Wednesday, January 24

on reading

Curtis made a resolution to start reading more. So I've been trying to throw books at him that I think he might like. The trouble is, I can't let him alone once he starts reading. I'm so excited to see how he'll react to certain sentences, paragraphs and chapters that I eventually end up prying the book from his hands and reading it aloud to him. True, I'm ruining it.

So now, once he's at work, I steal the book and read it on my own.

It might have been a mistake to pull out Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine" in the dead of winter. Its pages ooze warmth and sunshine with lists of summer rites of passage like walking barefoot and mowing the lawn and eating Eskimo Pies on a screened-in front porch. If there was ever a book that made you want to be a kid again, and roll down a big hill covered in green grass, this is the one. It's big on both imagination and sentiment.

Last night, at about 2:30 a.m., I was still awake. Couldn't sleep. So I pulled out "Dandelion Wine," and the next thing I know, tears are streaming down my face, unexpectedly. I have a special place in my heart for old people--I love their stories, that they are, in fact, time capsules on legs, their resources waiting/wanting to be tapped .

The book explores the relationship between the very young and very old. Both vulnerable, here's what happens when the very innocent and very experienced go head to head, and for some reason or another, it wrenched at my heart:

Mrs. Bentley was a saver. She saved tickets, old theatre programs, bits of lace, scarves, rail transfers; all the tags and tokens of existence.
"I've a stack of records," she often said. "Here's Caruso. That was in 1916, in New York; I was sixty and John was still alive. Here's June Moon, 1924, I think, right after John died."
That was the huge regret of her life, in a way. The one thing she had most enjoyed touching and listening to and looking at she hadn't saved. John was far out in the meadow country, dated and boxed and hidden under grasses, and nothing remained of him but his high silk hat and his cane and his good suit in the closet. So much of the rest of him had been devoured by moths.
But what she could keep she had kept. Her pink-flowered dresses crushed among moth balls in vast black trucks, and cut-glass dishes from her childhood--she had brought them all when she moved to this town five years ago....
The thing about the children happened in the middle of summer. Mrs. Bentley, coming out to water the ivy upon the front porch, saw two cool-colored sprawling girls and a small boy laying on her lawn, enjoying the immense prickling of the grass....

(Then they introduce themselves. Mrs. Bentley says she used to be called "Helen" and the children don't believe her because they don't believe that old ladies have first names, that they were ever children at all. One little girl, Jane, calls Mrs. Bentley a "fibber." She can't wrap her head around the concept that someone so ancient could have once been just like her. Mrs. Bentley shows a picture of a blonde little girl with curls and perfect lips. They don't believe that it's her, it must be some other little girl. She says she can show a marriage certificate; her husband thought she was amazing at age 22. That won't do either, the children say. She must get someone to vouch for her, someone who saw her as a little girl. But Mrs. Bentley can't, all the witnesses are already dead. The trio depart and leave Mrs. Bentley a little crushed. She then recalls this conversation with her husband:)

"My dear, you will never understand time, will you? You're always trying to be the things you were, instead of the person you are tonight. Why do you save those ticket stubs and theater programs? They'll only hurt you later. Throw them away, my dear."
But Mrs. Bentley had stubbornly kept them.
"It won't work," Mr. Bentley continued. "No matter how hard you try to be what you once were, you can only be what you are here and now. Time hypnotizes. When you're nine, you'll think you've always been nine years old and will always be. When you're thirty, it seems you've alway been balanced there on that bright rim of middle life. And then when you turn seventy, you are always and forever seventy.You're in the present, you're trapped in a young now or an old now, but there is no other now to be seen."

(And later....)

The morning was bright and green, and there at her door, bumping softly on the screen, were the two girls ... She led them down the hall to the library.
"Take this." She gave Jane the dress in which she had played the mandarin's daughter at fifteen. "And this, and this." A kaleidoscope, a magnifying glass. "Pick anything you want," said Mrs. Bentley, "Books, skates, dolls, everything--they're yours."
"Ours?"
"Only yours."
At last they were good friends....
"How old are you Mrs. Bentley?"
"Seventy-two."
"How old were you fifty years ago?"
"Seventy-two."
"You weren't ever young, were you, and never wore ribbons or dresses like these?"
"No."
"Have you got a first name?"
"My name is Mrs. Bentley."
"And never were pretty?"
"Never."
"Never in a million trillion years?" The two girls would bend toward the old lady, and wait in the pressed silence of four o'clock on a summer afternoon.
"Never," said Mrs. Bentley, "in a million trillion years."

I don't quite know what I'm supposed to make of Mrs. Bentley's shift in mindset, or what I'm supposed to take from Mr. Bentley's advice. He has a point, sure, but aren't all the things we're living out and experiencing shaping who we are at 26, 40 and 70? I can't really imagine my parents at my age, but I can sure as hell recall what it was like to be in the fourth grade.

I'm no saver of tactile things, but my head is littered with memories that I think make me who I am. I don't know if Mrs. Bentley's actions were intended to indulge the children, or if it's her way of beginning to let go--some sort of release, but it pained me.

Though the children meant no harm, it doesn't seem right for anybody, especially somebody old, to have to voluntarily erase their history, their legacy--especially their childhood. If there is one thing every human should be entitled to, it's to live a vibrant and adventure-filled adolescence and then memorialize those golden, sun-spotted days by telling everyone about it. If they want to.

7 comments:

Kim said...

Thanks Ali, I know I've read this before but I can't remember a lot of it. I should re-read it again. I think it's sad how the kids don't understand. It makes me sad for her to have to be 72 and only 72. I don't think that's how it should be. We're all young at heart and everyone longs for peices of their childhood, I think that's perfectly normal.

jamieanne said...

Oh...I love this book. It is filled with the most amazing and vivid imagery. I can remember the first time I read it, letting it swallow me whole as I soaked it in.

It's just like you, to feel bad for the old people. You have such a soft spot for them and their memories/stories.

laceyJ. said...

Wow... don't judge me, but I haven't read this...ever. So, I'm gonna... sooner than later!

Tiff said...

Wow. I have never read the book, although now I'm going to plan on it. And those are some great questions. I can't wait to read them again, once I've read the book.

Ashley A. said...

I love this book but don't know that many non-Andersons that share the sentiment. My favorite part is when he goes berry picking as a kid and starts wrestling with his brother, face smashed into grass & dirt. As he lays there smelling the earth, his racing heart pounding inside him, he comes to the realization that he is alive. The author makes you relive the excitement of adolescent discoveries. Love it.

Anonymous said...

If you're going to pick it up, wait until at least May. I promise it WILL make you feel alive.

ali said...

Um, that last one was from me.