where the writers are
Of attics and inheritance
Linwood Albee

     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 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, The Bobbsey Twins, Maida, Marjorie Dean, 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.      

     Perversely however, as is my penchant (that Edwardian vocabulary again) today I would award “favorite book of childhood” status to 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) who 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 came 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.  

13 Comment count
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I have nothing quirky, beautiful or clever to say

Except that I love this post. I had 2 little golden books as a child. I couldn't read because I couldn't see. My second grade teacher recognized my problem and encouraged my parents to get my eyes examined. Miracle! I could see. My teacher stayed in with me every recess and taught me phonics and how to read. I became a college-level reader in about 2 months.

The books at my house were the Encyclopedia Britannica and my dad's big red book of poems and Shakespeare.

I read two book as a child: Call of the Wild, and Lassie Come Home. That's in the space of 2nd grade to 8th grade. When I hit 5th grade all I read were "how to" books and "how to be a better person books".

I had a precious doll, she wasn't soft, she was hard, but I could move her legs and arms - she wasn't fat, so I would design and sew clothes for her - even though she was a "baby" - I made strapless gowns, and beaded dresses for her, replete with hats. and fingerless gloves.

When I was 10 my dad backed the car over her, on purpose. I still don't know what I did, or didn't do to make him so angry. My life changed that day. I can't explain it, but it did. I'm not trying to be a downer or garner sympathy.

I love :

" 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. "

For the brief moment, I felt as if I had a doll and a lovely book.

Thank you for a heartful, soul-touching post.

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Sharon, what a remarkable story, remarkable for the details of your own childhood, but doubly so because of this paragraph I deleted before I posted my blog: “However, unbeknown to everyone including me, my eyesight was so poor that in its uncorrected childhood state, I fulfilled the definition for ‘legally blind.’  I stumbled, I dropped, I destroyed, but I could squint and huddle over books.  My eyesight has since been corrected, but books remain the truest of friends.”  In my case it was a third grade teacher who realized I couldn’t see.  I remember the incredible sensation of seeing separate leaves on a tree --- I had never understood the concept before.  But I could always see to read since I was so incredibly near-sighted.  Your visual problems must have been different.  Amazing how long we stumbled through life.  That’s why I’m so attached to Scout in her ham costume in the dark woods. 

I’m horrified at what your father did.  For children especially, life can change in an instant.  Again, we have that in common.

My grandfather was the most consistently kind person I have ever had in my life.  He died three days before Christmas when I was seven and my parents and grandmother were shopping.  He stayed at home to take care of me and suffered a heart attack.  He had already bought me the doll and accompanying book which I found under the Christmas Tree.  Sometimes, there truly is magic. 

You can come and play with Flora, anytime.  That’s a promise. 

Thank you for interweaving your life with mine.


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Hello Dolly

Thank you so much. I never met my grandfather (mother's side) until I was 13. My dad's father was murdered when my dad was 12.

I had an amazing ability to escape into my imagination so totally that my mother would be in front of me calling my name several times before I was aware she was there. I actually wrote about it - called it Sea Dreams. I don't know if it's still on Red Room or not. It actually was my story.

I remember getting glasses and and the optometrist saying "can you read that sign across the street?" I didn't even know there was a sign across the street - until then.

I could see letters if I held the book up close - but I couldn't read because all the instruction was done on a chalkboard. And I sat in the middle of the room. Even if I sat in the front row, I couldn't see the blackboard. It was my squinting that tipped off the teacher. Amazing! I thank God for that teacher. Mrs. Fagerness.

I hope the rest of your weekend is filled with good things.

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Your Flora may be where the

Your Flora may be where the idea of American Girl dolls came. They are dolls that I have stories written for and about them. For example, our grand-daughter has Kit Kittredge, a girl who grew up in the Great Depression, but there are others from the time of the Revolution to the Seventies. These are not inexpensive dolls, but certainly have a following. Each comes with a story, but others about the doll are also available.

Very nice post, by the way! Do all readers have vision problems? I remember my first glasses and seeing a house for the first time that had been there all along.

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     Isn’t it scary, Nancy, to consider all those things we missed out on by being visually-impaired when we were young?  The prevailing authorities claim that a lot of social and psychological interaction takes place when babies learn to ‘read’ faces.  Hmmm.  What about those of us who couldn’t see to properly read those faces?  I think it’s possible that we adapted by creating more synapses, linking our brains more easily to left and right.  I always scored equally on math/science and language/creative skills, and with your scientific background as well as your writing, I assume you did too.  Sharon had similar problems….oh, Sharon? 

You’re probably right about the doll/storybook idea, because Flora (a Madame Alexander doll) was a product of the fifties.  There is an American Girl store on Fifth Avenue in NY, not far from Tiffanys, so I assume they’re a bit pricey! 

 Thanks as always for reading.  Are you sailing in your retirement?

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Mara, How scary! I, too,

How scary! I, too, scored about the same on both math/science and language/creative skills exams...just a little bit lower in the math portion (which was always the hardest subject in school for me, too).

