Dragonwagon, Crescent 1952- (Ellen Parsons, Ellen Zolotow)
Dragonwagon, Crescent 1952- (Ellen Parsons, Ellen Zolotow)
Original name Ellen Zolotow; born November 25, 1952, in New York, NY; daughter of Maurice (a writer, journalist, and biographer) and Charlotte (a publisher, children's book writer, and editor) Zolotow; married Crispin Dragonwagon (real name, Mark Parsons; an archaeologist), March 20, 1969 (divorced, August 10, 1973); married Ned Shank (an architectural marketing consultant, innkeeper, writer and artist), October 20, 1978 (died, November 30, 2000). Education: Educated in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, and Stockbridge, MA. Politics: "Non-affiliated activist for environmental causes and social justice." Religion: "Spiritual, not religious." Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, reading, cooking, movies of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, antiques, historic preservation, white water canoeing, environmentalism, fitness, theater.
Home—Saxtons River, VT. Agent—Edite Kroll Literary Agency, 12 Grayhurst Park, Portland, ME 04102. E-mail—[email protected]
Writer, novelist, chef, lecturer, public speaker, poet, journalist, and educator. Participant in artist in the schools programs in Eureka Springs, AR, 1976-80, and Atlanta, GA, 1982-83; workshop presenter and/or lecturer at numerous conferences, including National Council of Teachers of English Conference, 1980, and American Association of School Librarians Conference, 1982; developer and teacher of Fearless Writing workshops, 1990—. California Almond Board, spokesperson, 1993; Dairy Hollow House (bed-and-breakfast inn), Eureka Springs, co-owner and operator, until 1998; Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow, Eureka Springs, cofounder, 1998 (became Communication Arts Institute, 2005).
Authors Guild, Authors League, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Poets and Writers, International Association of Culinary Professionals, Archimedes Investment Management (president, 1999-2000), Eureka Group.
Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children, National Science Teachers Association/ Children's Book Council (CBC), 1976, for Wind Rose; Notable Book citation, American Library Association, 1982, for To Take a Dare; Ossabaw Foundation fellow, 1982; Choice Book citation, National Council of Teachers of English, 1984, for Jemima Remembers; Parents' Choice Award, and Social Sciences Book of the Year, both 1984, both for Always, Always; Notable Book citation, New York Times, 1985, for The Year It Rained; Coretta Scott King Award, 1987, for Half a Moon and One Whole Star; Notable Children's Book in Social Studies, and Best Books citation, Wisconsin Children's Center, both 1987, both for Diana, Maybe; Ragdale Foundation fellow, 1990; Golden Kite Award, Society of Children's Book Writers, 1990, and Recommended Reading List for Children and Young Adults citation, National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1990-91, all for Home Place; Notable Children's Trade Book in social studies, National Council for the Social Studies/CBC, 1990, for Home Place and Winter Holding Spring; Porter Fund Award for Literary Excellence, 1991, for body of work; Porter Fund Prize, Arkansas Literary Society, fall, 1992, for body of work; Women on the Move award, Wyndham Hotels, 1997, for ideas for businesswomen travellers; Newman's Own Award, Paul Newman, 1997, for recipe using Newman's Own product, professional category; James Beard Award nomination and Julia Child Award nomination, for Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread.
(Under name Ellen Parsons) Rainy Day Together, Harper (New York, NY), 1970.
Strawberry Dress Escape, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Scribner (New York, NY), 1975.
When Light Turns into Night, illustrated by Robert A. Parker, Harper (New York, NY), 1975.
Wind Rose, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
Will It Be Okay?, illustrated by Ben Shecter, Harper (New York, NY), 1977.
Your Owl Friend, illustrated by Ruth Bornstein, Harper (New York, NY), 1977.
If You Call My Name, illustrated by David Palladini, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.
I Hate My Brother Harry, illustrated by Dick Gackenbach, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.
Katie in the Morning, illustrated by Betsy Day, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.
Coconut, illustrated by Nancy Tafuri, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
Jemima Remembers, illustrated by Troy Howell, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1984.
Always, Always, illustrated by Arieh Zeldich, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1984.
Alligator Arrived with Apples: A Potluck Alphabet, illustrated by José Aruego and Ariane Dewey, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1985.
Half a Moon and One Whole Star, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1986.
Diana, Maybe, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
Dear Miss Moshki, illustrated by Diane Palmisciano, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1988.
Margaret Ziegler Is Horse-Crazy, illustrated by Peter Elwell, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1988.
I Hate My Sister Maggie, illustrated by Leslie Morrill, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1989.
This Is the Bread I Baked for Ned, illustrated by Isadore Seltzer, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1989.
The Itch Book, illustrated by Joseph Mahler, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Winter Holding Spring, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Home Place, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Alligators and Others All Year Long: A Book of Months, illustrated by José Aruego and Ariane Dewey, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
Annie Flies the Birthday Bike, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
Brass Button, illustrated by Susan Paradise, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1997.
Bat in the Dining Room, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, Marshall Cavendish (New York, NY), 1997.
The Sun Begun, illustrated by Teresa Shaffer, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1999.
Is This a Sack of Potatoes?, illustrated by Catherine Stock, Marshall Cavendish (New York, NY), 2002.
And Then It Rained/And Then the Sun Came Out, illustrated by Diane Greenseid, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2003.
The Commune Cookbook, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1971.
The Bean Book, Workman (New York, NY), 1973.
Putting Up Stuff for the Cold Time, Workman (New York, NY), 1973.
(With Jan Brown) The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, illustrated by Jacquie Froelich, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1986.
Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread: A Country Inn Cookbook, illustrated by Paul Hoffman, Workman (New York, NY), 1992.
Passionate Vegetarian, Workman (New York, NY), 2002.
The Cornbread Gospels, Workman (New York, NY), 2007.
Stevie Wonder (biography), Flash Books, 1976.
Message from the Avocados (poetry), Edentata Press (Austin, TX), 1981.
(With Paul Zindel) To Take a Dare (young adult novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1982.
The Year It Rained (novel), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1985.
Contributor to periodicals, including Aphra, Cosmopolitan, Fine Cooking, Ingenue, Ladies' Home Journal, Lear's, McCall's, Mode, New Age, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Nimrod, North American Review, Organic Gardening and Seventeen.
Wind Rose was made into a motion picture by Phoenix Films in 1983.
The daughter of two noted authors, Crescent Dragonwagon has made writing a way of life since she was very young. The author of award-winning cookbooks, an acclaimed adult novel, and numerous books for children, Dragonwagon is a popular speaker and lecturer to both students and teachers alike. Among her most notable books for younger readers are Half a Moon and One Whole Star, I Hate My Brother Harry, and Home Place, while her young adult novel To Take a Dare made her popular with teen readers after its 1982 publication. "From the time I learned the alphabet I wrote stories, beginning with drawing accompanied by a few words," Dragonwagon once commented, explaining her prolific output.
"Because my parents are writers," Dragonwagon once commented, "it seemed evident to me that when things happen to you in life, you write about them, and eventually they become books. Writing seemed natural, not esoteric or difficult." Born in 1952 to successful writers Charlotte and Maurice Zolotow, Dragonwagon quickly gained familiarity with the writing life. Her parents also gave her insight into the publishing process, and, undeterred by potential rejection, she submitted her first manuscript for publication before she was twenty. That first manuscript, published under the name Ellen Parsons, was Rainy Day Together; it was accepted for publication in 1969, the same year the sixteen-year-old author got married for the first time. "Most of life since has been focused in my writing: strong feelings and experiences, interesting people, overheard bits of conversation, almost everything that strikes me has a way of turning up in my work, sometimes surprising me greatly." One of Dragonwagon's favorite books continues to be one of her earliest, 1977's When Light Turns into Night, which she sees as a personal attempt to understand what she described in her Web site autobiographical essay as "the balance between solitude and sociability…. one I think many of us struggle with our whole lives through."
An early book for children, Wind Rose, was dubbed by its creator as "typical of my writing process, beginning with an incident which sparked the idea." With no children of her own, Dragonwagon used her personal experiences of being in love and "attached them to the actual conception and birth of this child and wrote the book," which consists of a poem in which a mother explains to her child how and why she was conceived. The result is "a rather special children's book about conception and birth," according to reviewer Linda Wolfe in the New York Times Book Review. A Publishers Weekly contributor deemed the book "certainly one of the most attractive and beautiful introductions to the subject of birth," adding that "Dragonwagon's text is honest and intensely personal." Wind Rose stands as an alternative to most books which focus on answering the question of where babies come from; it aims "to show the feeling side—why people have babies (under ideal circumstances) as opposed to simply how," Melinda Schroeder noted in School Library Journal. "Gentle and joyous, this celebrates the wonder of creation on a level young children will appreciate and find reassuring."
Many of Dragonwagon's children's books have also earned praise for their personal, gentle approach to childhood. Diana, Maybe, in which a little girl dreams of meeting her half-sister, has a "sensitive quality" that depicts the child's feelings "in a natural way," according to Lorraine Douglas in School Library Journal.
Reviewer Jane Saliers similarly observed in School Library Journal that "children will recognize their own collisions between dream and reality" in Margaret Ziegler Is Horse-Crazy. Depicting a little girl's disillusionment when she discovers that horseback riding is not all she had imagined, the book is "a skillfully conveyed story of dreams, disappointment, and recovered pride," Saliers wrote in School Library Journal.
Other books by Dragonwagon are tender portraits of distinctive places. The Itch Book, for example, details a day in Arkansas that is so hot, even the animals itch. "Composed in poetic prose replete with descriptive phrasing, this glimpse into an Ozark day is modern American folklore at its best," Cathy Woodward commented in School Library Journal. Dragonwagon's sketch of local life is "a great book to share with children," the critic added. Home Place similarly conjures up a special images; while backpacking in a rural area, a family comes upon the abandoned ruins of an old house and wonders about the people who once lived there. With its imagined scenes of a loving family, "this mood piece captures that quiet, reflective feeling a country hike can prompt," Denise Wilms wrote in Booklist. Home Place, which earned Dragonwagon the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children's Book Writers, was equally praised by a Publishers Weekly critic for Dragonwagon's ability to imaginatively "limn … a forgotten family's day-to-day existence" with "striking craft."
While most of Dragonwagon's books for young people focus on somewhat serious topics, others are just plain fun. An off-track bat who finds his way into a busy hotel is saved from flying dinner forks by a young girl in Bat in the Dining Room. And in Alligators and Others All Year Long: A Book of Months, readers take a trip through the calendar along with a whole cavalcade of animals who enjoy the special treats nature scatters throughout the twelve months of the year. From January, when cats sharpen their skates and hit the ice, through March, when lumbering moose lightheartedly frolic amid jaunty yellow daffodils, to December, when a tree is set up and gifts are passed among the animals who are now gathered together, Dragonwagon's book was described by Booklist contributor Deborah Abbott as an "ebullient celebration of the year" that "joyfully capture[s] highlights" of seasons and holidays in its "short, sprightly verses." Praising in particular the work of illustrators José Aruego and Ariane Dewey, a Publishers Weekly reviewer described Alligators and Others All Year Long as "bursting with splendid color and winsome animal characters" and ending "with a clever surprise and a sweet song." The successful collaboration between artists Aruego and Dewey and author Dragonwagon was mirrored in the equally upbeat Alligator Arrived with Apples: A Potluck Alphabet Feast.
Dragonwagon's first work of fiction for older readers, the novel To Take a Dare, was written with the aid and encouragement of Paul Zindel, himself famous for such young adult books as The Pigman. "I had started a number of novels but never finished them," the author once related. "I knew that Paul worked with other writers. One day, I bit the bullet and wrote him a letter asking if he would work with me. He agreed. I wanted his assurance to finish my novel if I reached the point that I couldn't, and he gave it to me. As it turned out, ninety-eight percent of To Take a Dare is my writing, but I feel I couldn't have written it without his encouragement."
