My son gave us names. He was Mister Deck, his father was Sneak, I was Shoe.
We were in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, bicycling by day, camping at night and taking in music, dance and theatre between times at Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare & Company. My two tall men bicycled straight up every hill while I chugged along behind on what felt like a tricycle, huffing, puffing, cursing, and rescued at various times by lemonade and one afternoon by a wonderful rainstorm in Stockbridge. We took refuge on the wide verandah of the Red Lion Inn and drank gin and tonics and read the New York Times.
Down the street, under tarps, a used book sale was going on and I found a slim volume about Willa Cather by her longtime companion Edith Lewis. Willa Cather Living. A lovely read, being a detail-filled account of her childhood and writing life. “[Willa] happened to mention to D. H. Lawrence that she always kept her flowers in the bathroom at night.” It made me eager to read the books of hers I haven’t read.
Now I’m happily in the middle of The Song of the Lark, impressed as always by the genius of her simplicity.
Another day we went to Melville’s house and stood in the large upstairs room where he wrote Moby-Dick with a view in the distance of whale-shaped Mount Greylock. The excellent docent supplied details that stick with me. The suicide of his oldest son; his habit of mercilessly teasing his youngest daughter; his final years as a customs inspector taking the ferry to and from Staten Island after the absolute failure of Moby-Dick and his later books to find an audience.
In the little gift shop I picked up a postcard with a quotation from one of his letters and here was the muscular, sea-tainted, human turn of phrase that makes you want to follow him around the world.
“I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one) and likewise some shanties of chapters & essays. I have been ploughing & sowing & raising & printing & praying, and now begin to come out upon a less bristling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farmhouse here.”
And so we stumble upon great writers and great books.