Willow Temple: New and Selected Stories

Willow Temple: New and Selected Stories

by Donald Hall


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A contemplative selection of twelve short stories from the celebrated author Donald Hall, Willow Temple focuses on the effects of divorce, adultery, and neglect. Hall's stories are reminiscent of those of Alice Munro and William Maxwell in their mastery of form and their ability to trace the emotional fault lines connecting generations. "From Willow Temple" is the indelible story of a child's witness of her mother's adultery and the loss that underlies it. Three stories present David Bardo at crucial junctures of his life, beginning as a child drawn to his parents' "cozy adult coven of drunks" and growing into a young man whose intense first affair undergirds a lifelong taste for ardor and betrayal. In this superbly perceptive collection, Hall gives memorable accounts of the passionate weight of lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618446612
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/24/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 226
Sales rank: 607,489
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.57(d)

About the Author

DONALD HALL (1928-2018) served as poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, awarded by the president.

Read an Excerpt

From Willow Temple

We lived on a farm outside Abigail, Michigan, when I was a girl in the
1930s. My father was a Latin teacher, which was how I came to be called
Camilla. I cannot say that I have lived up to the name of Virgil's warrior. My
father served as principal of Abigail High School, and we kept chickens and
horses on our flat and scrubby land near the Ohio line. My father's
schoolwork kept him busy, so we employed a succession of hired hands for
chores around the farm. Many were drunks. A weekly rite, when I was small,
was for my father to pay a fine on Monday morning—six a.m., before school—
and drive the befuddled, thirsty, shamefaced hired man back home. When
the advances for fines grew monstrous, so that our man was indentured a
month ahead, he hopped a freight west. In hard times the quality of help
increased, even as my father's salary and the price of eggs went down; he
hired strong young men for three dollars a week, some of them sober. The
poverty of those years touched everyone, even a protected child. I remember
tramps coming to the back door; I remember men with gray faces whom my
mother succored with milk and buttered bread. I can see one of them now,
preserved among the rest because he addressed me rather than my
mother. "It's hard, little girl. Could you spare a crust, little girl?"

The house was my mother's house. She was Ella, the bright face
of our family, beautiful and lively—a lover of horses, poetry, and jokes.
People said, lightly, that she married my father to hold herself down. I grew
up loving my quiet fatherwith a love that was equally quiet: I desperately
loved my serene, passionate mother. What a beauty she was. When I see
reproduced a Saturday Evening Post cover from the 1930s, I see my
mother's face: regular features, not large but strong; bold cheekbones with
good coloring; dark short hair; fullish lips deeply red without lipstick; large
blue eyes, staring outward with a look both shy and flirtatious. When my
mother walked into a group of strangers, the room hushed.
She had grown up with four sisters, isolated on a backcountry
farm in Washtenaw County. The Great War was only a distant rumor. Her
childhood was a clutch of girls, a female conspiracy on a remote, patchy
forty acres, in a domain of one-room schools where half the pupils belonged
to her own tribe. They made one another clothespin dolls for Christmas;
they sewed and did fancywork in competition for their stepmother's praise;
they passed their dreams and their dresses on to one another. How I wanted
a little sister to pass my dresses and dolls on to! When my mother told me
stories from her childhood, I heard themes repeated: The family was self-
sufficient (I grew up reading and rereading The Swiss Family Robinson)
and "got by on little." When she spoke of their genuine simplicity, she
spoke with wonder not with bitterness; she didn't make me feel guilty over
my relative comfort. The Hulze farm never prospered as the Battell's—my
father's family—did for decades. The land was poor, and to survive by your
own labor on your own land was triumph enough. Another theme was death,
for she had lost a baby sister to a fever at eighteen months; and her mother,
Patience, died of diabetes, not long before the discovery of insulin, when my
mother was nine. Two years later she acquired a stepmother, my
grandmother Huldah, who was kindly but fierce, with a Christianity modeled
on Massachusetts Bay in the seventeenth century. Like my father, my
mother was an eldest child; she mothered her younger sisters, even after
Huldah's access, as Huldah quickly bore Herman Hulze two more daughters.
Life at the Hulze farm was hard—Monday washing, Tuesday
ironing, Wednesday baking—but as my mother remembered it for me, it
mustered grave satisfactions. Everyone worked equally, according to age
and ability; everyone was clothed, warm, and well fed; in a venture of equal
labor, no one depended on another's largesse. Weekdays were half school
half work; the children, who rose at five after their parents, did housework
before school, then darning or fancywork before bed. Saturday's chores
finished the week and looked forward to workless Sunday. Yet Huldah's
Sabbath was strenuous. Her church was two hours of hellfire in the morning,
with Christian Endeavor (hymns, visiting speakers) at night. Sometimes
Huldah searched out a Sunday afternoon church meeting, to occupy for her
family an otherwise idle moment.
An exception to my mother's largely female nation was a dear
male cousin whose story she told me when I grew older. Rudolph Howells
was her first cousin, two years older, her father's sister's boy, who lived
three miles down the road. Even at ages when boys and girls avoid each
other, Rudy and Ella played together. They hiked to each other's houses, or
barebacked a workhorse on a rare workless weekday; or they met under a
great willow beside a creek halfway between them. Its shelter was their
hideout, and they came to call it Willow Temple. In the absence of
telephones they exchanged penny postcards to arrange their meetings. For
my mother, isolated among sisters in that flat countryside, the boy's
friendship was redemptive; Rudolph was the male of my mother's early
life—after her father, who was alternately working or asleep. For Rudy, who
was an only child, my mother provided the sole companionship close to his
age. As she described him, Rudy sounds unnaturally solemn; it was Ella's
childhood joy to bring out the child in Rudolph, to set him giggling or
imagining extravagance. Rudy was a reader. He brought books to my
mother, who became a reader herself in order to please him. In Willow
Temple they recited for each other the poems they memorized at school and
performed for Prize Speaking—Whittier, Longfellow, Joaquin Miller, Edgar
Allan Poe, James Whitcomb Riley. My mother could say "Telling the Bees"
right through, without a mistake, when she was eighty.
Rudolph was a "scholar," as Michigan country people called a
serious student. In 1900 few from the farmland went to college. After the
Great War people began to think about college, and to assume that
Rudolph would attend the University of Michigan. As my mother late in her
life told stories about Rudolph, I understood that for all his studiousness he
felt some diffidence about his capacities. He worried that he would not do
well at college. My mother not only made him laugh but encouraged him
about his ability to leave the countryside and enroll in Ann Arbor's domestic
Athens. He would excel, she told him. Then, doubtless, he would become a
minister. What else did one go to college for? Doctor, lawyer, teacher,
pastor. Rudy in his solemnity found a way to combine the romance of his
reading—the South Seas, piracy, jungles of Africa—with his dark
Christianity. Some speakers at Christian Endeavor were missionaries
returned from outlandish places, where they had won souls to Christ,
ministering to the pigtailed hordes of China and the naked savages of the
Congo. Now they traveled the Protestant Midwest to raise money for
hospitals that would treat leprosy and pellagra.

