.
The trees crowded close together by the creek to make a perfect place for secrets, away from the light, twisting and murky. Sometimes there were several of us over by the vines, but I liked best being there just with Peg. We had something special between us: hard to say what. Mother used to ask me about it; Father never did. When we'd had enough swinging, we'd go behind the vines, and smoke a bit of rabbit tobacco in the circle of the bamboo grove, hidden away. That was where Peg told me about life. I surely wasn't going to ask our parents about anything. It wasn't actually a family in which you wanted to ask a lot. Whatever kept us quiet, it had gotten all tangled up, worse than the vines. You couldn't see the bottom or where it started, or how to untangle it.
When we were growing up, we lived in a largish house of Anglo-Norman design. Our father had been a pilot in the war, and was afterward connected with Security National, a small southern bank that was later absorbed by Wachovia, then by North Carolina National. Since Mother's father had been invited over from America to work in the cotton business in Bremen owned by the Sprunts, lifelong friends of the family in our town, Mother was brought up abroad. Upon her return, she mixed up her languages, as well as her metaphors, with a good deal of charm. "That's the way the anvil swings," she would say. It swung in my mind for years, and still does upon occasion.
After returning to America during the war, mother was placed in National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. Subsequently, instead of going to college, she went to Charles Rann Kennedy's acting school somewhere up North, and it had made a big impression on her: melodrama was a part of her makeup. If she never did learn anything practical, such as spelling, refilling a ballpoint pen, or adding a row of figures, she could write a letter with all the downstrokes heavy and the upstrokes delicate, as she had in Europe. She could name the days of the week in several languages, and you would think it was poetry. What she had was a kind of elegance. She was much admired, in spite of never getting the hang of southern rhythm.
Mother's great-grandfather General Clayton had been the president of the University of Alabama in 1912. They had all grown up near there, in Eufaula. Others in the family had been senators and lawyers. Grandmother, the one I adored and wanted to be just like, was called to Washington, to be the hostess for Senator Pugh, her uncle I think. About our father's family, we knew less, except that his mother, Ama, was said never to have looked in a mirror. It was claimed that some aunt died in her rocking chair rather than admit she had no food. We found all this impressive and strange.
Everything was very neat around Mother and Father. It seemed the exact opposite of the intertwining tangle of those vines I loved so much. In the off-white bedroom with the massive French furniture Mother had "antiqued" a dull green, they had twin closets. Father's cordovan loafers from Clark's in England, several pairs, shiny and fragrant with the Kiwi polish he used every night, were lined up at the bottom of his closet. The sweet smell of the polish lingered in the room. The heel of each right shoe was built up three-fourths of an inch to compensate for his shorter leg. His gray suits hung next to his tux and tails, his white shirts were perfectly folded in the sliding drawers of the antiqued dresser, with the cuff links for his French cuffs stored in a little round horn box on top of the dresser.
Mother's dresses all draped loosely from their hangers, arranged by color. At the bottom of her closet were drawers for scarves and jewelry boxes. Three long necklaces, amber, jade, and lapis lazuli — you had to be as tall as she was to wear them — hung over the little earphone by her dresser, put in long ago to communicate with "the servants" of whom there was now just one, Nunny. Mother would never have thought of talking with Nunny on that phone; she would rather go downstairs and have a chat. Nunny would certainly prefer that also: I never knew why the little phone remained there.
Mother wore flat shoes, so that she would not tower over Father, which she did in any case. His short stature had saved him once, she told us, when an enemy bullet had left a deep mark in the top of his pilot's helmet. He had been shot down several times, but never talked about it. Or much of anything else that seemed important to me.
Father never spoke to us about his past, although we would have liked him to. We were not supposed to ask about that or indeed anything at all. We weren't told that, I think, but we just knew.
In a typical dinner table scene Peg is asking about Father's vote in the recent elections: the world comes to a halt. His hands shaking, his voice also, he announces she has no right to ask that, or in fact anything. Neither of us has enough knowledge to have any opinions. Fine with me: I hate having opinions. So I get in less trouble than Peg, but feel guilty over that.
Would you say something to your daughter, dearest? She's asking questions again!
At Father's outburst, Peg bursts into tears and flees the room. I stare at my plate and cross my fingers so it won't happen to me. If I don't say anything, maybe he won't yell at me.
