| Afternoons with Emily |
By Rose MacMurray
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My story did not begin when I was born; no one’s does. We are all the result of a thousand intersecting lives — when the chance action of some casual stranger sets Fate in motion. I exist only because a kindly teacher, on impulse, offered his book of classical myths to a serious little boy of seven. This small event of some ninety years ago eventually led to me, Miranda Chase — and to my sitting here tonight, recalling my life, tracing the path that led me to Amherst and to Emily, and then far beyond either.
I am a true New Englander, with ten or twelve generations of New England forebears on each side of my family. John Latham, my mother’s ancestor, was one of the very first band of settlers that came to New England in 1620. The Chases, my father’s family, arrived with the Dickinsons in 1630. Even the proud Dickinsons, Amherst’s royalty, reached the stony shores of Massachusetts ten years after the Lathams. Emily knew this, but it always suited her to forget it.
My father, Josiah Bramhall Chase, was born in Springfield, a small prosperous iron-smelting city in western Massachusetts, in 1795. All his life, Father was proud that his birthday, December 15, was on the same date the Bill of Rights had been ratified by our new Congress in 1791.
My grandfather, Elliott Chase, was an engineer and chief metallurgist for the Springfield Foundry, which later manufactured most of the rifles for the northern armies of the Civil War. He was an imposing figure — influential, respected, and widely read. He patented four inventions that brought him a small regular income. He was admired for speaking fluent German and for entertaining metallurgists from abroad.
My grandmother, Jane Stafford Chase, conducted a “dame school” in her house for very young children. She and her sister taught a generation of four-year-olds and are still remembered fondly. I have seen some of her teaching notes and plans; they are spirited and charming, a world beyond the joyless Puritan methods then in use. Although she died twelve years before I was born, I have always sensed her influence on my own work.
My Chase forebears lived simply but comfortably. Their spacious white clapboard houses, set among splendid arching elms, were unadorned, not so much furnished as burnished. Whenever I visit the Chases or Staffords or Bramhalls around the valley, I am struck by how every plain surface — wood, metal, or glass — glows with care and pride.
These families were judges and farmers and shipbuilders on the Connecticut River. They prospered, yet there was none of the casual luxury — the hothouse fruit, the crystal and silver trinkets, the fine gold-tooled morocco leather bindings — that I remember in Boston on Mount Vernon Street and that I now recognize as the visible tips of the concealed fortunes of my mother’s family. But my father and his younger sister, Helen, had one indulgence, one unlimited luxury.
“Our roof was supported by books!” Father once told me. He recalled that books were everywhere — overflowing from shelves onto windowsills and into corners. Defoe lay open on a table; Scott and Fielding were stacked in toppling piles at each bedside.
As soon as he began to read, Josiah Chase found the true passion of his life: a copy of Ovid, which his teacher had lent him, enthralled him with the myths of classical Greece. At eight, he began learning Greek after school. He stepped into Athens, sixth century BC, and never left it. At fourteen, he won a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, competing among the most brilliant boys of New England. The routine was spartan, the leisure scant, the study demanding — yet my father always spoke of his years at Exeter as the happiest of his life.
On his second day of school at Exeter in September 1810, Josiah Chase and another new student, Tom Bulfinch, met in Latin III and eyed each other warily.
“Which were best, Greeks or Romans?” Josiah asked Tom.
“Greeks, of course! ” Tom answered Jos. Thus began an extraordinary friendship — one that lasted more than fifty years and made them both famous. Tom Bulfinch, with my father’s encouragement and advice, wrote the seminal text The Age of Fable, while Tom served in the same capacity for my father’s first compendium and analysis of the great classical plays.
Together the two young scholars worked side by side at the pace of a classical snail, never hurrying and never doubting their work would succeed someday. I can imagine the two leggy schoolboys, earnest and crack-voiced, building their shared dreams, piece by meticulous piece. I kept a few pages of Father’s earliest notebook, written at Exeter and annotated by Tom when Father was fifteen. The notes are blotted and swollen from having fallen in the Swampscott River after a forbidden swim. I still smile as I recall them: “Check on Patroclus’s shield. Look up ‘laurel’ (branch and leaf formation). Who was Phaëthon’s sister?” And the endearing confession: “The rest of these pages used for the tail of our kite, May 9, 1811.”
After Exeter, Tom and Jos went on to Harvard together. They studied their beloved classics and graduated with honors in 1814. Then they shared a tiny yellow house on Linnaean Street in Cambridge. Tom eventually clerked in a Boston bank, and Father instructed in Greek literature at Harvard. He once confided that before every lecture that first year, he fingered his lucky Greek coin for the courage to face all those eager students. He blossomed in that venue, growing expansive on the lecturer’s stage. The devotion of his students long after they graduated was a testimony to the compassion and interest he demonstrated in his Harvard office. It was some time before that warming light shone on me, his daughter.
Mythology took up most of Josiah’s and Tom’s leisure, and the related travel used up all their money. As the years passed and their ambition and diligence never faltered, their friends gave them ironic classical nicknames. Father was “Hercules” (for his heroic labors) and Tom was “Sisyphus” (whose stone kept rolling back downhill forever).
Then it was 1840. Jos and Tom were middle-aged bachelors now, their great works still unfinished. Tom’s father, Charles Bulfinch, had just returned to Boston as an elderly laureate, having completed the U.S. Capitol. He invited Tom and my father, whom he treated as another son, for sherry on Thanksgiving Day.
“You’d better bring that Greek coin of yours, Jos,” Charles Bulfinch told Father. “I have a Greek surprise for you.”
This proved to be Miss Marian Latham, a Bulfinch neighbor on Beacon Hill. She was a small, stunning beauty, a startling replica of the nymph Arethusa, whose profile graced my father’s lucky gold coin.
“I have your head right here in my pocket,” said my delighted father, taking out the coin to show her. There is no record of her reply to this startling and charming overture. I imagine she went on smiling, and my father went on staring. I cannot imagine them talking — that afternoon or ever. Actually, I have no memory of my parents in conversation.
The Marian Latham Chase I knew was an elegant figure, rarely seen, who spoke only platitudes and stared with lovely vacant eyes. My maternal grandmother, Eliza Cabot Latham, died in childbirth when my mother, Marian, was three. Many of my relatives remember the pretty, lonely child growing up motherless in the big house at number 32. Even then, the weakness to which she would later succumb had been present in the occasional gasping for air, the labored breathing as she slept, the flushed cheeks upon exertion. But this was rarely discussed and certainly never outside the immediate family.
Marian Latham finished her classes and lessons at eighteen. She was considered “accomplished” — that is, she wrote a pretty hand, sang a bit, and spoke flawless French. If she was remote, it was attributed to breeding, her stillness a quality to admire in a future wife. Furthermore, she was a noted beauty, an ornament to Boston society — and an heiress to a great fortune. Surely there must be a brilliant match waiting for such a belle! Yet at twenty-nine she was somehow still single. Her kindly relations had scoured Boston for years, collecting partners for Marian at their parties. But these introductions seemed to lead no further once the young eligibles learned that Marian’s delicate eyes and complexion were but early symptoms of the inevitable declining health that lay ahead.
As a small child I wondered so often what she was thinking, what her secrets were. I soon learned that her secret was a terrible one: tuberculosis, the disease whose diagnosis was a virtual death sentence. This stalker of health spared no one. Even the rich and eminent — Chopin, Thoreau, Lanier, and Keats — were felled by it. Marian’s father was a known consumptive, a semi-invalid who seldom left home. Marian herself was a “parlor case,” with an early history of coughing blood but with intervals of better health and cautious activity. It is easy to see how my mother, already somewhat withdrawn by temperament and circumstances, would be further distanced from the world by knowledge of her fatal disease. It was there in the house already, eating at her father. Any morning it might turn and ravage her too. How could she ever be unguarded and carefree?
