Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Of Attics and Inheritance by Mara Buck

     My mother was an only child, a careful girl preceded by an only-child mother, equally docile and precise, so their toys and books were in remarkably pristine states when I came along.  I was also an only child and there any similarity ended.  I was not destructive, not wanton; I merely was interested in how things were made; their components.  I did in fact write on pages of books --- I had taught myself to read at a rather precocious age since I heartily disliked the laboriously slow process of being read to --- and I created my own versions of new books from the old, a pastiche of childish chaos, and a truly unfortunate choice for any potential collectible resale. 
(Whatever was I thinking?) 
     Left to my own devices in the attic, rummaging through boxes of books, old magazines, any printed matter I could find, I devoured, gobbled, gorged.  By inheriting so-called children’s books from another age, I inherited the stilted vocabulary of those authors as well.  Unfortunately, my family’s storage was heavily slanted in the direction of the “moral” tales of Pollyanna, Elsie Dinsmore and the Bobbsey Twins, all loathsome for myriad reasons.  I was temporarily rescued by Alcott (whom I still found insipid despite Jo’s gumption), was distressed by the cruelty in Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe, and thoroughly enjoyed Jack London and Frank Buck, and the nature-adventure life they portrayed, although I suspect if I revisited them today I would find the tales seeped in prejudice. 

     From kindly neighbors I was given hand-me-down Golden Books aplenty which seldom interested me since they were so short (a five minute read at best) and also decidedly lacked drama and character development, and moreover they were “pleasant” and I’ve never been particularly good at pleasant.  Then I discovered 'Twain' as if some guilty secret under the covers:  The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer and Huck.  Here was some stuff!  Boys got to do things beyond playing with dolls and keeping their clothes neat.  What a fabulous idea!  I still have a soft spot for ol’ Sam and I did indeed once build a raft, which floats forever in my memory.  A lovely metaphor, but in actuality, it sank.        
     Perversely however, as is my penchant (that Edwardian vocabulary again), today I would award favorite childhood book status to the story of Miss Flora McFlimsey by Mariana, bought specifically for me (not inherited!) by my grandfather, who on the Christmas that he died, gave me the accompanying doll as well.  A thoroughly charming story, Flora was a forgotten doll in the attic (I could identify) that was resurrected as a Christmas gift and freshly-beloved thereafter; lovely illustrations without becoming too saccharine.  I believe there was a mouse involved ---isn’t there always?  Contrary to Tom and Huck, Flora delighted in tiny lacy handkerchiefs, buttoned shoes, and arrived complete with a trunk full of feminine foibles to tempt even the most stalwart of denim-wearers; a book and a doll that I did not destroy.  Flora was mine alone, she was instant memory, and you do not destroy memory.       
     Irrespective of their literary value, the characters in children’s books burrow deep into our subconscious, and sometimes we unwittingly parrot their personae, even into adulthood.  We are Peter and Wendy, Tom and Huck, Jo March, Dorothy, Christopher Robin, and even some of us (I say with a shudder) Pollyanna.  I myself shall always tiptoe out of that attic alongside Flora on a magical Christmas Eve to a place where there is a happily-ever-after fresh start, despite wearing the costume of a discarded century. 
     Flora, the doll, rests resplendent in tissue in my own attic, along with her book.  The photographs of my grandfather are downstairs, with me.

Mara Buck writes and paints in the Maine woods. The manuscript for her novel Highway To Oblivion was named a Short-Listed Finalist for The Faulkner-Wisdom Prize.  Recent prize-winning poems appear in Carpe Articulum and in Caper Literary Journal, with other work included in Vwa: Poems For Haiti and on Poets For Living Waters.  She is the creator of the gallery-sized installation “A Year In Oblivion” a daily art chronicle of the life of a breast cancer patient, examples from which will soon be published in Drunken Boat.
More of her writing may be seen at:
Her videos may be seen at:
And, an art/poetry/video for the World T


Sara J. Henry said...

Oh, my gosh, me too, with the Elsie Dinsmore books. For a while I vowed to be as "good" as poor insipid Elsie was (she passed out rather than play the piano for her father on Sunday) - fortunately, that phase soon wore off.

Ann Hite said...

I love this. When I was ten, I found an old copy of Jane Eyre in my grandmother's attic. It took me two days to read. From that moment forward, I took my grandmother's reading a lot more serious. Her chocies turned me onto books like Gone With The Wind and The Autobiography of Jane Pittman. I would sneak and read her books when she wasn't around. I'm sure she was on to me but didn't want to take the adventure away. Thank goodness for attics and grandmothers. ;) Wonderful post.