To Take a Dare was considered "sure to scandalize many parents at the same time that it hooks a large audience of worldly wise teens" by Joyce Milton in her New York Times Book Review assessment. Narrated by Chrysta, a sixteen-year-old runaway, the book looks frankly at adolescent drinking, drug abuse, and sex, and opens with this declaration: "On my thirteenth birthday my father called me a slut once too often, my dog was hit by a car, and I lost my virginity—what was left of it." After running away from home Chrysta develops a painful venereal disease that leaves her permanently sterile; she is also threatened with rape by her boss and with death by a twelve-year-old runaway she has mistakenly befriended. After living on the road for three years, Chrysta finds a job as a cook in a small resort town and begins to establish a more stable existence. She gains friends who stay with her through hard times, and begins a caring relationship with a young man. Her experiences, both good and bad, "somehow teach her she has a lot of strength, love, and other good qualities in spite of her unhappy childhood," Karen Ritter summarized in School Library Journal. As a Publishers Weekly critic concluded: "The novel is strong stuff but it is a voice that should be heard."
Dragonwagon's adult novel, The Year It Rained, provides similarly intense material in its account of a young woman struggling with mental illness, among other problems. In a narrative that ranges through past and present, seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Stein tells of her parents' bitter divorce, her father's alcoholism, her strained relationship with her mother, her hollow relationships with boyfriends, her conflicts at school, and her own suicide attempts. "Elizabeth takes the reader through, among, and around these situations, looking hard at every person and every detail from a bittersweet present perspective of comparative calm—calm brought about by successful treatment with vitamins of what has finally been diagnosed as biochemically based schizophrenia," Natalie Babbitt observed in a New York Times Book Review piece. Elizabeth's monologue "lends a decided cathartic impact" to this "affecting, introspective novel," a Booklist reviewer similarly commented.
While some critics praised the novel, others were less enthusiastic. Finding Elizabeth's character "insufferable," reviewer Roger Sutton wrote in School Library Journal that the protagonist never matures; by the end of The Year It Rained Elizabeth remains "as self-centered and self-important as [she was] to begin with." New Statesman & Society writer Nicci Gerrard, however, considered that an "often narcissistic self-questioning" is common to characters of this type, while Tim Wynne-Jones, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, remarked that Dragonwagon's protagonist "is better than most; she shows some compassion for those around her, and that in itself rescues The Year It Rained from formula." Gerrard likewise found "striking" how "well-written, discomforting, and entirely unpatronising" the novel is. While Dragonwagon's novel was marketed as "young adult," the critic maintained that "any adult might enjoy [it]." Babbitt remarked similarly that the book "would be ideal to read at age seventeen," she asserted, "but also at thirty, and again at forty-five when one's own children are circling seventeen—it faces so unflinchingly the anguished and so often unsuccessful attempts to get past all the precious but heavy baggage of love between mother and child and on into some kind of mutual understanding that can set both free."
Although Dragonwagon herself considers The Year It Rained more of an adult novel, "for the sensitive teenager, it's going to be a really good book," as she explained to Bo Emerson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The truth is," she added, "I think all of [these] categories are stupid." Indeed, Dragonwagon once explained: "I have always seen myself as a writer first. Not a children's book writer as such, or a novelist, or a poet, or a magazine writer, or a cookbook author—though I have done each of these types of writing. Writing is the lens through which I focus on the world and the things in it which trouble me, or interest me, or give me pleasure. The particular subject or feeling I am looking at through the lens determines what form the finished piece of writing will take." The only exception to this rule is in the case of longer works, where "the characters soon take over and do it their way, from their perspective—which may be very different from mine."
Charlie, the young main character of Is This a Sack of Potatoes?, is full of mischief and doesn't want to go to sleep. Instead, he hides beneath the covers as his mother pats the lump he makes and asks what it is under the bedclothes: a sack of potatoes, a ton of tomatoes, a peck of pears, or a cave of bears? Charlie's answer is always no until he finally pops out and reassures his mother that it is him beneath the covers. Shelle Rosenfeld, writing in Booklist, observed that "many children will like this sweet rendering of a familiar parent-child game."
Some of Dragonwagon's works deal with the unavoidable cycles of life, noting how loss and dark times are followed by recovery and brighter days. In And Then It Rained/And Then the Sun Came Out, a flip-book featuring part of a whole story in each half of the book, she looks at what happens when a rainstorm drives people indoors. At first, they are happy to have the chance do things at home, such as read, listen to music, and dance. The cooling rain is a welcome relief from the hot weather. Soon, however, they begin to get irritable about being stuck inside because of the rain, and the weather becomes a nuisance. When a young boy wishes for the rain to stop, his father tells him that sun follows the rain just as rain always follows the sun. After flipping the book over, the story continues after the rain has stopped and the sun has started shining, and the cycle of the weather starts over again. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "good wet (or dry) fun for storytime." Sue Morgan, writing in School Library Journal, commented that the book's "fresh concept will intrigue children, and the stories, both of which are well-written, will amuse them."
Dragonwagon also continues to explore her interest in culinary arts with Passionate Vegetarian, a cookbook that encompasses the full range of vegetarian cooking.
"This big, exuberant book marks [Dragonwagon's] foray into the cooking closest to her heart," remarked Judith Sutton in Library Journal. The author covers basic concepts and traditional staples of vegetarian cuisine, including beans, tofu, and pasta. She also looks at vegetable-based cooking from other cultures, such as India and elsewhere. A Publishers Weekly critic noted that Dragonwagon is "passionate about her food," and concluded that her vegetarian cookbook is "vibrant and lively" and "seasoned with a large pinch of loving care."
Although Dragonwagon cultivates numerous other interests, such as cooking and teaching, she considers herself a professional, dedicated writer above all. "I feel lucky to have a profession which allows me to explore so many interests, while allowing me to stay true to the main and abiding interest in my life: writing. I have always known that this is what I wanted to do—and that, too, is lucky. It makes possible the persistent striving which underlies craft, talent, experience, gift, and good fortune." Dragonwagon sees the writer's colony she cofounded, which provides writers with uninterrupted time and space in which to work, an extension of this. "After all, Ned and I did not have children. It's a way to give back, and to pass on the heritage of writing which I was given," she once explained.
While personal tragedy—the loss of Ned Shank, her husband of twenty-three years, to a bicycling accident in late 2000—caused Dragonwagon to step away from some of her more lighthearted themes and deal with a major adjustment to her life, writing continued to serve her, as it always has, as a means of understanding and coping with feelings and changing situations. As Dragonwagon once noted: "I also see writing as a highly utilitarian profession. To quote from a poem of mine called ‘Looking for Bones in Her House,’ ‘She can write about anything that happens to her!’"
A LIFE SO FAR THE FORMER ELLEN ZOLOTOW
Before I became Crescent Dragonwagon, I was named Ellen Zolotow, a name no one—and I mean no one, not my mother, not my Aunt Dot—has called me for more than twenty years. It is not a name I associate with a happy period of my life, although there were happy moments from time to time in it, particularly in its earliest years. But then, happiness, especially when one is young, does not always serve writers well. I think it is almost universally true that writers, at least at some point during their growing-up years, are lonely, and feel themselves to be in some ways outsiders. Being outsiders, they develop those habits of observation, thinking, and questioning which eventually inform their writing.
I remember being quite exuberant, outgoing, friendly, at times very talkative and at ease when I was a very little girl; when we drove on tollway roads, I always asked the toll-takers, "What's your name?" (Some of them told me.) I especially loved to make or hear jokes. My mother says that once, when I was about three, she caught me leaning out the upstairs window, talking to some housepainters at work on our house. "Painters," I was calling to them, "Please give us a nice polka-dot trim!" Once my Grandpa Louis sent me a letter in which he complained that in his new California apartment, all the ladies liked to exchange recipes. "Oh, well," he wrote me, "what do I care how they fry their ice cream?" I thought this was hysterically funny. (As an adult, I also wonder at the amazing ability he must have had to know what a five- or six-year-old grandchild he saw only occasionally would find so funny, and I regret that I did not know him better.)
But at times I was also quite content to play by myself for hours. I had an elaborate, novelistic kingdom of dolls, centered around an orphanage. Each doll had a distinct personality; loyalties and friendships changed and developed from day to day. (I was aghast when I learned that other girls "played dolls" with each other. How could that be? It was so private and internal; how could you ever explain to someone else all you knew about your dolls' lives? What if they wanted to make your dolls behave in ways foreign to their personalities?) Once I learned to read and write, I gladly spent hours by myself doing these things. (I even made books for my dolls, little tiny stapled-together books, written in the most miniscule handwriting; my mother still has a few of them.) From the first it seems to me that I either interacted intensely with other people, or quietly (and equally happily) went my own way into a dreamy, thoughtful, private, quiet world. There was little middle ground. I still have these two, completely opposite, tendencies today.
My parents, both writers, were also both continual readers. Books permeated the house. There were bookshelves, filled, on almost every wall, in every room. There were books lying open on the coffee table in the living room, books by the beds, books in the bathroom, more books in boxes in the attic.
My parents loved me in entirely different ways. My mother's way was quiet, steady, thoughtful, deeply compassionate and sensitive; she seemed willing to enter my world, eager to know what I felt, almost too curious about the details of my inner life (which often made me clam up). My tall, very funny father, a bonafide Character-with-a-capital-C, was the opposite. He was (when not depressed or angry) loud, outgoing, enthusiastic, and not in the least sensitive in the way my mother was; he would never in a million years say something like, "You seem quiet. Are you sad about something?" as my mother might. If my mother seemed to want me to let her in on the secret world of my private thoughts and feelings and activities, my father seemed to make room for me in his (at least sometimes). Sometimes he literally would take me into it, as when, during the period he was a Broadway critic, I sometimes accompanied him to plays and musicals. He seemed more interested in ideas, thoughts, and happenings than feelings, and, although almost always interested if I volunteered something, rarely questioned and drew me out the way my mother did.
Both of them, however, had an enormous respect for not just the written word but originality and creativity. They encouraged these things—perhaps without even meaning to—in the very sorts of conversations they had with me and each other and my brother Stephen. Things were open-ended, not right or wrong; a person had to figure out what he or she thought. "Whose white dog is that?" I might say, glancing out the window at a stray trotting by. "I don't know," either of them might reply. "Who do you think it belongs to, what kind of family?" and we might, together, make up an imaginary family to whom the dog belonged. This sort of open-endedness went into a lot of my discussions with either or both parents. "Well, what do you think?" "Why, what would you do?" Once, when I was very little, I told them at breakfast that I had dreamed I'd seen God sitting in the mulberry tree in the backyard. "What did he look like?" they quickly asked me. I explained that he was an old man with a long beard. They did not tell me this was correct, incorrect, sacrilegious; they did not laugh at me (though I am sure they laughed about it later with their friends). They merely nodded thoughtfully. (I can still see them, that morning, in my mind, clearly, as I can see the long, sad face of the God I dreamed of in the mulberry tree.)
As I grew older and went to school, I realized quickly that the kind of open-endedness and self-reliance on your own thoughts and feelings about things, which I had grown up with, was not how it was done in the outside world. At school, there were many more precise rules about what a person—a child, especially—should and should not do, and why. Questions were not open-ended; there were right and wrong answers, period. Worse, you got graded on them and if you did not agree with the so-called correct answer, you got poor grades and were thought stupid, weird, or deliberately recalcitrant. This was an overwhelming difference—the freedom of thought that existed within, but not outside, my family as I grew up.