This was the situation in 1840 when my father, a stranger to Boston society, appeared with his proposal. What a sigh of relief must have emanated from the tired Lathams! I can almost hear them now, congratulating each other.
“A capital fellow!” the Howes and Lathams and Curtises assured one another.
“From somewhere in the Connecticut River Valley . . . a bit older, but that Marian needs a steady hand. Harvard ’14, and on the faculty there now. Mark my words, Marian will be fine!”
My parents were engaged in a fortnight and married just after Easter 1841. There were reasons for this modish hurry; my Latham grandfather was seriously consumptive, and the engaged couple were not young. So the double parlors and the spiral stair at 32 Mount Vernon Street were hung with garlands of white lilac and crowded with relatives in silk and serge. The Chases, coming from Springfield, never guessed how few festivals had graced the handsome house.
The bridal pair spent a week in Newport, in a house lent by a pious Howe cousin whose rectitude had been enriched by a hundred years in the slave trade. Then they returned to Mount Vernon Street, and — after the round of family dinner parties to honor the newlyweds — my father unpacked his books and settled into his father-in-law’s mansion.
If there were acquaintances who whispered that my father had sought to better himself by marrying up, they were mistaken. He loved comfort and convenience and beautiful things, but he was incapable of scheming to achieve them. He loved to travel and buy books and presents, but he had indulged himself in these ways when he was poor. Since he spent almost all his waking hours in the Athens of Pericles, it is quite possible that he never noticed the ease and elegance of his new setting. He slept on Beacon Hill, but by day he looked upon the agora from the acropolis.
Perhaps in my father, Marian had found the perfect partner. Wrapped up in his own world, he would never attempt to invade or intrude into hers. And she would not make demands of his time or attention, leaving him to visit with the ancients. Neither noticed or missed the daily interactions, the entanglement of lives that other marriages entailed.
My own story begins at 32 Mount Vernon Street, where I was born on September 16, 1843. I was installed on the fifth floor — the “nursery floor,” up under the roof. My parents resumed their tranquil parallel lives, undisturbed. Father read and studied and taught. Mother supervised her father’s servants; she dressed beautifully and skimmed French novels. Very occasionally, they dined out.
If my parents ever asked to “see the baby,” then someone must have carried me in — all ribbons and shawls, like a squab on a garnished platter. The rest of the time I was cared for by Irish nursemaids. At three months, I was christened Arethusa, soon shortened to Ara by my grandfather, who I am told loved me dearly.
How I have searched my memory for the faintest trace of this gentleman! I retain only a huge, warm presence, a prickly kiss, a sense of being welcome and valuable. It is family lore that he would have me brought down at breakfast every day. He would hold me on his lap while he read the morning paper and tell me when to turn the page — and they say I never wriggled once. Father must have observed this often, to tell it so well when I would ask him.
My first actual clear-edged memory is of Grandfather’s winter funeral — though the concept of death was meaningless to me. I remember the great snorting black horses, wearing curling black feathers and silver jewelry; they stamped and steamed in the cold. I remember the fresh, bright snow on the cobblestones and the quiet crowds of people in black. Their sharp shadows were blue on the snow, violet on the pink brick houses. This was in February 1846; I must have been two and a half.
When summer came that year, the big house was suddenly noisy with hammers and saws. Jolly red-faced men came and went, shouting and spitting in strange languages. I begged to see all this, and my bored nursemaid would take me downstairs to watch the carpenters working. They were changing my grandfather’s old bedroom into a new room for my father’s books.
When the loud carpenters disappeared, the house settled back into dense silence. My father vanished into that study, barely emerging. Sometimes I heard the heavy front door open and close; sometimes I heard the tall clock strike the hour calmly; but usually my big house kept its unbroken quiet.
My lively, sociable relatives all lived nearby, up and down Beacon Hill, in high, bay-windowed houses like mine. My mother seemed to me a whole other species than my brisk, busy, talkative cousins and great-aunts. I used to stand at the street windows of our famous double parlor on the second floor. From there, I would see my aunts and cousins passing in carriages or crossing to call on one another. They were always in twos and threes, talking earnestly. Sometimes they would look up and wave, but they did not often stop. I never expected them to. My grandfather’s death, my mother’s isolation, the frequent doctor visits, all spoke to one fact: we were dangerous. My family had a terrible disease, and the relatives did not want us very close.
I do not mean to suggest that my parents and I were complete outcasts in that family neighborhood. The relatives never abandoned Marian; instead, there was a distance. It was simply that Latham plans did not often include the Chases. “Marian wouldn’t enjoy it,” said the uncles. “Marian isn’t well enough,” said the aunts. “Arethusa probably shouldn’t exert herself, just in case,” said the cousins.
There was and is very little known about the course, treatment, and prevention of consumption. My grandfather had died of it, and after I was born, my mother’s illness flared up; she went from being a “parlor case” to a near invalid.
The Lathams told one another that Dr. Jackson saw Marian every week and that he always listened to my chest too. They reassured themselves that we were being taken care of while firmly establishing among the connected families that I too either had or would soon come down with consumption like my mother.
Cousin Daisy Powell was the family’s designated herald. Sixty or so, alert and stylish, she loved her duties of reporting news and carrying messages among the relations. She was unfailingly kind to me; she always expressed an official family sympathy and interest.
“We all want you to get better,” she assured me. “What did Dr. Jackson say about your health this week?”
“Not much. He always asks if I have spat blood.”
“And have you?”
“Not yet.” And I would search her face for a clue as to whether this was the right or the wrong answer. There seemed to be an expectancy surrounding this question. I answered truthfully, and there did seem relief in my response, but the very routine nature of the questioning reinforced the idea that coughing up blood was inevitable. My difference, my unique unhealthy condition, was a fact, a given — like the Lowell cousins’ freckles. Being “not well” was as much a part of me as my fair braids or the little hidden mole behind my left ear — or the secret that I did not really have a mother.
It was the task of one of the servants to take me for walks twice a day around the streets of Beacon Hill. Whenever I met relatives, they would always ask about my health. Again I was reminded that I was frail and sickly — and I accepted this, as children will. I had no basis of comparisons; I had never lived any other way.
Cousin Daisy was also the keeper of the web, the weaver of stray threads and loose people into the family tapestry. And in my case, she assumed many of the duties ordinarily handled by a mother. She took obvious pleasure in overseeing my wardrobe. Every fall and spring, she climbed to my nursery with little floppy books of cloth, accompanied by a sad, silent woman who measured me. Usually we copied the styles of dresses I already had, but I was allowed to choose the colors and materials. This selection was important to me; it was the only part of my life where I had any authority. I always looked for stripes, which delighted me; they still do.
Despite the family taint, we were always included in the great family occasions: weddings and funerals, Thanksgiving and Christmas. To do less would have been far more scandalous than the danger implied by the threat of consumption. I could also count on seeing all the Lathams collected every New Year’s Day, when one of the linked families (never ours) took its turn giving a reception.
The loud, crowded house would be alight with candles and crystals, fragrant with evergreen decorations. One of the half-grown sons would stand importantly beside the candle-laden tree with a bucket of water at hand in case of fire. Every table carried silver bowls of eggnog and salvers of sliced fruitcake. Jolly strangers who all knew my name shook my hand and wished me better health in the New Year. They were always careful not to kiss me.
Mostly I would stand in my black velvet dress, watching the other children. I was amazed that my cousins seemed to know every detail of one another’s daily lives. I wondered at their inscrutable jokes, their holiday events, their complicated interlocking plans. They seemed to me like one solid block of rosy energy and action.
