Mary Downing Hahn: Autobiography Feature
Mary Downing Hahn contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
Writing an autobiography is a difficult task for novelists. Although we use personal experiences in our books, we don't like to be hemmed in by facts. It's so boring to describe events as they actually occurred. For instance, each time I tell a story about my past, my family accuses me of adding something new. "That's not how you told it last time," they say, or worse, "That's not how it happened. I was there, remember?"
Worse than their objections, though, is the uncertainty I feel when they voice them. Although my changes make the story funnier, sadder, or scarier than the event itself, they also make me wonder about my own life. Did it really happen the way I remember it? Or did I alter my history bit by bit over the years until my memory of it bears little resemblance to the truth?
Some things, of course, are irrefutable, and that's probably why so many autobiographies begin with a boring statement of undeniable fact. Here is mine: I was born Mary Elizabeth Downing on the ninth of December in the year 1937, the first child of Anna Elisabeth Sherwood Downing and Kenneth Ernest Downing. My mother was an elementary school teacher. My father was first and foremost an English citizen, but he supported himself as an automobile mechanic in Washington, D.C.
I mention my father's nationality because that was his biggest distinction, the keystone of his personality, what he most wanted people to notice about him. Although he was only ten years old when he came to this country, he clung to his heritage and spoke with a proper English accent until the day he died at the age of fifty-eight.
My father's Anglophilia had its roots in the contrast between his life in England and his life in America. My grandparents' families were both wealthy. My great-grandfathers, William Alexander Downing and James Pettengill, were barristers in London. At one time they practiced law together, but they had a falling out of some sort and parted ways. In an act of defiance, my grandparents married against their parents' wishes. Grandfather further rebelled by refusing to enter his father's law practice. His desire to go to America and become a gentleman farmer outraged his father, who had worked his way up to a position of wealth and respectability and wanted his children to live lives of upper-middle-class comfort.
In 1915 the Downings sailed to America on the Lusitania. In danger of being torpedoed by German submarines, my father, his five brothers, and one sister, as well as the other passengers, spent most of the journey in lifeboats, prepared for the worst.
Although my father remembered the voyage as a great adventure, I'm sure my grandmother felt very differently about it. Unfortunately, the Lusitania was, in fact, sunk by the Germans on her return trip, and several months later America entered the First World War.
Just as his father had predicted, my grandfather failed completely in his new endeavor. Stubbornly using the farming methods he'd learned in New Zealand years before, he lost all his money, and managed to reverse the American dream. He came to this country wealthy and ended up impoverished, dragging his wife and children down with him.
Thanks to my grandfather's neglect, my father's life in America was full of hardship. Looking back, he must have seen England as the lost Eden of his childhood, a place to which he longed to return but could not. America, on the other hand, was definitely east of Eden, a land of banishment. It is no wonder he kept his English citizenship until his death in 1963. Like my father, my mother's life was marked by loss, not of a place but of a person. When she was thirteen, her father, Ira Sherwood, died, leaving her and her mother, Anna Ruehr Sherwood, almost penniless. Her father's death ended my mother's childhood and her happiness as surely as my father's departure from England ended his. She was left in the hands of a cold and unloving mother who claimed she could not support a daughter. After taking Mother to a relative's farm, my maternal grandmother moved back to Baltimore, where she supported herself as a dressmaker and a housekeeper.
Mother lived with her father's sister Agnes and her husband George Armiger in Beltsville, Maryland, for several years and then moved to Catonsville, where she lived with her uncle, Harry Sherwood, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and his wife Grace. After graduating from Western High School, she enrolled in a two-year teaching program at Towson State Normal School. What she really wanted to do was go to the Maryland Institute of Art, but her relatives did not think that advisable. She needed to support herself. For a young woman in 1923, teaching was a practical and dependable career.
After completing the course, Mother took a position at College Park Elementary School when she was nineteen years old. While visiting her aunt in Beltsville, Mother met my father at a dance. In 1935, when she was twenty-nine and he was thirty-one, they married.
Shortly after my parents' honeymoon, my mother's mother moved in with them. An only child, my mother felt she was obligated to provide a home for her mother. Unfortunately, my grandmother's presence did not contribute to the happiness of my parents' marriage. She disliked my father, and, as she grew older, she frequently accused him of stealing from her and plotting against her. To avoid the scenes her behavior provoked, Daddy spent more and more time in the company of his older brother Alfred, a bachelor.
When I was less than a year old, my mother returned to teaching and I was left in the care of my grandmother, an arrangement born of financial necessity. Already suffering from arteriosclerosis, Nanny was a strange and frightening person. Given to morbid ramblings about sin and death, she made my early childhood less than happy.
We were living in College Park then, on the second floor of a house on Guilford Road just off Route One. The school where Mother taught was less than a block away. Its playground was large and well equipped with swings, a sliding board, and seesaws. A little creek meandered across it, shaded by tall trees. By the time I was three, I learned to avoid Nanny by spending as much time as possible outside. I rode my tricycle up and down the sidewalk, played with the little boy next door, and squabbled with the girls across the street. Anything to get away from Nanny.
Two days before my fourth birthday, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and World War II began for us. Like many civilians, my father volunteered to be a block warden, which meant he patrolled our neighborhood at night wearing a white civil-defense helmet and making sure everyone complied with the blackout law; to protect cities from the possibility of bombing raids, no visible lights were permitted. This did not mean everyone sat around in the dark. At the sound of sirens, families simply covered their windows with opaque blinds and waited for the all clear.
Because my father had relatives in London, he took his responsibility seriously and often quarreled with the man next door, a German citizen who claimed to belong to the pro-Nazi Bund party. Our neighbor was convinced Germany would win the war. When the Nazis came to America, he assured my father that his name would be at the top of the firing squad's list. This more or less ended my friendship with his son.
Two of my father's younger brothers went to war, and my English grandmother hung two blue stars in her window signifying her sons were overseas. Although Uncle Eric survived the Battle of the Bulge, Uncle Dudley was killed in Belgium in the fall of 1944. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for "exceptional heroism in combat," and Grandmother took down his blue star and hung a gold one in its place. A gold star meant someone in the family had died in the war. That fall and winter, I saw gold stars in many windows.
The main things I remember about the war years are my uncle Dudley's departure and the news, a year later, of his death. He was my favorite uncle, and his death saddened all of us. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. The sight of his tears frightened me almost more than the reason for them.
Like most people my age, I also remember Victory gardens, saving scrap, waiting in long lines with Mother in nearly empty grocery stores, buying war stamps in school, watching my parents count their ration coupons, worrying about being bombed, and watching the troop trains go by. It was my job, my contribution to the war effort, to stamp tin cans flat, to mix yellow food coloring into the butter substitute, and to play "Step on a crack, break Hitler's back," a variant of the old chant in which you stamped hard on every crack in the sidewalk.
When I was three years old, one of my mother's friends gave me a four-volume set of A. A. Milne's stories and poems. Both Daddy and Mother read them to me, and Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, Eeyore, Tigger, and all the others came to life as I listened. Believing every word, I was sure the Hundred Acre Wood existed, maybe not too far away. If I could find it, I'd join Pooh in his tree and play with Christopher Robin. I'd help trap the Heffalump, I'd go along on the journey to the North Pole, I'd take Eeyore a birthday present, I'd bounce with Tigger and play Pooh Sticks in the creek. The closest I came to finding the Hundred Acre Wood was the year Uncle Alfred surprised me with a big, brown teddy bear. I named him Pooh, and we spent hours acting out Christopher Robin's adventures and inventing new ones. We climbed trees, explored, rode about on my tricycle, made a little house in the lilac bushes, and slept together every night. For years, Pooh was my best friend and inseparable companion.
One rainy day I discovered a new route to the Wood. Alone in my room, I noticed the blank pages in the front and back of my Pooh books. Could they be for children to use? Happily I covered the white pages with pictures of Pooh and his friends, telling myself new stories while I drew. Not satisfied, I turned my attention to Ernest Shepard's black-and-white sketches. Why hadn't anyone colored them? Seizing my crayons, I happily went to work. Still not satisfied, I added smiling suns, extra rabbits and birds, and a little girl, thus drawing myself into the stories I loved.
When my mother (a schoolteacher, remember!) discovered what I'd done to my lovely set of books she was not happy. After explaining the difference between coloring books and real books, she made sure I had a plentiful supply of drawing paper.