All this was in the town of Hastings-on-Hudson, about an hour outside of New York City. This sense of difference made me feel uncomfortable, and wary. It made me an outsider, an observer—and, I think, made me begin thinking like a writer.
In addition to this main difference, there were four other factors that made me an outsider in Hastings:
- Ours was the only Jewish family in a predominantly Catholic town.
- My father and mother were both writers, in a town where half the kids' fathers commuted to New York where they were executives, and the other half of the kids' fathers worked in a local copper-wire manufacturing company, Anaconda, which everyone called "the Factory." (Few mothers worked.)
- I was just different in and of myself—a different kind of kid.
- Our family, besides being oddball, was—as they say now—somewhat "dysfunctional," and grew more so as the years went on.
I will tell you some stories about being different.
VERA ZUPNIK RAISES SOME BIG QUESTIONS
I knew we were missing something in the religious area, but it was not clear what, at first. Because my parents were not practicing, religious Jews, at first I
understood being a Jew to simply mean not being a Catholic. For example, we did not have Christmas, evidence of which I could see each December, in every lit, tree-filled window in the town. But, we also did not have Chanukah—however, since I had never seen a menorah, I was at first unaware that something was lacking on the Jewish side, too. But it was.
I gradually gathered that in addition to being a religion, which a person might or might not practice, being Jewish was also a vague racial and cultural thing. It was eating corned-beef sandwiches on rye bread; it was a certain kind of humor, of speech. I understood, vaguely, that we were this kind of Jew, but not the religious kind. Being Jewish was also, I came to realize as I grew a little older, being part of the group of people a terrible man named Hitler and his army, the Nazis, had killed millions of, again for no reason I could understand (and still can't). I cannot remember where I heard of World War II, concentration camps, and so on, but almost as far back as memory goes I remember knowing about them, and brooding about why and how such a thing could be, and what, if anything, one person could have done about it.
Hastings-on-Hudson, being a suburb, had a train station, through which traveled the commuter trains which carried the fathers swiftly into New York for work in the morning, and back home in the evening.
Long, long, slow freight trains also passed through the Hastings train station. The freight trains mostly traveled at night. I remember, as a young girl, lying in bed at night, hearing the sound of the freight trains, the repetitive rhythm of their wheels on the track pierced from time to time by that sad, high whistle. I remember lying awake and wondering at the idea of people—families, little children, people like me—being loaded into such trains and shipped away to be murdered, crowded together, and my stomach would turn over in fear, imagining the fear they must have felt, even while I knew it must have been unimaginably worse than what I could imagine. Again and again, I thought, "Why? How?"
In fourth grade, I met Karen, my best friend for several years. One Saturday, when we were in about fifth grade, we were walking in the Village, as everyone referred to the downtown area of Hastings-on-Hudson. We passed the recently put in pizza parlour, where you could buy pizza by the slice for a quarter, and in front of which older, slightly dangerous-looking teenagers hung out.
And one, a much-older girl of sixteen or seventeen, stepped out in front of Karen and me and blocked the sidewalk. She was big, and on the heavy side.
"Hey, Jew," she said. "Dirty Jew, ya dirty Jew."
I remember vividly her eye makeup; iridescent blue eye shadow over dark hostile eyes, long black lines drawn along the base of her eyelashes, going up to a long sharp point at the end.
I said, looking at her, "I'm not dirty. I take a bath every night."
She said, "Yeah, you're dirty. A dirty, dirty Jew." And then, in tones of deepest contempt, "Your mother written any more kiddie books lately?"
If I answered that question, I do not remember with what. My heart was pounding, I was frightened, shocked, outraged, and simply astonished that an unknown teenager should say such things, should in the first place know that I was a Jew (when in some ways I barely knew it myself) and even that my mother wrote children's books! Were these things in some way connected? And why should writing children's books be a matter of scorn? My thoughts whirled and crashed into each other as I stood frozen, staring at that iridescent blue, those black slashes of lines, stunned.
We walked half a block in silence, then I said, "I can't believe that just happened." As I said it, I realized I was shaking, trembling all over.
"I can't believe it either," said Karen. Then she said, "That was really good, what you said back."
"Yeah. ‘I take a bath every night.’ That was good."
"Well, I do take a bath every night," I said.
"I know that," said Karen. "Gah, I'm your best friend, I know that."
So there I was: a clean little Jew girl whose mother wrote children's books, who had a good friend named Karen, who lived in a town—in a world—where all at once, when you were least expecting it, where you were walking downtown with your friend, a stranger who turned out to be named Vera Zupnik could step out of the doorway of Hastings Pizza and say awful and intimate things to you.
I don't remember anyone else saying anything anti-Semitic to me, in all the years I lived in Hastings (which was more or less from birth—though I was born in New York City proper, on November 25, 1952—till age fourteen). But the freight trains, and Vera Zupnik, and her black-lined eyes, and the questions she raised for me about life, have stayed with me forever.
"YOU MUST COME BY IT NATURALLY"
My mother wrote "kiddie books," as Vera had said with such scorn, and my father wrote books and articles about show-business personalities. However, what they did tells only the smallest part of who and what they were, and were to me.
I wondered, even as a little girl, what on earth two such people were doing in Hastings-on-Hudson.
What they were doing there was this: my mother wanted to live in the country. My father wanted to live in the city. Hastings-on-Hudson was their compromise, but I think both of them felt that they had been cheated out of what they really wanted, and I think I felt and was made increasingly restless and unhappy by their unhappiness (I believe children always feel whatever is going on with the parents, whether or not something is said about it). I also had a growing sense that things were very different from what they appeared—that much was going on that was somehow not normal, usually in ways I could not articulate to myself. From the exuberant little girl I had been, I gradually became quieter, shyer, more frightened to express myself. Some of this was the pressure of school, where (from the first day) I saw that there was a pressure to conform that I had simply not been brought up to yield to, nor was I temperamentally inclined that way. But some of this was also change within our family, gradual, subtle, and not articulated, as my father's mood swings became more marked, and as my mother seemed to grow unhappier, more quiet.
Now everything certainly looked normal enough on Elm Place. The street, the town, had its ordinary seasons and cycles, bounded and predictable, unoriginal, safe. There were daily patterns, weekly, seasonal. On Mondays the garbageman picked up the trash, causing the dogs on the street to bark more wildly than they did at any other time. In the summer, weekend mornings began with the predictable sound of lawn mowers droning up and down the block, and the scent of fresh-cut grass, which would be replaced, in the late afternoon, by the smell of sizzling meat being cooked over charcoal grills in backyards up and down the street, the fragrant smoke funneling up and out into the dusky summer sky. In the fall the smoke was of burning leaves, a sweet, predictable, evocative odor, which can still (like the charcoal grill smell of summer) take me back to childhood.
Elm Place sloped up a mild hill. One day I quit practice-riding my bike back and forth along our driveway and ventured to the top of the street. Looking down before this first momentous ride (I had told no one I was about to undertake it), this gentle hill became an enormous mountain. It's still vivid to me, the terrifying exhilaration of the first trip down, going so fast my hair was blown back, then suddenly panicking, braking, half-falling, half-jumping off the bike, and ending up on the very hard pavement, bike on top of me, bleeding in several places, scared and hurt and screaming bloody murder to Sidney Fields, the across-the-street neighbor and father of two boys about my age, who was innocently raking his yard as I flew by and crashed. But at the same time, even as I was led, snuffling and crying, by Sidney Fields back to our house to be Mercurochromed (more screams) and Band-aided, remembering the sensation of speed, my hair being blown back—and resolving to try again soon. Small vivid memories like this one, which is the basis of my book Annie Flies the Birthday Bike, permeate my children's books.
Besides going on bike rides, reading, playing with dolls, and writing stories, I loved cooking. I kept my mother company and often, happily, helped her make dinner; I was befriended by an old lady around the corner, Miss Kay, who proved to be my culinary soul mate. She taught me how to make orange sponge cake, brownies, and many other baked things, leveling off cups of flour carefully with a flat-bladed knife. My love of cooking has stayed with me all my life, and I write cookbooks, such as The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook and The Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread Cookbook, along with my other kinds of books. (The kind of cookbooks I write always have not only recipes, but stories; stories about the people who gave me the recipes or who loved that particular dish, stories about ingredients, farmers, the place where something is grown or where I first learned about it … People are always telling me, "I read your cookbook like a novel!") I have also, at various times, had a second profession as a chef alongside writing, which is handy since 1) I love to cook and 2) writing is not the best way in the world to make a living. People may not always wish to read what you write, but if they are hungry and you are a good cook, they will always want to eat what you prepare.
At the top of Elm Place ran a long, flat, wide tree-lined path called the aqueduct. Water pipes ran under it. The aqueduct was one of the main borders of my childhood. As a little girl I walked it often with my parents. I gathered violets there in the spring (once Tony Fields and I tried to sell bunches of them, but with little success), and orange-and-yellow bittersweet vines in the fall. Once, someone (my mother? a neighbor?) pointed out a vine with small purple flowers, saying that it was deadly nightshade, terribly poisonous; passing the tree where the deadly nightshade grew always gave me a pleasantly creepy shiver.
The aqueduct was where we walked the family dog, a large black poodle named Cleo. Although many dogwalkers and dogs used the aqueduct, Cleo had a love of eating crayons. Long after she had visited, you could identify which piles of dog excrement were hers by their splotches of bright yellow, red, or purple.
The aqueduct was the route to my much-hated school; a right turn on the aqueduct and a mile walk took me there. I turned left, often, after school, when I rode on my bike or took long solitary walks, a Macintosh apple in my pocket for a snack. An elegant, sinister old mansion known as the Zinnser Estate was set on several acres of land adjacent to and visible from the aqueduct perhaps half a mile away from Elm Place. Who the Zinnsers were or how they had made their money I never knew. What I do know is that in my early teens, it was torn down, without preliminary warning or notification of any kind. One day it was there, the next gone. A ball field was put in its place. But it was shocking then, a violent dislocation, and it still looks wrong to me today, though I see people playing happily on the field that replaced it when I go back to Hastings to visit my mother, who still lives on Elm Place. Do those people who play there know that a large, mysterious house once stood where they catch fly balls and steal bases? Who were the Zinnsers? Why was the home torn down, and does anyone remember it? These are the kind of what-if and why questions that have been part of me for as long as I can remember, like the Vera Zupnik questions, and which certainly go into my writing, as in Home Place, though that book was written about a different kind of old and long-gone home, one in Arkansas, where I live now as an adult, rather than Hastings, my childhood home.
I had one brother, Stephen, who was quite a bit older than me. We fought a lot—the story of which is told in my book I Hate My Brother Harry. But he went to college and moved out of the house when I was about seven, so that for many of my growing-up years I felt like an only child, which was, I have to say, an enormous relief.
Besides Hastings, my childhood was also permeated by summer and fall visits to my Aunt Dot's farmhouse in Vermont. It was not a working farm with pigs and
chickens, but rather a retreat, a rambly old house, barn-red, with comfortable porches and lazy wasps, and a view out to the mountains and down to the pond, and indoors a faint, pleasantly mildewy odor of old wood and old paper, and outdoors, a delicious smell of cold and pine and fern so good it was almost painful. Visits to the farm became part of my book Jemima Remembers, and I vowed, quite early in my life, that as an adult I would live at least part of each year in the country.
Another part of my life was spent in writing. Even before I knew the alphabet, I used to tell stories. For example, I would draw pictures, then tug on the sleeve of any available adult and explain the picture. Sometimes my mother would write down the stories I told her, and a few of the drawings still exist, her rounded handwriting in one corner. "This girl lives over here. She has no neighbors. One day a horse comes to her fence, over here by the garden."