“Did the sweater fit?” “She gave us all hymnals!” “O come, all ye faithful . . .” “We’ll come sledding tomorrow after the service.” “Jane got a pony!” “There’s another ham in the dining room!”
I always noticed how a mother would straighten her daughter’s ribbons; a father would smooth his excited son’s unruly hair. They all seemed to touch one another easily and often. I was fascinated. My parents very rarely touched me; I don’t recall seeing them ever touch each other.
Every year, going home with my parents, I took a piece of fruitcake in a little foil box, with the new date embossed on the cover. I always believed I had been part of the event. I never knew I should have been with my cousins for days beforehand, racing up and down the stairs, decorating the house, and wrapping the presents. I should have been asked to stay on for supper after the party, to finish the hams and the eggnog, and to sing our New Year’s song one last time.
Still, I did not feel neglected. Since I had never had either companionship or parental concern, I did not know I was living without them. It was as if I had been born deaf and never missed music. I had a cramped, chilly nursery on the fifth floor, with three peaked dormer windows looking over the roofs and gardens and mews behind Mount Vernon Street. Here under the roof I had a scruffy parakeet and a jointed wooden doll named Lady Jane Grey — I forget why. Here were my paints and my scissors, my weaving and my beadwork. Above all else, here were a hundred books read to me by my nursemaids. What else could I possibly need? If a passing genie had offered to grant me three wishes, I would have asked him for a better lamp, a stove that didn’t smoke — and a hundred more books.
Several of these nursemaids came and went; I have forgotten their names. One taught me a card game; another stole my clothes, one dress at a time. All of them took me for walks twice a day. Then when I was nearly five, I acquired a proper English governess: Miss Mabel Ellison. She was enormous, with hard red flesh and stiff black hair. She had a faint mustache and separate bristles coming out of round lumps on her jaw. Her huge arms and legs were hairy too, as were the backs of her thick hands. Her fingers were like stiff, strong sausages.
Whenever Miss Ellison handled me — a dress over my head, a hand on my shoulder crossing the street — she managed to make the contact rough and painful. I felt anger in the tips of her fingers, frustration on the callous palms of her hands. My dresses seemed to infuriate her — she’d yank them from the wardrobe, muttering, “Why should you have so much when my own darling suffers?” I would catch her glare, as if my existence were a blight, and if I misbehaved (and often I knew not the nature of my crime, just that I was being punished) the lecture included references to her perfect daughter back in England, whose childhood was one of deprivation.
On my fifth birthday, my father visited the nursery. When he entered, he found me crying. Miss Ellison was pulling my hair, completing the daily ordeal of my braids. She always told me this was extra difficult because my fair hair curled.
“Did Ara disobey you?” my father asked.
“No, Professor Chase, she carries on like this every blessed morning. She’s just a great big crybaby about her braids.”
“Is she indeed? Ara, please come with me to the library. I have a birthday present for you.”
Something in his voice gave me hope that he would listen to me about Miss Ellison. If I could only tell him what she was like, then perhaps he would make her a little kinder. He might even send her away.
“Ara, talk to me about Miss Ellison. Why don’t you like her?”
“Because she hates me.”
“Why should she hate you? Are you rude or disobedient? Nobody likes a child like that.”
“I’m not, I’m not! She hates me so she can hurt me. She likes hurting me.” I was desperate to explain that Miss Ellison had a child of her own in England who was poor. She hated me because I was not that child. Squeezing and pinching and pushing me made her feel better. I knew all this was true, though it made no real sense to me. I did not have the right words that would make Father believe me.
“All English people are strict, you know,” he told me. “You’ll learn good manners that way. The English manners are still the best.”
There went my chance; he had stopped listening. My father handed me my present, and I knew that the subject of Miss Ellison was now closed. There was no use talking about this to my mother; her burden of ill health was as much as she could bear. My jaw tightened as I fought back tears of frustration. Miss Ellison would stay.
I gripped the gift and realized my father was waiting for me to thank him. I stared at the leather sack in my hand. Curious, I opened it to discover hundreds of little ivory tablets, each with an alphabet letter. My father took a book from his shelf — I don’t remember what it was — and showed me how to arrange the tablets to match words on the page, and then he read me the word. We played this game for a few minutes before he sent me back to Miss Ellison.
Then it was Christmas, then New Year’s Day, and time to dress for another Latham eggnog party. I had some bronze kid slippers with a pearl button at the ankle; I had loved them when Cousin Daisy bought them for me the previous year. When Miss Ellison had trouble fastening them, I reminded her I had been saying they squeezed my feet.
“You wouldn’t complain if they were the only shoes you owned,” she snapped, yanking the buttonhook.
So I walked to Cedar Street with my parents, between the tall houses with their wreaths and candles, and then after the New Year’s party I walked painfully home. By the next morning, my left heel was sore and red where the skin had rubbed off. I told Miss Ellison about this, because she was a grown-up and would know what to do. She was not interested.
“You just want new shoes, don’t you?” she accused me. That ended the discussion.
There had been a heavy snow in the night, and the steep streets were difficult. We could not take our usual dreary walk, so I wore my soft knit slippers in the house for several days. I did not speak about my heel again.
Days later, my whole foot was red; it stopped hurting and began to beat like a little drum. There was a purple hole, with raised yellow edges, on the back of my heel. I wondered what would happen next.
I realized I had a secret, my first. I made excuses to take my bath alone; I managed not to limp in the nursery. Somehow I knew I was taking action against Miss Ellison; somehow my foot would be the end of her. I waited.
One morning, I couldn’t get out of bed. Miss Ellison yanked off my covers and saw my foot, which seemed to have burst during the night. Her scream was all I could have hoped for. Dr. Jackson must have been in the house already, visiting my mother, for he was there at once — and my father too. Then everyone left the room, and I never saw Miss Ellison again.
When Dr. Jackson came back, he brought Teresa, a sweet, dark Italian girl who was learning to be a nurse in the big hospital near us. She spoke like someone singing. She was there all day and all night, the first person in my life who handled me gently.
Teresa had to soak my foot in scalding water a dozen times a day; she never minded when I cried out from the pain. She always touched me very lightly; sometimes she stroked my forehead with wonderful ice. One night because of my fever, she cut off most of my braids and never once pulled me about as she did so.
I believe Teresa stayed a long while, but the days and weeks ran together. I was never sure if it was day or night, for I slept in the daytime. Then the pain would wake me in the night, and whispering people would come in and out with lamps. I dimly recall Cousin Daisy Powell conferring quietly with Father. Teresa said my mother came twice. This stunned me. I must have been very ill indeed! It pleased and frightened me to have roused my mother from her room.
When I was well enough to sit up in bed, all the snow was gone. Teresa gave me my alphabet tablets, and I started arranging them on a tray. My father had brought me a fine new book on whaling, and I asked Teresa to read it to me — but she had a better idea.
“Let’s copy the first line with your letters,” she said — and we spelled out a dozen words on my tray.
“Now look at them as I read. ‘The square-rigged Nancy O. was a whaler out of Nantucket.’ ” She ran her finger slowly along the tablets as she spoke. “What do you see, Ara?”
“Words. Sounds, I think. Oh, do it again!”
“ ‘The square-rigged Nancy O. was a whaler out of Nantucket.’ Now you read it to me.”
I did, touching each letter as I said the sounds. I felt an entire world opening up — all those books that held my father’s attention, I could find out what was in them. They would speak to me too!
“You’re safe now, Ara,” Dr. Jackson said one day. “You’re not going to lose that foot.” It was only then that I realized what I might have caused to happen.