In 1942, when I was four, we rented our first house on Osage Street in Berwyn, just north of College Park and halfway between Route One and the trolley tracks. Here I encountered a large gang of children, nearly all older than I was. Tall for my age, I tried desperately to keep up with them, never realizing the difference two years made in our abilities. I wanted them to like me, but they thought I was a hopeless crybaby.
Feeling like an outcast, I spent hours with Pooh and my doll Margaret in the rose garden behind our house. I was convinced that fairies lived there. Hoping to catch sight of them, I built tiny houses out of stones, covered them with twig roofs, carpeted them with moss, made beds out of rose petals, left small portions of food, and lit them with marbles, which I thought glowed after dark. Although I never actually saw a fairy in one of my houses, I was sure they slept in the moss beds and ate the bread.
In January 1943, my mother went to the hospital and returned with my sister, Constance Ann, an occasion somewhat darkened by my belief that both she and Mother were dead. Nanny was responsible for this idea. While Mother was away, Nanny convinced me she would never return. On the day Mother came home, I hid under our old-fashioned kitchen stove and refused to come out. For years, Mother thought my strange behavior was prompted by jealousy, a belief Nanny encouraged. Mother had no way of knowing I was terrified, and, at five, I was too young to explain my fear.
That fall my mother enrolled me in Holy Redeemer Catholic School. Because I would be six in December, I was old enough, but emotionally I was immature. Terrified of Sister in her long black robe, I made no friends and was frequently ill. When I came down with a particularly severe case of mumps in November, Mother gave up and took me out of school.
One good thing came out of my brief stay at Holy Redeemer—I learned to read. No longer did I have to depend on the moods and whims of grown ups. Whenever I wanted a story I could read it ALL BY MYSELF.
Of the many books I loved I particularly remember Watty Piper's Twice Told Tales, an illustrated anthology of fairy tales, fables, and legends. One story in that book especially fascinated me. Before I learned to read, I'd ask Mother for "Hansel and Gretel," but I never let her get past the part where the witch stepped out of her gingerbread house and said, "Nibble, nibble, Mousekin." As soon as Mother read those words, I'd cover my ears and beg her to stop. The next night, I'd request "Hansel and Gretel" again, but, no matter how often Mother started, I never let her finish. The witch was simply too much for me.
Then, in bed with the mumps, I discovered I could read those stories myself. Avoiding "Hansel and Gretel," I worked my way through the whole book. Still sick, I read my Raggedy Ann and Andy books, I read Scat, Scat, Go away Little Cat (a favorite of mine), The Little Engine That Could, and any other easy book I owned at the time (Pooh was a bit too difficult for a new reader). Finally "Hansel and Gretel" was all that was left. Telling myself I could stop any time I wanted to, I began the story, reached the terrible words "Nibble, nibble, Mousekin," and kept on, straight to the happy ending. Closing the book, I felt as brave as Gretel herself.
As you can guess from the troubles I had with "Hansel and Gretel," I was a fearful child, one who saw wolves behind the bedroom door and lived in terror of the long-armed witch under my bed. Disguised as dust balls in the daytime, she lay in wait, ready to reach up over the mattress and seize me while I slept. Her presence forced me to lie in the middle of the bed with the sheets pulled up to my chin no matter how hot it was. If I needed to go to the bathroom, I'd stand up and leap as far from the bed as I could to avoid her grasp.
In October 1944 we moved back to College Park, where we rented a house at the end of Guilford Road. Our new home was one of several frame bungalows with dormered roofs and big front porches. In those days our street was unpaved and shaded by tall maples. On rainy days, the street was a sea of puddles, with lots of luscious mud to squeeze between your bare toes. Behind our house was a rutted alley where my father dumped the ashes from our coal furnace. Neighbors kept chickens and sold eggs, tended Victory gardens, and let their dogs run loose. You could ride the trolley into Washington, a half hour's trip away, and, if your parents weren't afraid of your catching polio, you could go to Greenbelt and swim in the pool or go to the movies in Hyattsville, a short trolley ride away. More like a Small town than a suburb, College Park was surrounded by woods and fields and creeks to explore. The University of Maryland campus was a half hour's walk away, just across Route One, and its president, Curly Byrd, lived in a big house at the top of Beechwood Road and allowed us to sled ride in his backyard whenever it snowed. It was a wonderful place to grow up.
Less than a block from our house was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It carried both passengers and freight up and down the eastern seaboard. The cars were pulled by smoke-spouting, cinder-spewing steam engines that caught the fields on fire on dry summer days. We lived near enough for the trains to shake my bed and make things jingle and shake in the china cupboard.
Odd as it may sound, I loved living close to the railroad. You might think the noise of the whistle and the engine would keep you awake, but you'd be amazed at how quickly you stop hearing the blast and rumble. The trains rocked me to sleep at night, and in the daytime my friends and I loved to sit on the grassy bank and count the freight cars rattling past. Lackawanna, Great Northern, Union Pacific, Lehigh, Susquehanna, Wabash, Seaboard, Southern—the very names stenciled on the boxcars had the ring of romance and the lure of distant places. They made me want to travel.
In College Park, I made my first real friend, the girl next door. Ann Sines was a year younger than I but she was in the first grade too. Her mother and mine had taught together and were delighted to see us take a liking to each other. Dark-haired and brown-eyed, Ann was shorter than I and she had wonderful dimples. Because I was tall, long-legged, and skinny, our parents kidded us about our resemblance to the old comic-strip figures Mutt and Jeff. I was as happy in public school as I'd been unhappy at Holy Redeemer. Unlike Sister, my teacher, Mrs. Schindler, encouraged me to draw and read. Impressed by my love of books, she made me a member of the Reading Club, an elite group who occupied a special corner of our classroom. Furnished with chairs and tables made from orange crates, the space was reserved for us, the best readers. I can't remember exactly what we did in the club, but we had tea parties on special occasions, and I loved belonging to it. I loved Mrs. Schindler too. Once I embarrassed myself by calling her "Mother," the ultimate compliment a child can give a teacher.
Although Mrs. Schindler graciously overlooked my obvious inability to understand arithmetic, other teachers weren't as sympathetic as she or as appreciative of my other talents. I languished in second and third grade, perked up a bit in fourth and fifth, and slumped again in sixth. Except for Mrs. Schindler and Miss Perry, my teachers saw me as a daydreamy, inattentive child who could not or would not learn her multiplication tables. I began thinking of myself as stupid and clumsy—stupid because I couldn't understand fractions, decimals, and percents or remember my nine and seven tables; clumsy because I couldn't learn to hit a ball, dodge a ball, catch a ball, play jacks, or skip rope.
During these years, Nanny's mental health deteriorated rapidly, and her dislike for my father intensified. Her attitude toward me changed also. In response to her hostility, I grew sassy and defiant. Because Mother didn't return to teaching after Connie was born, I wasn't alone with Nanny anymore. No longer afraid of her, I positively enjoyed causing scenes and making her angry. If she thought I was a wicked child, then that was what I'd be. I teased her, called her names, and ran away if she tried to slap me. I even encouraged Ann to join me in tormenting her.
Confused and disoriented, Nanny wandered the streets of College Park. The police often found her blocks from home, speaking German and trying to find her way back to Baltimore. Once we returned from the store to find the paperboy in the apple tree and Nanny keeping him there with her broom. Expecting to die in the night, she set up an altar on her dresser so the priest could administer the last rites. She used a bucket instead of the toilet and dumped its contents out the bedroom window every morning, something Ann and I found hilarious.
Finally my mother took the advice of our family doctor. Pregnant for the third time, she put Nanny in a nursing home near Baltimore. Refusing to eat, Nanny became gravely ill and died at Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville.
When my mother told me Nanny was dead, a thrill of elation shot through me with the force of an electrical current. My tormenter was gone for good. I would never see her again. Almost immediately, I recoiled from my own emotions. What kind of a nine-year-old child is glad when her grandmother dies? Believing myself to be just as wicked as Nanny said I was, I began to weep hysterically. This was not grief. This was guilt. But no one knew that but me.
One week later my father's mother died unexpectedly in her sleep. I loved my kind and gentle English grandmother, and my sorrow for her genuine. The tears I shed were real, but I did not cry for her as I had for Nanny.
Shortly after the deaths of my grandmothers, Ann's mother woke my sister and me in the middle the night to tell us good news. We had a brother. John Alfred Downing was born on March 1947. With no one there to prophesy death and disaster, I could hardly wait for Mother to bring him home.
