Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story
By Isabel Gillies
Hardcover, 272 pages
List price: $25
One late August afternoon in our new house in Oberlin, Ohio, my husband, Josiah, took it upon himself to wallpaper the bathroom with pictures of our family. Over the years, we had collected an enormous number of framed pictures. Some were generations old and really should be called photographs; like the one of Josiah's grandfather, a Daniel Day-Lewis-like, strong-looking man, sitting in profile on a porch, casually surrounded by all his family, including my father-in-law, Sherman, at age ten. I always thought that picture would have been a good album cover for a southern rock band like Lynyrd Skynyrd. There was one of my great-grandmothers looking beautiful, rich, and Bostonian on her wedding day in 1913. There was a picture of my mother sitting on stairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Jackie O sunglasses and pigtails. Numerous black-and-white pictures of various family dogs.
My grandparents on my mother's side always had somewhere between two and six black labs around at any given time. There were also two St. Bernards, one named McKinley and the one before that, Matterhorn. They lived in Croton, New York, on the Hudson River, on Quaker Ridge Road and belonged to that John Cheever group of eccentric intellectuals that had a little extra money, mostly from prior generations, and a lot of time on their hands. My grandparents and John Cheever used to write letters to each other in the voices of their Labradors. Seriously. My grandfather had the mother, Sadie ("one of the great Labradors," he would say in his Brahmin accent), and Mr. Cheever had the daughter, Cassiopeia. Dogs are important in my family. But in addition to dogs my grandparents also had a raccoon, Conney, who would sit on one's shoulder during drinks and beg for scotch-coated ice cubes; a toucan; a sheep named Elizabeth; and, for a short time, two lion cubs. It sounds like they were vets or they lived on a farm, or they were nuts, but really they just loved animals and birds. The house that my mother grew up in was big and white with lots of lawn. They had a mimeograph in the living room that my grandmother Mimi knew how to operate and, as a family, they created The Quaker Ridge Bugle, which was later printed as a little local paper. My grandmother was an artist. She mainly painted and drew birds. My brother Andrew and I now have them on our walls. I remember her as very beautiful but thin. She wore long braids and black socks with sandals. She and my grandfather, who was a photographer among other things, lived in Guatemala later in their life, so I remember her shrouded in lots of brightly colored striped ponchos. In her day, though, she looked like a fey Katharine Hepburn. Like my grandfather, she was from a nice old American family. She was an odd bird. She was an intellectual, a good writer of letters, and also was probably one of the first anorexics. She rebelled against her aristocratic, proper upbringing as much as she could by becoming an artist and leading a somewhat alternative life filled with books and chaos. She spent many hours in her studio alone, away from her children, whom she didn't really know what to do with. My mother, the eldest, ended up running the show a bit, which is probably why she is such an organizational dynamo now. "It sounds a little looney, and it was," my mother says.
Among the pictures Josiah hung on the bathroom wall was one of my father shaking hands at an Upper West Side street fair when he ran for New York City Council in 1977. He didn't win the election, but my memory of that is not as strong as my memory of his photograph plastered on the front of the Eighty-sixth Street crosstown bus that I took to school. I'll never forget the image of my father bounding toward me, his hand strongly gesturing forward, as I got out my bus pass. ARCH GILLIES CITY COUNCIL AT LARGE. I thought he should have won. As far as I am concerned my father really should have been the president of the United States. He can see the big picture and he is fair. His grandparents were Scottish immigrants. His parents were of modest means but made a sturdy, dependable, nice life for their only son in Port Washington, Long Island. My grandfather was in the navy, and by hook or by crook, having never gone to college, he made his way up the ranks to rear admiral. When he found himself surrounded by other high-ranking officers he learned that they had all gone to something called boarding school. So he came home on leave one day and told my grandmother that they would only have one child, my father, and he would go to school at a place called Choate, a school in Connecticut where a colleague had gone. So my father, who thought he would do what all his other friends did, work at La Guardia Airport, was sent to Choate, which led him on a very successful path. His life took a different turn. He went on to Princeton, where he was on the student council and president of all the eating clubs. He helped change their policies so that all students were eligible to join the eating clubs. He has run things ever since. My parents met on Rockefeller's 1968 presidential campaign. He was the finance director and my mother was the office manager. At the end of the long days they would have a drink in the office together. "I had the scotch and she had the rocks," he would say as he gave my mother a wink.
Also among the sea of photographs was a snapshot of Josiah and his brother, ages four and five, leaning against their father, who was driving somewhere in the South — not a seat belt on anyone. There was another of Josiah's mother, Julia, holding hands with her husband, John, Josiah's stepfather, whose other hand was linked in a chain with four children. One of the children was an eight-year-old Josiah. They were walking across a lawn in Palm Beach in crisp white shorts and brightly colored Izods. Everybody matched.
There were old framed Christmas cards from both of our families — lots of gangly, long-haired boy and girl teenagers standing in front of various mountains in Georgia and on rocky beaches in Dark Harbor, Maine. Both of us have parents who had been married more than once, so we both have an array of step and half and real siblings that we love very much. The titles that came before the word brother or sister never mattered much.