Soon I was back in my nursery routine of books and dolls and meals on trays. I cried when dear Teresa had to go back to her hospital, but I was quite contented with my new nurse, elderly Nanny Drummond. She had been with several of the Latham families for many years and had raised their children till they were school-age; Cousin Daisy had arranged everything.
I found Nanny Drummond to be the exact opposite of Miss Ellison. She was kindly instead of hostile, slow instead of jerky, gentle instead of stern. She even felt different: slack and yielding and pillowy instead of hard as a cliff. Nothing in the world bothered her except when I called her “Scotch” instead of “Scottish” — so I never repeated my mistake.
Our meals came up from the basement kitchen on the creaking rope device called a dumbwaiter. After we ate, Nanny Drummond dozed in a rocking chair, and I began to slip downstairs to explore our beautiful silent house. I was quite familiar with the front parlor, having spent hours staring out the windows. But I wanted to see more. Soon I discovered no one seemed to care if I drifted about, looking and touching; only my mother’s room was closed to me. I never would have had such daring with Miss Ellison about; when I was younger I suppose I had no interest, accepting my confinement under the eaves as another given of my life.
Starting at the bottom, I found there were pantries and kitchens and storerooms, clanging and steaming and busy. The servants there were always cheerful and welcoming. Mrs. Bullock, the round cook, ruled these quarters like an empress. I sensed the other servants were her inferiors, yet she was always warm and kind to me. I am sure now that my mother never once gave her orders; Mrs. Bullock wouldn’t have taken them.
Sometimes she gave me bowls to scrape and lick. Often she made me a midmorning treat: a gingerbread man, with raisin eyes and a silly smile. Other days, Mrs. Bullock invited me to take my lunch in the stiff gold dining room on the floor above. Acting as my gracious hostess, she would make me a doll-size cheese soufflé. I reveled in the special attention: I knew I was being honored. She was not one to dole out false affections.
But once or twice I would overhear disconnected scraps of the servants’ talk coming up from the kitchen. When they lowered their voices, I knew they were discussing my parents.
“There’s a fine lot he doesn’t see.”
“He’s a great one for not seeing, he is.”
“That one sees only what suits him.”
“There’s a name for what ails that child, and it’s not what the doctor calls it.”
“Why doesn’t she just pack her off to the orphanage and be done with it?”
“What would her grand high family be saying then, I ask you?”
I never really understood these snatches, but they made me feel uncomfortable and somehow guilty, and I would climb back up to the nursery before Nanny Drummond woke up and missed me. But always the next day I came back down again, wandering and looking, finding new alcoves, new rooms to explore.
In my steep tower of a house, above the basement kitchen came the elegant entrance hall. I liked the window resembling a lace fan above the tall front door. I admired the black-and-white marble, in huge cold squares. If I ever had a friend, I imagined we could play a giant’s game of checkers here.
Then came the stair, and behind the stair the gold dining room, with its Chinese panels of beady-eyed birds perched among flowering branches. The birds seemed ill at ease, like me — though they spent more time there than I did.
From the entrance, the stairway rose in a graceful spiral, curving up to the second floor and the double parlors, the pride of the house. Each parlor had four windows, three in the bay and one beside it; these were hung in heavy white silk and looped with golden cords and tassels. Each room had a fireplace and a white marble mantel and an oval mirror in a precious golden wreath.
Though the walls were white, the beautiful rooms overflowed with brilliant color, exploding from rugs and velvets and brocades. And I was never quite alone. The Cabots and Curtises and Howes lived in the double parlors. They looked down on me from their arrogance and their gold-leaf frames, awaiting the guests who never came. The silent rooms gleamed for the portraits, the tireless clock, and me. I studied the paintings until they stopped frightening me, staring until their expressions struck me as funny on their imperious faces.
Above the parlors were two floors of bedrooms. My mother’s door was always shut, though I knew her maid came and went, knocking and whispering her name — then the door would be opened and closed softly. Sometimes a stern minister called there too. Now and then I would hear my mother’s silk skirt whispering on the stairs, and the front door opening and shutting heavily as she left the house. Her presence was an absence, even when I knew she was at home. I could feel her closed door all over the house. I never knew where my mother went or what she did. I had no idea whom she saw or when and what she ate — if she even ate at all. She was quite unlike anyone I had ever seen.
My father’s library was on the same floor, at the front; he let me use it on weekdays, when he was away teaching. Once, I was sitting by his window with an enormous album of Greek gods in my lap, and it slipped out of my hands and landed with a loud thud. My mother must have heard and came to investigate. I was surprised; I had heard she was quite ill, and I had not seen her in weeks. She was dressed for the street in a blue velvet costume. She didn’t look ill; she was very beautiful, as always.
“Ara, what are you doing with your father’s books?”
“He lets me read them, if I put them back in the same place exactly,” I replied. “We have a treaty.”
“Really? That’s rather surprising. You’re only four, aren’t you?” She went to the window and looked down at Mount Vernon Street, dulled by an autumn rain.
“I was five ages ago. And I know all about words. Shall I show you?” I opened the book to a page illustrated with an engraving of Apollo, and I began to read. “ ‘Apollo, the sun god, was the brother of Artemis, the moon goddess.’ ”
Mother broke in. “That’s fine, Ara. Now you’ll be able to amuse yourself, won’t you? Reading always helps to pass the time, I find . . .” Her voice faded; she rustled away, and I heard her door close.
Later, Nanny Drummond told me my mother had just come back from a month in South Carolina. I would have asked her about her trip, but I never knew she had gone away.
I was surprised that my mother thought I was still only four years old. But it did provide an explanation for a situation that had disturbed me. Ever since I turned five I had expected to begin lessons at home with a group of cousins — probably the freckled Lowells, who had a nice mademoiselle I had met on walks around Beacon Hill. I wanted to study properly, to spend time with other children. But no one said anything. Perhaps it was because my distracted parents continued to think I was still a baby of four that they had done nothing about it. I went to Father’s library and asked him when I would be starting my lessons.
“Ara, we think you’re still not well enough to be with the other children.”
I frowned. Was he talking about my perfectly healed foot — or was the consumption that stalked this house still holding me prisoner, separating me from the cousins? Was it that I wasn’t strong enough or was it that I was a danger? Somehow I knew not to ask these questions of my father.
“We’ll have to find another way for you to learn.” He rubbed his eyes as if my question had made him tired.
“I can read now. Perhaps I could teach myself,” I offered, since he looked so sad.
He gave me a small smile. “That won’t be necessary. Your uncle Thomas has a better idea, Ara. You know he’s very fond of you.”
I was glad to hear this. I had met Father’s friend Thomas Bulfinch in Father’s library, and we talked about the Greek myths he and Father were collecting. I had learned most of the stories from the engravings in Father’s art books, and he told me new ones I had not heard.
“Is he to be my teacher?” I asked.
“No, Ara, his own teaching and research take up most of his time. But we will find you a tutor at Harvard. Meanwhile your uncle Tom thinks you should learn penmanship.”
So twice a week Mr. Fisher came up to my nursery to teach me the strokes I use with pride today. He himself was of a formal Spenserian mode, stiff and correct. Then Mrs. Eaton, a friendly neighbor known to be poor and “artistic,” was engaged to instruct me in paper dolls. Even at five, I sensed these accomplishments were not an education; I was consumed with curiosity and was eager to learn more about what lay beyond my nursery walls, our lonely house, even our beautiful street.
One afternoon in March 1849, when I was five and a half, I lay in bed, Nanny Drummond hovering over me due to my current sniffles and fatigue. The downstairs maid, Jenny, came to tell us that Father wanted to see me. My energy picked up because this was new and interesting. After a moment of worrying that I wasn’t well enough to get out of bed, Nanny insisted on a clean pinafore, so I felt late when I hurried down to the library.