Yes, we sail. In fact, five minutes ago my husband said something about needing to get the bottom painted on the boat in preparation for the launching of the boat. My only problem with sailing is motion sickness which I will fight this year with Transderm-Scop (a bit of overkill but it is better than "feeding the fishes").

Take care...nancy

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A telling vignette...

This was simply lovely, Mara. I'm so glad you shared it. I remember Flora well. And all the Madame Alexander dolls, with the same face and different clothes. I had a few. Mostly though, I remember feeling some of those feelings - except for the Golden Books which I treasure. I came to them at a very young age - (2 or 3) and so they have always been part of my landscape. My mother taught me to read, using them. Also, the Golden Books of the 40s and 50s which is what my mother had (even though some of them preceded my birth by many years) were more substantial and had much larger vocabularies than those of later decades. But overall, this seemed like a Scout-ish recounting. Sturdy, recalcitrant little Mara, learning grand lessons that would serve her well in later years.... H x

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On the gilding of books…

Mea culpa, I meant not to disparage the myriad titles of the Golden Book phenomena!  However, a quote from that wondrous novel Highway To Oblivion (wherein Patina awakens to various epiphanies throughout) does refer directly to a Golden Book: “Years later, alone in the wee hours of a Saturday, emptying out the family home back in Maine, stumbling upon a box of assorted books, she flipped through her well-worn Book of Prayers For Children and glanced at the saccharine illustrations of chubby white-bread kids dressed as junior angels, kneeling with hands folded and eyes to heaven.  Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  She, along with countless others, had repeated that dismal rhyme every night throughout her childhood.  She shivered as its meaning slapped her like a physical blow.  “Ugh!  How positively creepy.  To say if I die before I wake every night.  What a thing to teach children.  Oh, m'God!  I really believed that!  That I might die in my sleep.  No wonder I’ve always been afraid to sleep.  I had to be on the alert or I might actually die.”

In retrospect, there were a few Golden Books I rather liked because of the detailed illustrations.  And yes, I admit that along with Flora, Golden Books are among the several hundred children’s titles still in my attic, including some of the aforementioned series, just because, well….they’re books.  (I did consign to Goodwill with great relish Elsie, the Bobbseys et al some time ago.) 

I think you may know me a little too well, Harrison.  Every now and then I try on that ham costume, just to make sure it still fits.  M x

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Great reading here.

I loved the blog and I loved your grandfather. Then the comments came and really made this a fascinating read. All you early gifted readers with near blindness!!! And the seeming good things that came out of this disability as you adapted and compensated! I had a college roommate who also had an eye problem--can't remember but assume it was also a teacher who saved her. Her mother was dead, and she was reared by a grandmother. When her grandmother scolded her for not dusting well, Fay just thought her grandmother was old and grouchy. When she was taken to a basketball game and people squealed and hollered, she thought they were just acting silly because she did not see anything. After she got glasses, she too had a new world to adjust to and was an excellent student. With good vision, she became an extreme sports fan and a high school teacher.

I loved the Bobbsey twins, and was quite horrified when I read one of the books as an adult. I loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys altho I am not much of a mystery reader now. Although my parents were teachers, we did not have many children's books in our house. Teachers were paid very little in those days, and they had no families to inherit much from. My mother did have two children's books from her childhood that I still have: Secret Garden and Mrs. Penner's Little Girl, which was a real tear jerker. But the Jonesboro Library in the musty smelling basement of the bank had more books than I could read, although as a child, I thought that was a proper ambition. I probably did read most of the books in the children's book case. I don't remember reading many classics as a child, however.

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What a nice thing to say

And my grandfather would really have loved you, Sue.  He was one of those down-to-earth people who would stop and help you with a flat in the rain.  Real “folks.”

It is very, very interesting to consider  all of us with impaired vision.  And then your story of your friend…  Amazing that none of our own families picked up on our problems.

Your comments always make my day, Sue.  Thanks.


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Afraid to Sleep

I thought I was the only child who didn't like that prayer. I had such a fear of death when I was a small child. I would hold my breath unknowingly - wondering if I was dying. I would awake frequently in the night and sit up to make sure I was alive.

I wanted to make sure my daughter "said her prayers" every night (being a single mom, I was trying to do all the right things) and I only knew that one prayer. So we prayed "Now, I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should cry before I wake. Call my mom, for goodness sake. Amen."

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Deathless prose

Love your editing of the prayer, Sharon.  But actually worse than death for me was the guilt that accompanied the additional recitation of “and God bless Grandma and Auntie….”  I was constantly afraid that I would forget someone in the lineup and cause them to die.  For years afterwards I tried to remember if I had neglected my grandfather the night he died in the “God bless series.”  Now there’s a good reason for more than a few hours in analysis.  Amen.      

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I actually loved that prayer! I thought that if I died in the night I could be a spirit and not being tied to a body, could fly around the world and in outer space and have a stupendous time. I thought my soul would be free. In this fancy I don't think I took into account the sorrow of my parents or anything because I conveniently though unconsciously added the ability to be with my family somehow. But I could see how it would be scary to others with different sensibilities and I think Sharon's prayer would be strongly and delightfully reassuring to any child!