Later, I also remember telling stories to several other little girls in the bathroom at the Hastings Elementary School, where the tiles gave a nice satisfying echo to the voice, and where, in addition, the radiator was so hot that (at dramatic and appropriate points in the story) it could be sprinkled amply with water from the sink. Upon hitting the radiator, the water would evaporate almost immediately with a loud, hissing sizzle—very handy for sound effects of snakes, witches, or whatever else I might work into the story.
But once I knew how to write, I did. Stories, poems—not for school, but for my own pleasure. But pleasure is too weak a word for the blissful self-absorption, so deep one is almost absent from oneself. Writing has worked this spell on me from my earliest days, and the act of writing in itself continues to do so. Somehow, sitting down to write harnesses mysterious forces of creation, and the way it honestly feels is that those forces themselves do the writing. (When it doesn't go well, it feels as if the forces have just gone off to do something else that day; possibly help another writer, or go on a picnic, or nap, or who knows what.) The writer may not, often does not, know where the story is coming from or where it is going, which is why I think we speak of writing, or other artistic talents, as a "gift." I have known since childhood, since long before I could articulate it, that these things are literally "given" to the artist or writer by some power greater than him or herself.
So, I wrote from the first, and sometimes it came easily, and sometimes it didn't, but it was always an engrossing, transcending experience; "a sheer act of consummation in itself," as my father once put it. Sometimes I showed what I wrote to one of my parents, sometimes not. I do remember my first publication, in a xeroxed summer-camp newsletter around 1964 or '65. I had two poems in it; one about jumping into very cold water, the other about watching the sleeping golden retriever of the camp director. The dog, asleep, would sometimes twitch violently or growl. In my poem I took up what he might be dreaming of.
Sometimes when people find out that my mother is Charlotte Zolotow and my father (who died this year, 1991) was Maurice Zolotow, they say something like "Writing must be in your genes," or "Oh, I guess writing just comes naturally to you." This always irritates me, since a writer, no matter who his or her parents are, is always alone when he or she sits down at the computer or typewriter to do work that sometimes comes easily, but often does not. When people say I write because of my genes or "naturally," it's as if it doesn't take any effort of my own, which is absolutely not true. People have been saying this to me in one way or another since I was a girl. At school I used to get a lot of "Which of your parents helped you write this, your mother or your father?" This is discouraging if you yourself worked for hours writing or rewriting a story or poem until it sounded just right. (I sometimes wonder if maybe part of the reason I changed my name, besides the reasons I will tell you about shortly, was because I was tired of having my own writing attributed to my parents.)
But, while I feel right down to the marrow of my bones that I would have been a writer even had I been born into a family of shoemakers in Ohio or surfers in Hawaii, there is no doubt that Maurice and Charlotte's writing was an influence—not in making me want to be a writer, but in making the whole process of writing as a profession seem very unmysterious and matter-of-fact to me. If your father is a carpenter and you grow up around his shop, you know what dovetail joints and Phillips-head screws are, and the way a box or a window frame goes together seems normal to you. It was the same way for me with the profession of writing.
One day, when I was quite young, I came downstairs. My mother was seated in the living room with a notebook in which she was writing balanced on her knee. She looked up and said, "What are some of the terrible things Stephen does to you?"
Stephen was my big brother, hated and feared, whose side I always thought my parents took. Aha, I thought! At last! A chance to tell the truth! Justice!
I told my mother about Stephen pretending to call snakes into the room at night and convincing me they were hidden under the pillows. I told her about the names he called me, the time he threw my doll out the window, and much more. It was very satisfying. Surely, I thought, fairness would now prevail.
It did not. Instead, a year or so later, the book that my mother had been working on that morning was published. It was called Big Brother, Little Sister. (I thought she soft-pedaled the antagonism that existed between Stephen and me, and I wrote my own version of these events later in I Hate My Brother Harry and I Hate My Sister Maggie.)
I learned the same lesson in a different way from my father, a nonfiction magazine and book writer, and a critic, of insatiable and far-reaching curiosity. One night I went with him as he drove out to the town of Tarrytown to pick up fried chicken from a take-out place, a chain that to my knowledge no longer exists, Chicken Delight, whose slogan was "Don't cook tonight, call Chicken Delight." The chicken was not quite ready, and so my father engaged the man behind the counter in conversation; interviewing him, really. My father grew more and more fascinated by the chicken man's answers, exclaiming "Really!" and "Of course!" with great excitement, and asking more and more questions. (As I recall, the Chicken Delight chain was owned not by a chicken company but by a paper manufacturer—since of course the chicken was wrapped, bagged, napkined, etc., in great quantities of paper, in those pre-environmentally aware days.)
Though my father never wrote about Chicken Delight, some awareness dawned on me as I watched him, seeing clearly something which I realized I had witnessed my father doing many times—interviewing, probing, observing. Through him, I saw that certain kinds of writing—most, really—rely on a tremendous curiosity, observation, and probing of the world around the writer, for anything may find its way into the work. Even if it doesn't—as in the Chicken Delight—the habits of observation and vast interest in the world around the writer must stay sharp.
So, while I knew from direct experience the "art" side of writing, I saw, through my parents' examples, the "profession" side. I saw that things happened to you or you saw them happen to others, that when they interested you, you wrote about them. You then sent this writing off to a publishing house, and either it was accepted (in which case you got paid for it and it was published as a book or magazine article) or rejected (in which case it did not get paid for and published—but you could send it somewhere else where it might get accepted). I saw also that writing was work—my father disappeared upstairs to his office in the attic every day, my mother to her desk in a corner of the bedroom. If my brother or I happened to see my father when he came downstairs to make himself lunch, we had been well instructed not to talk to him or interrupt him in any way, but to "play invisible daddy" because otherwise we might "interrupt his train of thought." We were allowed, but not encouraged to interrupt my mother—though we did all the time anyway. (It was a very sexist time, the 1950s, when all this took place. No one questioned that a woman's work might be as important as a man's; of course we could interrupt her, she was our mother. Nowadays, at least I hope, these assumptions would not be made.)
At any rate, in the sense of seeing writing as a way to make a living, my parents certainly influenced me. It never seemed scary to me to send writing out, nor did I have any fear of rejection. I knew that came with the territory.
But long before I became a writer in the sense of writing my own stories, sending them off, being paid money for them, and getting paid to do it, I was not only actually writing, I was a writer mentally—observing, probing, noticing. This sense was heightened by my mother having read me the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was very small, in which Laura tells of her own life in great detail, but never as "I," always as "Laura." Since I already felt so much an outsider in Hastings-on-Hudson, I frequently thought of myself not as "I" but as "she" or "Ellen," and I seemed, for years as I remember, to have observed my life as if it were a book I was reading, even as I lived it. "Ellen walked into the gym class late. Mrs. Jensen grew angry at her." (1 should probably add here that I hated school, and always regarded going as something like a prison sentence that had to be served. When I remember school, both in Hastings and later, briefly, at a boarding school in Massachusetts, described somewhat in my novel The Year It Rained, I remember, mostly, endless boredom, and waiting for it to be over, and feeling different from the other children. I also remember being told by probably well-meaning adults, who seemed to me as strange and distant as if they inhabited another planet (and to whom I no doubt also seemed quite strange), "Now, Ellen … if we make an exception for you…" I got terrible marks in everything except English.)
Possibly I thought of myself as "she" and "Ellen" not only because my writer's temperament was beginning to crystallize and form, but because I wanted, or needed, in some way to distance myself from my life and the life of our family, which was growing increas- ingly unhappy for reasons I could not put my finger on. A lot was going on, which was painful in some undefined way, unclear and mysterious as to the why and what and how. My mother quit staying at home to go back to work in the city, at the publishing company she had worked at before she and my father had children, my parents fought increasingly, my father became more—well, when I learned the word "inconsistent" I thought "That's Maurice!" (I always called my parents by their first names). He would be cheerfully happy, talkative one day, enraged and breaking furniture the next, frequently withdrawn. Gradually, he seemed less and less interested in inviting me, or anyone, into his world in the way he had when I was a young child.
I could not put a name to it, but something was wrong. Although I had been an outgoing little girl, I grew quieter and quieter.
My father was, eventually, the first one to name the problem and begin fixing it, years later.
"I HAVE FOUND IT!"
We will cut, now, from my childhood to the beginning of my adulthood; to a cold grey January day in 1972 when I arrived in a little tiny Ozark mountain town called Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Eureka is Greek for "I have found it," and, indeed, I thought that day, and think still, that I had. I simply fell in love with Eureka Springs that day. I fell in love with this funny, quirky, lovely little town in precisely the same way most people (if they're lucky) fall in love with another person. This love of the town would find its way into much of my writing from this time on: The Itch Book, Katie in the Morning, Home Place, many articles, and the two Dairy Hollow cookbooks.
Founded in the 1880s, a time when people believed that pure mineral water could cure many diseases, Eureka Springs boomed, growing up around sixty-some springs, in a hilly, isolated, forested corner of Arkansas. Indians had used those same springs for centuries, and considered the area sacred; whites, too, felt a magic about the place. I can attest that from the very first time I came to Eureka Springs, on a day so misty I could feel the tiny droplets of water moistening my face and curling my hair, I too felt an indefinable something. I would discover that people had been trying to describe that something for a century, and I joined a long line of refugees to Eureka Springs, expatriates from all over America and indeed the world, restless people who somehow found what they were looking for in the tiny city. Walking up its hills, seeing its peculiar Victorian architecture tucked improbably onto rock ledges and bluffs and in valleys, I felt I had come home.
Only later did I learn that the town's motto, since the 1880s, had been "Where the Misfit Fits," and that about ten percent of the population were artists and writers, and that, historically, this had always been so. And, because I arrived in the deepest off-season, only later did I learn that the town's sole industry was tourism, and that during the summer there was a different Eureka: noisy, crowded, carefree, happy-go-lucky, part carnival, part tacky, part friends and family having a good time together.
I have never been able to stay with keeping a diary very long, but it happened that I was keeping one at the time I arrived in Eureka Springs. The journal entry on the day of my arrival in town reads, "Not going to go to California. Found a place. Home at last. 'Bout time."
It was time. I was about a month past my nineteenth birthday that January day and I had been through a lot. I had dropped out of school. I was quite desperate to get out of school and to leave home, be on my own, and begin writing. Elm Place and Hastings had never been happy places for me, and seemed steadily to be growing worse, simply oppressive with unhappiness. My parents had divorced, and my father, who had been suffering from severe depression had undergone a series of shock treatments. Eventually he stopped having them, moved to California, and realized that his real problem was drinking. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, stopped drinking, and started the long journey of becoming a new person and regaining his writing career, which had more or less gone down the tubes. His drinking was the thing, or at least one of the central things, that, it turned out, had made our family life go wrong. In time, I came to feel such love and respect for him, for his having the courage to name the problem, admit it, and begin fixing it.
While this was going on, I married a very nice man named Mark Parsons, aka Crispin Dragonwagon, a tall, bearded, curly-headed Texan with a background in
archeology. Like me, he seemed to have always been involved in thinking about the big why-is-the-world-this-way questions. He was much older than me, twenty-eight to my sixteen (of course, now seems young to me. Then it seemed like the height of maturity and sophistication.)
Crispin/Mark and I lived together with a number of housemates in a wonderful rambly old brownstone in Brooklyn, near Fort Greene Park. I dearly loved that year, the year I was sixteen, 1969, in New York with Crispin and the others. For the first time I could remember I felt not different, not alone or lonely. There were lots of late-night talks and jokes, lots of reading and discussion about books, lots of friendly argument about the big, Vera Zupnik-kind of questions. There was good food, and a lot of it, and I learned about cooking along with everything else.