Almost immediately a new crisis emerged. In midst of the postwar housing shortage, our landlord gave my father a month to find another home. His son, a recently married veteran, needed the house were renting. Finding a home in 1947 was no easy task. My father had three children, including an infant, and very little money. The houses we looked at cost too much, and apartments were too small for a family our size. At the end of the month, my father asked for an extension. When another month passed with no success, the landlord threatened to evict us.
Having nowhere else to go, we put our furniture in storage and moved into Grandfather's house in Riverdale, a few miles south of College Park. Already living there were Daddy's bachelor brother, Alfred; his youngest brother, George, and his wife Isabel; and my cousin Brenda.
Somehow the house accommodated all of us. But not graciously. There was tension among the adults and there was tension among the children. Brenda and I did not like each other. In my nine-year-old opinion, she was a spoiled brat, and I'm she thought even worse of me. At any rate, she had her own room and when we arrived she told my sister and me not to put one foot over the threshold. Left on her own, Connie would have obeyed Brenda's order. Unlike me, my sister was a sweet child who never got into trouble. Unfortunately, telling me not to do something was the surest way to make me do it.
Therefore, whenever I could, I sneaked into Brenda's room, often dragging poor Connie with me, and played with her toys. I couldn't resist. To Brenda, toys were decorative items, not playthings, and she couldn't bear to see them touched. What fun I had tossing her stuffed animals around her room and rearranging the furniture in her dollhouse.
Although Brenda was a year younger than I was, she was large for her age (fat, I called it) and not very fast. Taking advantage of my long, skinny legs and the years of practice I'd had running from Nanny, I easily escaped my cousin's wrath.
After a few weeks, however, my taunting and teasing backfired. In the interest of peace and quiet, I was exiled to a day camp run by the Girl Scouts. At Camp Conestoga I spent two miserable weeks sitting in the hot sun making misshapen pot holders.
When my session at Camp Conestoga ended, I was sent even farther away, this time to Misty Mount, an overnight Scout camp near Thurmont, Maryland, where we made more pot holders, swam in icy cold water, ate burned food, and sang dumb songs about little red cabooses. The only part I liked was eating s'mores, a dessert you made by melting marshmallows over a fire and mashing them between two graham crackers and a few squares of Hershey chocolate.
When I tell you what happened at the end of my two weeks at camp, you'll be convinced I'm rewriting my life to give myself a happy ending, but I assure you I'm not. While I was at Camp Misty Horrible Mount, the people who lived in the bungalow on the other side of Ann put a "For Sale" sign in their front yard. My parents bought the house, and we moved back to Guilford Road. Ann was still my next-door neighbor, and, when school started, I was in Miss Perry's room, right where I wanted to be.
I remember far too much of my elementary-school years to include it all in this essay. By the time I was in fourth grade, four girls my age lived on my block: Ann Sines, Barbara Rogers, Natalie Burdette, and Mary Slayton. In addition, Barbara had two brothers, Alan (two years older) and Curtis (one year younger), and Mary had a sister, Sally (also one year younger). At the lowest end of the scale were "the little kids": my sister Connie, Ann's brother Butch, and Natalie's sister Carol (Jack being too small to count). When the weather was nice we played old-fashioned games like "Mother, May I," Statues, Red Rover, Dodgeball, Keep Away, Follow the Leader, and, my favorite, Kick the Can, ideally played after dark on hot summer nights. We quarreled over rules, split into warring factions, made up, and quarreled again.
We also played Cowboys with cap pistols, climbed trees, built forts and clubhouses, explored the woods in forbidden territory across the train tracks, risked polio by wading in the creek, belonged to Girl Scouts, dug for treasure in remote places, roller-skated down Beechwood Road, and cost our parents a fortune in Band-Aids for all the skinned knees and elbows we suffered. At night and on rainy days, I read, fueling my imagination. During the height of my interest in the "Nancy Drew" books, my friends and I followed people, wrote down license-plate numbers, spied from trees and bushes, and made, no doubt, pests of ourselves. Although we never found any evidence of criminal activity in College Park, two of us once came close, we thought, to catching a Russian spy.
Several blocks away lived a man who "looked" Russian and had a ham radio tower in his backyard. What else could he be? This was in 1947 or 1948, a time when people far older and wiser than we imagined they saw Russian spies everywhere.
One Saturday Mary S. and I walked past the spy's house and noticed his garage door was open and his car gone. Inside were stacks of newspapers and magazines. Mary and I looked at each other. Without a doubt, those were Russian papers and magazines, the evidence we needed. Taking a quick look at the silent house and the empty street, we dashed into the garage. Engrossed in our search, we didn't hear the spy enter the garage behind us.
"What are you kids doing?" he yelled.
I spun around and saw the man's big body blocking the door. Horrified, I looked at Mary.
Fortunately, she was much quicker than I was. Staring the spy in the eye, she said, "This is National Fire Prevention Week, and our teacher told us to search the neighborhood for fire hazards. Just look at all this newspaper! Don't you know how easily a fire could start here?"
The man stepped closer, scowling at us. "What's your name?" he asked. "Where do you live?"
Without hesitating, Mary gave him a false name and address. Swerving around the spy, she took off running with me at her heels, not daring to look back.
I'd like to be able to tell you we found Tass and other Russian-language publications, but all our spy had in his garage were old National Geographics, Lifes, Saturday Evening Posts, and Washington Evening Stars, the same thing you would have found in almost any garage or basement in 1948. In addition to Nancy Drew, I read dog stories by the dozens. My all-time favorite was Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight, but I also read a series of collie stories by Albert Payson Terhune, the "Irish Red" stories by Jim Kjelgaard, Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London, and Grey Friars Bobby by Atkinson. These books gave me an idealized concept of the noble dog, a loyal companion who would stay by your side even after your death. I begged my parents for a dog, pleaded, cajoled, all to no avail. No matter what I said or did or promised, my father steadily refused to consider my request. He did allow me finally have a cat, a beautiful little black kitten he insisted we name Pete after a cat he once owned, but NO DOG!
I happened to be the sort of girl whom strays recognized from afar. No doubt encouraged to do so, they followed me home. Despite heartrending scenes on our front porch, my father chased off every dog and sent me to bed to cry myself to sleep. One dreary afternoon, I rebelled against my father and ran away with a shaggy, friendly little dog I'd found in the park. With Max at my heels, I dashed off through the rain, refusing to heed my father's order to come back.
If my little sister hadn't followed me, I might not have gotten into so much trouble. When Daddy found the two of us, soaked to the skin and sharing a candy bar with Max behind a neighbor's garage, he dragged us home. In the kitchen, he pulled off his belt and whipped me. I'd had plenty of spankings with switches and hairbrushes but never one like this. He was so angry he actually broke his belt.
It was a small comfort to know it was his favorite, the one with the Union Jack buckle.
A month or so later, Daddy brought home a cocker spaniel named Binky, the biggest surprise of my life. I think he felt bad about the Max episode, and Binky was his way of saying he was sorry.
Unfortunately, Binky did not live up to the noble dog image. He bit the mailman and terrified the garbagemen, was frightened of other dogs, and loved my father best (ironic touch, that), but I adored him anyway.
In addition to mysteries and dog stories, I loved orphan stories. Among my favorites were Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, Kidnapped, Great Expectations, The Little Princess, and The Secret Garden. Although I dreamed of being showered with gifts like the little princess and had an imagination to match red-haired Anne's, I identified most strongly with the heroine of The Secret Garden. Mary Lennox not only shared my name but most adults disliked her. Like her, I struck people as cold, selfish, and not very well-behaved. Tall, skinny, and painfully self-conscious, I avoided my parents' friends and my aunts and uncles, sure they would either ignore or criticize me. The loneliness I felt as a child probably drew me to stories about girls like Anne, Jane, and Mary. The happy endings gave me hope that someday I too would be loved and valued.
Acting out my orphan fantasies, I pretended the dollhouse my grandfather made for me was an orphanage. The little plastic dolls who lived in it were orphans, of course, and Ann and I spent hours making up adventures for them in which they ran away and sailed down the creek on rafts made from Popsicle sticks or lived in the hedge or under the forsythia bush. We built little stone houses for them, like the ones I used to make for the fairies. Once we got in trouble for almost catching a field on fire; we'd built a village, and, in the interest of verisimilitude, we lit little fires in the houses.
Obviously books played an important part in my life. I didn't just read them, I lived them. I became the hero or the heroine. I read with an absorption that deafened me to the real world and its demands. I read in the bathtub, I read under the covers with a flashlight, I read in school when I was supposed to be learning geography and often had my book taken away by angry teachers. When asked to set the table, bathe, or go to bed, my most frequent response was "Wait till I finish this page."