Father had a guest — a younger man, very tall and thin, with red hair and kind eyes. I curtsied, as Nanny Drummond had taught me, and tipped back my head to look at him. We must have seemed an odd pair — like a stork and a mouse, chatting. He sat down and motioned for me to come over to him.
“Hello, Ara,” he said. “My name is Mr. Harnett. I have been your father’s student at Harvard, and I am Mr. Tom Bulfinch’s friend. I come from New York, and I have a sister five years older than you. I love her, and books, and the sea. What about you?”
“I never met the sea.”
“But books, Ara?”
“Yes, I love to read. I read all the time.”
“Which are your favorite books?”
“Stories and myths, I think.” I went to the shelves and brought back Father’s book of mythic engravings. “I like the stories in here.”
“Tell me one of them.”
So as best I could, I told Mr. Harnett about Apollo turning Daphne into a laurel tree. I had never had to talk in front of people; I think I must have sounded like a little bird in the big quiet room.
“You tell it very well, Ara.” What a beautiful deep voice he had! And he was complimenting me. It made me want to talk more.
“I love reading about Greece,” I told him. “The gods just run around in the sun, playing war and doing tricks. And I like the bright colors.”
“Now tell me about Daphne.” I felt the force of his concentration on me; he seemed interested in what I might have to say.
I studied the picture closely, although I had seen it hundreds of times before. I wanted to give this Mr. Harnett a worthy and considered answer. “She’s not very old. Her face is scared. Do you see those little branches coming out of her arms? That would scare me.”
“Me too.” Mr. Harnett stood all the way up and shook my hand as if I were a grown-up. Then he turned to Father, smiling. “I’ll come every morning at nine, starting tomorrow. It will be a privilege, Dr. Chase.”
I had been feeling listless, with a lot of colds — or maybe it was the same one over and over again. Overnight, I was bounding with energy. When Mr. Harnett arrived the next morning, I was clean and braided and eager. My nursery table was entirely empty; nothing should intrude on whatever he was bringing to the first lesson.
“Good morning, Ara; it’s a pleasure to be here.”
I felt pleased to my toes. He genuinely seemed to be as happy as I was to begin this brand-new adventure, but he soon found I was very slow at figures. I could not connect them with my life, never having bought or measured or compared anything. Also I was puzzled by games, lacking the competitive spirit or any reason to compete. I was saved and made teachable, though, by that true scholar’s gift: I was a born reader, effortless and insatiable. So all my history and geography came disguised as poetry or novels. My father, now a full professor at Harvard, gave us the freedom of his classical library. By the time I was seven, I must have known as much about Achilles as any Harvard freshman. I never noticed that my vocabulary was growing at a rapid rate or that my conversations with Mr. Harnett included topics in the newspaper. More important, my little attic became filled with colorful characters — first from this book, then from all the books that followed. From my dormer windows, I could look out and down over Beacon Hill and all the streets and roofs and rusty chimney pots.
Thanks to Mr. Harnett, I learned English history through Beowulf and Scott. I studied Norse legends and geography in the sagas. My class materials were sometimes very worldly. We soon discovered witty and wise Jane Austen. If it hadn’t been for my family reputation of being consumptive, I would have never known my tutor and all his valuable unchildish teachings. I would have been taking traditional lessons with some cousin’s governess or mademoiselle, but since this was not possible, Father accepted the need to educate me and did his duty brilliantly, if only by accident.
I recall one particular winter morning when I was eight. It had been snowing on and off for weeks, and the low, dark sky promised more. From my dormers, I could see the worn snow on Joy Street and Cedar Street and Pinckney Street, soiled from the passing carriage horses. Every chimney pot sat in its sooty circle on the snowy roofs. The view was a sad design of black and brown and gray. Inside, though Mr. Harnett had demanded a new nursery stove, I still wore mittens and a shawl. The lamp continued to smoke.
And in all this chill and gloom, I was more than content — I was eager and joyful! I had laid out our books and papers for the morning’s work; we were deep into Viking studies. Mr. Harnett would sharpen our pencils when he came, using the little pocketknife I had asked my father to buy for him at Christmas. My tutor had given me some real English watercolors, in tiny tubes.
Our scale model of the Viking Tower at Newport was almost finished, and I had completed my assignment: a day in the life of Eric the Yellow, a cowardly Viking who sought every way to avoid fighting. Sometimes he lost his shield; often he fell overboard. Today, going for honey to make the mead, he had knocked over the beehive. Now his poor eyes were swollen shut from bee stings — he couldn’t possibly fight!
I listened for the big clock on the landing. When it started striking nine, I began to recite aloud the Shakespeare sonnet I was learning. This week’s was “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought . . .” And then Mr. Harnett’s deep and expressive voice joined mine — “I summon up remembrance of things past” — as he climbed the stairs. We recited together to the end, with a final flourish at “All losses are restored and sorrows end.” Then he said, “Good morning, Ara! Tell me what old Eric the Yellow has been up to!” and our class began.
That particular dark February morning was the precise moment when I realized that this companionship, this action and energy and laughter, were all gifts from Mr. Harnett. He had brought the world over the rooftops and into my cold nursery.
From 1849 to 1852, I marked time passing by the seasons — and whatever I was studying with Mr. Harnett. After the Vikings (who arrived here first, after all!) we spent about a year and a half on the Puritans and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
“Here’s your chance to learn all about your remarkable family,” Mr. Harnett told me, smiling. “But we’re not in the saint business; we’ll have to talk about their faults too.”
Thus I learned that my ancestors were brave and resolute but sometimes rigid and joyless. When we completed Boston and studied the other colonies, I decided Jefferson and Franklin were my true non Puritan heroes — because they had humor and new ideas, and enjoyed living. And Jefferson loved the Greeks too, all his life.
One of these years, around 1850, I became aware of some Springfield relatives: Father’s younger married sister, Aunt Helen Chase Sloan, and her family. Aunt Helen came to stay on Mount Vernon Street for a few days. I sensed a sympathy and a gentleness that my Latham relatives lacked. Nanny Drummond clearly adored her.
“I wish I could help your poor father more at this unhappy time,” Aunt Helen mourned. She had a round face like a worn pansy.
“Why, Aunt Helen? He’s fine. He loves being a professor.”
“I’d like to be here to help him with your mother’s illness — and to do things for you, Ara dear, since your mother can’t be active. But I’m needed at home.”
Aunt Helen had long private talks with Cousin Daisy and Dr. Jackson — and, I imagine, with Father. Afterward she sighed and hugged me — and sighed again.
“Someday we’ll be closer, Ara,” she promised. “Someday you’ll know your cousin Kate. She’s a bit older, but I know you’ll be friends.” This made me very curious about Springfield and Aunt Helen’s life. But not for very long. My own life was now peopled by all the characters brought into my nursery by Mr. Harnett.
In geography, Mr. Harnett and I studied Captain Cook’s adventurous voyages. One spring morning in 1852, we were down on our hands and knees, creating the Pacific Ocean. My tutor was sloshing blue paint on a sheet, and I was following him with a stiff brush, making wave ripples. Suddenly, Father appeared in the nursery, looking stern and remote.
“Ara, I want you to come with me to say good-bye to your mother.”
“All right.” I laid my brush down carefully. “Where is she going?”
“She has been gravely ill this month, and Dr. Jackson thinks she may leave us soon.”
I knew this meant dying, and I was very interested. It did not concern me directly, for I had always considered “Mother” an honorary title in my life, but the closeness of death in the house intrigued me.