Ann Hite

~Cheryl said...

Ah, so much here to appreciate, Mara! Great writing and the telling of a young independent telling of the later adult survivor! Simply put, WELL DONE!

R. Jeffrey Priddy. said...

Such a beautiful and charming essay you've written, Mara. It has a 'timeless' quality to it and is a lovely piece!

Mara said...

Oh Sara, I had conveniently forgotten that little Elsie tidbit! How really dreadful those books were! Hmmm. Wonder where they all are now? Thanks for reading.

Mara said...

Ann, how magical to share adventures in attic reading with you. Interesting how those books we discover early make such impressions on us --- your grandmother was a wise woman to recognize this. I really appreciate your kind words.

Mara said...

Hello Cheryl, you're entirely right in your assessment that my early impressions are so prophetic of my adult self! Now if that raft hadn't sunk... Thanks so much, dear friend.

Mara said...

Jeff, you kind gentlemean, you! What lovely, lovely things to say about this small essay. I really can't thank you enough!

Mara said...

Sweet Rebecca, our charming hostess here. What a gift to be part of this warm and welcoming site. You are indeed the soul of generosity. A million thanks! xoxo

Beth Hoffman said...

Oh, Mara! This is so lovely and captivating. Thank you for sharing this story with us. I loved it!

Mara said...

Dear Beth, that means so much, coming from you, Madame Author!! Wouldn't it be great fun for us all to rummage together through an attic full of books! Many thanks and hugs, my friend.

Doreen McGettigan said...

I will really show my age but I used to sit in my closet with a flashlight and devour Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins.
I also loved reading my grandmother's childhood books and read them all to my children. You have reminded me to take them out and share them with my grandchildren.
I know it is a bit commercial but to get 2 of my grand daughters more interested in reading I bought them American Girl dolls and books. I can hardly keep up with them now they are reading and learning so much about my teenage years. I am really hoping it will be a beautiful memory one day for them.

Beth F said...

After reading this, I see that in many ways I was blessed to have grown up in an era without YA books -- and a house full of books with no reading restrictions.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Thank you everyone for supporting Mara (although she is pretty easy to support, isn't she?). What wonderful friends you all are. And as usual, thank you so much for supporting me :) xo Rebecca

Mara said...

Doreen, I'm entirely sure that sharing books with your grandchildren can only produce beautiful memories for them. Thanks so much for reading this and for your kind comment.

Mara said...

Beth F --- ah, a house full of books and no reading restrictions! Such perfection! May I come visit? We can all appreciate that! Thanks so much.

Mara said...

Rebecca, huge thanks for introducing me here to all these lovely folks. It's an honor! I blush... xoxo

thrasher321 said...

I enjoyed reading your essay Mara, and could clearly picture you rummaging in the attic as you searched for the material you so desperately wanted to read. Isn't that something; digging and searching; yet my children will drop a book on the floor and not think twice. It kills me...though naturally I make them pick the books up!

Mara said...

An author's children dropping books on the floor! Blasphemy! Oh, no! I find it remarkable that for so many of us, memories and books are intricately interwoven. Glad you enjoyed this, Amanda.

Anonymous said...

Lovely story~ This post is a mirror to a young reader's soul that is destined to become an old reader's soul.

Mara said...

Yes, you are entirely correct, Amanda. My soul has evolved into, well let's just say an 'older' reader's soul :) Thanks so much for reading.

Marta Moran Bishop said...

What a wonderful post Mara. Thank you Rebecca for the chance to read it. Mara indeed the books read as a child do sink into the mind and soul. My mother grew up reading whatever she wanted in her parents and grandparents extensive library. I find so much of Twain's Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as well as Jane Eyre and Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice have become an art of my personality. Buried deep within me sometimes poking their heads up in many of life's situations. And fortunately and unfortunately so does Pollyanna. Pollyanna helps one to see the best in the situation. Yet it also trys to make a girl too much of the angel figure. You know "good girl syndrome."
Excellent article Mara thank you.

Mara said...

Marta, there seem to be so many of us with like minds about our relationships to our memories of childhood characters. A dear Face Book friend just posted a Milne quote and I suddenly realized that I had never read Pooh as a child --- only to my dogs in later years who seem to thrive on it! Ah, life is strange. I thank you so very much for all your kind words.

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