As for my writing career, it began that year. Although I'd been writing stories virtually since I learned the alphabet, my first year after dropping out of tenth grade I became a professional. I sold my first children's book, Rainy Day Together, and a cookbook. I was elated, giddy with joy, astonished and yet, at the same time, not surprised at all, for I had always known I was a writer. Not "would become," but was; now, though, I was getting paid for it, and other people would know, too.
Being out of school, writing and actually getting paid for it, making my own decisions, being away from my family, being in a congenial household with a group of friendly, intelligent people, being in love with a handsome and original man who loved me back—for the first time in my life I felt I was doing exactly what I was meant to do.
I must digress here to tell you the story of my weird name.
"Is that your real name?"
"How did you get that name?"
I get asked a lot of questions, but these are my two least favorite, because, as you can imagine, I get asked them all the time. The story of how I became Crescent Dragonwagon is one I could very happily live the rest of my life without ever, ever, ever telling again. But, to be fair, when I know very well I would ask someone whose name was Paintbrush Hogbottom or Pickle Sycamore if that was their real name, how can I blame anyone for asking? Besides, becoming Crescent Dragonwagon is my own fault.
So, hoping that repeating the story here in writing one more time will spare me a few dozen retellings in person, here goes:
Lots of people do unusual things when they are teenagers, but most have the common sense not to cast them in concrete, as I did, by choosing a weird name when I was sixteen. Here is how it happened.
When I got married for the first time, my then husband-to-be and I thought the woman should not take the man's last name. So, we decided to choose a new last name. We discovered, on the way to doing this, that our old first names had meanings we did not agree with (it was the late sixties, a time when lots of people my age and his wanted to change the world; we did not agree with much).
His old first name, which was Mark, meant "the warrior"; we were antiwar. My old first name, Ellen, meant "the queen"; we were antiauthoritarian. He came up with new first names; Crispin, for him, meaning "curly-headed one," and Crescent for me, meaning "the growing" (once mistakenly reported in a newspaper article as meaning "the growth"!)
The wedding drew nearer and nearer. We still hadn't come up with a new last name. One day, after discussing and discarding several possibilities, I said, "Maybe we're taking ourselves too seriously, maybe we should pick something completely frivolous." He said, "Like what?" I said, "Like, oh, um, like Dragonwagon."
Thus we became Crescent and Crispin Dragonwagon. If I had had any idea how many countless thousands of times I would have to explain this ridiculous name, I would have picked something a lot less flashy—like Jane Smith, say. (People don't think I mean this; I do.) But by the time I realized how long the rest of my life would be, and how many times I'd explain the name, I had a few books out and the start of a professional reputation. At one time, on my first solo novel, The Year It Rained, I begged and pleaded with my editor to let it be published under the name C.D. Shank (C.D. being a carry-over from Crescent Dragonwagon, and also what many of my friends call me, and Shank being the last name of my second husband, Ned). Well, my editor refused very heatedly, over a year's time, saying that readers knew me as Crescent Dragonwagon, no one would have any reason to pick up a book by C.D. Shank, and so on. Eventually I gave up. (People also sometimes don't believe that I couldn't get my own way on being called C.D. Shank on my own book if I really wanted to; but it is true.) So, I am stuck with the name Crescent Dragonwagon, and explaining it all the time, and, as I said, I really have no one but myself to blame.
But, there are one or two good things about it. It is fun to see how computers chew up the name. I get mail addressed to Dargonwoodren, Dragonmudgeon, Crescent O'Wagon (the Irish branch of the family), and (my favorite) Dr. Agonwagon. I get letters from American Express that begin "Dear Mr. Wagon." And once, Ned and I were grocery shopping in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Ned handed the checkout girl one of our checks, which have both of our names on them.
The checkout girl looked at the check. Then she looked up at Ned.
"What," she asked him curiously, sounding it out syllable by syllable, "is a Cre-scent-Drag-on-wagon?"
Ned gestured towards me, browsing amidst the magazines. "It's my wife," he said.
The checkout girl gasped, then put her hands on her hips. She turned to me and said, "I'd slap him for that!"
THE ROAD HOME TO ARKANSAS
How did you get from New York to Arkansas?" is something else I get asked a lot, almost as often as I get asked about my name. Mark/Crispin was from West Texas originally, and, as I always had, wanted to live in the country. We spent the year we lived in Brooklyn together dreaming over real estate catalogs. I wanted to move to Vermont, which I knew and loved, but land was very expensive there. He wanted to move to the hill country of Texas, but land was expensive there, too. Gradually, we narrowed the choice down to the Ozarks: pretty, mountainous, isolated, affordable.
With the money from my first books and a $2,000 inheritance from my Grandpa Louis, Crispin Dragonwagon and I headed south to buy land. Just as we were about to pull out to begin our new life, one of the kids on the block we were leaving in Brooklyn gave us a gift. This boy, Dennis, had wanted to be a veterinarian, and had been given a fuzzy baby duckling for Easter. It had grown up, and his mom was threatening to make it into soup if Dennis didn't find a home for it. On the day we left, with the car packed to the gills, Dennis appeared with the duck. "Would you take him to the country?" he asked us. Crispin rearranged the car and made an improvised cage out of two plastic milk crates and some mesh. He and I drove over a thousand miles with that duck in the backseat. Every time the car went around a curve, the duck protested with a loud and irritable "ack, ack, ack." Perhaps that duck's descendents still live on the farm in Missouri that Crispin and I bought all those years ago.
Most people would say sixteen is too young to get married. They would certainly have been right in my case. I moved out after a year of living with Crispin on the farm, and went to St. Louis, the biggest city close (three or four hours drive) to the farm. I chose to go there rather than back to New York; I wanted to move to somewhere where I knew no one and see if I could make a life for myself from scratch, without a husband, or a parent, or a parent's reputation. I wanted to make my own way, to prove to myself I could be independent. In St. Louis I wrote for an underground paper called the Outlaw, and I cooked at a restaurant called Our Daily Bread, and I took yoga classes. I thought about the big questions which I felt no closer to having answered than I ever had, and I wondered what to do with the rest of my life. I knew I wanted to be, indeed had to be, a writer; I knew I loved the Ozarks; I knew the farm had been too isolated for me; beyond this, I was not certain of much. I missed, very much, that year in Brooklyn, the one year of which I could say, unequivocally, "I was happy."
By this time, the St. Louis period, I was growing closer and closer to my parents, even though they lived far away. I was beginning to look at them as friends and colleagues, and to love and enjoy them in this way, not just because they were parents and it was my duty to love them. I had a very special relationship with my father, since he had joined AA. It was as if we had started over again the year I was eighteen and he was fifty-seven, and in a funny way, because we were both starting over, it was as if we were growing up together, were running buddies, pals the same age.
One of the most powerful influences in my life was undoubtedly watching my father remake himself. At a time when most people are retiring, he was becoming a new human being: a kind and reasonably happy person, one who did not break chairs one day and bring home roses the next, one who was level, hardworking, but an enormous amount of pure, exuberant, irrepressible fun. He seemed filled with wonder at the way his life had been returned to him, and I was powerfully inspired by his example as I saw him contend with each messy piece of his old life, and try to clean it up, make it better. For instance, when he first joined AA, about the time I left Crispin and the farm, I hitchhiked out to see him with $20 in my pocket. He was living on Mastercharge, and was so broke he borrowed $2 from me to get a haircut (which he could not put on Mastercharge). I learned later that he was $30,000 in debt. But slowly, methodically, carefully, he paid back every cent. Ten years after he joined AA he was debt-free.
Through his example, I began learning. Be responsible. Be kind. You can still be different, be crazy, be creative—but it does not have to isolate you or make you lonely. You choose the colors, you stretch the canvas. It's your painting, so paint it. It's your life.
To this lesson was added a second powerful lesson, which also certainly shaped the rest of my life. During the time in St. Louis, I was the victim of a violent crime. At one point, in a cornfield outside the city, a gun was held to my head, and I thought, "This is it. I will never get out of this alive." And in those moments I thought: I thought about how much I loved my parents and friends, I thought about poems I had never finished and work I had left undone, and how much time I had wasted, and the world—right at the moment I was about, I thought, to leave it—suddenly appeared intensely beautiful to me. I became conscious of everything around me; conscious of the fact that everything—the wind rustling the corn, the blue sky, the smell of the earth, myself, even the man holding the small pearl-handled revolver—was in some mysterious way linked … so linked that they were one thing. And with this sense, fear left me, and I grew very peaceful.
When I did survive this experience, my life was changed. It had, like my father's life, been given back to me, on very different terms from the first time around. I felt keenly that it was important not to waste time; it was important to pursue what you wanted to do unapologetically and wholeheartedly, and essential to tell and show people whom you loved, that you loved them. Most of all, I felt that I must learn a way to return to that transcendent peace (which probably saved my life, since it also helped me deal with the criminals calmly) and live with it on a daily basis. Some people call an experience like this a spiritual awakening, and it was—not in a way that has to do with religion, or church, or synagogue, or anything you believe, but with an experience.
Starting with this experience, which I believe now to have been grace, I began in earnest the search to return to what had been shown me in that cornfield; a spiritual search. Step by step, I was led slowly and inexorably to that way by which I might indeed live in inner peace—a kind of peace and happiness and certainty which stayed strong within me, regardless of what happened, good or bad, on the outside. In retrospect, I think I had been searching all my life, yet I had to awaken to it, and with a certain desperation. I also believe that spiritual matters are the most personal and private known to human beings; they are written in that language of the heart exclusive to a person and what AA calls his or her Higher Power. Discussion of such matters diminishes them by bringing them down to our clumsier human language. I can only say that, having found Someone who answers all my questions, I have been given an unchanging and permanent background against which all other happenings of my life come and go. Gratitude and amazement for this gift, awe for that Someone, permeates me down to the marrow of my bones. It is the basis of everything else.
During the year I had lived in St. Louis, several people—at the yoga center and elsewhere—had said to me, "You know, there's this little town in Arkansas called Eureka Springs. You should go there, it would be your kind of place." After the violent crime, I listened closely to everything I heard, and I kept hearing this, from different people, most of whom did not know each other. Finally, I did go.
And that is how I found my way, starting on that misty grey January day, to the place in which I have more or less lived, more or less happily, ever after.
PROFESSIONAL FAIRY GODMOTHER
I met my second husband, Ned Shank, in 1977, in Little Rock, Arkansas, at a potluck dinner. He likes to say, "I came with a kipper salad and left with you." It did not happen quite that fast, but it was pretty fast—almost as fast as my falling in love with Eureka Springs. Ned is tall and friendly and blue-eyed and smart. He is from Iowa. He is kind, handsome, and likes to make jokes, and when we play Scrabble, he beats me almost exactly half the time (we keep a lifetime Scrabble score tally in our Scrabble dictionary, so we know). His background is in historic preservation; that is, protecting and preserving old buildings, keeping them from being torn down or added onto in a way that fakes or obscures their true architectural history. Naturally, he loves Eureka Springs. He also loves to eat (especially pancakes), and he never minds washing the dishes when I cook. We have two cats, Catullus, a huge tabby, and Z-Cat, a small, hyperactive calico. We like to stay at country inns, buy antiques, and canoe. We both like to read, and talk about what we read, and we go on long walks together.
Two years after Ned and I married, a tiny farmhouse across the road from the little house I have lived in since I first moved to Eureka came up for sale. These two houses are in a valley called Dairy Hollow, because there were many dairies in Eureka's old days. The last one, the Rhiel Dairy, was still in existence when I moved here in 1972. There, Ethel Rhiel, a kind and feisty blue-eyed lady in her seventies, milked eight jersey cows by hand every morning and night.