Second in importance to books were the radio shows I listened to faithfully. Every weekday afternoon beginning at five thirty, I sprawled in front of our big Philco to follow the adventures of Jack Armstrong, Sky King, Terry and the Pirates, and Captain Midnight. Like every other child in the 1940s, I saved box tops, hoping to be the first kid on my block to own a Sky King Glow-in-the-Dark Ring or a Captain Midnight Decoder Badge. Three nights a week, the Lone Ranger and Tonto galloped into our living room, their arrival signaled by the thrilling chords of the William Tell Overture and the announcer crying, "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty hi-ho Silver!"
On Sunday afternoons, I left the house to avoid hearing Lamont Cranston's eerie laughter on The Shadow, and on weekday evenings, I trembled at the sound of the squeaking door opening to Inner Sanctum. On the lighter side, I laughed at the Aldrich Family, the Great Gildersleeve, Baby Snooks, and Charlie McCarthy. When I was sick I listened to the long string of afternoon soap operas broadcast every weekday afternoon, and on Saturday mornings I tuned in to my very favorite show, Let's Pretend. After singing the Cream of Wheat song, Uncle Bill asked the Pretenders how they wanted to travel to the Land of Pretend. By flying carpet? By train, by plane, on the back of a bird? With appropriate sound effects, off they would go, taking me with them, a willing passenger.
Probably as a result of reading books and listening to radio shows, I began telling myself long stories while I drew pictures to illustrate them. When I look at my old drawing tablets now, I can't make much sense out of them beyond their carelessly printed titles: "The Story of an Orhanage (sic) Belived (sic) to be Haunted," "The Story of a Poor Boy," "The Story of Two Orphan Brothers," and so on.
Many of them, particularly the one about the orphan brothers, are derivative. Like most children, I didn't think of my own ordinary, everyday life as a source for books, so I imitated the authors I loved, rewriting their stories and drawing the pictures I saw in my head.
In seventh grade, I began my first diary, an illustrated account of my daily life, starting with a list of important facts about myself, such as my height and best friends and favorite color. At the bottom of the page, I wrote: "What I want to be when I grow up—a writer and illustrator."
Perhaps to prove I was serious, I bought a gray composition book and started "Small Town Life." My heroine was a twelve-year-old girl named Susan. In the illustrations, Susan is tall, skinny, freckled, and usually wearing a baseball cap, tee shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. She bears a striking resemblance to myself. In its adherence to suburban life as I knew it, the sixty-three-page story reveals that I had abandoned my interest in orphan boys and turned to my own existence as a source of inspiration.
Unfortunately, the fictional Susan is much happier than her creator was. At twelve, I was miserably self-conscious. It wasn't just my long, skinny legs and arms that worried me. I felt uncomfortable around my friends, who were all growing up faster than I was. I didn't share their interest in boys or movie stars or makeup, and they didn't want to ride bikes or climb trees or go to the creek. I thought something must be wrong with me. I was different. Strange. Not like everybody else.
Well, that was all right, I told myself. Who wanted to be like everyone else anyway? Instead of conforming, I reveled in being different. At home, I wore baseball caps and boy's high-top basketball shoes, and at school I turned my nose up at girls who used lipstick. They might want to grow up, but I didn't. Like Peter Pan, I planned to stay a kid forever. Anyone with two eyes could see that adults led incredibly boring lives. Going to work, shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids—why was anyone eager to do that?
Eighth grade was even worse than seventh. I grew taller and taller, reaching my present height (five feet, ten inches) by the time I was fourteen. I was down to one friend, Mary S. of the famous Russian garage raid, the only other girl who wasn't trying to be a bobby-soxer. Together we roamed the streets of College Park, feeling like outsiders and looking more like boys than girls.
That spring I joined the chorus of our junior high's production of The Pirates of Penzance, not as one of "the sisters and the cousins whom they reckoned up by dozens and the aunts," but as a pirate. Even though I was still trying to be one of the boys, belonging to a group changed me. I lived and breathed Gilbert and Sullivan during the months we rehearsed, and I fell in love with Clarence, the male lead (who, of course, never noticed me). Up on the stage, wearing a red bandana and stamping around in boots, I wasn't the least self-conscious.
It was after the operetta ended that I made a conscious decision, one that probably affected the rest of my life. Giving up my earlier ambition to be a rebel, I decided to conform. Insecure and lonely, I vowed to hide everything about me that was weird or strange or different. Like the smiling girls in the pages of Seventeen magazine, I was going to be just like everybody else. A normal person.
One of the first things the new Mary did was end her friendship with Mary S. and make up with Ann, Barbara, and Natalie. Imitating them, I rolled up the legs of my jeans, wore thick white socks and saddle shoes, begged my father for his old shirts, bought lipstick, fell in love with movie stars, and swooned over Johnnie Ray, Eddie Fisher, Julius LaRosa, and Tony Bennett.
By the time I entered the tenth grade at Northwestern High School, my disguise was complete. I was a teenager, fifties style. Hidden was my sad, maladjusted adolescent self. I laughed and acted silly, dressed like everyone else, and yearned for a boyfriend. When I saw Mary S. slouch past, alone and left out, all I felt was relief that I wasn't with her.
My high-school years slid past in a blur, undistinguished academically or socially. Except for A's in art and B's in English, my grades were mediocre, dropping down to a few D's in unimportant subjects like Latin, chemistry, and geometry. I still daydreamed, especially in classes which bored me, and I covered my notebook pages with doodles and boys' names. Being in love was a permanent state, and I wasted time hanging around lockers and stairwells and drinking fountains, just to get glimpses of certain boys.
Unfortunately, no matter how many boys I fell in love with, not one of them reciprocated. I was tall and clumsy, and I thought I was ugly. I didn't dance well, I laughed too loud and too often, I said stupid things, I never quite understood what was going on, and I was often unhappy. Down deep inside, I worried about myself. Was I normal? Did my friends really like me? Why did they tease me so much? Was I on the verge of a nervous breakdown? I recorded all of these agonizing questions in the tear-stained pages of my diary, the surest way to remember exactly how you felt at a particular time of your life. Despite my self-doubts, I ran around with a gang of seven or eight girls. Ann, of course, was one of them, but the leader was undoubtedly Jimmy Harris Jones, a newcomer to College Park. She appeared the year we started high school. Wearing a straight skirt and thick white socks, swinging a purse by a long strap, chewing gum, she sauntered into our lives from a farm near the Chesapeake Bay. Her face was long and pointed, she brushed her short blonde hair straight up, and she spoke with a Tennessee accent. A hillbilly, my father called her, taking an instant dislike to her. Ann's parents shared his opinion and so did just about everyone else's. Of course that sort of disapproval just made Jimmy all the more fascinating. Where she went, we followed.
We hung out in People's Drugstore reading movie magazines and drinking Cherry Cokes, arguing about which star was cutest—Marlon Brando or James Dean, Rock Hudson or Tab Hunter. After the manager asked us to leave, we'd trudge a little farther down Route One to the record store, where the discussions would continue: Bill Haley or the Crew-cuts, Fats Domino or Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins or Elvis Presley, Dean Martin or Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney or Patti Page, Little Richard or Shirley and Lee. In those days, you could listen to records in little booths before you spent your hard-earned baby-sitting money on them. Taking advantage of the owner's patience, we spent hours there, enjoying the air-conditioning and the current top ten hits.
Jimmy introduced us to a number of things, particularly the thrill of going to Breezy Point Beach, a small resort on the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to playing slot machines, swimming in brackish salt water, burning ourselves tan, and ducking the stinging embrace of jellyfish, we discovered sailors and soldiers. I fell passionately in love with one of them, agonized over him for two years, but never managed to make any romantic progress. He insisted on treating me like his kid sister, something my parents had trouble believing when they found out about him.
Like my childhood, I remember my teens vividly, especially the agony of trying to fit in. A typical suburban high school, Northwestern had an elaborate social structure. At the top were the athletes and cheerleaders. Just below them were the Honor Society members. On the third and most difficult to define level was a variety of cliques, not true insiders but not outsiders either. Among them were the downs, the artists, the actors and actresses, the singers and dancers, the entertainers—kids who were fun to have around.
The third level was our place. Wearing identical red jackets, the College Park Gang stuck together. We decorated for dances, participated in play productions, painted posters for school events, attended football and basketball games, hung out at the Hot Shoppe, and joined clubs. Sometimes we skipped school and went to the beach or took the bus into Washington. Our grades weren't great, but most of our teachers liked us. For one reason or another, people knew who we were. The powerful ones tolerated us because we didn't threaten them. We were neither jocks nor brains—but we were funny. We didn't care whether the big wheels liked us or not. We had each other, and that was enough.