Peg rushes upstairs sobbing, trying not to make any noise. Next time, she says to me later, next time I'll take a deep breath to remember not to ask anything ever.
Or then sometimes Father and Peg would start arguing, who knows about what. It could be politics or God, or something else. Father would raise his voice slightly, his hands trembling. Peg would look scared, and then suddenly it would all fall apart. Mother and I would take the dishes to the kitchen and leave them together. You couldn't do any good anyway when voices started rising. Sometimes the atmosphere would clear, sometimes not. If Mother had been in the kitchen, could she see what had happened afterward by Peg's eyes the way I could? Often, you couldn't guess what Mother was thinking and I didn't want to ask. I guess it was not asking Father that made me hesitate to ask anyone else anything.
Generally Mother was perceptive, easily pleased, interested in everything, and somewhat different from other people, as if she were holding something in reserve. Or not knowing how to share it. When the rain was pouring down warm on the slate roof, she might sometimes try to explain to us how things were and had been, over the gingerbread and syrupy sauce she felt appropriate to the rain. The way she and her three brothers had been brought up in Bremen haunted her all her life. She would tell us tales of how her German governess loved to frighten her by saying there was a rabbit in the toilet. If she hit a wrong note, the piano teacher would rap her knuckles until they bled. The sewing teacher would rip out her knitting over and over: "Amerikanische," she would hiss, and drop a box of pins on the floor for Mother to pick up. Her three brothers would scalp her dolls. It was not a good time for her.
When World War I broke out, the family made their way back through England, leaving Mother's brother Max to be schooled. They returned to Wilmington, to a large and rambling house downtown, across from Grandmother's friend Miss Nellie. When Mother was in drama school as a budding actress, she had shown great talent. But she ended up in southern society, in which her slightly foreign manners and her natural warmth mingled well with her beauty. Mother rode horses and dressed with great dramatic flair. Five men proposed to her, but she chose the one who was her best friend. I liked that story a lot. Some day, I used to think, when I had a best friend who was of the other sex, I'd like to marry him.
In the stories Mother used to love to tell us, you could hear a dim kind of melancholy: inherited from Germany, I thought. All her tales were tinged with it. Little Mary Rose was always getting lost in the forest; a small boy was always being swept away by the king of death — "the Erlkönig," Mother would exclaim — and Paula Modersohn-Becker, the friend of Rilke, was always dying in childbirth. Grandmother had known Paula and her husband, Otto Modersohn, when she had been invited to paint in the Worpswede school, near Bremen. Paula Modersohn's depressing and intimately foggy colors my mother loved in art and life.
Mother remained haunted by her time growing up in Germany as a foreigner. She would recite with fevered intensity:
Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten
Das ich so traurig bin ...
translating for me: "I don't know why I feel so sad. ..."
I associated this poem with a large and florid painting of the Lorelei that hung above our stairs. She had nothing whatsoever to do with sadness, this frontally posed, bare-breasted female. She was on the contrary so joyously exposed that Mother would take her off the wall if visitors were coming. Their discomfiture at such an extraordinary sight she could scarcely imagine. As for the firemen, for example, too bad: I think they would have loved it, as I did. I always took a look to get up my courage before sliding down the curving brass banister.
Mother's style was effortless and visible everywhere, even in mundane things. For picnics, she could make the thin slices of cucumber rest just against the edges of the bread with its crust cut off, whereas my thickish chunks would protrude from the sides or tear unsightly holes in the bread. She would take us to sit on a sand dune by the ocean at Wrightsville Beach — not far from Oleander — or in some forest nearby, and tell us fables. They seemed less sad when we were on picnics than the bedtime tales she would tell when sitting on the edge of our beds, before we fell asleep. Among the picnic stories, I especially liked the one about the jam spoon that kept filling back up. It was the opposite of poor little Mary Rose and the doomed son. But Mother liked the heavy forest-sad ones better.
Mother said often she had had a happy life, but it looked to me like a constant taking care of others, once she was married. Her parents had given the young couple the house we grew up in, in Oleander, on Live Oak Parkway: everything was named after trees or flowers. For years, "Big Sister," our father's aunt, lived with us, bedridden and sitting straight up, her lace peignoir and her perfectly arranged hair beribboned in pale blue, in a room at the top of the stairs, where the door was never shut. She needed to know every single thing that went on: she delighted in disapproving of many. She wanted to see who was going up and down, and for what reason.