I glanced at Mr. Harnett’s face; he nodded and I followed Father downstairs, where a serious nurse opened Mother’s door. The room smelled of medicine and something new — death, perhaps. She was lying on her chaise longue in a beautiful creamy lace peignoir with knots of blue ribbon. She was turned toward the chestnut tree blooming at her window. She was wasted to a shadow. Her skin was almost ethereal in its transparency, and her breath was so imperceptible, a rose leaf might have slept undisturbed on her lips.
“I like to look at the chestnuts too,” I said, trying to find something to say, something we might have in common. “I have one at my window. I can look all the way down inside it. It’s like a little lace cave.”
“I imagine it’s very like this one,” she said. “Chestnut trees are usually the same, I believe.” Then she turned toward us. All the blood seemed to have run out of her flawless face. She could have been a marble statue.
There was a dainty piecrust table at her side, with her mirror and her medicines, and a pile of white cloths. I noticed the new Atlantic Monthly too, containing Father’s article about Theseus in Minoan art.
“Did you like Father’s article?” I asked.
“I haven’t read it yet. Did you want something, Arethusa?”
I looked up at Father, uncertain, but his eyes gazed down at the floor.
“Father says I should say good-bye to you,” I explained.
Mother nodded very slowly, as if understanding this statement came to her from a distant place. “That was very thoughtful of him. Good-bye, Arethusa. Thank you, Josiah.” She turned her perfect head back to the window and reached for one of the cloths.
Father and I both knew we had been dismissed. He took my hand to lead me out of the room, gave me an odd questioning look, then sent me back to Mr. Harnett.
In the nursery, I was dismayed that Mr. Harnett had finished the Pacific without me. The thick paint dried very quickly; you had to work it while it was still wet. But Mr. Harnett offered me the challenge of doing the curving lettering as consolation, along with placing the islands with the haunting names. I felt his eyes on me as I faced the task with deep concentration, aiming for perfection and accuracy.
Two things happened that night: I woke up with croup, and my mother died. I was soon used to the steam kettle and the strange noises I made in the croup tent, which Mr. Harnett told me sounded like Maine seals calling back and forth. My mother’s death was something more unusual, but my illness caused me to miss her funeral and interment.
My life in no way changed. As far as I could tell, neither did my father’s. We had always operated in our separate spheres, one in which Mother was only a shadowy tangential fact, something one knew but not something one experienced.
Not too long after this, Nanny Drummond confided to Cousin Daisy that at the age of seventy-five she was now past raising children. I had made her last several years in the nursery as easy as I could, often not waking her until afternoon and carrying our trays from the dumbwaiter myself. Still, I knew she was right.
So the Latham family gave her a grand farewell tea at our house, in the double parlors. This was the biggest difference between before and after my mother’s death: we hosted an event. The family gathered en masse at the house. How curious they must have been. Some had never been inside; some I knew only from seeing them at holiday gatherings elsewhere.
Nanny Drummond cried through most of the tea. Each of her “children” gave her a single rose — starting with Cousin Cabot Howe, who was nearly sixty, and ending with me. Then Cousin Daisy tied a ribbon around the bouquet with a rolled-up scroll in the bow. This was a copy of the family arrangement that would give Nanny a comfortable monthly income while she lived with her dear niece in Milton, and a handsome sum for the niece’s farm when Nanny died. I could tell from the approving murmurs that this ceremony pleased all present.
With Nanny Drummond gone, I was mortally afraid of finding myself with another Miss Ellison as caretaker. I begged Mr. Harnett to speak to my father for me. It was arranged that Jenny, the downstairs maid, would sleep in Nanny’s old room and help me with baths and dressing. As to my dreary walks, Cousin Daisy solved that too. A remote Lowell connection had a crooked spine and had to walk a mile a day in a special brace. She was a sour spinster who loathed children, and I was a sulky nuisance who would have preferred a book — but nevertheless, most afternoons found Cousin Jane and me walking up and down the Beacon Hill cobblestones for an unspeaking hour. The rest of the day was gloriously mine.
So for the next year or two, my life was shaped by Mr. Harnett and his lessons — our morning projects, our writing and Latin and French. When he went back to Harvard after lunch, I continued my related reading — although all books were joy. We decided to make a tremendous study of European history, starting with the Greeks and their colonies, because we agreed that everything good started in Greece.
Soon these afternoons were occupied by the occasional social interval. When my mother died, Cousin Daisy became newly active with my Latham connections — making sure the families who forbade my sharing lessons paid for this slight in other ways. Now at least once a month I had a birthday party, or an outing to the theater or the circus, or a concert to attend. There were many entertainments available for well-off Boston children at that time.
My studies with Mr. Harnett had made me better company and more confident in groups. Still, having been kept distant from my cousins for most of my life, I was awkward and stiff in social settings. My slight remoteness was matched by an uncertainty on the part of the others. Perhaps I was still tainted with the family secret, for despite my cousins’ new willingness to include me, Mr. Harnett was still my only true friend.
We were just finishing Charlemagne on Good Friday 1853 when Jenny climbed the stairs to say that Father wanted to see us in the library right away, for an Easter surprise. Mr. Harnett and I stared at each other with raised eyebrows. This was mysterious.
We went down to the library and discovered an amazing sight: Father and Uncle Thomas were waltzing madly about the room and singing a loud Easter hymn:
The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won.
The song of triumph has begun.
I could not believe any part of the fantastic scene, but Mr. Harnett gave a whoop of laughter and held out his arms to me. Had he guessed what had made them so astonishingly lively or was their extraordinary humor simply infectious? It didn’t matter — as we waltzed, Mr. Harnett steered me very nicely. The four of us sang the lovely hymn and danced around the library, bumping often. Then Uncle Thomas stumbled over the book ladder on wheels. He sat down very hard on the bottom step. The ladder started up — and rolled him slowly along beside the shelves!
We laughed so hard at the stately way Uncle Thomas rode his chariot that my father started to cry. I stood gaping at him. Father? In tears?
“Ah, me.” He gave a shaky sigh, small chuckles erupting as he crossed to the sideboard. He poured us four sloppy glasses of sherry, and finally the explanation for this extraordinary scene came: “My compendium of plays has found the ideal publisher!” Father declared. “And Tom has finished his masterpiece!”
“To our years of work, old friend!” Tom said, holding up his glass.
We toasted their good news, made even better by being shared. I held up my glass and took a sip. It tasted warm and nutty, but it burned as it slipped down my throat. I decided the cheerful toasting and clinking of glasses filled with amber liquid was the best part of sherry.
My proud father wanted to call out his news to all the neighbors on Mount Vernon Street, but Mr. Harnett could not seem to open the windows — so Father decided to take a little nap and try the windows himself later. We covered him on the daybed: he thanked us graciously. Next we put Uncle Thomas on the sofa with a blanket, clutching his completed manuscript to his chest like a crusader. Then Mr. Harnett and I went back up to our own floor and our own world, still laughing and singing, “Alleluia!”
“Don’t forget this morning, my Ara,” said Mr. Harnett. “I want you to start laughing more than you do.”
So of course I tried hard to do this, as I attempted whatever he asked.
The rest of 1853 passed smoothly. Father told us that Uncle Charlie Sloan had died, and he was worried that the income left to Aunt Helen and my cousin Kate might not be enough. He went to Springfield once or twice, arranging that the Sloans receive a royalty from his book of plays, which was selling very well. We could afford the generosity; Mother’s income had passed to him, leaving us with more than we would ever need.
My tutor and I studied the Dark Ages and the Crusades, and then we moved on to the Renaissance. We made a fine model of the Globe Theatre and staged scenes from Shakespeare. Mr. Harnett found us some all-purpose hand puppets that were easy to adapt to a particular role: a beard for Lear, a sword for Mercutio. Sometimes our productions turned into a rowdy roughhouse, but there was no one to hear our racket.