When he was fourteen, Rudy left his one-room school to attend
an academy in the mill town of Trieste, eleven miles away. He endured his
semi-exile—boarding weekdays and coming home for weekends—until he
was sixteen. For two years, my mother saw him at church every Sunday
morning, and rarely at other moments except in summer. They wrote each
other a midweek postcard. They remained so close that people teased them
about being sweethearts, even about marrying—first cousins or not. My
mother assured me that it would never have happened: They were too much
brother and sister. One Sunday in the May when my mother turned fifteen,
the church members packed picnics and lunched together in a field beside
Goosewater Creek, not far from Willow Temple. It was Sabbath, not usually
a day for picnics, but they sang hymns and listened to a Christian nurse from
a mission on the island of Sapporo in Japan—a holy purpose that allowed
them to eat in the fields on the Sabbath. Ella remembered Rudy at the picnic
playing with a new baby, another cousin, by trundling her carriage fast and
slow, making the baby Agnes jerk and laugh with abrupt stops and
accelerations. After eating deviled eggs and pork sandwiches and rhubarb
pie, Ella and Rudy took a long walk together, talking about their futures,
and continually brushing away mosquitoes. They tramped happily among the
weed trees that grew along the creek, my mother remembered, and sat
inside the green dome of Willow Temple. They spoke of the university and
Ella's high school, where she took Latin because Rudy had recommended
it. Ella told him jokes she had saved for him. Mostly they began, "A minister,
a priest, and a Christian Science practitioner . . ." One story made him laugh
until he wept; she could never remember which one. When she was terribly
old, and dying, Ella still recalled a small yellow butterfly abundant in the
fields like migrant buttercups; she remembered the blue dress she wore,
embroidered with red tulips.
That night, when Rudolph's ride came to take him back to Trieste,
no one could find him. He was not in his room; he did not respond to his
mother's "Yoo-hoo!" After half an hour his ride went off without him. His
father and the hired man took lanterns from the barn and searched for him in
the darkness among the outbuildings. Then they climbed the small pasture
hill. I remember seeing that hill when I was a child. In my mind I can watch
the yellow lanterns rise in the black evening, and hear the men's voices
calling for him: "Rudolph! Rud-ee!" His parents were frightened; maybe Rudy
had fallen taking a walk after five o'clock supper; maybe he had hit his head
on a rock and lay somewhere unconscious. They summoned neighbor
cousins to help.
Three miles away, asleep in bed, my mother knew nothing.
After an hour searching outside the house, the men came back,
thinking to look in the rootcellar. It was Agnes's young father, cousin
Michael, who found Rudolph where he had hanged himself in the attic. As
Michael walked up the steep stairs with his lantern low, his face brushed
against the boots. The impact pushed the boots away, and the boots
swung back to hit him.
As long as any of his family lived, Rudolph's suicide was forever
the subject of speculation. Rudolph—everyone repeated—was a sensible
and lovable boy, affectionate if a little serious, "old for his age" but capable of
playfulness. He loved his mother and father and his cousin Ella; he was a
happy child. Ella's family reconstructed, by gradual accumulation of detail,
the days and weeks before it happened. No one could find anything that
hinted of despair or violence. Why did a bright, cheerful, beloved seventeen-
year-old boy hang himself in his attic? Why? Why? Why? Could it have
been an accident? How could he tie a noose and slip it over his head by
accident? People said: It must have been something he read in a book. It
was decided at the end of every discussion that reading stories caused
Rudolph's death.