I spent my first summer away from home in 1956, right after I graduated from high school. Considering how strict my parents were, it amazes me that they allowed an eighteen year old to accept a job as a waitress in the Rideau Hotel in Ocean City. Maybe they couldn't face another summer of rock-and-roll music blasting from my bedroom, trips to Breezy Point Beach with Jimmy Jones, quarrels, tears, and slamming doors. My high-school years hadn't been easy for me or anyone else. After seeing Rebel without a Cause, I wrote in my diary that Natalie Wood's father was just like mine: he didn't understand me, we weren't close, he criticized me endlessly, and he was almost always angry at me. My mother and I didn't see eye to eye on much either, and I was glad to get away from Guilford Road for a while.
In Ocean City, I made friends with the other waitresses, all college girls, and found my first real boyfriend, a piano-playing fraternity boy named Jack. It was a great summer. Lots of sunshine, the ocean to swim in every day, the boardwalk to explore every night, and, best of all, no parents to lay down rules. The job itself was awful, the food worse, but for a summer at the ocean I was willing to tote trays.
I returned tan and happy and started my freshman year at the University of Maryland, a mile's walk from home and rather like grade thirteen. An amazing thing happened to me in college. I discovered I had a brain after all. I majored in studio art and minored in English, and, after completing the required torture of twelve credits of math and science, I spent my time doing what I loved best: reading, writing, drawing, and painting. I won a few prizes in the art department and published a couple of stories in the campus literary magazine. Hoping I was becoming a sophisticated intellectual at last, I started writing a novel about a tall, sensitive, misunderstood college girl. Although I never got past chapter three, I imagined myself becoming the J. D. Salinger of my generation and fantasized about publishing my stories in the New Yorker. In my senior year, my old friend Ann introduced me to Bill Hahn, and I fell in love. By the time I graduated in 1960, we were semi-engaged—no ring, no date set, but definitely thinking about spending the rest of our lives together.
That fall, I took a job as an art teacher at Greenbelt Junior High School, not a good career choice. I didn't like the petty routines, and I hated being an authority figure. I wanted to be one of the kids, and, in fact, was often mistaken for one of them. I looked so young a cafeteria worker asked me on my first day if I was a student or a teacher; if I'd said "student," my lunch would have been cheaper.
At the end of my year at Greenbelt, I told the principal I wasn't coming back. In the fall, I planned to begin graduate school in the University of Maryland English department. I'd had my fill of public school teaching.
That June, 1961, I went to Europe with three girlfriends. Violet Kelk, an old family friend who worked as a tour guide for Thomas Cook, helped plan our trip, and we spent almost three months traveling around Europe in a rented Volkswagen Beetle, relying on Arthur Frommer's Europe on Five Dollars a Day to find places to stay. It was probably the best summer of my life, the fulfillment of years of daydreaming about Rome and Pompeii and Paris and London. Everything I saw delighted me. Nothing disappointed me.
On October 7, 1961, I married Bill and started graduate school, hoping to earn a master's degree in English. After two years, Bill decided he wanted to go to law school, and, having done everything but write my thesis, I dropped out of graduate school to support us. All I found were several low-paying jobs; I worked for a couple months at the telephone company, another couple months at Hutzler's Department Store in Baltimore and then for a year at the Navy Federal Credit Union as a correspondence clerk. In 1965 I left the credit union to have my first baby. Katherine Sherwood Hahn was born on 18 August 1965. She was such delight I could hardly wait to have another one; thus Margaret Elizabeth Hahn was born on 11 May 1967.
Almost from the day they were born, I read to Kate and Beth. Through the picture books I borrowed from the library, I rediscovered my love of writing and drawing. While my daughters took their afternoon naps, I wrote and illustrated a number of picture books. Although Kate and Beth loved them, I wasn't able to find a publisher who shared the enthusiasm. Each time a book was rejected, I stuck it in a folder and started again. If one company didn't like a manuscript, what was the sense of sending it to anyone else?
During this time, we were living in a small brick house on Harvard Road in College Park, only a few blocks from my mother's house. While I wrote little books and played with Kate and Beth, the sixties ended and the seventies began. For a variety of reasons, all of them sad and depressing, my marriage began to fall apart, and, looking for a way to support myself, I enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland as a graduate assistant in the English department. At the age of thirty-four, I moved into university housing, just across Route One from College Park, and my daughters and I began life is a single-parent family. It was January 1971, and the campus was chaotic. The war raged in Vietnam, the National Guard occupied the university every spring, all my friends' marriages were falling apart, and so was America. It was a hard time to find yourself responsible for two children.
Putting aside my picture books, I taught world literature, wrote seminar papers on John Milton, dreamed of illustrating Coleridge's poem "Christobel" for my dissertation, and read to Kate and Beth. In the summers, we drove to Vermont in my old Ford Falcon to visit my friend Ann and her family at Lake Bomoseen and then ventured farther north to New Hampshire and Maine, camping at Bar Harbor and other places. Each time we drove to New England, I looked for jobs at small colleges and public schools, but in the mid-seventies teaching positions were scarce.
Near the end of my four years in the Ph.D. program, John Robbins took me on as a freelance illustrator for his program Cover to Cover, a children's reading series airing on PBS television. Among my favorite projects were Joan Aiken's Wolves of Willowby Chase, Philippa Pearce's Squirrel Wife, Patricia Wrightson's The Nargun and the Stars, and Nina Bawden's Carrie's War.
John's television show broadened my knowledge of children's literature and helped me find a job in the Prince George's County Memorial Library System as a children's associate, a position which does not require a master of library science degree but demands a special knowledge of books. I was hired in 1975. At the time, I thought the job was temporary; in my spare time, I'd write my dissertation and find a college teaching position in New England.
However, that isn't the way it happened. As part of my orientation, I took a workshop from Helen Shelton, who was then the children's book selection officer for the library system. Helen's enthusiasm for juvenile literature was contagious, and her knowledge was impressive. After reading and discussing quantities of books, I began to write in my spare time—not a dissertation but a novel.
Although I thought a novel would take little time and effort, I spent almost a year working on the first version of what eventually became The Sara Summer. In 1976, I began sending the manuscript to publishing companies. Thanks to the how-to books in the library, I knew more about the process than I did in my easily discouraged picture-book stage. When the first editor sent my manuscript back, I stuck it in another envelope and mailed it to the next name on my list. Four times I sent Sara out, and four times she came back, accompanied by various rejections. Some were the dreaded "form letters," which begin "Dear Writer" and, after making mysterious references to the "needs" of their "present list," end with best wishes for placing your manuscript "elsewhere." Others were more personal, but no one offered to publish my book. Finally I mailed Sara to the fifth company, Clarion Books. After being passed from one reader to the next, the manuscript landed on James Giblin's desk. Jim read it and saw enough possibilities to mail it back with a letter telling me he was enclosing his staff's comments as well as his own. If I were willing to rewrite my novel, he would be willing to reread it.
Although the pages of criticism were daunting, I found myself agreeing with most of the comments and suggestions. My manuscript was indeed too episodic, and many of my "best" scenes added nothing to the story's continuity. Sitting down in front of my old government-surplus typewriter, I began the lengthy process of revising. Every time I mailed the manuscript to Jim, sure I'd improved it, he sent it back with more suggestions. It was like taking a correspondence course in novel writing.
Twelve years later, neither one of us now remembers how many times Sara traveled back and forth from Maryland to New York, but in the fall of 1978 Jim invited me to lunch to discuss the manuscript's progress. After a year of corresponding, I was eager to meet the mysterious editor who had so patiently read and reread my novel. Filled with anticipation and dread, I boarded the train in Baltimore. For years I'd fantasized about having lunch with an editor in New York, and now that it was about to become a reality all I could think of was disaster. Suppose I knocked over a glass of water? Slurped my soup? Spilled something down the front of my dress? Said something incredibly stupid? Called him Mr. Giblet again as I'd once done on the telephone? Unfortunately, I was all too capable of doing any or all of those things, maybe even simultaneously.
By the time I reached the Clarion offices, having survived my first New York taxi ride, I was so nervous I could hardly tell the receptionist my name. Suppose I'd come on the wrong day? Suppose I'd misunderstood the time and I was late?