With a friend, Bill Haymes, Ned and I bought that next-door farmhouse, and began one of the great adventures of our life together: Dairy Hollow House, a country inn and restaurant. Ten years later, Dairy Hollow House is three houses, the original farmhouse, which has three guest rooms, the innkeeper's house (where Ned and I still live), and a newer, larger house, the Main House, which is close by and has three suites, a check-in area, a great big kitchen, and a really pretty restaurant dining room, with lots of windows, and a fireplace, and lace curtains, and white tablecloths, and a lattice made of twigs, and a stencil of ivy cut from a spray of ivy on the oak tree just outside one window. Every morning, breakfast is brought to each room in a big, split-oak basket; every evening, dinner is served at the restaurant at 7:00. Each guest room has a fireplace and a vase or two of fresh flowers, usually wildflowers and garden flowers mixed together.
The inn has grown and grown and will probably grow just a little more. We now hire quite a few people to help us run the inn, and these people—like Paula Martin, who manages the front desk, knows everything there is to know about quilts and bookkeeping, and moved here from Oklahoma City; or Sandy Allison, a big-hearted blonde from Texas, who is a great cook and manages our kitchen; or Mark Wayne Clark, our dishwasher, a local young man who is a mechanical/ automotive genius and lives so far out in the country that there's a black bear living in the woods near his family home—these people and their families have become in a way part of our family.
Another part of our family is our friends—friends like Bill Haymes, a musician, who wrote the music at the end of Alligators and Others, All Year Long, and started Dairy Hollow House with us. Crow Johnson, another musician, is also a close friend, and so is Choo-Choo Yearsley, who owns a shop here in Eureka, and Jane Maas, who runs an advertising agency in New York, and Louis and Elsie Freund, two Eureka Springs painters, and many others who add much to our lives, and, I hope, we to theirs. This "family" is especially important to us because we don't have children. I'm not able to, physically, and we probably will not adopt. (Sometimes people think it is strange that someone who writes for children does not have children of her own, but I write mostly out of remembering my own childhood, overlaid with emotions I may be feeling now, as an adult. Emotions, after all, have no age. The causes may change, but "sad" feels like "sad" whether you are six or sixty-five.)
Besides our friends and the people who work at the inn, our lives are filled with the people who come and stay or dine at the inn. In a way, having an inn is like sending out a party invitation to the world, and then seeing who comes. The loveliest people end up at our door: computer programmers and district attorneys, doctors and actresses, wildflower experts and chefs,
writers and hatmakers, musicians, historians, secretaries, politicians, teachers, bankers. Some come year after year. Some send us recipes, or write us letters. At least five or six couples have told us that they conceived their babies at the inn, and people leave long notes in the books we put in the rooms, which we call "room diaries." Mostly they tell us how much they loved staying here, how good it was to get away from their too-busy regular life, how much they loved Eureka Springs, our staff, and getting to curl up by the fireplace in their room on cold days and sip the hot apple cider we had waiting for them when they checked in. We did find one entry that said, "Thank you Ned and Crescent for sharing your home and lives with us; thank you Z-Cat for sharing your mouse with us at three a.m."
In all, being an innkeeper is much like being a professional fairy godmother. You try to make people happy; to grant their wishes, including those they had but didn't know they had. I can't say we make everybody happy, but we come pretty close. It is quite an intimate way to be involved in other peoples' lives. Feeding and housing them, perhaps making their wedding cake or helping them celebrate their thirty-third anniversary, brings us in contact in so different a way from the way I come in contact with people through my books. Both ways are deeply satisfying; each, perhaps, more so, because the other is so different. In a funny way, it balances.
We do lots of off-the-wall kinds of things here, like our quarterly mystery weekends, which I write. Ned and I play parts in them. For example, I sometimes bleach my hair blonde and become Mrs. Mary Jo Louise Umbecker, an Atlanta matron; Ned is brilliant as Lord "Figgie" Chillington-Worcestershire III, a British detective, or the Reverend Billy Joe-Bob Clayton, a scurrilous preacher. One year my father, Maurice, came from California and played the part of Digby Crumley, a corrupt Southern attorney. On mystery weekends our guests play roles, too.
But I think the real reasons our guests love coming here is not so much the fresh flowers and quilts and delicious food and fireplaces and pictures on the wall and the hot tub in the woods. Although these things play a part, they are still just background. It's that we, the innkeepers, have fun and love our lives here in Eureka, and feel grateful to have found each other, our professions, and the town. We welcome our guests from the heart. I think most of our staff, too, feels this way. These sorts of feelings create an atmosphere that goes beyond the physical stuff, though the stuff we have is also very nice indeed. The guests might see us only when they check in, check out, and at dinner—but they can feel this atmosphere. It makes a difference.
These days, Ned is full-time innkeeper; he's also chairman of the Eureka Springs Historic District Commission. As for me, I write most mornings and cook in our restaurant about three or four nights a week. (Although I cook rabbit, pork, game hen, etc., and, I am told, cook them quite well, I have been a vegetarian since 1976; Ned's also a nonmeat eater.) I also plan all the menus for the restaurant, try to keep up with the garden, do the inn's "Moo's-Letter" and occasionally arrange the room flowers. I go on walks three times a week (sometimes with Ned or close friends from around here), and I work out hard (push-ups, sit-ups, lifting weights for an hour or so) three times a week.
Eureka Springs, too, is very much a part of my life. I simply felt unrooted until I found it. I love "being a good citizen"—voting, expressing my opinion, em-
ploying other people and being part of the local economy, caring, doing my turn at jury duty, feeling that what I do makes a difference. I read a lot about the city's history, and I still love looking at its architecture and thinking about its people, the beloved "misfits" of the town, past, present, and future.
Nonetheless, I am in and out of town. I go off to teach and lecture at regular intervals, too. (Sometimes I quilt or embroider things for Dairy Hollow on the plane or in strange hotels—it makes me feel happy and at home wherever I am.) In January, February, and early March, the off-season, when the inn is very slow, I usually disappear for two or three months. I dump Ned, the inn, the cats, and my friends, and I hightail it to somewhere remote and isolated (last year, a cabin in Tennessee; this year, a summer cottage in Sag Harbor, New York). This is a very important part of each year for me. While I'm there, I just write, write, write, write, write. This writing time by myself is all the more precious because it is rare and in total contrast to the frenetic though happy busyness of the rest of my life.
I remain close to my mother, Charlotte; we have long visits a couple of times a year, and talk on the phone all the time and dash off letters frequently. Often, if I finish a poem or a children's book, I call her up and read it to her. Sometimes, she does the same with me.
I'm busy, too busy, extremely busy all the time, and I would be lying if I said that it is not sometimes difficult and stressful to be so busy, in so many areas; it is like choreographing a very complicated ballet, and sometimes the dancers crash into each other instead of exiting, entering, and jeté-ing gracefully. However, given that I like to do so many different things, it's a pretty good fit—even if it is too busy. And I think this life could have been prophesied for me almost from childhood—times of being alone balanced by times of being intensely with others—the physical, present-time, for-others work of cooking balanced by the private, go-inside-yourself, cerebral work of writing, living in the country balanced by visits to other cities and countries to teach, study, or write.
But I also, in the midst of the busyness, try to stay peaceful inside. I have never forgotten the moment of peace which was given to me at the very instance I thought I would be killed, and the spiritual sustenance that grew out of the seeking that followed that experience. I try to live in that light—live in a sense beyond the happenings of life. My father, after he sobered up, used to often quote the Latin phrase Laborare est orare—to work is to pray.
I think an awful lot about my father, who died this year, and who, as I mentioned earlier, I feel I "grew up" with. I miss him very much, and I don't know that I will ever get over missing him. Not long ago I dreamed he came back to life. In my dream, he stood at the back of the kitchen in our restaurant, next to the storage bins of apples, potatoes, and onions. I hugged him, told him how much I had missed him, and asked him why it had taken him so long to return. He paused and said, "Well, it's not like going to Mexico, you know."
Because death is not like going to Mexico—because it is not a place you can come back from—I feel all the more keenly than ever that life is to be lived to the utmost degree, with purpose and clear destination in the highest spiritual sense, and, growing out of that, a natural and grateful joy and enthusiasm for everything one does, touches, tastes, smells. Once, at the restaurant, I served Maurice, my father, a scoop of our
chocolate bread pudding with raspberry sauce and whipped cream. He took a bite and said, "Wow." He took another bite and shook his head in wonder. He took a third bite and said, "On a scale of one to ten, I give this dessert 5000." That is the way I would like to live … clear off the scale, ringing in at least 5000.
To me, this means shaping your life in such a way that you never have to say "Oh, I wish I had …," and instead doing the things you wish to do. To be part of a community, to pursue your interests and passions, even if no one else believes they can be incorporated into one life; to have work that is meaningful, even blissful, in the doing itself, work that is much more than just a way to make money. These are what, to me, give meaning, satisfaction, and joy.
But perhaps most of all, living fully means loving other people and letting them love you back and making sure both of you know it. Loving others, along with work and community; loving with passion and enthusiasm, and, first and last, loving God or your Higher Power or whatever name you choose to give to That. It is this latter love which confers a secret, detached, private part of yourself which stays peaceful and certain, as everything else comes and goes.
And the countless thousands of ways we find to do this make the best stories, and the most interesting lives, of all.
Crescent Dragonwagon contributed the following update to CA in 2007:
I flip open a copy of my previous entry, not just to reread what I last wrote, but to check the date of its publication—1992. Fifteen years ago, as of this writing, which takes place on a hot June day, in Vermont, in 2007.
Vermont is where I live now, in what I alluded to in my earlier entry as "my Aunt Dot's farmhouse … a retreat, a rambly old house, barn-red, with comfortable porches and lazy wasps and a view out to the mountains and down to the pond." It is still all those things, but it is not Aunt Dot's house any longer: it is mine.
Aunt Dot just turned ninety-seven, and she lives in what was then (and still is) her other home, an apartment in New York a block away from the East River, which she shares with a caregiver. Sometimes, though, she thinks she lives, thinks she actually is, here at the farm. She also thinks that Jim Cherry, her boyfriend/ companion for the last twenty years of his life, is not only still alive, but due to arrive for dinner, along with "Mother and Dad." Those are her parents, my grandparents, dead forty-some years now, as Jim has been, oh, a good ten or twelve years.
Although my aunt's state of mind is sometimes called dementia or senility, I prefer to think of it just as different, other, not as diseased or sad—just on an emotional rather than literal continuum of time and space as we usually conceive of it. What is and was important to her remains, just—rearranged, sometimes almost poetically, and seasoned with a certitude and sass she always had. This is comforting to me.
When I last wrote here, my life was different, in almost every way, with the exception of writing and a state I then called "in the midst of the busyness, try(ing) to stay peaceful inside … in a sense beyond the happenings of life." I think the operative word here may be inside, because the differences in my life then and now are all outside. While I can say that writing and living beyond the occurrences remain the background against which everything else, and I mean, sadly, everything else, and everyone else, comes and goes, that is inside. Outside, it's another story.
When I last wrote I was grieving the death of my father, trying to make sense out of and peace with his loss, trying to figure out how to keep alive in me those parts of him which I missed so deeply. And now I find myself slowly doing the same with another loss.
My father was seventy-six when he died. Though I grieved him, his death was not a difficult or painful one for him, nor was it out of sequence. It had followed the human equivalent of the track of the seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, the track that, today, at least, we think of as the natural one: he was born, then was a baby, a child, a teenager, a young man, a middle-aged man, an old man, and only then passed beyond life in a particular body, as a particular person, to whatever is next.
But Ned, my husband, who is woven all through the account of my life I gave here then, and is still woven throughout my life (though in an entirely different way now), was only forty-four when he exited life.