The years passed quickly and productively, and by March 1856, I was a serene twelve and a half. There was an infinity to learn, and dear Mr. Harnett was there to see that I learned it. I saw no reason for my life to change.
But he was a mysterious day or two late after Easter, and it worried me. When he reached the nursery, where I had made him a display of spring bulbs, he looked remote and distraught.
He motioned for me to sit at the table and then took his place opposite me, as he had for a thousand mornings. But this time he took my hand, which unsettled me badly. He had always insisted that a tutor and his pupil should never touch — except for a hard good-bye handshake and a birthday kiss. And of course that once when we waltzed in Father’s library. His hand engulfed mine; it felt strong and warm, but I could sense an undercurrent I could not identify that frightened me.
“Ara, I have to talk to you.” He began to speak, shook his head — then tried again. “My dear Ara, I must tell you . . . I’m moving back to New York.”
I stared at him for a moment, trying to understand what he had just said to me. Then I cried out, “No, NO!” as if I had been stabbed through the heart like Mercutio. I pulled away from his grasp and covered my face with my hands. I wouldn’t listen to him, to his good news of his new school, his chance to teach as he had taught me, to use the lessons we had invented together, that he was finding another tutor for me, that he was not leaving for another few weeks. The more details he offered, the more I felt the crushing fact of reality. I wanted to drown him out, repeating “no” over and over, almost as a chant. I covered my ears and ignored the tortured, worried look on his face.
He sat with me until I tired myself out. After making me wash my face, he began the lesson as if nothing had happened, as if nothing had changed. By the end of the day, I had almost forgotten Mr. Harnett’s terrible news.
For several days, we operated in this pretend fashion. We worked together; I even occasionally laughed, as I knew it pleased my tutor. But underneath there was a dark sadness nagging at me.
One day, Mr. Harnett brought a young man with him.
“Ara, I’d like you to meet William Brooks,” Mr. Harnett said. The short man nodded and smiled.
“Your tutor has told me a great deal about you, Ara,” Mr. Brooks said. His voice had a soft accent; he sounded like he was speaking around a mouthful of velvet. “I am looking forward to our working together.”
“Mr. Brooks will begin next month,” Mr. Harnett explained.
My eyes widened as the implication of this statement chilled and stopped my blood. He was Mr. Harnett’s replacement. The pretending was about to come to an end.
I began to cry wildly, helplessly, uncontrollably, with huge, regular shaking sobs that took over my whole body. I sobbed from my feet up.
Mr. Harnett asked Mr. Brooks to leave and then held me close, whispered a good-bye, and left; I believe he was crying too. I couldn’t stop until evening, until midnight. Then Jenny told my father, who must have sent for Dr. Jackson. Suddenly the doctor was in my nursery, bringing me a bitter brown drink.
“Crying won’t bring your friend back, Ara, so you’d better sleep. Drink this, and you can rest a little.”
I tried to tell Dr. Jackson why I was crying — but as I drank, he went away in a spiral. When I woke up a day later, I accepted my loss as fact. Mr. Harnett was gone for good, and the worst of my terrible, desperate grieving was over. But now I was hollow and empty, like all the days and weeks that lay ahead.
At first, after Mr. Harnett left me, I would get up as usual and try to reenact my mornings with him. I would begin with our sonnet of incantation, although his voice never came to join mine. Then I used our old models and exercise books, trying to play both our roles. All the while I felt I was watching someone else do these things from a long, pale distance. So I stopped and I stayed in bed, reading our old texts but mostly sleeping.
One day Cousin Daisy stopped by for a visit. I could see her distress over my condition, but I didn’t care. Mr. Harnett had gone away — that was all that mattered to me. I could overhear hushed discussions between her and Father outside my nursery door but couldn’t muster enough interest to eavesdrop.
After Cousin Daisy left, Father came into the nursery. He seemed angry to find me dozing at two in the afternoon.
“I want you up and out of bed — starting right now. Take a bath and wash your hair; Jenny can help you. Then come to the library.”
I was ashamed at his instructions, having never aroused his disapproval or disappointment in such a way before. I followed his orders and reached the library a good deal cleaner. He looked me over and handed me a big folder.
“Cousin Daisy feels it may be too soon to have you adjust to a new tutor,” he said. “She seems to think you won’t learn especially well in your current state. However, she . . . and I . . . both feel you need to have some activity. And perhaps a change of scenery might do you some good as well.”
I nodded, not especially understanding but knowing some response was expected of me.
“Therefore,” Father continued, “I want you to be my special secretary for children’s letters. I have received several hundred about The Great Plays, and each child deserves a proper reply. You can work right here on this big table. Those are your materials,” he added, nodding at the folder in my hands.
Then he gave me a small worn book. “And I think you’re ready for the real classics now. Here is Chapman’s translation of The Iliad. Please start it here with me, so I can help you on the meter. This is the one Keats liked. ‘Much have I traveled in the realms of gold.’ It’s my favorite too.”
The children’s letters were a good chance for practicing my penmanship — and The Iliad was a reunion of the complicated families of my nursery gods. It was unexpectedly vivid to me, as was my father’s presence. Working daily in his study among his prized possessions, I felt him there too. I was often seated at the table when he arrived home from Harvard, and as he settled into his own work, we’d chat about the day and our discoveries in ancient times.
One day Father pulled down a large book of Athenian art, and he fingered the pages. His gaze went from a page in the book to me and back to the book. He studied me more carefully. He seemed to make a decision. “This has given me an idea,” he said. “I will ask my barber to come and cut your hair this afternoon.”
This was quite unexpected. My father had never taken an interest in my appearance before. And I had been rather vain about my braids, because Mr. Harnett called them the “Golden Fleece.” Still, my braids seemed unimportant, and it would be a blessing not to have Jenny yanking at me every morning.
Later that day, Mr. Macrae, the barber, arrived. He wore a white smock; he had an accent like that of Young Lochinvar — or Nanny Drummond. First he chopped off each braid at my shoulders, making me look like a captured Gaul. Then he took out some thin pointed scissors and studied a page in one of Father’s art books for a long time.
“Do you think you can do that for us?” Father asked him.
“Why not? The lassie’s hair is as braw as heather.”
As he snipped, I studied the illustration he was copying: a smiling boy, running carefree on a vase. His hair was cut like a wreath, more or less. I admired his tunic and trousers — they seemed to make running quite a bit easier for the boy in the picture. The boy looked happy.
“That’s it! Sir, you’re a true artist! That is exactly what we needed.” My delighted father beamed at Mr. Macrae and at my shorn head in the mirror.
I could not think why either one of us needed short curls, but it did not matter much.
Not long after, a letter arrived: my first letter ever, with my name in Mr. Harnett’s lovely spiked writing, like a row of tiny teeth.
April 19, 1856
My very dear Ara,
I could not bear to write you sooner, till our parting bled a little less. Soon we will not miss each other as much as we do now. In all my classes I have been using what you and I learned, and I will write you about the ways we are still working together.
Your father has made some wonderful plans you will hear soon. Do you remember when we learned how there can be a ship just below the horizon, still invisible — but heading for you, coming closer every day? Just such a ship is sailing your way. Your father is not a sentimental man, but he will always care for you and care about you.
Now I want you to read David Copperfield and write a character sketch of Dora or Steerforth. Then make a play out of your favorite scene. Make a model of this. Be sure and show David very small to remind us how young he is. . . . But he ends up the strongest of anyone, and so will you.
Remember that I am always going to be part of your life.