Fortunately, Jim put me at my ease right away. After getting through lunch without committing any blunders, I boarded the train for Baltimore with my manuscript tucked under my arm. One more rewrite, and Jim would offer me a contract. Of all the exciting things that have happened to me since I became a published writer, that day in New York remains a highlight.
I've worked with Jim ever since he and I suffered through The Sara Summer together. I consider him a friend as well as an editor, and I'll always be grateful to him for seeing some potential in my manuscript and working so patiently with me, an unknown writer. I hear many people complain about their editors. Listening to them makes me feel very fortunate. I knew nothing about Jim when I mailed him The Sara Summer; after four rejections, I chose Clarion from my list of children's publishers because I liked its name. It was indeed a lucky choice.
Not long after my second book was published, I married Norman Pearce Jacob. Considering Kate and Beth's stormy progress through adolescence, Norm took a brave step the day he said "I do." Although he was divorced, he had no children. Before he met me at a library retirement party, he lived a quiet life as the branch manager of the Hyattsville Public Library. In the evenings, he read and listened to recordings of the Gregorian chant. All too soon he was immersed in our chaotic household. While the phone rang constantly in the background, Kate and Beth waged clothing battles up and down the stairs and hallways of our Columbia town house and tried to drown out each other's rock music by turning up their radios. Norm gallantly took phone messages for the girls, helped with car pools, and gave them personal tape players to silence the roar of punk versus new wave.
Like me, he worried when they stayed out past curfew. Every now and then, he baked them special "super" cakes and then shuddered when they ate big gooey slices for breakfast. Looking at the artistic disarray of their bathroom and bedrooms, he once confessed he was learning more than he wanted to know about the domestic habits of teenage females.
Now both girls are away from home, and the house is very quiet. Kate attends the Art Institute in Chicago, and Beth is a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia. They are both serious about their studies. As Kate once said, "If you wanted us to be engineers or lawyers, you shouldn't have given us all those art supplies. You encouraged us to be creative, and now we are."
And so they are. And I'm very proud of both of them. First my mother wanted to go to art school, then I wanted to go, and now, finally, Kate and Beth are actually there.
In this account of my life, I've revealed many of the sources of my books. My parents' history of loss and abandonment, my feelings about my senile grandmother, our family's brief homelessness, my loneliness, self-doubts, and insecurity, my years as a single parent, my father's emotional distance—all of these elements appear in my novels and give them a sadness readers often notice and sometimes ask about.
I can't keep my life out of my books. I might change events, make them sadder, scarier, more exciting, but emotionally my books are as honest as I can make them; no matter how many supernatural turns my plot takes, I put my own feelings into every story I write. Flannery O'Connor once said that anyone who survives childhood has enough material to last the rest of his or her life. She was right about that. Never in adulthood are you so frightened, so angry, so eager for revenge, so vulnerable, so happy, so sad as you are when you're a child.
Although my books have been fairly successful, I still have trouble thinking of myself as a writer. When people ask me what I do, I usually tell them I'm a children's librarian. Saying I'm a writer sounds pretentious, even precarious or risky. To me, each book I complete is a gift. When I finish one, I worry I won't be able to write another. I keep my job at the library because it's my lifeline, my safety, my sure thing. What if a time comes when I can't face my word processor? What if someone asks the inevitable question "Are you still writing?" and I have to shake my head and admit it was merely a silly phase I went through once, an aberration, a whimsy, nothing to take seriously.
When I type "Chapter One," I'm excited by the story's possibilities but not sure I truly have a whole book's worth of ideas. My uncertainty arises from my inability to think ahead. How do I know what I'm going to write until I write it? Typically I begin a novel by imagining characters in a certain situation and then work out the plot as I go along, waiting for that magic moment when the narrator comes to life and begins to tell me the story. At that point, I'm in her place, experiencing everything that happens to her. One event leads to another, but not always in a logical order. To me, writing is like entering a forest and wandering off the path. I get lost in swamps, mired in quicksand, come to rivers too deep to cross, tumble into ravines, snag myself on brambles. In other words, I write and rewrite, reorganize, cut, add, and fight my way out of the forest. If I'm lucky, I find the path again, wide and smooth, leading to a big sign that says "The End."
Once I have a beginning, a middle (the hardest part), and an end, I know I have a book. After revising the manuscript at least three or four times, I mail it to Jim and wait anxiously to hear his opinion. He usually asks for two and sometimes three rewrites, but they are never on the scale of The Sara Summer revisions. He's very good at picking up inconsistencies and pointing out scenes where the action should be expanded or contracted. "What is Ashley thinking?" he may ask. "I need to know more about Molly's feelings at this point; is she afraid? angry? maybe a little of both?"
When I visit schools, I bring the seven manuscripts that went into the creation of The Doll in the Garden, my ninth book. Holding up the pile of folders, I remind the class that the stack they see doesn't include all the changes I made on the computer before I printed each version. Although teachers love my "show-and-tell" display, I'm not sure how the kids feel. When I was eleven years old and preparing geography reports, when I was twenty-one or-two and writing short stories, even when I was in my thirties and working on seminar papers, I didn't take kindly to suggestions for revisions. Perhaps when I was younger, I was more arrogant, or maybe I was just plain lazy.
At my present age of fifty-two, I truly believe that revising is the most important step in writing a book. However, I admit that my word processor takes a lot of the tedium out of the process. Without my magical writing machine perhaps I would dread going over a manuscript six or seven times, but with the help of my insert and delete keys I don't mind it at all. Now, while I have more ideas than time, I'm working hard to write as many books as I can. Frustrating as it is to have a novel fizzle out after the third or fourth chapter, difficult as it is to rewrite the same scene dozens of times, painful as it is to see a reviewer pounce on the finished product, teeth bared, I truly love making words into stories.
Mary Downing Hahn contributed the following update to SATA in 2005:
When I was about ten, I realized for the first time that I'd be sixty-three in the year 2000. I'd be old. Really old. Ancient. I pictured myself hobbling around with a cane, moaning and groaning and complaining about my endless aches and pains.
No, wait—my birthday was in December. I'd be sixty-two on the first of January, 2000. Subtracting that year didn't console me. Sixty two, sixty three—what was the difference? I'd still be watching the miracles of the new millennium from a wheelchair.
Why, I might even be dead!
Then and there, I went into a small depression, thinking of the fun I'd miss. It wasn't fair. But who was to blame? If I'd been the last born in my family instead of the first, I would have been nine years younger. Fifty-three instead of sixty-two—still too old. Way too old. My little sister and brother would be ancient, too.
As for my poor parents—my mathematical skills simply weren't sufficient to figure out how old they be in 2000. Nor did I want to think about it.
Well, as we all know, years fly past like calendar pages in old movies. As 2000 neared, some people bought gallons of water, dozens of candles, enough canned soup to fill a swimming pool, and hid in underground shelters fearing I'm not sure what—massive computer crashes, the end of the world, floods, fires, plagues. Not me. My only fear was dying in a tragic accident before 1 January 2000.
The new millennium began on schedule. Just as I'd anticipated, I was sixty-two. My hair was gray and I had more wrinkles than freckles, but I did not need a cane. I had no aches and pains. I still rode a bike and took long walks in the woods. Wouldn't that surprise the kid I used to be?
Actually the kid I used to be would be even more surprised by my becoming a writer.
When I was ten, I intended to be an artist when I grew up. Art was my best subject, my favorite subject. Although I loved to read almost as much as I loved to draw, I had no interest in writing—which in my experience meant long, hand-cramping, boring reports complete with deadly outlines and other tedious requirements such as neatness and perfect spelling and good penmanship and following directions. I wrote them, of course, but I didn't enjoy them. Nor did I receive A's—except for the cover; I was a B, sometimes a C, writing student. My teachers praised my artistic talent, but they never had much to say about my writing—unless you count negative comments such as "Please Follow Directions," "Poor Outline," "Sloppy handwriting," "Careless spelling," etc., etc.
Probably because I spent so much time reading, I began making up stories of my own. Instead of words, I used pictures to tell my stories. Drawing was easier than writing (it never made my hand or wrist hurt the way writing did) and it was much more fun.
I have a couple of yellowing drawing tablets full of mostly unfinished picture stories. My favorite was inspired by my father. Although he was born in New Zealand, he returned to England with his family when he was about seven years old. The Downings stayed there until 1915. Fearing England was doomed to be defeated by Germany, Grandfather decided to immigrate to America. With six sons and one daughter, ranging in age from thirteen to two, my grandparents boarded the Lusitania for what would be her penultimate voyage. On her way back to England, the ship was torpedoed by the Germans, setting this country on its journey to World War I.
