I am reading a biography about Frances Hodgson Burnett. When she was fifteen, her family left Manchester and moved to East Tennessee (where I currently reside). The biographer keeps emphasizing that Frances always felt like she had one foot in each continent, that when she was living in one she wished she were in the other, and an unsettled sense was always about her. It reminds me of Milo in the Phantom Tollbooth (when he was in school he wanted to be home, and when he was home he wanted to be somewhere else), and I’m also reminded of myself: always wandering and wondering.
When I was a girl living in southwest Ohio, my mother, father, maternal grandparents and I liked to go to the little festivals that crop up in the summers in Ohio. Each little village in Ohio seems to have a festival; their populations go from sleepy to wide awake as people from Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus trek from their suburban homes to the little idyllic villages that surround the bigger cities perimeters. A few I remember: Germantown has the sauerkraut fest, Lebanon the apple, and Spring Valley has the potato.
Each of these little towns is unique in its own way, of course. Germanton, true to its name, is full of Germanic street names, and also lovely green farms full of rich sweet corn. Lebanon is known for its antiques and picturesque downtown. Gary and I actually used to live in Lebanon, and on Friday nights we could be seen eating pimento cheese sandwiches and fried mushrooms at the Village Ice Cream parlor. Gary usually followed his sandwich with a chocolate malt, and I usually drank a nectar soda from the fountain. We weren’t the most exciting of young couples, looking back we sound more like the elderly residents of the little picket-fence hamlet. Every now and then I’d see Neil Armstrong, who lived in Lebanon, ambling quietly down the town sidewalk. He was a tall, modest looking man, very shy. Most people respected his privacy and most probably didn’t recognize him; he didn’t exactly carry around his astronaut’s helmet like in his famous portrait. A few years after Gary and I moved to Tennessee, a story about Mr. Armstrong was featured in News of the Weird. One of the town barbers had saved a grey lock of hair that he had clipped off of the astronaut’s head, and had sold it on Ebay.
Imagine that. How odd your life would be if you were Neil Armstrong. You are one of the few humans who have gone to space, and you are the first one to step onto soil and rock that is not the Earth’s. Thirty-five or so years later you are an older gentleman living a quiet life in a quiet town, safe from the twenty-first century’s prying, ever-connected eyes, and one day your own barber cuts your hair and sells it on Ebay.
Spring Valley is even smaller than Germantown and Lebanon. Its main downtown street is narrow, and filled with few amenities. A post office, a mercantile, a couple of antique stores. The town library is down a few streets from the main street, and is housed in an old house with a wraparound porch. During the weekend Potato Festival, the dusty street and side streets pulse with vendors selling art and food. A tent is set up where you can buy a ham sandwich (the meat from local pigs) and a bowl of potato soup, and there is usually some small form of entertainment. When I was younger the entertainment was usually in the form of female country singer dressed in tight black jeans and sequins, but now I reckon they’d feature bluegrass or folk. Thank God.
About that little library I told you about. The first year I remember going to the potato festival, my mother and I walked up the little side streets following the hand-printed signs that read “library used book sale”. Lining the streets were the sort of quaint little homes that romantic types dream about at night: long porches with Victorian detail, ferns hanging from beams, little herb gardens full of bees and butterflies. In one of these old homes was the library, and during the festival they lined their wraparound porch with the dregs of their collection.
You can imagine the smell. The festival took place in the fall, so the leaves had just turned and were giving off that sweet clean apple scent. Little wafts of fresh-made French fries floated in from vendor’s carts…and the smell of old books and old house mingled in. To me, it was what walking into a big cathedral must feel like to a devout Catholic. I felt peace, I felt home, and I felt the spines of old books with my skinny fingers.
While my mother looked at cookbooks and old magazines, I explored where the librarians had stacked the fiction books. Do you know where it was? They tucked the novels at the edge of the porch, on tables and little hand painted shelves. I picked up an old, worn, clothbound copy of Ethan Frome, and after I paid the volunteer who was walking around with a little canvas apron tied to her waist a dollar, I started to read the biography of Edith Wharton that was printed in the back of the book (which was printed in the 1920’s).
Born on January 24th, 1862, Edith Wharton is the author of many novels…
Ah! Born on my birthday! At twelve, I was intrigued, and spent the rest of the festival reading about the bleak life that Ethan led in Starkfield with Zeena, and how hard he fell for the young, beautiful Mattie. I remember relating to the frustrating passion that runs through the novel. As a seventh grader I was suffering from a sort of forbidden love myself; there were many boys who I loved, but did not love me or had girlfriends. I related to the sadness, and the attraction between Ethan and Mattie. The cold, evil Zeena reminded me of the cold, evil girlfriends of a few of my true loves, if only these boys and I had a wagon to chance escape! Surely we wouldn’t crash into the snow and be bloodied and maimed.
I grew obsessed with Edith Wharton. After finishing Ethan Frome the Sunday after we attended the potato festival, I checked out from my own library The Age of Innocence, and read it in a few days. The film came out a few months later, which in my head was a sort of literary Kismet.
This was before the internet, before ferocious curiosity could be quelled in an instant and without something solid. Visits to the local bookstore and library were filled with an eagerness to find out more about Edith Wharton, to find more books like Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, to find more stories that made my heart beat with bright red blood. On one trip to the bookstore, I found a stack of tshirts that had caricatures of famous artists on the front. Towards the bottom of the pile of soft white shirts was one of Edith. Her caricature showed a haughty woman with sultry, deep set eyes. Her hourglass figure was exaggerated with a corset, and her biography was printed on the back. An orange clearance sticker was stuck to the price tag (I guess no one else wanted a tshirt with a dead female novelist on the front), and I found I had just enough cash in my backpack to buy it. I’d have to forego my usual iced coffee from the little bookstore restaurant, but that didn’t matter. I’d have this amazing shirt to wear to school the next day.
I wore the shirt on top of my usual ripped jeans and Keds. A few kids asked who was the lady on the shirt, but I remember being largely ignored as I usually was, and that was fine. The shirt was very soft, and it made me feel smart to wear it, like I had a passionate secret bubbling beneath my skin. I did, you know.