That Sunday night began the infection that throbbed and festered at the
heart of my mother's life. Although she was warmhearted, charming, and
funny, although most of her life she appeared serene or even content, I
believe that a fever always burned inside her. What happened was so savage
and so inexplicable that it never let her go. Over fifty and sixty and seventy
years, her incredulity remained intact. She wept whenever she told me this
story or made reference to it. "Oh, Camilla," she said, "why did it happen?" In
my sexually obsessed youth, I tried out the notion that something had
occurred or almost occurred inside Willow Temple. But my mother's
continual, massive astonishment—and her absence of guilt—convinced me
that nothing untoward or even unusual had happened in Willow Temple on
that Sunday afternoon. For Rudolph and Ella the erotic life concealed itself
under hymns and petticoats.
Part of the story was how my mother first heard the news.
Monday morning, ignorant of what had happened—it was ten years before
the Hulzes had a telephone—my mother took the seven o'clock train for
Bosworth and its high school. Every school day of the year, she and her
sister Betty took the milk train. When they sat down this morning, and the
locomotive jerked forward, they heard behind them two men who had
boarded three miles north, at the depot near Rudolph's house. My mother
heard Mr. Peabody say to Mr. Gross what a terrible thing it was when his
own father, just last night, had had to cut Rudolph Howells down from a beam
in the attic. Why would a fine boy like Rudy go and kill himself?
My fifteen-year-old mother alighted at the first stop, took the next
train back, and went to bed. (Betty went on to school. It was part of the
story, always, that Betty continued to school.) Ella vomited and for three
days would not eat. She stayed home the rest of the school year, four
weeks. She turned pale, lost weight; Dr. Fowles said that she was anemic.
Once a week a Trieste butcher sent two quarts of steer's blood for Huldah
to store in the icebox. My mother drank a tumbler of blood every day; it
nauseated her, but mostly she kept it down. Once she left her bed and
slipped from the house for half a day—terrifying her father and Huldah—to
walk by the creek until she came to Willow Temple, where she crept inside
and howled hysterical tears. ("I thought he would be there," she told me
when she was old. "Camilla, I thought he was there.") Thereafter her family
contrived to keep her in bed. She failed all summer, eating little, until one
evening she heard Huldah's harsh voice in the garden beyond her window,
telling a visitor, "We're going to lose our big girl."
This overhearing or eavesdropping appeared to startle my mother
back to life. By the time school opened in September she had become
bright and energetic again—brighter and more energetic than before. After her
mourning, she turned from a shy fifteen-year-old into the creature who
caused the intake of breath. As her beauty became obvious for the first time,
her youthful life began. She took part in high school literary and theatrical
groups, as much as commuting allowed her. A year later, in her senior year,
she boarded in Bosworth weekdays. If a hayride or a square dance took
place on a Saturday night, she stayed over in town for the weekend, despite
Huldah's disapproval. The summer after graduation, turned seventeen, she
took a job at Gotwig's department store in Ann Arbor, staying with a family
related to her own mother.
It was clear, when my mother recollected, that Ann Arbor raised a
pleasant devil in her. When another boarder arranged a blind date for her
with a university student, she undertook a new life, and its excitement still
reverberated when she was eighty and remembered those years. She
became popular, a powerful word in the vocabulary of the time, and dated
many young men. One fraternity—my father never belonged to one; it would
have been unthinkable—elected Ella Hulze its sweetheart, granting her an
honor normally reserved for a sorority girl. She would have joined a sorority
if she had been a student. (When I attended the university, I joined one and
quit after six months.) My mother dated almost every night, she told me,
and her engagement book was full a month ahead. She made me laugh with
her stories of boys she dated—a collateral Ford who drove a Stutz; a broker-
to-be who waxed his red mustache into points; a fainting swain who sent long-
stemmed roses to Gotwig's.
"It was innocent," she told me when I was seventeen. Ten years
later I reminded her of that word, when she stayed with me after my
daughter's birth. She laughed and said, "It was mostly innocent, Camilla."
She told me about driving to Chicago in a roadster for a weekend with two
fraternity boys. They visited a speakeasy, after she took a room at the
YWCA. She had to ring a bell to be let in at three a.m., and she covered
her mouth to disguise her breath. She returned to Ann Arbor on Monday at
seven a.m. to drink coffee and attend her counter at Gotwig's. A week later,
both boys died at dawn in the same roadster, careering off the road into a
maple tree near Walled Lake after a night of Prohibition gin and jazz. When
she met my father, as he shopped for his family's Christmas, my mother was
ready to settle down. They were engaged by Easter. My mother was
eighteen then, my father twenty-six.
She clerked in a department store; he was a graduate student in
classical languages. People speak of the attraction of opposites. Opposites
are attracted when each is anxious about its own character. (And I am their
product, in old age still a woman anxious about the conflicts in her
character.) I think of my father as he must have appeared in 1925: He came
from country people as she did, but he wore eyeglasses and lived for
books—not only books, but books in an ancient language. My mother had
taken Latin for two years of high school, but she stopped after Rudy died.
How did my father find the courage to approach the beautiful Ella Hulze? I
suppose his innocence was his courage; eight years older, bound to his
library carrel, he would not have known that she was popular. Billy, or
William, had reached a moment in his life, halfway through a last year of
study, with a high school teaching job waiting for him, when he was ready for
courtship and marriage. Through a recent legacy from a godmother, who had
married into Flint's auto industry, he had fifteen hundred dollars, which would
provide the down payment on a house at a mortgage of two and a half
percent. Possibly his studies contributed to his infatuation: I laughed when I
learned, not long before he died, that in his final seminar at Michigan he had
examined Ovid's Art of Love. Like Ella, my father jolted himself into looking
for an opposite. Then he met a beautiful girl, from a Michigan farm, selling
scarves at Gotwig's.

