I will never forget the opening words of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
When I read them at the age of eight, in one of the Heritage Club books my parents had subscribed to in an effort to encourage their daughters’ interest in literature, I was perplexed by the spoken-word form. I recall that I read far enough to learn that the missing boy was, or would become, involved with whitewashing a fence, but I can’t say I read much further into the story–an admission I’m duly embarrassed to make.
At high-school in England we didn’t read American literature, which I hope goes some small way toward explaining my lack of familiarity with Mark Twain’s writing. Instead, we read works by British writers short stories by Katherine Mansfield, novels by Vita Sackville-West, and poetry by Sir John Betjeman and Wilfred Owen. (I will never forget Owen’s account of death by mustard gas in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” It should be required reading for all 14-year-olds, especially in countries whose leaders all too often find it expedient to glorify war.)
So I was thrilled to read the following missive from Martha Kipcak, who attended my talk at Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden in October 2013.*
Dear Bronze and Will,
thank you so much for bringing Nancy Hiller to town and then making it possible for me, and others, to attend the lovely event at Lynden.Although I haven’t had the good fortune to be a homeowner in my life (with the exception of a short 15 months during a brief marriage), I have gained rich satisfaction as a homemaker all my adult life.Many years ago, I crossed paths with a letter Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) had written to his friend Joe Twichell on January 19, 1897. The previous August, while Clemens was traveling abroad, his beloved 24-year-old daughter Susy died from meningitis at their home in Hartford, Connecticut. Clemens and his wife Livy were devastated. Joe Twichell was a dear and trusted friend who Clemens wrote to share his grief and reflections of Susy’s death. I was thinking about this letter while listening to Nancy describe her love of Home.This is an excerpt taken from the middle of the letter.“Ah well, Susy died at home. She had that privilege. Her dying eyes rested upon nothing that was strange to them, but only things which they had known and loved always and which had made her young years glad. And she had you and Sue and Katy and John and Ellen. This was happy fortune. I am thankful that it was vouchsafed to her. If she had died in another house — well, I think I could not have borne that. To us, our house was not unsentient matter. It had a heart and a soul and eyes to see us with approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies. It was of us and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome. And we could not enter it unmoved. And could we now, oh how, in spirit we should enter it unshod.”Peace and love to both of you,martha.
*The note was forwarded to me by Will Fellows, one of the sponsors of this speakers’ series, and is reproduced here with Martha’s permission.