There was a black-and-white picture of my girlfriends from high school at a Grateful Dead show in Providence, Rhode Island. The slightly curved picture in the frame gave away the fact that I had developed it myself in a photography class at RISD. And there was one of Josiah in a crew shell at his boarding school looking focused. Josiah often made fun of the fact that he was positioned in the middle of the boat to serve as weight, the "meat," rather than being placed in the front as the coxswain, the "brains" of the boat, who navigates the race. Out of the eight rowers, though, Josiah was the one who stood out. When someone in the picture looks like Adonis, it's hard not to notice.
There was a large silver framed picture of me and Josiah walking down the aisle on our wedding day. We got married at Christmastime. I wanted the wedding to feel like a New York Christmas party, so there were paperwhites everywhere. We ate chicken potpie and coconut cake. And then there were many, many photographs of our three boys. Josiah had a son, Ian, from his first marriage, whom I met when he was three. Ian lives in Texas with his mother and is the spitting image of Josiah, dark curly hair and almond eyes that remind me of a sparrow. My favorite picture of him is in black and white and was taken on a pristine beach in the South. It's almost annoying it's so beautiful, but he is wearing a T-shirt with a fierce shark on it that makes the whole thing palatable. Josiah and I have two boys, Wallace, age three on the day that Josiah was bathroom decorating, and James, who was sixteen months old. Both names were in our family trees, but Wallace we came to because we were watching Braveheart while I was pregnant. Like I said, I am Scottish. The boys are fair, their coloring more like mine. Josiah is dark. I think of Wallace as the sun: bright, vibrant, and warm and James as the moon: round, steady, and funny. James even likes colder baths. Wallace, like me, wants to be scalded.
We had been hauling all these pictures around with us in boxes. One reason for that was because Josiah was an English professor and we had moved from one college town to another for a number of years. The other was because we were both pretty big WASPs and in our worlds it was looked down upon to have too many beautiful pictures of one's own family ostentatiously displayed in frames around the house. My mother said it was okay to have small framed pictures on your personal desk (she gets everything printed in 3 x 5), but anything more than that was showy and, as she would say, "too much." I always felt sort of sad about this, that there wasn't more evidence of our happy family around for people to see — but I never questioned it. Most of the advice and direction my mother gives I take, but there are a few things I have thrown in the garbage. The picture thing I followed like a good girl, but my mother also thinks cars should be spotless; I like mine to look like my purse. She has shoe polish in brown, black, cordovan, and white and all the brushes and flannels to use them. I have never bought a can in my life. Josiah felt the same way as my mother did about framed pictures. He thought it was embarrassing and silly to take up space with big goopy silver frames filled with frozen happiness, so that he did what he did in the bathroom was mind-blowing.
I am from New York and Josiah is from Florida, where his mother and stepfather lived, and Georgia, where his father and stepmother lived. And although he feels like a northeastern guy, mostly because he went to boarding school in New England at age thirteen, actually he is 100 percent southern.
We were living in Oberlin, Ohio, because Josiah was teaching poetry at the college. Oberlin is a funky, tiny, political, young hot spot in the middle of northeast Ohio that vibed New York City to me a lot because most of the students who went to Oberlin College were from the East Coast if not New York City itself. But it was in Ohio — and it was rural and it was minuscule. A faculty member said that in the summer, when the students were gone, it felt like living in Central Park with no people — and that was kind of right. For the record, I absolutely loved it.
We had gotten the job (in academics you end up saying "we" even if it actually isn't "we," because you move around so much together from job to job that one person slowly loses his or her identity) right after I gave birth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to our son James Thacher. Because of our chaotic life with a two-year-old, a newborn, a dog, and two cats, I ended up not going out to Ohio to check it out before we moved. I had faith in my dream of a bucolic, happy, secure, academic life. It's a great, great dream if you have it in your head right. Here's what was in my head. I had married a very good-looking (think Gregory Peck), brilliant (most people hate the word brilliant to describe a person, but I frankly can't think of any other word to do it — at our wedding Josiah's best friend described his brain as a cathedral) childhood friend that I had re-met at his sister's wedding in Maine. As six- and seven-year-olds we had sailed in little bathtub boats on the Penobscot Bay together, but at the time of his sister's wedding he was getting his Ph.D. in poetry at Harvard and I was being a New York girl in New York. I had not seen him in fifteen years. He was Heathcliff with an earring. It sounds romantic to be married to an actual poetry scholar, but truthfully he never recited poetry to me much or wrote me a poem. It's hard to admit, but I don't really like poetry or jazz. I just don't get it a lot of the time. If someone (and Josiah once in a blue moon would do this) teaches me through every line of a poem I can get it, but it's rare that it hits me in the gut the way a Rolling Stones song does, or the unfinished Pietà that I saw in Florence when I was fifteen. Right at the start of our love affair he did give me one of the only poems I do recognize as sublime, a John Ashbery poem called "At North Farm."
We fell in love in two hours at that wedding on a rare night so foggy it felt like when I was a girl in the 1970s, when it seemed to be foggy all summer. Maine has lost a lot of its fog.
From HAPPENS EVERY DAY by Isabel Gillies. Copyright © 2009 by Isabel Gillies. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.