Maybe William was not quite so opposite as he appeared to be. After all,
he grew up outside Abigail on a hog farm—prosperous for many decades—
that his parents and bachelor brother worked until foreclosure in 1937. Billy
became the Latinist—"William Hammersmith Battell," as his diplomas read,
and "foremost scholar in the history of Abigail High," as the Abigail Journal
called him—who majored in classics at the University of Michigan. He was
first in his family to finish high school, much less college. After he made
Phi Beta Kappa in 1922, he returned to raise pigs with his father and his
brother. He did this on principle, full of Roman republican notions; he enjoyed
tales of colonial American blacksmiths who read forty lines of Hebrew before
dawn. A pig farmer who translated Latin poetry seemed no anomaly to my
But my father was not a skillful farmer. When pig raising did not
take his full attention, he felt inadequate or hypocritical; in his absent-
mindedness, he failed his agrarian ideals. The Latin language, and only the
Latin language, enthralled him. Exhausted after a day among hogs, he sat
by the oil lamp that rose from a central table in the small living room, reading
Tacitus while his mother darned and his brother studied baseball scores
and his father snored into sleep. In Virgil's Georgics, the Michigan farm
crossed paths with the study of Latin. As a young man my father dreamed of
translating the Georgics, adapting them to southern Michigan, but the
farming tired him out; he never completed the first book.
By 1925 it was obvious that the Battell farm could not support four
adults. The agricultural depression had started a decade before the rest of
the country crashed, and the once rich farm began to fail. Somebody had to
leave the place and get a job. Then came the disaster, as my father always
called it. One of his chores was to feed the piglets after they were weaned
from their great mothers, carrying buckets of corn from the Battell cribs.
The stored feed nourished a guerrilla army of rats. One morning my young
father, weary after staying up with Virgil half the night, fed rat poison to sixty-
seven young pigs. The whole family wept, even his hard father and stolid
brother, as they dug a long trench on a rainy day and buried their hopes for a
prosperous or even a tolerable year. When he was an old man he shook his
head in melancholy guilt as he spoke of his lethal error. "The bags were
different colors and sizes. The pellets were gray. How could I have done it?" I
remember him at seventy-four, still lamenting his terrible mistake; he could
see the pale young bodies in the rain, and puddles gathering in the trench.
My mother, the family wit and teaser, knew better than to joke about the
disaster. But once, when my father was soaring high in self-confident
distraction—and made tea by pouring hot coffee over tea leaves—she called
him "the Great Poisoner." He laughed, I remember, but looked abashed and
After the disaster the Battell family took out a mortgage to provide
capital for my father's M.A. at the university. Back in Ann Arbor, my father
undertook courses in education as well as Greek and Latin, so that he
might become a high school teacher. He had returned to his studies for two
months when he met my mother in Gotwig's. The elderly Miss Wuestefeld of
Abigail High, who had taught Billy, had told him that she would hold on until
William was finished with graduate school. Thus my father revisited, ten
years afterward, the classroom where he had learned to chant amo amas
amat, and eagerly led new students to recite amo amas amat. It was a
secure position, as everyone knew: "There'll always be work for a Latin
teacher." A monthly check would repay his family's bank loan, and help to
repair his conscience that mourned the poisoned piglets. In Abigail, his old
schoolmates would breed him pupils and call him "professor" without irony.
My parents had been married three years and I was a baby when the
position of principal opened. It was not his administrative ability that
recommended my father. Most teachers were women but principals were
men; only men could deal with unruly boys. Maybe my mother was unruly
My early life was happy—or at least it was even, like a plain
steadily upthrusting a crop of corn. The radio and the automobile were our
wonders, and I measure my childhood by the names of products: the
Crosley, the Emerson, the Philco; the Model T, the brief blue Chevrolet, the
Model A that never broke down as we took rides every Sunday afternoon in
good weather, adventurously speeding at forty miles an hour over Michigan
backcountry roads, knowing where we were headed without being sure how
we would get there. My parents sat together in the front seat and I sat in
the back, scooting from side to side in my Sunday dress as the landscape
drew me. Having access to both sides was a luxury of my only-child-hood.
On these drives my parents spoke little. I watched my father's mild
bespectacled eyes take in an Angus herd; I gazed at my mother's poised,
beautiful profile as her face turned left and right, calm or complacent,
accepting what the route offered. Every Sunday we rode two or three hours
over southern Michigan and northern Ohio, looking at cattle, chickens,
turkeys, pigs, and horses. When we had driven as far as we would go, and
started back, my father would search out an ice cream parlor and treat us to
a sundae.
Always we returned in order to ride our horses for an hour before
Sunday night supper, which was sandwiches around the radio. I cannot
remember when Jack Benny's show began broadcasting, but in my old age
Jack Benny's running gags, remembered, taste of cream cheese and
crushed pineapple. My mother and I rode together after school in good
weather. On Saturdays as well as Sundays all three of us saddled up: my
father's horse, the roan stallion Bigboy, unruly like a high school boy, my
mother's Morgan mare Benita, and my multicolored pony Skylark, who was
large enough to carry my slight figure until I was sixteen. These handsome
creatures were the enduring quotidian romance of my girlhood. After school
I curried Skylark's flanks before my mother was ready for our amble along a
stony road at the side of a hayfield. Both my parents grew up with
workhorses, and would have missed equine company had we not stabled
them in the barn adjacent to our chickens. I'm not sure why we kept
chickens, except that my father considered farming a good thing—and he
no longer cared to raise pigs. Selling eggs and broilers paid for the hired men
and the horses.
When my mother sat a horse she looked not like a Michigan
farmgirl but like the Honorable Lady Something; she wore a horse the way a
model wears clothes. My father was unpredictably impetuous, an excellent
rider on a capricious powerful horse. Bigboy liked to run, and would have
run away if my father had not been so masterful; they galloped ahead of us
and galloped back, pulling up in a froth of high spirits. One of my mother's
teasing names for my father was Billy Cowboy.