This was on an unusually warm and sunny November afternoon back in Arkansas in 2000. He'd gone out to take his typical two-or-three-times-a-week bicycle ride and though the days were short, and it was around 4:00 P.M., it was still very light out.
His usual ride took him out to the Conoco station near where Beaver Lake and the White River intersect. They rent canoes there, so Ned always called it "Canoe-co." He'd stop there and turn around. It was about twelve miles there (mostly uphill) and twelve miles back (mostly downhill). How exhilarated he always was when he came back from these rides! A tall man, on an extra-large yellow mountain bicycle I gave him for, I think, his thirty-fifth birthday, he wore a very shiny helmet with a teeny rear-view mirror attached to it. His favorite biking shorts were black, with a stripe of turquoise down the sides and inside, a thick padded crotch of beige, to help him pad his butt on the narrow bicycle seat. He had special rainbow type sunglasses, and purple and black felt gloves with turquoise fingers, and a sports watch so he could time himself. When he returned home—even if he'd had to bicycle in the rain (he had a whole different outfit for that, yellow waterproof rain pants and a yellow hooded windbreaker)—he was always happy, calm, and dripping with sweat.
Only, this time he didn't come home. A red Chevy pick-up; a sharp curve; an obscuring rock outcropping that cut off vision both ways for six seconds; dusk; a steep drop-off—his one-way journey. Sometime this is called "an act of God," though I can't tell you whether it was or not (nor, in my view, can anyone else—though there are certainly many people out there who will tell you definitively one way or another).
Ned died about four hours after he and the pick-up collided, in a hospital emergency room in Springdale, Arkansas, having lost consciousness sometime on the Medi-Vac helicopter that took him there. I had kissed him goodbye that morning; I had called him at noon that afternoon: I was going off to audit a survey of poetry class at the University of Arkansas and that was its last session; it was just a quick goodbye-I-love-you-I'll-see-you-later call.
In the "family waiting room" at the hospital, the emergency room doctor, who for some reason was wearing scrubs with a ridiculous print, a black background with bright red and yellow fruit on it, came out to talk to me. "He's critical," he said.
"But he will live," I said. I didn't say it as a question.
When my friend Chou-Chou and I had driven over to Springdale, we had talked about where we'd put the hospital bed; probably her living room, too many steps at our home. I'd been told by the EMT people that Ned had broken several bones. I'd broken a leg once (Ned had cared for me tenderly) and I knew how much that had hurt; I could only imagine how much he must be hurting. In the car I'd thought about helping him, the encouragement he would need, my saying to him over and over, "I know you don't believe it now, but you will be able to ride a bicycle again, you will, I promise."
The doctor said to me, "Well, it's very serious."
I repeated, again as a statement, "But he will live."
The doctor said, "Well—his heart's already stopped three times."
They wouldn't let me in to ER while he was still alive. I wanted to be in there, badly, to talk to him, maybe to have my voice or presence reach him somehow, reassure him, maybe give him the strength to somehow come back into life fully one more time, or else have sent him on his way with some measure more of peace or comfort. But I didn't argue, sensing, perhaps, that I couldn't win anyway, and that it was better that the doctor get back to him than be talking to me. So I waited. I stared at the floor, hard, scrubbable vinyl tile, seamless, beige background with tiny flecks of grey and mustard yellow.
A few minutes later the doctor came back in again.
"We lost him," he said.
I said, "No."
Chou-Chou said, "We were not even told this was a possibility!" and then burst into tears.
I said "No," again.
I have ever since distrusted the scenes on TV and in movies where someone is informed of a sudden death: a wife of a husband's death, parents of their child's, and screaming begins. It's too big, too much to take in, and too unreal for screaming.
"May I see him?" I asked. "I want to see him."
"Let us just get him cleaned up a little."
It seemed like an extremely long time until they let came to get me, though it was probably only ten or fifteen minutes. When I went in he was swaddled in sheets up to his neck. Nurses were still mopping up blood from the floor. In the haze of hyper-reality and unreality, disbelievingly seeing something I knew I would remember forever, along with the thousands of other pictures of Ned I had in my mind, I leaned down and kissed his broken face, touched his reddish beard, put my hands on his sternum. I told him I loved him, I said some special private words that we had many times said to each other and said together, during the course of the twenty-three years on which we had traveled the globe as partners, mates, husband and wife, friends, committed selfless acts and acts of betrayal, had made each other laugh and cry.
They told me they were going to move his body from the emergency room to a room down the hall but I could see him there if I wanted to. Instead I walked back into the family waiting room, accompanied by a chaplain who seemed as strange to me as a giant grasshopper. I called people—family, friends—to tell them what had happened. People from organ recovery came and asked me if I wanted Ned's organs (those which hadn't been damaged) "harvested" for donation to others who might use them. Yes, I said. People from the funeral home came. Cremation, I said.
"Do you want to see him again?" a nurse asked me, "because we're going to have to move him again pretty soon." I said yes and I went down to that second room. In the few minutes that had passed since ER, he had somehow left, completely. There was no sense of Ned anymore. No longer him, it was an ‘it’, a body. I returned to the family waiting room, the vinyl under my feet, treading this strange unreal night. About another fifteen minutes passed. "We're getting ready to move him," the nurse said, "Do you want to see him one more time?" And this time I felt he was really, really no longer present—utterly vanished, gone. With every corpuscle of my being, I wished him, wherever he was, if he was somewhere (and he had to be, didn't he?), well.
That was almost seven years ago. I have a good life now, though almost wholly not the one I had imagined. I think, by now, the grief at Ned's sudden loss has been mostly composted. I understand, now, that you don't "get over" or resolve grief. Rather, you just let it rest in you because you have no other choice; you cannot alter a death. Grief just slowly decomposes, the way leaves and banana peels and egg shells and grass clippings in a compost pile slowly turn back into newly rich earth. And this is where you have a choice: you can then, if you wish, apply the composted sorrow and grief and learning to your garden and your life, the better to nourish your tomatoes and peppers and beans, and, again, your life and how you live it. The emotions are so intense that not to use them somehow would, it seems to me, be a double tragedy. I would not wish grief on anyone, yet I know that there is no human being who is immune to it, who will not experience it eventually but, until he or she gets there, no matter how empathetic he or she is, will realize that this place was unimaginable beforehand. And I also know that grief, because it is so full, so overwhelming, so non-negotiable, so frightening, and because it is the price-tag of having loved and been loved, is extraordinarily rich as it decomposes. As it breaks down, so does the old you. The old you becomes a new you—here is where the choice comes in. The new you, if you so chose, is recognizable, but enriched, changed, sobered, humbled by the mysterious unknowableness of why things happen as they do. Of course, you can choose other new yous: bitter, angry, closed off, perceiving yourself as a victim of fate. I slowly, slowly chose and developed the first kind of new self, and am still doing so.
It was not until six years after Ned's death, fall of 2006—fall, which had once been my favorite season, but had become the season that was Ned's last on earth—that I felt able to love the colors of the trees and sky, the air, the coming change. I am not "over" Ned's death—I never will be, and I cried just now over the computer writing about it, cried for what must be the millionth or two millionth time. But I think I have composted it. Rather than "over" it, it is under and in me, a large part of the very soil from which grows who I am today, now. And not only his death, but his life, and our shared life.
Ned's death was the domino that knocked over a lot of other dominos that had been fixed and certain points in my life. As much as I loved Eureka Springs, once I understood fully that not only could I not get my whole old life back (which of course I couldn't), I came to realize that having it partially was worse than not having it at all. I would have to begin again.
By the time of Ned's collision with the red pick-up, we had already transformed what had been our inn into a nonprofit organization which served writers, and, after two years of fundraising, were joyfully functioning with a terrific Board of Directors and Ned as Executive Director.
My second grief, and one which lacked the clean purity that I had with Ned's loss, was over what happened to this nonprofit that had been Ned's and my last, and perhaps best, joint project. I have since learned there is a name for the series of betrayals that took place: what happened to me is called "Founder's Syndrome." It is when an organization started originally by a person or people, undergoes change, and, in its next generation, those who are responsible for it feel the need, in putting their own stamp on it, to wipe out as much as possible of the founders' spirit and touch and style and even historical presence. It is also common for the new incoming regime to speak words that do not align with actions; for the founder or founders to be told, "Yes, we want you, we need you, we value you," while undermining every contribution the founder(s) makes. This, not to put too fine a point on it, is what happened to me; I was made, as I like to say, "dragona non grata." I am usually not a pansy or push-over, usually pretty good at reading people, but, no doubt because it was taking every resource I possessed emotionally to merely get up each day in the unchanging permanent face of Ned's death, I just didn't understand this gap between what was being said and what was being done. The mysterious disappearing receipts, the objects borrowed for "just a day or two" and never returned, the asked-for and then discarded photo albums, the packages for those I was to present donation proposals to which mysteriously never got mailed. So I walked into Ms. X's office, the appointment I had worked and pulled strings for four months, only to discover that she had never received what we were supposed to go over (not only looking a complete idiot but losing some $120,000 a year that would have flowed to the organization). The events planned, my offers to assist, the curt "No, we won't need you on this one," statements, which were followed, at the last minute, when there was no possible time to do whatever I had offered and been rebuffed for in the right way, the panicked, urgent requests: "Stop everything, come help us, we need you now!"
It took a therapist, who worked with me as I treaded my way through the terrible months after Ned's loss, to say, "Look at the actions, not the words here. If the actions were words, you'd be saying something like ‘What's my job description here now, what exactly is it that you want me to do?’ and they would be saying, ‘Get the f——out of here!’"
To say all this was hard is as vast an understatement as I have ever made. For the last six months I lived in Eureka Springs, I traveled the bumpy back-roads to get to my studio and home rather than drive past the buildings into which Ned and I had poured almost twenty years of life and love and vision and hope and good cheer, first as our inn, then as the nonprofit. In retrospect, I wonder if it took this—took in effect being hit over the head repeatedly with a two by four—to get me to leave Eureka Springs and begin a new life. Maybe it did.
Many times I would hear my father's aphorisms in the back of my mind during this period. "Nothing is wasted on the writer," he would say. Would I someday write about the razor-sharp clean cut of grief, amputating Ned from life and from my life, as opposed to the dirty, oozing infected series of lacerations that was the end of my involvement with the nonprofit? I don't know the answer to that; though, of course, here I am, writing about it. And I would also hear Maurice, my father, saying "God sees the truth, but waits." Friends and colleagues who have lived through "Founder's Syndrome," tell me that I, too, must wait—that someday, "Two or three generations of directors away, someone will come and find you and want to know what really happened, and get the pieces of history and artifacts they discarded. You might be really old when it happens, but it will happen. Someday, that betrayal will be made right." And though that hasn't happened outside yet, I can feel it beginning to happen inside. If it's a "syndrome" after all, that means that no matter how it felt at the time, it was not entirely personal. And maybe I did make the right choice, in finally bowing out completely: for in altered form, that nonprofit does still exist and still serves writers.
Creating a new life, is an odd thing. In one sense, you have to take action, you have to move towards it. In another; you have to stay still and let that new life reveal itself to you. But that stillness is not passivity. It's also action: to be that receptive, that permeable and open, that patient—this is a lot of work. Work of a kind that did not and does not come naturally to me, Ms. Let's-Get-the-Show-On-The-Road.