Your friend always,
I was quite curious about all that Mr. Harnett had hinted at — but I had another surprise in store. I was reading in Father’s book of Greek art, the one that inspired my new hairstyle, when Father arrived with Madame Lauré, my mother’s dressmaker. She used to make my New Year’s velvet dresses and always called me “La pauvre p’tite” — so I could not tell her Mr. Harnett and I had been doing French for the last three or so years.
Madame Lauré had tiny black eyes like raisins and talked around a mouthful of pins. While she measured me and made strange chalk markings, Father told her, “I’m not sure what it is that we want, but we want something other than . . . this.” He gestured to the dresses hanging in my wardrobe.
I must be about to gain an entirely new wardrobe, I realized, and Father himself is overseeing this procedure rather than Cousin Daisy. Surely this was somehow part of the plans Mr. Harnett had spoken of in his letter.
“M’sieur, please, one must be somewhat more definite in what one desires. I would hate to displease you.”
“Something more . . . less . . .” Father seemed at a loss for words. This behavior I understood. It would have shocked me greatly if he had been able to discuss current women’s fashion. It was somewhat reassuring that he wasn’t a complete stranger to me!
“Father,” I ventured, trying to stay as still as possible as Madame Lauré ran a tape from my ankle to my knee. “If I could have a new outfit, I would like it to be just like the one on the vase.”
“Zee vase?” Madame Lauré looked perplexed.
I patted my shorn head. “The vase,” I repeated.
A delighted recognition sparkled in my father’s eyes. “Of course! Ara, it is a brilliant solution.” I pointed to where the book lay on the table. He picked it up and showed it to Madame Lauré.
“Mais . . . mais . . .” she sputtered around her pins. “Zeese are trousers. Zee young lady —”
“A chiton will be quite suitable,” Father declared, using the Greek name for the garment. He and I smiled at each other. We were united in sentiment and in shared controversy; it was our first true pact.
“It is decided,” Father told Madame Lauré. “The Lathams are all coming for tea tomorrow,” he then informed me. “They’re all dying of polite curiosity to hear our plans.”
I was curious to hear myself!
The next afternoon, I joined Father in the double parlors, full of spring flowers brought by Cousin Daisy. I curtsied twenty times, hearing a buzz of comment about my hair.
“So boyish,” murmured the aunts.
“So . . . odd,” rumbled the uncles. Then they folded their hands around their sherry glasses and waited to be informed.
“You were good to come this afternoon. I wanted you to hear some decisions I’ve made,” said my father. This bold, confident voice must be his teaching manner. “From now on, my first responsibility must be to my daughter — her health and happiness.”
This made me feel very proud. I had never heard him express much interest in my life, nor had I much evidence in the form of attention. But I knew my father was a truthful man, so this must be the case.
“I believe you’ve all been aware, over the years, that our medical adviser Dr. Jackson continues to watch Arethusa, fearing a tendency toward poor Marian’s disease. He and I have decided I should take her to the Windward Islands for a year so that she may grow stronger in that climate.”
There was one gasp, then many from the assembled Lathams. We surely had their attention now! I only wished that he had not stated this fear of my “tendency” quite so openly. But the gathered relatives seemed to be far more shocked by the mention of these islands than by the bold statement of my potential illness.
“I have a classmate in Barbados, a dear friend, Hugh James,” Father continued smoothly. “I have visited him and his sister, Miss Adelaide James, several times.”
I had not been aware of this; I had not been aware of most of my father’s comings and goings. It did explain some of his absences.
“Their sugar plantation, York Stairs, is one of the handsomest on the island of Barbados. Hugh was a consumptive too, but he believes it was the clean, warm sea air that cured him. He is a physician and will care for Ara. He and Miss Adelaide expect us at York Stairs next month.”
Astonishing! We were leaving Boston. We were going to live on a tropical island — straight out of Captain Cook’s reports! I was truly about to have an adventure.
“So we are following Dr. Jackson’s advice for Ara and seeking a warmer climate and an outdoor life. My arrangements are nearly complete, but I need your help on a family affair.” He gave his audience a charming smile.
“I have rented number 32 to a colleague, but I find I will require a temporary home for the portraits. I hesitate to rent out your ancestors, even to a Harvard professor. Would any of you care to board them for a year or so?”
Father must have known this would be the perfect distraction from his startling news — and my short curls.
“I’ll take the Copley: Eliza Cabot in yellow with the parakeet.”
“But your chimney smokes! She’d be far safer in my dining room.”
“I’ll hang both Stuarts. They should stay together.”
“But that’s not fair! Marian would have wanted us to . . .”
No one noticed me leaving. The well-bred haggling followed me up the stairs. I went straight to my father’s library and dragged his huge atlas over to the pale spring light. I turned to the index: BAC, BAL, BAR. I flipped to a page full of blue. From the moment of Father’s announcement, I felt a flicker of returning interest. I was starting to be curious again. I found the island on the map, pressed my finger on it, and held it there a long time.
Madame Lauré returned the next day to fit me in the muslin model of the Greek costume. It was a loose sleeveless tunic with a pleat at each shoulder, ending just above the knee. There were very short, straight trousers underneath.
“A bit more in the pleats, please, Madame Lauré,” said Father, looking me up and down. “She’ll need plenty of room for running around.”
I could not imagine myself “running around” — but if I was to become active, this would certainly be the costume for it. I was pleased with the feeling of freedom the clothing gave me. The boy on the vase seemed to be going somewhere; perhaps I was too.
My father seemed equally delighted by the Greek object I had become. “We’ll need six of these, Madame Lauré, and six more in a size larger. Please use the toughest cotton you can find anywhere and the brightest colors — nothing dainty! And make us two in dark blue, with extra drawers — for the ocean. Ara will be swimming all day long!”
This seemed unlikely, but he knew Barbados better than I did. In all my life, I had never had so much attention and interest from my father. I would learn — gradually — that he would never fail me on the important things involving foresight and intention. He skimped only on the daily details of love.
“Now, Ara, show me your favorite dress,” Father instructed.
This was a corded silk from last Christmas, for a cousin’s wedding. I was meant to be the flower girl, but I had bronchitis instead. Cousin Daisy called the high waist and puffed sleeves “Empire.” To my eyes it was straight out of Vanity Fair; I called it my Becky Sharp dress.
“Yes, that looks just right for Barbados,” Father approved. “We’ll need four like this, Madame Lauré — all in white, in different materials. Please find us something cool for the tropics.”
“Zen I will make zee silk, zee mull, zee linen, and zee dimity. And I will make more décolleté, for zee heat.”
“Splendid, Madame — splendid. And give her big hems, won’t you? She’ll be doing a lot of growing on the islands.”
Preparing to leave in June was easy, since we were taking so little. Father packed his notes and references for the new book he had started. My chitons and new dresses arrived, looking like costumes for a play. I decided to leave my old doll and my playthings behind; I had never used them after Mr. Harnett came. Since Father said there were plenty of fine books at York Stairs, I took only my scissors and my watercolors. Jenny helped me with my trunk.
My father had arranged our passage on a packet through the Windwards, traveling among the islands and ending at Bridgetown in Barbados. Cousin Daisy was joining us for the sea voyage and then continuing on to visit an English friend in Saint Kitts. As ever, she was making a lively pattern out of other people’s bits and pieces.
Uncle Thomas came to ride down to the wharves and see us off. As the carriage pulled away from number 32, my father looked back at Mount Vernon Street and the tall, curved pink houses.
“It’s time we left Boston, Tom,” he murmured.
Tonight, I wonder if he knew we would never sleep there again. Or that in Barbados I would finally begin to truly live.
Excerpted from Afternoons with Emily , by Rose MacMurray . Copyright (c) 2007 by Frank G. MacMurray Jr., Adelaide MacMurray Aitken, and Worth D. MacMurray. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top