Fri 20 Jun 2008
one hundred years ago today, a woman who would be known to posterity as L.M. Montgomery, a spinster in her thirties living in a rural farmhouse belonging to relatives, received a package in the mail. it was the first edition of her first novel, titled Anne of Green Gables. it went through five printings by fall of that year, and became a bestseller, with a longevity that would have stunned its author. she did not live to see it transform the pastoral island that was her home into a red-headed orphan industry for the tourists from Japan and Romania and Tennessee who flock here every summer to lap up raspberry cordial and handmade soaps and cheap tshirts with the lead character’s freckled likeness stamped upon them. she did not live to see the quiet Cavendish corner cemetery road become the site of the town’s first stoplight, with a Madame Tussaud’s knock-off across the road and her own grave tarted up sometimes like Jim Morrison’s at Père-Lachaise, only with more Hello Kitty, less whisky.
it must have come in brown paper, that first edition. i imagine her unwrapping it, gazing at it with a sort of amused disbelief.
in the same tiny province, some miles away, a little girl celebrated her fourth birthday on the same day Maud Montgomery marked her own birth as an author. i do not have to imagine the girl, as there is a faded sepia snapshot, disappearing more each year, of she and her friend Doris at a table set for tea. there is a cloth on the table, with lace edging, and a white bow half as big as the birthday girl’s head holds back black curls that spill, as if coaxed, behind small, round shoulders. the girl sits, clutching a doll, looking into the middle distance with the timid Mona Lisa of a smile that remained hers for nearly ninety-six years. her black-booted feet perch demurely on the chair rung. the plate of cookies appears to belong entirely to Doris, whose face is pinched and gazes directly into the camera, pigeon-toed Mary Janes kicking. both girls wear puffed sleeves.
i know that Doris and the birthday girl lived across the street from each other nearly all their lives, well into their nineties. i remember Doris myself, a tiny, gentle woman, bird-like and brown, who lived with another elderly lady as “the Missies Tait and Matheson” all through my childhood and my growing-up, in a yellow house with a goldfish pond in the back garden. one day late in my teens a light dawned and i began to wonder if Doris and her friend were as quiet and conventional as they seemed…but i did not ask. sapphic was not a word that tree-lined street seemed acquainted with. in staring the fierce four-year-old Doris in the face, in the photo, i wonder again, and smile back at the faded girl and all the unspoken mysteries that mark the century between us now.
the girl who turned four that day a hundred years ago was her mother’s eldest living child, though her father had a much-older daughter from a first marriage, who’d been whisked down to the Boston States upon her own mother’s death. and there had been twins from the girl’s parents’ own marriage, boy and girl, born too soon and gone in the year or two before the birthday celebrant’s safe arrival. there would be one more sibling, three years down the road; a three-pound boy child also born too early, kept in the oven in a shoebox, fed with an eye dropper. in between the girl’s birth and his, i presume losses, miscarriages, other premature arrivals. but like Doris and the older half-sister, they are mysteries, their absence now swallowed by time.
i wonder, wryly, if the imprints of our lives are writ for us in the leaves of family Bibles, patterns repeating themselves until they work their purpose out, or until medicine becomes so modern that their weakness is eradicated. when i was a child, i knew no one else who was the elder half-sister, far away, who watched siblings grow up like distant cousins with a father to spend their birthdays with. when my firstborn died, i knew no one else who had borne and lost her child, knew no one who inexplicably tended to premature delivery. and yet there they were, these doppelgangers shaped like me, crumbling in old ink on the family tree. i do not believe in destinies, and yet i am pleased, strangely comforted, to find them foreshadowing me, as if in continuity perhaps there is something meaningful, something more than simple waste and sorrow.
the birthday girl’s unborn brother would, in his late thirties, of course, become father to my mother. and he would die, too young, and by the time of my birth the girl would be a nearly seventy-old childless widow who had raised her niece and would help her niece raise me. i called her my grandmother, and every year on the twentieth of June we celebrated, our small left-over family, and every year the expression that peeked out in pictures from the face of the birthday girl grown old was that same prim, self-contained almost-smile that hid a heart made of pansies and crocuses.
in L.M. Montgomery’s novel, the orphan Anne comes, rather by accident, to stay with an upright, rather dour farm woman and her shy bachelor brother. the dance of the three, between spirit and indulgence and the Protestant work ethic, taking in the kinship of the young with old and the pull of societal shoulds and responsibility against imagination and the sentimentality of a child who has understood disappointment early, all form the web of the novel, its structure, its imprint. it was my first literary model for identity, for understanding the shape of one’s life by seeing it reflected in pages, long before i ever looked in the family Bible for other incarnations. it may have been just because we were three, my mother, my grandmother, and i, and rooted in the same cultural impulses Montgomery understood and subverted, cunningly, that the three of us played out our roles almost like a parody sometimes, my mother serious and practical and concerned that i be tamed into goodness, my grandmother less directly responsible and thus more free to cultivate mischief and sentiment, and more open, in her shy way, to what the love of a child brought into her life in those late years. whatever the reason, in Anne i found that first shock of recognition, the first realisation that patterns exist in human interaction, the first taste of meaning larger than the mundanity of my own life.
i gather that no one bought my grandmother a first edition of Anne of Green Gables for her fourth birthday; i don’t suppose they were even in the stores yet. certainly if one was ever owned, it disappeared, another lost mystery, possibly sold to the auction man like my mother’s 1959 Barbie and a hundred other maybe-treasures of the attic that got cleaned out every few years when money got tight because my grandmother’s shyness and politeness made her the most vulnerable touch on the street, and she never did learn that the old would come back in value where arborite and paperbacks might not.
but it was her, i know, who bought me the book first, when i was seven or eight. and it was her, every summer, who paid to take me to the theatre where the wondrous hidden orchestra would warm up with scales and the lights would dim and my breath would catch and then Anne would strut on stage in all her musical glory and a bright red wig. and i would sit high up in my seat in my most old-fashioned dress singing along, fervently hoping and praying that some unfortunate actor would trip and fall and require replacement and some knowing director would peer out amongst the audience and see me there with my brown bowl cut and my puffed sleeves and say, you, little girl, you. yes. come up here. i did not know about understudies then, only that i longed to shine. i do not think my grandmother was well-versed in the ways of theatre, either, this being the only show we ever went to. but had she known what i was imagining there in my seat, she would have patted my hand as sure as sure, and said, well, i don’t know, honey, i can’t see how they’d pick anyone but you. and i would have beamed, knowing someone saw me as i truly was, and she would have smiled the same Mona Lisa smile that she had at four years old.
one hundred years ago today.