But eventually, and gradually, it happened and continues to happen. I moved to my aunt's old
farmhouse. First part-time, then full-time; first as a guest, and then, when my aunt was unable to afford to keep the place and it was to be sold to make money for her to live on, buying it, a process I am still doing, and not without difficulty. At times I wonder, do I own the place, or does it own me? But then I step outside, on the bluestone step beyond the front door, and I look east. I can see for twenty miles, clear into New Hampshire. The sky is always changing, and ranges of mountains begin at the very edge of a long, beautiful sloping field in front of the house. Sometimes I can see just the first range, deep green with evergreens. The second is blue; the third gray, and the fourth and fifth paler gray. I have many times seen rainbows, double rainbows, arching over those mountains. I have never lived somewhere so intensely green in the summer, punctuated by the white of birches, a tree Arkansas could not have been home to as it was too hot. And the New England winters, which I had dreaded and feared, have turned out to be luscious and pristine. Snow, where there is little traffic and everyone is prepared for it, is quite extraordinary. One day, for instance, I was out snow-shoeing just before dusk, and the way the light hit the particularly crystalline snow made each flake a prism. Just by turning my head, I could see countless spangled tiny rainbows glinting, like tiny, intricate sequins.
"But what about the winters?" ask my friends in Arkansas—and yes, despite the emotional violence of the separation with the nonprofit, I do indeed still have many friends there. Indeed some I mentioned here fifteen years ago—Bill Haymes, Chou-Chou, the Mitchell-West family—come to visit me here periodically. Ah, the winters. I tell them two things: I quote my Vermont friend Deborah Krasner, who says, tongue in cheek, of winter, "It keeps the riffraff out," and I tell them (and this is original), "Well, my friend, once I too suffered from claustrosnowbia. But it can be overcome very easily!"
Back on the first go-round of writing this entry, I talked about what seems to have been my lifelong tendency towards either interacting intensely with other people or spending time in happy solitude, with little middle ground. This is still true. If thirty-five acres on the top of a hill in Southeastern Vermont sounds like the perfect place for solitude, well, it is. But if solitude sounds like loneliness, it isn't. In addition to my old Arkansas friends and my new Vermont friends, I share my life and often my home with my boyfriend, David, a filmmaker who divides his time between Vermont and California. An active, handsome, funny, erudite, and really smart guy, far more politically active than I am or will ever be, I met him not at a potluck dinner (as I did Ned) but in a manner that I couldn't possibly have done all those years ago, as it didn't exist: the Internet.
The picture of David that he posted on the Internet (with his toned bicep visible and a truly, "Come hither, baby!" look in his eye) hangs in my hallway now, along with pictures of my father and mother, of many Eureka friends, of me at dinner at the White House with two former Dairy Hollow guests, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and of course, many photographs of Ned. But when I think about what made me answer to David's ad, it wasn't his biceps. It was a line about "… the journey two people may take, from strangers, to friends, perhaps to becoming intimate partners … all without knowing if they will get there." It was the "all without knowing if they will get there" that spoke to me so clearly, grappling, as I was, with impermanence, mystery and becoming comfortable with the unknown and the unknowable.
My writing now? Of course I continue to write. My book Passionate Vegetarian, which I wrote when Ned was alive but which was published after his death, and which is dedicated to him, is 1,208 pages long and won the James Beard Award. My new cookbook, The Cornbread Gospels, will be in stores about two months from the date on which I'm writing these words. Several children's books, including Bat in the Dining Room, Brass Button, And Then It Rained/And Then the Sun Came Out, and Is This a Sack of Potatoes? have all been published. Each of them has its own story and reason for being. I keep up with Web sites on individual books as well as my home page, www.
dragonwagon.com. I also write poetry intermittently and memoir, as I always have, and I teach a course I developed, called Fearless WritingTM—I've even taught it as far away as in Italy (though in English, not Italian).
Italy—a place Ned and I always talked about visiting together, but never had the chance to. It was surpassingly strange, and sad, and sweet, to be there with David. (At one point when we were there, he had a really bad flu. One night, when he awoke burning with fever, I said, "Oh, darling D, I'm so sorry you got sick while we were here!" I got up and got a cold washcloth to put on his forehead. As I did, he replied, feverishly, earnestly, with this absolutely nonsensical loving response: "Well, if I had to have this flu, anywhere, with anyone, I would rather have had it in Italy, with you!" He fell back asleep immediately; I lay there laughing in the dark.)
And yes, I think Ned and David would like each other. Logan West is the now-grown-up son of my Arkansas friends George and Starr (it was at Starr's home that the fateful potluck where I met Ned took place). Logan, who'd known Ned all his life, met David here in Vermont one Thanksgiving. "It's scary how much they would like each other," Logan said. "In fact; I think they might just ignore you!"
In addition to sharing my home with David much of the time, I share it, as always, with a cat or cats. Z-Cat moved up here with me from Arkansas, but died about two years ago; two young tabbies, Cattywhompus (which means sideways or crooked in Arkansas slang) and his sister Gordita (Spanish for Little Fat One,
which she is) have taken her place. Or rather, not her place; every cat, like every person one loves, is irreplaceable. Rather, the two cats have created their own place, in my home and life and heart.
Of course when I wrote about "a life so far" for this series earlier, I had no idea of what lay ahead of me. None of us do. Drawn between the present and the future is an opaque curtain, absolutely impenetrable, and for that, I must say, at this remove, I am thankful. I think of the dedication in Passionate Vegetarian: "To Ned Shank—what a feast we had!" I am still feasting, in this life, as rich and bittersweet and dark and melting as really good chocolate. I feast with others sometimes and alone sometimes; inside by the woodstove in the winter, outside on the screen porch in the summer, looking out into the bright flower bed my aunt had put in and which I keep more or less weeded.
My aunt. Having started this telling with her, I think I will end with her. David and I visited her about a year ago, then he left to run some errands and it was just her and me, sitting in her bedroom. There was some noise from the kitchen.
"What's that sound?" she asked me.
"I think it's Zorina, fixing your dinner," I said, "Would you like me to go see?"
"Yes," she said, decisively. So I got up and went to the tiny kitchen, where Zorina was indeed making dinner, stir-frying red pepper strips. I came back and informed Aunt Dot of this.
"Will there be enough for Jim when he comes by?" she asked me, meaning Jim Cherry, the last love her life, long dead.
I paused and thought about it. "Well, I don't think he'll be coming by, Aunt Dot, but if he did there would be enough for him."
Aunt Dot sighed and looked thoughtful. "Where do all our Jims get to?" she asked.
"That," I said, "is a very good question."
"I know!" said Aunt Dot suddenly, with the air of having had a brainstorm. "In that big house of mine—where is it again, New Hampshire?"
"Vermont," I said.
"Vermont," she repeated, a little dreamily. "Why don't we all have dinner there? A good, big dinner. I'll be there, and you. And Jim can come, and Mother and Dad, and Charlotte, and your husband, and that nice man who was here before, with the ponytail" (she meant David) "—we can all have dinner together. Won't that be nice?"
"Yes, Aunt Dot," I said. "It will be."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 23, 1986, Bo Emerson, "‘Year It Rained’ Exposes Story of a Teen's Life."
Booklist, November 15, 1985, review of The Year It Rained; August, 1990, Denise Wilms, review of Home Place, p. 2171; March 1, 1993, Julie Corsaro, review of Annie Flies the Birthday Bike, p. 1234; October 15, 1993, Deborah Abbott, review of Alligators and Others All Year Long: A Book of Months, p. 445; June 1, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of Brass Button, p. 86; October 1, 1997, J. Corsaro, review of Bat in the Dining Room, p. 335; December 15, 2002, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Is This a Sack of Potatoes?, p. 766; June 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of And Then It Rained/And Then the Sun Came Out, p. 1784.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 28, 1986, Tim Wynne-Jones, review of The Year It Rained.
Horn Book, March-April, 1985, review of Jemima Remembers, p. 175; November-December, 1990, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Home Place, p. 725.
Horn Book Guide, spring, 2003, review of Is This a Sack of Potatoes?, p. 32; fall, 2003, review of And Then It Rained/And Then the Sun Came Out, p. 321.
Instructor, May, 1984, Allan Yeager, review of Coconut, p. 87.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2003, review of And Then It Rained/And Then the Sun Came Out, p. 606.
Library Journal, August, 1986, Ruth Diebold, review of Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, p. 149; November 15, 2002, Judith Sutton, review of Passionate Vegetarian, p. 94.
New Statesman & Society, July 7, 1989, Nicci Gerrard, "Rites of Passage," review of The Year It Rained, p. 38.
New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1976, Linda Wolfe, review of Wind Rose, p. 16; April 25, 1982, Joyce Milton, "Three for the Road," review of To Take a Dare, p. 49; November 10, 1985, Natalie Babbitt, "Love, and Learn to Bear It," review of The Year It Rained, p. 35; October 26, 1986, Rollene W. Saal, review of Half a Moon and One Whole Star, p. 48; May 10, 1987, review of Diana, Maybe, p. 26; December 18, 1988, Aram Saroyan, "The Romantic," p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, January 19, 1976, review of Wind Rose, p. 102; October 2, 1981, Jean F. Mercier, review of If You Call My Name, p. 111; March 19, 1982, review of To Take a Dare, p. 71; May 11, 1984, review of Coconut, p. 272; June 29, 1984, review of Always, Always, p. 105; May 30, 1986, Diane Roback, review of Half a Moon and One Whole Star, p. 64; July 18, 1986, review of Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, p. 77; September 11, 1987, review of Alligator Arrived with Apples: A Potluck Alphabet, p. 94; August 31, 1990, review of Home Place, p. 65; August 23, 1993, review of Alligators and Others All Year Long, p. 72; May 5, 1997, review of Brass Button, p. 209; February 15, 1999, review of This Is the Bread I Baked for Ned, p. 109; October 7, 2002, review of Passionate Vegetarian, p. 69.
School Library Journal, April, 1976, Melinda Schroeder, review of Wind Rose, p. 60; April, 1981, Patricia Dooley, review of If You Call My Name, p. 106; May, 1982, Karen Ritter, review of To Take a Dare, p. 68; November, 1983, Helen E. Williams, review of Katie in the Morning, p. 61; May, 1984, Dana Whitney Pinizzotto, review of Coconut, p. 64; May, 1984, Connie Weber, review of Always, Always, p. 63; February, 1985, Reva S. Kern, review of Jemima Remembers, p. 63; November, 1985, Trev Jones, review of The Year It Rained, p. 95; December, 1985, Roger Sutton, "High School Confidential," review of The Year It Rained, p. 43; March, 1987, Laura McCutcheon, review of Dear Miss Moshki, p. 25; November, 1987, Jane Saliers, review of Alligator Arrived with Apples, p. 88; January, 1988, Lorraine Douglas, review of Diana, Maybe, p. 64; June-July, 1988, Jane Saliers, review of Margaret Ziegler Is Horse-Crazy, p. 90; December, 1989, Ruth Semrau, review of This Is the Bread I Baked for Ned, p. 78; March, 1990, Nancy A. Gifford, review of I Hate My Sister Maggie, p. 190; June, 1990, Cathy Woodward, review of The Itch Book, and Joanne Aswell, review of Winter Holding Spring, p. 99; February, 1991, Carey Ayers, review of Home Place, p. 725; July, 1993, Nancy Seiner, review of Annie Flies the Birthday Book, p. 59; January, 1994, review of Alligators and Others All Year Long, p. 106; June, 1997, Virginia Golodetz, review of Brass Button, p. 86; September, 1997, Martha Rosen, review of Bat in the Dining Room, p. 179; November 1, 2002, Rosalyn Pierini, review of Is This a Sack of Potatoes?, p. 122; May 1, 2003, Sue Morgan, review of And Then It Rained/And Then the Sun Came Out, p. 112.
Crescent Dragonwagon Web site,http://www.dragonwagon.com (September 23, 2001).
Passionate Vegetarian Web site,http://www.passionatevegetarian.com/ (July 25, 2007), biography of Crescent Dragonwagon.
Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow Web site,http://www.writerscolony.org/ (July 25, 2007).