In my earliest recollections my parents acted like lovers, if not quite like a
pastoral shepherd and shepherdess. Although they were polite in the old-
fashioned way, they took every opportunity to touch each other. When they
didn't want me to understand something, they talked Latin, or something
Latinish enough to confuse me. My father delighted, in his mild fussy way,
in their domestic classicism. Equus was an early word, not to mention amor.
Before I was seven I knew that via meant road and that we would take a ride
in the Model A. Horses were every day and the Model A was Sundays. I
cherished those afternoons in the back seat. I cherish them still, as I
approach my seventies. In my life, when I have been especially
troubled—my daughter died in childhood; I divorced my husband—I have
found myself for comfort playing back mental films of those afternoons in the
back seat of a Ford exploring the flat country roads.
Driving the car, my father, I imagine, daydreamed Latin. I have no
notion what my mother dreamed. Maybe she thought of my father, or of
Rudolph. Because Rudolph was the source of my mother's Latin, and
because he and my father were both serious or even solemn, I came to
think of Rudolph as an antecedent to my father. I considered that my mother
made up for losing Rudolph when she married William. I was shy to advance
this theory to my mother until she was well into her eighties. "Perhaps," she
said, but it was clear that my notion annoyed her. "They did not look alike at
all," she said, and a moment later wiped her eyes.
My mother learned to drive—a fairly advanced notion for a small-
town housewife in 1933—in order to go to the library, so that she and I
could stock up on books. I progressed from dog-and-cat books to a good
anthology of poems called Silver Pennies. Next I found novels, from Rebecca
of Sunnybrook Farm to Black Beauty, with excursions into the Nancy Drew
series, and started to inhabit the house of stories, in love with the
improbable and the heroic. My mother enjoyed novels and biographies but
cared more for poetry: She deserted Whittier for Wordsworth and Longfellow
for Keats, but she also admired the moderns: Sara Teasdale, Edna St.
Vincent Millay, John Masefield, Elinor Wylie, Edwin Arlington Robinson. She
wore out a copy of Tristram. Later she found Robert Frost—my father
admired Frost, the classical side—and the young Stephen Vincent Benét. It
would have been too much for her to admire T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens;
later, when I tried them on her—I was at college—she shook her head
My father reread Virgil, Horace, and Catullus; he preferred
Cicero's letters to his orations; he worked away at Thucydides with his
slimmer Greek, read journals of classical studies—and increasingly took
part in a battle over the place of Latin studies in the American high school
curriculum. Voices in the 1930s proclaimed that learning Latin was
impractical, that our youth should not waste valuable time on dead
languages, should concentrate on arithmetic, mechanical drawing, and
business letters. To my father, the suggestion was retrograde. In Abigail he
tried to institute at least one year of Latin for all students, with four years for
those few aiming toward college. Two years of Latin, with a B average, were
required for admission to the University of Michigan.
He gave speeches after lunch at the Rotary Club; he wrote letters
to the Abigail Journal. Although principal he still taught Latin, and because
he taught with enthusiasm, Abigail's Latin courses were well subscribed.
Elsewhere the walls were falling. When an old Detroit high school chose to
remove "Classical Academy" from its name, he wrote a letter to the Detroit
News, ending, "If our civilization is to survive encroaching darkness, Latin
and Greek must keep alight the fires of learning, shining beacons that keep
us to the path." He signed it "William Hammersmith Battell, Principal, Abigail
High School." If I let him sound pompous, remember that he pursued a
With his duties as chairman of the Michigan Classical
Association, and as secretary of the Great Lakes Latin Society, he paid
less attention to our farm, haphazardly preserved by the succession of hired
men. The first I remember is Herbert Ganke, an old man who talked to
himself while he worked. He was courtly to me and my mother; he worked
slowly but steadily. Once a month he got into trouble: Finally he passed out
in a widow's back yard after stealing clothes from her clothesline. There were
also boys who worked a week or two and vanished; a sweet hobo named
Tom lasted a whole winter, sleeping under the eaves in the hired man's room.
He disappeared after payday when the snowdrops poked up. A shy,
handsome local boy named Raymond was expert with horses, and could
even control the volatile Bigboy. Raymond was illiterate, my mother
discovered, and she taught him to read. There were men named Merton,
Douglas, Miller, and Ferdinand.
Late afternoons, when my father came home from school, and my
mother and I were back from our ride, he changed into overalls, consulted
with the latest hand, and checked out the hens while my mother assembled
supper. I attended our one-room school a quarter of a mile away, and
sometimes brought a friend, Caroline or Rebecca, back to play; but on rainy
days or when I played alone with my dollhouse or read stories, I interrupted
myself to visit the barn and the outbuildings with Miller or Raymond or
Herbert, currying Skylark, feeding apples to Skylark, Benita, and (carefully)
Bigboy. Some hands were grumpy, possibly not fond of small girls, as I
followed them around; others took the opportunity to smoke cigarettes and
tell the stories of their lives. There was always a fourth setting at
table—often an intriguing presence for a child. With Raymond I was in love;
after school I liked it when Raymond sat at the kitchen table doing his ABCs
under my mother's supervision, reading my cat-and-dog books from the attic,
moving on to Silver Pennies.