I never tired of hearing Dad's story of his voyage to America. It was the Downing family's watermark, a journey from wealth to poverty, an unfortunate reversal of the poor immigrant makes good saga. My grandfather came from a wealthy London family. He left England with a comfortable sum and set himself up in Maryland as a farmer, a vocation he'd pursued in New Zealand and England. Unfortunately Grandfather made a series of agricultural blunders and lost all his money. While he sat on the porch of a dilapidated farm house in Beltsville, reading and talking to fellow English exiles, the older boys, including my father, dropped out of school after completing the eighth grade and went to work to support the family.
My father retained his love of England and his citizenship, filling out his green card every November, keeping his accent, and speaking fondly of England, his lost Eden. His motto was "Once an Englishman, Always an Englishman." He knew by heart Gilbert & Sullivan's song from H.M.S. Pinafore, "He is an Englishman." He took delight in confusing Americans by ordering spuds instead of potatoes, taking the lift instead of the elevator, filling his car with petrol instead of gas, asking for someone to check under the bonnet instead of the hood, and so on. He never failed to mention that the song we knew as "My Country 'Tis of Thee," was a blatant theft of "God Save the Queen."
Under Dad's influence, I became an ardent Anglophile—and I have a picture story to prove it. The first drawing shows a father reading a letter while his eager children look over his shoulder. Although I wrote nothing down, I can tell you exactly what that letter said:
Dear Mr. Downing,
We are delighted to inform you that you are the sole inheritor of Misty Cliffs Castle in England. Please come to England at once to claim your inheritance.
[Signed by whoever would send such a letter]
You can't imagine how often I imagined that letter dropping into our mailbox at 4811 Guilford Road. We'd pack up at once and leave boring College Park forever and live in a castle in England where magic abounded and fairy folk haunted the woods and green hills.
I wasn't sure Mother would go along with this idea. Perhaps that's why the children in my story have no mother.
A series of pictures shows the family traveling by train and ship and finally arriving at a railway station in the English countryside. They are surrounded by suitcases and trunks labeled "Misty Cliffs," waiting for someone to pick them up and take them to their new home.
The next picture was my masterpiece—Misty Cliffs itself, a small castle drawn with great care. Although the pencil sketch is somewhat faded, the castle is clearly on the edge of a cliff. One small island breaks the surface of the sea. Oddly, a suburban style garage and a wishing well stand beside the castle. Write what you know, draw what you know.
I was very proud of that castle. Buildings challenged my artistic ability. Walls tended to lean, windows and doors were ill proportioned, and I had a poor grasp of perspective. I much preferred drawing people, especially children. My men resembled tall, gangling boys with precocious mustaches, and my women stumbled about on oddly shaped high-heeled shoes. I won't attempt to describe my cars and trains—or even my horses, save to say they were much worse than my dogs and cats.
Even though my story was inspired by my father's wish to return to England, it shows the influence of one of my favorite books. Two English children live in the castle, the son and daughter of the caretaker. The boy wears a patterned sweater, knee-length knickers, and argyle socks, my idea of English fashion. On his shoulder is a pet mouse. Remembering how much I loved The Secret Garden, I cannot help thinking of him as Dickon, the friend of mice, squirrels, birds, rabbits, and foxes.
In the next picture, Dickon and the American boy sit facing each other on a couch. A mouse perches on Dickon's shoulder; he offers another to his new friend. Hanging on the wall behind the boys is a framed motto: "Once an Englishman," it says, "always an Englishman."
Two or three more pictures suggest the island off the coast is a dangerous, mysterious place. Alas, the story ends with Dickon lying on his stomach, mouse on his shoulder, gazing at the island through binoculars.
Every time I look at this story, I'm tempted to finish it, not in pictures but in words. And that would surprise my ten-year-old self as much as my bicycle.
So how on earth did I become a writer instead of an artist?
I suppose the change from pictures to words began when I was about thirteen. Up till then, my stories had been adventures, the easiest sort of narrative to tell in pictures. In an adventure story, characters DO things—run, jump, swim, meet and fight enemies, find buried treasures, and so on. Think of a comic strip like "Spiderman." Even if the text were written in Japanese, you could follow the plot by looking at what Spiderman and his cohorts are doing.
But suppose the story teller wants to show what his characters are thinking and feeling? Suppose action is second place, peripheral even. Think of another comic strip: Snoopy lies motionless on the roof of his dog house. Words in balloons float over his head. What if those words were written in Japanese? You wouldn't have the slightest idea what was going on. In "Peanuts," it's the words that matter.
When expressing thoughts, feelings, and dialogue became more important to me than action, I realized I had a problem. I'd never thought of myself as a writer and neither had anyone else. I was artistic and I read well above grade level, but math continued to plague me. Frankly, I thought I was too stupid to write a book. I couldn't even outline a report until after I'd written it, proof I was backward. So how could I possibly become a writer?
Then the solution came to me. I could write children's books—and illustrate them myself like Robert McCloskey, whose "Homer Price" stories were among my favorites.
Surely children's books were easier to write than adults' books; they were shorter, for one thing. And they had plenty of pictures. In addition to Homer Price, Eleanor Estes' Moffat family books were illustrated, and so were Elizabeth Enright's Melendy family books. In fact, when I was a kid, books written for nine-to twelve-year-olds were almost always illustrated, usually in black and white.
I began writing in secret, afraid to tell anyone what I was doing—not my teachers, not my friends, not even my mother—for fear they'd laugh at me.
At the same time, I began a diary. On the first page I wrote a typical kids' list of facts about myself:
Name—Mary Elizabeth Downing
Friend that moved away—Natalie Burdette
Friends—Mary and Sally Slayton, Ann Sines, Debby Hughes, Barbara Rogers
Favorite Subjects—Art, Phys. Ed, Core and Math
Favorite Teacher—Mrs. Shank (Math)
Favorite outdoor Hobbies—Hiking, Hide and Go Seek, Tag, Bike Riding
Favorite Indoor Hobbies—Drawing, Writing, Reading, Listening to the Radio
Pets—Binky, a cocker spaniel. Pete, a cat, ran away
Favorite Clothes—jeans, plaid shirts, sneakers
What I want to be when I grow up—A writer and illustrator
It's surprising to see math and physical education among my favorite subjects. Math can be explained by Mrs. Shank, my favorite teacher, the only one who made numbers understandable. But Phys. Ed? Usually it was even more humiliating than math. Eighth grade must have been a better year than most.
Although I haven't played hide and seek or tag for a while, I still hike and bike, and my indoor hobbies are much the same as they were when I was almost fourteen. My lovely dog Binky died over forty years ago, and Pete the cat never came back, but I share my home now with Oscar and Rufus, the best cats I've ever known. My favorite clothes are still jeans and sneakers—or running shoes as we now call them—but I wear T-shirts and sweatshirts more often than plaid shirts. My friend Natalie moved back to College Park, but she died when she was only twenty-seven years old; I still miss her. My friend Ann moved to Vermont forty years ago; I don't see her as often as I did when she lived next door, but we still consider each other our best and oldest friend. I've lost track of the other girls but hope they're all happily going on with their journeys.
And of course I did become a writer of children's books—but not an illustrator.
Things change, things remain the same.
Susan is the heroine of Small Town Life, my first book. She lives in a town much like College Park. The illustrations suggest she likes jeans and plaid shirts and sneakers—and sometimes sports a baseball cap. Her dark hair is jaw length and cut in bangs. She has freckles. She belongs to Girl Scouts and goes on a camping trip. She rescues a stray dog and brings it home. She hates chores. She quarrels with her younger siblings. In other words, she's just like I was.
No, not really. If you read Small Town Life side by side with my eighth grade diary, you'd see many differences. Susan is the girl I wanted to be, not the girl I was. In real life, I was a tall, shy, skinny, miserably self-conscious girl. I was what is politely called a late bloomer, meaning I was far less mature than most kids my age. I wanted life to stay the same: tree houses, bicycles, hide and seek. Not lipstick, home permanents, nylon stockings. What was so great about growing up? As far as I could see, kids had all the fun. Who wanted to vacuum, dust, wash dishes, do laundry, and fix meals? Growing up was absolutely boring. And it lasted a long time.
For inexplicable reasons, my friends couldn't wait to leave childhood behind. Their new attitude annoyed me. My stubborn immaturity annoyed them. I began to feel left out, even weird. I worried that something was wrong with me.
But Susan has no such problems. She's a leader—her friends do what she wants to do. She isn't weird. She isn't shy. Best of all, in my illustrations, she isn't any taller than anyone else.
