Without Stopping: An Autobiography (Paperback)
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Kneeling on a chair and clutching the gilded top rung of its back, I stared at the objects on the shelves of the cabinet. To the left of the gold clock was an old pewter tankard. When I had looked at it for a while, I said the word "mug" aloud. It looked like my own silver mug at home, from which I drank my milk. "Mug," I said again, and the word sounded so strange that I continued to say it, again and again, until I found myself losing touch with its meaning. This astonished me; it also gave me a vague feeling of unease. How could "mug" not mean mug?
The room was very quiet. I was alone in that part of the house. Suddenly the gold clock chimed four times. As soon as the last stroke was stilled, I realized that something important was happening. I was four years old, the clock had struck four, and "mug" meant mug. Therefore I was 1, 1 was there, and it was that precise moment and no other. A satisfying new experience, to be able to say all this with certainty.
This was Uncle Edward's house in Exeter, next door to the Unitarian church, where he was the minister. For me the place already had a legendary aspect, since both Mother and Uncle Fred had spent their secondary school years there, he at Phillips Exeter and she at Robinson Female Seminary. Mysteriously, whenever she mentioned the name of her school, she laughed, yet if she spoke of Phillips Academy, it was almost with reverence. "I've already entered you," she told me, and this was disturbing insofar as I gave it any thought.
Now Mother was in the hospital just outside the town; when Daddy arrived from New York, he took me aside and with more than his usual asperity said: "Your mother is a very sickwoman, and it's all because of you, young man. Remember that."
I was bewildered and resentful. How could I have had anything to do with her illness? But already I took for granted his constant and unalloyed criticism. His mere presence meant misery; it was one of the inalterables of existence.
I went with Aunt Jen to visit Mother, carrying along two cookies that I had been allowed to shape and bake. They were grimy and inedible, but she laughed and ate them. Later, when we were back in New York, I asked her why it was my fault that she had been sick.
"Oh, my dear Daddy didn't mean that. You see, you had a very hard time coming into this world. Most babies come in right side up, but you somehow came upside down. And you weighed eight and a half pounds." This did not explain very much, but it reduced my sense of guilt.
The following year there occurred a phenomenon similar to the one involving the mug, but this time I was forewarned and savored the sensation voluptuously, letting myself float in total awareness of the moment. It was at the Happy Hollow Farm. I sat on the swing under one of the giant maples, bathing in the smells and sounds of a summer afternoon in Massachusetts. And I let myself fall backward to hang with my head down, almost touching the grass, and stayed that way. Then a clock in the house struck four. It began all over again. I am 1, it is now, and I am here. The swing moved a little, and I saw the green depths of maple leaves and, farther out, the unbelievably blue sky.
The Happy Hollow Farm was a 165-acre tract of forested hillsides. A meadow perhaps half a mile wide ran through the middle of the land, and there was a cold, deep-running brookthat one could hear gurgling in the marsh grass and rushes before one saw it. The house dated from the end of the eighteenth century; it was the classical square, two-story clapboard building, white, with green blinds. It stood back from the road on a rise, partially hidden by four enormous maples. There was an ell at the north end of the house, which contained the kitchen and pantries and the hired man's room. Beyond that came the exciting part of the farm, a series of dark and rustic sheds that extended all the way back to the springhouse. The place smelled of the freshly cut wood that was stacked there, of mildewed burlap, apples, damp earth, and of a whole mysterious gamut of time-encrusted things. Whenever I was found exploring the dim recesses of the sheds, I was told to go outdoors. There in the sunlight I would pretend to be occupied. I could tell by the cadence of the voices coming from inside the house when it was safe to wander back into the sheds.
At the Happy Hollow Farm lived Grampa and Gramma Winnewisser with their two sons. Grampa had bought the property as a kind of retirement project after an accident with a runaway horse had made it difficult for him to walk. Up until that time he had owned the only "department" store in Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Grampa's first name was August. He was a moody and violent man, subject to sudden surges of temper, when his voice shook the house with bellowed imprecations in German and English. He had no sympathy with anything that required organization, like religions, societies, and governments. According to him, any group claiming to have a common purpose or belief existed only for the mystification and exploitation of itsmembers. Notably exempt from his condemnation were the Freemasons, whom he held in respect, perhaps because he was one himself. I remember his calling my three small cousins and me in from play in order to ask us if we thought there was a god. I, who was under the impression that God was one of the things adults had invented in order to manage children more easily, carefully refrained from answering. But the three little cousins, having been told by their respective mothers that God was real, replied in the affirmative. This was Grampa's signal to explode. "Pah There's no god. It's a lot of nonsense. Don't you believe it."