When I was eight or nine, my father's advocacy of classical studies
became my father's unrelenting obsession. In memory, his passion seems to
have occupied most of my childhood; in reality, it probably took two years.
Every night my father read bulletins from the Department of Education, or a
mimeographed sheet from the university's classics department, or The
American Classicist. Every day the mail brought letters, bulletins, and
notices. William Hammersmith Battell founded the Southeastern Michigan
Secondary School Classical Studies Association. When he came home
from school to desk, he studied not Horace but statistics about classroom
study of Horace's language. My father ignored my mother and me in order to
defend Cicero in the senate of popular opinion. My mother and I still took our
afternoon rides on Skylark and Benita, sometimes with Raymond on
Bigboy, who needed the exercise, but no longer did the family go on Sunday
afternoon joyrides in the Model A. Sometimes my father brought me with
him, on a Saturday afternoon in the car, to visit someone engaged in the
same struggle; they had long, intense conversations while I tried talking
with strange children or knitting mittens or reading my book. My mother
stayed home. She read her poets; she kept up with darning and the
prodigious canning of summer. She again took up quilting, which she had
learned as a girl, to occupy her hours while my father spent himself
elsewhere. He approved of quilting, classic if not Latin, but his enthusiasm
was principled. Ella lacked theoretical passions. When my mother's
spectacular patchwork took a red ribbon at the Michigan State Fair in 1937, it
was clear that the Idea of Quilthood—not this extravagant bright
assemblage—exalted my father's reasonable soul. "Splendidissimus," he
Often my mother and I remained alone together on weekends,
quiet in the living room, or riding over dusty fields, while my father drove
overnight to Mackinaw Island to chair an emergency meeting called by
Michigan Concerned Latinists. No longer did my parents touch each other
when they passed in the hallway. My father behind rimless glasses gazed
into the distance, airy with urgency. My mother's beautiful eyes looked low
at hooked rugs and waxed floors, and I heard her sighing, sighing, sighing. I
knew she was unhappy and I sighed as I heard her sigh.
For my tenth birthday, in March of 1938, my parents gave me the
sheepdog I had begged for. Memory of Dido as a puppy allows me to date
events of that spring, because I recollect her with a love purer than any
other; Skylark was dear but did not follow me to school and to bed. At the
library I discovered Albert Payson Terhune's Lad: A Dog and its siblings.
With my mother I trained Dido; I slept with her; I grew up with her—and when
she died of old age at the farm (I was in graduate school, in a female co-op
that forbade animals), I died with her. She was ancient, and my mourning
was extravagant. When she died I lost my memory of tranquillity in early
childhood—a peace that had shattered, as it happened, not long after
Dido's arrival. I suppose that Dido's death was my second—as my mother
died first with Rudolph, then in a roadster's wreckage. The spring of Dido, I
endured a disaster of distrust while I hugged my trembling, ecstatic dog.
A month or two after my birthday I woke to hear my parents
quarreling. I slept lightly that spring, as Dido wriggled under the covers or
signaled that she needed to go out. It wasn't an argument that I heard first;
it was the sound of my father crying unmitigated tears—a sound I had never
before heard. He was not an unemotional man, as men went in those days,
and I had heard him weep over a friend's death; but that night I heard a
terrible sound—my father's wail of utter misery, as he gagged and coughed
and spluttered. My heart pounded and I left my bed in order to run to their
room, but then my mother's soft continual murmur—controlled, persistent—
held me back and calmed me, as it was intended to calm my father. I had
no notion of the matter of his tears. I heard no words from him except "Ella"
among the cries, and "Ella" repeated. When I made out her words, I heard
her say that she loved him—but the words carried a cadence of withholding,
like "anyway" or "still" or "despite everything." She was trying to console
him, but in her tone I heard something I had never heard before, as chilly as a
wheatfield in January.
For some nights—a week? a month?—I stayed awake
deliberately in order to listen. I could not hear everything they said, and
maybe I slept through a night or two, though I doubt it. I heard enough. With
Dido's wriggling help, I conspired to hear my new parents, my parents as I
had never known them. After years of our daily routine—farm, school,
horses, chickens, canning, quilting, Sunday rides, radio, Virgil—I entered a
moonless darkness of conspiracy as frigid as the stars. Everywhere I went, I
carried with me this enormous debilitating secret, something I could not
speak of to anyone—not to Rebecca in the hayloft, not to my teacher at
school, not to my cousins.
Night after night, when they thought I was asleep, I heard them
quarrel. Sometimes they attacked each other. My mother's voice rose and I
heard her use the word "divorce," a notion I scarcely understood. I heard my
father say, "I'll take the child," and I realized the identity of the creature.
Increasingly now they mentioned "him," and I became aware that my
mother loved someone other than my father. I hugged Dido so hard that she
made a squeaking noise, then licked my face. Lying in bed with my dog, my
heart pounding, I knew whom my mother loved. Only a short time before, just
after my birthday, I had come home from school to find my mother agitated,
not looking at me, running back and forth to tidy or do small chores. She told