Mother took care also of her brother-in-law, delicately Leslie-Howard handsome and shell-shocked from the war. He had been in the RAF, and afterward, incapacitated and kindly, he lived over our garage. Mother, who was never known to complain, had also to take care of her husband, my father, limping from the war and with several ribs missing — as well as Grandmother, and both of us, to say nothing of the church poor. And the memories in the graveyard.
My sister Peg I always adored. She could get me into my pajamas quicker than anyone, knew exactly what I wanted to read, and read it with me. Not at me, but with me. A faded brownish photograph shows us kneeling side by side. We are supposed to be praying, and indeed Peg's eyes are closed and her face is serious. My eyes are wide open and I seem to be waiting for something to happen. She was sincere at praying, as at everything, and I was curious and suspicious. I didn't want to miss out.
Peg was older and went away to school, to National Cathedral as Mother had, and as I did later. I loved it when she came home on vacations. Her being at home would change everything, just like the sun shining. We would get up early and go on "expeditions," where we could talk things out.
Peg coming in as a ghost during pajama parties, blowing in a Coke bottle with a satisfactory spooky sound. Rum and nuts and macaroons and ginger Mother would heap with a large spoon over the ice cream, it all feeling like plenty. Like the jam spoon filling itself back up.
Behind our house, a gigantic magnolia tree bent low down, so heavy in white fragrance that I couldn't concentrate when I read in the branches. They were just wide enough to perch on and those leaves thick enough to hide in. I would go there to worry. My relations to the magnolia tree and to the God I prayed to in that tree and in the few other places where I felt safe, were very close for a while, and intertwined. I always loved, from the beginning of Sunday school, the small dramatics of praying aloud, in the rich cadences of the King James version of the Bible.
Still little, I once lost a silver spoon I had been digging with. As punishment, I had to choose between switching and spanking. If you chose switching, you had to choose your own switch. The thin ones hurt the worst, because they cut right in. The point was to choose a sturdy one while you kept looking frail so you wouldn't be switched hard. If you chose spanking, it was never with a bare hand, so you could figure out which side of the hairbrush would hit you: it was worse on the bristly side.
Apparently, God helped me find the spoon, when I sent up an urgent request. But a few weeks later, he let me down. I taped a prickly question on my wall, written very large in capital letters. I stuck it there and went for a walk, sure the answer would be there when I came back, taking long enough for it to get thought through:
Dear God, are there fairies?
He never answered, so I assumed he didn't know either.
It is a late October Sunday. I am sitting in the magnolia tree with my cocker spaniel puppy, Carbon Tetrachloride, on my lap. He runs out in front of the red car that kills him. It is my fault for not caring enough about God, I know it. When I run into the house to tell my mother, she says: "That's all right, darling. We'll get you another dog." I yell at her that she doesn't understand, it or me or anything, and go up to pack my knapsack to leave forever.
Later, I go down to supper. No one mentions the event. Mother probably didn't even hear me.
Wisteria vines climbed up the side of the pale pink brick parish house where we practiced in the Saint James choir. When I yawned all the way through every service, Scottie the organist said that was good: it meant you opened your mouth wide and really sang. Wearing those heavy black robes with the starched white collars to sing in church made up for the slightly boring ceremony, of which I only liked the hymns. I had always wanted to be a nun and wear a habit, but there were not many Anglican orders and none nearby. I liked the Lenten services best, at five in the afternoon, mournful and solemn. Always I counted the mistakes in the sermons, read the words of all the hymns, and all the articles of the faith I was supposed to have, and all the rules of the rituals, in the back of the prayer book. But God hadn't taken the time to answer me about the fairies.
On Sundays, we were always late for church. When I had to go up the aisle (I was always wearing the wrong thing, wasn't I?) to put the tasteless wafer on my tongue and take a sip of the communion wine, even that little sip would make me dizzy. Weaving my way back to my seat, I would try not to let on how lightheaded I had become from the wine, or to show how I was concerned with the way the hot- air vent would blow my pleated skirt up and out.
Excerpted from To the Boathouse by Mary Ann Caws. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
One Southern Vines,
Two Other Places,
Five The Alone Journals,
Six Lectures Here and There,
Seven New York Journal,