me that Raymond no longer worked for us—the boy she taught to read—and
that old Ferdinand was back, to fill in for a while. I never liked Ferdinand, who
ignored a child, and I adored Raymond, so I burst into tears. My mother
turned on me in a rage (something she never did, not even when I broke a
cup of wedding china) and shouted, "Go to your room!"
It was Raymond whom my mother loved instead of my father. That
Raymond was ten years younger than she was—feckless though sweet,
illiterate, diffident, from a family that lived in a shack, with a father often in
jail—did not then occur to me. Later I put things in their places: My father
had raised himself up, become learned, dedicated himself to the finer
things, became "professor" in Abigail; how it must have pummeled him, along
with profounder jealousy, that my mother picked Raymond to love—Raymond
who had never graduated from grammar school. Doubtless my mother loved
Raymond at least partly because he was so pitiable, so unlike my
distinguished father. Something about Raymond was pathetic or beaten,
something hangdog. The combination of prettiness and need made him so
Listening to my stranger-parents, in their hurts and deliberations, I
felt terror and misery. But also I felt exalted: I was a romantic figure, like a
child in a book, like the match girl in the snow, wistful pathetic product of
adult abandonment or deceit. In my conspiracy or secret knowledge, in my
separation from my parents and the rest of my world—friends and school
and house, everyone but Dido, who listened to my complaints ecstatic with
adoration—I felt myself the locus of an extraordinary fate. I thrilled myself
by the vision of my despair. I felt ennobled by self-pity and by awareness of,
and admiration for, my mother's recklessness, beauty, abandon, and sin.
One night I heard my father say, "Damn you to hell!"—he never
swore—and laugh when my mother took offense. It was as if I had been
stolen by gypsies. It was as if they had been gypsies always, disguising
themselves as ordinary Michigan people. During the day—I was sleepy of
course; my mother puzzled when I dozed in my school dress on the hearth
rug after school—my parents tried to carry on as they had always done. I
was impressed by the aplomb with which they behaved "for the child's
Their ability to deceive, to be utterly different by day and by night, carved
itself into my soul. My father came home from school, put on his overalls,
did a few chores with Ferdinand, spoke politely with my mother over dinner,
and asked Camilla about her schoolwork. We performed a conspiracy of
three, a play for three voices. I pretended or dissembled as much as they did,
and rejoiced in the skill of my deceit. I pretended ignorance or innocence, as
I knew for certain that my parents were cruel enemies inside the appearance
of their marriage. Although they continued as if they cared for me, I was an
alien encumbrance. We were three strangers, as only I was aware.
Officially I did not know the facts of life, as we called sex in those
years, because parents waited to tell a daughter until she was ready to
menstruate. But as a farm child I had watched barnyard copulation. Already
I attempted to read novels written for adults in which men and women—when
they loved each other, whether they were married or not—disappeared into
the privacy of a blank page to do something which confirmed their love and
made for mayhem. I knew that what they did was wicked and wonderful, the
most extreme of pleasures and the worst. I knew that my mother and
Raymond—while my father and I were at school, or on weekends when my
father and I visited someone—did what the rooster did with the hens, what
the stallion Bigboy attempted with the neutered mare Benita.
One night as my parents spoke in bed, I understood that they
approached a crisis. The next night at nine o'clock Raymond would come
to the house and the three of them would talk. From what was said, I
gathered that they would decide about divorce and about "the child." The next
night after dinner my father proposed that we ride in the car. It was unheard
of, that I stay up after seven on a school night; they wanted to tire me out so
that I would sleep soundly. Disingenuously I remarked on my late bedtime,
and in a single voice my parents said that it didn't matter, that I could sleep
in and be late for school. They seemed unaware how unprecedented their
behavior was.
That night I did not need to struggle to stay awake; I set my
bedroom door ajar and crouched on the floor with my ear at the opening,
hugging Dido, so that I would miss nothing. I heard Raymond—he had an
unusual gait—walk up the path. I heard him enter; I heard perfunctory
conventional exchanges. How frightened Raymond must have been. I could
imagine his drawn, white, lean, weak, handsome face. I heard my father's
level voice, grave and formal; I heard my mother weeping; I heard a new
sound which I could identify as Raymond's tears. Later, I heard my father
weeping also—three grownups crying in the living room at the foot of the
long stairs.
Maybe I dropped off to sleep, leaning between the doorjamb and
Dido, for the next sound I heard was a shout of rage or despair, then hurried
steps and the door slamming and steps running outside. Raymond had run
away. I pushed my face around the jamb of the door and saw that my father
and my mother stood side by side. Suddenly I heard my father
scream, "Bitch!" The front door hurtled open again, my father shouted, "I'll
never be back!"—and the door slammed again. I crept to the top of the
stairs. My mother stood in the doorway as the Model A started and my father
drove away. When she turned back and entered the living room, I stood
halfway down the stairs in my white nightgown, a fierce Virgilian warrior who
had read Victorian romances. "I have known all," I said.

Within two months, my father quit all his associations and societies. In a
year his subscriptions ran themselves out. He dismissed Ferdinand, came
home earlier from school, and did long weekend chores, farming without
help. Later, he canceled his annual order for three hundred chicks and let his
poultry venture dwindle to eggs for our household. He traded Bigboy for an
older, more tractable gelding called Rusty, and we three rode together
The night of the confrontation, my father could not have stayed
away for long. We ate breakfast together the next morning. I remember
because we had pancakes, a rarity usually saved for birthdays. In my ten-
year-old cynicism, I made note of our treat. My mother could not look me in
the eye; my father praised the pancakes and left quickly, but behaved
toward me with his competent affectation of ordinariness, which let me
understand that my mother had not spoken of my eavesdropping.
When she saw me on the stairs, as she turned back from the
door, her face went dead white. After I made my rehearsed announcement,
she struggled to recover herself and asked questions to find out what I
knew. At once I dissembled; her aspect terrified me, and in order to bring
blood back into her face, I lied or played innocent. When she asked me what
I had known, I answered only by saying that my father was not coming back.
My mother assured me, grasping for an appearance of calm, that he didn't
mean it. Forcing a frail smile, she said, "He'll be back soon, Camilla." They
had quarreled about the horses; she wanted him to sell Bigboy . . . When I
kept my silence then, my secrecy resumed itself forever. My secrecy dug
itself a lightless castle inside the hill. My secrecy bricked up a dungeon door
behind which something still languishes.
Our lives restored themselves; at least theirs did or seemed to. I
doubt that my mother saw Raymond again. Four or five years later, he was
killed in the war; I know that much only because his name with its gold star
ornaments the scroll by the Abigail Town Hall. If anyone else came into my
mother's life, later or earlier, I never knew it. My father went back to his
Latin classes and his school administration. Every day after chores he sat
down to his books, Lucretius more than Virgil, Tacitus more than Livy, some
Horace but never Ovid. In the evenings he studied while my mother quilted or
revisited her poets, or read novels aloud to my father and me: Dickens, Mark
Twain, early Steinbeck. After a while they were touching each other again. I
watched with careful, secretive eyes. Two years later my mother had a
hysterectomy and told me I would remain an only child.
Surely I was changed forever. Life at the farm was calm, but I lived
elsewhere in my fancy. I absented myself reading stories, imagining myself
a reckless heroine and a pathetic victim. Outside the house of fiction I was
chronically restless. Nothing in life, I knew, was what it appeared to be.
When I read a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, I recognized the minister and
his pious congregation who met at midnight in the woods to celebrate Mass
for the devil. I knew that by universal conspiracy we agreed to deny the
wickedness of every human being. We needed, every hour, to understand:
The fabric of routine covered unseen deceptions and enormities. We also
needed to remember that the cloth must show no rips or tears, and this
covering was as real as anything. I admired the fabrics my father and my
mother wove, whatever might throb or coil underneath the cloth.
When I left home at eighteen to attend the University of Michigan,
I contrived to continue the life of fiction. I delighted in keeping two or three
boyfriends at the same time; my schemes provided opportunity for plot-
making. Majoring in English I found Henry James, and wrote an honors
thesis on What Maisie Knew—and I knew what Maisie knew better than my
teachers did. My parents were pleased with my academic success. My
father offered to finance a Ph.D. if I wished to enter his profession as a
college teacher, but I wanted to write rather than to talk about the writing of
others. I won a Hopwood in fiction, took an M.A. in library science, and
spent many years working in the library of Barnaby Academy in Grosse
Arbor, a boys' boarding school outside Detroit. I was a servant in the house
of fiction, and in the houses of history, poetry, and biography. I found it less
necessary to dissemble, in my private life, as I plotted and published my own
literary fictions. Critics sometimes wondered at the violence in my stories,
not aware of my provenance as a warrior.
My history is not especially interesting; nor was my parents'
history, so far as I can tell, after the incident of Raymond. They lived the
even life of the cornfields, with their horses and Chevrolets, with their quilts
and classical studies. I visited sometimes for weekends. Sometimes we met
in Detroit or Ann Arbor for a play or a concert. When I married they approved
of my husband, and when Valerie was born my mother spent two weeks
sleeping on the sofa to help me out. We lived in a dormitory then, for my
husband taught French at the Academy, and my mother's aging beauty did
not escape the attention of the sixteen-year-olds in our hall. During the long
illness of my daughter—she contracted leukemia at five, when medicine
seldom cured leukemic children—my parents tendered comfort and
support. They took a new mortgage after paying off their old, to help with
expenses; more importantly, they supplied their presence, their grief, and
their abundant tears.
Our marriage could not survive Valerie's death. My husband and I
could scarcely look at each other, and both of us found comfort elsewhere. I
fell in love with a student, as it happens, and caused considerable suffering.
When my ex-husband, Emil, suddenly flew off to teach at the American
School in Beirut, the football coach's ex-wife went with him. This elopement
led to Emil's subsequent fame, if that's the word: three and a half years as
a hostage; freedom; talk shows; a book, in which "an early marriage" received
For two decades I remained in the Barnaby library; the school
authorities never acknowledged my escapade—if they ever knew. I settled
down among the books and the boys who read books. My fiction enjoyed
some success, so the English department borrowed me to teach a writing
class. When I was forty-five I married a widower retired from Chrysler, a rare
executive who loved theater and literature, and we led a good life together
until he died, nine years later. I found relative comfort in middle age, as I
suppose my parents did.
But I need to say: Even through the worst times—torments and
disasters, losses, gains that were worse than losses—I kept on loving my
parents. Whatever they did in the dark of the moon, they performed as well
as they could in daylight. I honored their brave, sad endeavor. When I
sought calm, waiting for electroshock during depression in the worst years, I
thought again of Sunday rides in the Model A—seeing the back of my
mother's neck, and my father's trim haircut.
When Latin went down to defeat after the war, my father withdrew
from teaching but remained principal of Abigail High until he retired at sixty-
five, subject of farewell banquets and testimonials. He lived for eleven more
years, pruning fruit trees and raising berries on the farm he had brought his
bride to. Occasionally he worked at translating Lucretius into blank verse, a
project with which my mother helped; her ear for iambic pentameter was
more assured than my father's. I keep the unfinished manuscript with its
fussy Victorian diction. When he died, my mother remained on the old
place; I moved here when she was eighty, five years after my second
husband died. I read Tristram aloud to her, along with Rabbit, Run. We
walked every day in the pine woods that grew where hayfields had been. We
drove to Ann Arbor for the bookstores and visited Gotwig's, which appeared
to have shrunk. We drove to Detroit to see the Rivera murals again. In
desultory fashion, I finished a quilt she had started, and I held my mother's
hand when she died last year at eighty-seven. I board my horse at a
neighbor's farm; my latest collie is another Dido; I live in the house where
everything happened.
Or almost everything. In her last years my mother kept returning
in her mind to her cousin Rudolph, and told me much of what I recounted
earlier. I listened hard to understand her, Ella still beautiful in the noble
bones of her lean ninth-decade face. When I heard her speak of Rudy's
young pedantry, expressed in bookishness and missionary Christianity, I
thought of my father, although my father was never troubled by diffidence.
Then I made the association that annoyed her. Once as she spoke of Rudy
she revealed something else, or two things at once: Rudolph's eyes, she
said, were a blue-gray that you never forgot—light and mild yet so piercing
they were painful to look at. She remembered such eyes in one other face
only, a farmhand's named Raymond, she said, whom I had probably forgotten.
Her mind remained sharp, although she sometimes wandered
among episodes of the past. "Nothing happened," she told me during the
last month of her life, "in Willow Temple that day." I knew what day she
meant. "But maybe he felt something," she said, and stopped speaking.
"Maybe he wanted something to happen?" I said.
"I've thought so," she said. "Maybe he felt something in his
trousers. I've wondered so." I held her hand. "It could have been something
as small as that." Then her old humor asserted itself: "Not that I had
witnessed his dimensions!" She laughed her trim laugh. "It was so long ago,"
she said. "He wanted so much to go to China. What if something had
happened in Willow Temple? Sometimes I think he never died." She shook
her head to deny dementia. "Sometimes I think he never lived—or that I never
lived, or your father. How preposterous we are. Jokes and disasters, that's all
there are. Is." Her tone suggested that she spoke without consequence. "The
world is arbitrary," she went on. "Why did I work at Gotwig's? Why did the
pigs die? Why do poets write poems? If insulin had been discovered, I would
never have known Huldah; I might have been a Christian. Why did Raymond
put a noose around his head?"
Some mistakes you don't point out. Some mistakes lack great
implication, though I suspect that nothing is wholly arbitrary, not mistaken
names nor poisoned pigs nor leukemia nor a kidnapping in Beirut. The
latest Dido let me understand that she wanted to go outside, and I took her
walking past fallen outbuildings into the new wood.

Copyright © 2003 by Donald Hall. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Table of Contents

From Willow Temple1
The Accident32
The First Woman40
Christmas Snow59
Lake Paradise77
The Figure of the Woods88
The Ideal Bakery110
Roast Suckling Pig120
Widowers' Woods145
Argument and Persuasion155
The Fifth Box181
New England Primer184

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