In short, Susan is everything I wanted to be—my ideal self. In Small Town Life, I was retelling the story of my own life as it should have been—if only the world were fair.
That's why I write fiction. Reality isn't always to my liking. Why write a book about Abraham Lincoln? Everyone already knows the ending. He DIES. You can't change that.
It's much more fun to take a few details from here and there—things that happened to me, things that happened to my kids or my friends, things someone told me about—and mix them with lots of what ifs and supposes until they take on a life and a reality of their own, and you find yourself thinking, "Did I make that up or did it really happen?"
In other words, fiction writers can spend most of their adult lives daydreaming on paper—just so their imaginings are real enough for people to believe them.
I never finished Small Town Life. At the top of page 63, I wrote "Chapter Twelve, the Family Picnic." Under that is this sentence:
"Mom, can we go on a picnic?" Susan asked.
That's it. The rest of the composition book is blank.
What stopped me? Did I run out of ideas? Did I decide writing was too hard and I'd rather be an artist? Or did I simply get tired of Susan and her tomboyish ways?
I suspect all three had something to do with poor Susan's abandonment.
In the spring of eighth grade, my real life improved dramatically. Encouraged by my friend Anne, I joined the chorus of our school's production of The Pirates of Penzance, not as a sister or a cousin or an aunt like Anne, but as a pirate. Frankly I don't think I sang much better than I solved math problems or hit balls with bats, but Mrs. Hargraves was desperate for pirates and couldn't recruit enough boys. I took a deep breath and cast my lot with the pirates. Being part of a cast which included ninth graders, the elite of junior high, changed my outlook on everything, including becoming a teenager.
Thursday, May 15. 1952
We have been rehearsing for Mrs. Hargraves' Glee Club's operetta, The Pirates of Penzance. I am one of the pirate girls in it. I love it very much. It's about the biggest thing in my life now. Mrs. Hargraves really has some workers in it. Clarence especially. Without him, it would be a flop. He's wonderful! He knows everybody's part, he has the main role of Frederick, the Pirate's Apprentice, and he directs all the songs. I like him a lot. I wish I was in the ninth grade like him. He's a real nice boy. He has brown hair, big brown eyes, and a nice looking face. He has a good voice. He's going to get the medal for the best music pupil at the end of the year. I like him practically as much as Jerry now. Larry is very good as the Pirate King, Eddie is simply wonderful as Major General, you wouldn't think he was only in the ninth grade to hear him sing. Betty is really good as Mabel, the leading feminine role. Kay is all right as Mabel on the next night. But gosh, when she and Clarence sing a duet she drowns him out she's such a show-off and poor Clarence can't stand her. He likes Betty and I don't blame him.
By ninth grade, I was wearing lipstick and nylon stockings and hanging out in the record shop with Ann, Barbara, and Natalie, swooning over singers like Tony Bennett and Eddie Fisher and Johnny Ray (whose big hit was "The Little White Cloud That Cried"). I was embarrassed to remember the gawky, immature, bike riding dope I'd been in eighth grade. I wanted nothing more than to erase that weird girl from everyone's memory, including my own. Obviously, Susan was no longer my ideal self.
During my years at Northwestern High School, I wrote some bad love poetry which I showed to no one, and I kept a diary which I also showed to no one, but I shared my art with the whole school and soon became known as the class artist. I painted scenery for class plays, made posters for school activities, and worked on decorations for school dances. The theme of our senior prom was Undersea Fantasy; I dreamed up a pair of enormous fish made of chicken wire stuffed with tissue paper and spray painted silver. Like many things, my lopsided fish had looked much better on paper than they did in real life.
In my senior year, I won first prize for a fire prevention poster and entered the Scholastic Art Contest, receiving a gold key at the county level but failing to win anything at the regional level. My twelfth grade teacher gave me a B-minus on a short story but praised my art work; she even asked me to paint a watercolor of her family home in Virginia. Our beloved principal hung one of my seascapes in his office.
So at the end of my senior year when the Art Award was given, who do you think won it?
I was actually halfway out of my seat when my art teacher announced the winner. It was not my name he called. Humiliated and disappointed, I sank down in my chair while my friends murmured indignantly.
I hadn't known the winner had to belong to the Art Club. I'd never joined—because none of my friends had joined. And I didn't want to be in a club without them. So. . . .
But that was long ago—unless I think about it, and then it was yesterday and I am forever half way out of my seat to receive an award that went to someone else.
I entered the University of Maryland in the fall of 1956. The campus was a twenty-or thirty-minute walk from home. My parents had bought a house in College Park with that fact in mind. If the three Downing kids wanted to go to college, they'd save a ton of money on room and board. Most of my friends went to UMD for the same reason.
I majored in fine art and minored in English. To my surprise, I received B's in art and A's in English. My professors praised my writing instead of my drawing.
Pushing my self confidence to the limit, I enrolled in creative writing courses, wrote short stories and poetry, and was published twice in the campus literary magazine, Expressions. I remember the thrill of seeing my words in print for the first time, followed quickly by the breath-stopping realization that anyone who picked up the magazine could read my story. What if they hated it? What if it revealed something weird or stupid or unpleasant about me? I considered racing around campus, grabbing up every issue of Expressions and burning it. But there was just too much ground to cover. My story was out there and I'd have to live with it.
I don't think I'm alone in confessing I feel the same way about my books. Even when one is well received, I worry that the reviewer has made a mistake.
It's the bad reviews I remember. For example, School Library Journal had this to say about The Dead Man in Indian Creek: "With the abundance of good juvenile who-done-its available, this one is dead in the water." Although Dead Man received five Children's Choice Awards and has remained one of my most popular books, that review, like the art award I didn't receive, still hurts.
I graduated from the University of Maryland in 1960 with a B.A. in fine art and English. I taught art in a junior high school (the longest year of my life), spent a summer in Europe, got married, had two daughters, earned a master's degree in English, got divorced, went back to graduate school to pursue an elusive Ph.D., worked as a freelance artist for John Robbins' children's TV show Cover to Cover, and eventually ended up, sans Ph.D., as a children's associate librarian in the Prince George's County Memorial Library System.
If I'd taken the other job I was offered, proofreading for the IRS, I'm sure I would not be included in Something about the Author because I would have gone mad and never written any books.
Before going to work at the library, I'd been one of those mothers who show up in the Children's Room every week and carry home a stack of picture books. I spent many happy hours reading Arnold Lobel, Maurice Sendak, and a host of others to my daughters Kate and Beth. Remembering my childhood ambition, I tried writing and illustrating my own picture books. Although Kate and Beth loved my efforts and never tired of hearing them, I failed to find a publisher who shared their enthusiasm. Easily discouraged, I gave up.
By the time I traded the English Department for the library, Kate and Beth were in grade school and reading Judy Blume instead of Arnold Lobel. Of course I read what they read, plus dozens more. I especially admired Katherine Paterson, Louise Fitzhugh, Betsy Byars, Penelope Lively, Helen Cresswell, Ursula Le Guin, and many others.
However, some authors (whose names I've forgotten) fell far short of the forenamed. It came to me that I could write as well, if not better, than some of these unmemorable authors. If they could get a book published, maybe I could too.
Instead of picture books, I tackled novels for older kids. Like many things that look easy—bowling, for instance—writing a book turned out to be much harder than I expected. In between working full time and taking care of my daughters, I typed and retyped, cursing my teenage self for thinking a typing class was less fun than ice skating lessons.
It took me a year to finish the manuscript. In 1976, I consulted Writers' Market for possible publishers and began mailing my big brown envelope to some of the same companies who had rejected my picture books in the early seventies.
That big brown envelope came back again and again, like the cat in the old folk song. Sometimes I wondered what the mailman thought it was.
The fifth publisher on my list was Clarion Books for Young People, then owned by Seabury Press. The editor, James Cross Giblin, asked for seven revisions before he accepted The Sara Summer. I learned a great deal about writing and editors that year. Never again would I think writers got it right the first time. Or the second time or the third time or—?
Now I can look back on twenty-six years of writing and hope for many more to come. Jim Giblin has edited all my books and has written many award winning books of his own. I will always be thankful to him for seeing potential in The Sara Summer, as well as in every manuscript I've sent him. I consider Jim a dear friend, as well as an astute editor and mentor. Without him, I'd be nearing retirement from the library, still visiting schools and telling kids about other writers' books. Not a bad job—but not as much fun as the one I have now.
Like most writers, I've had my ups and downs, my disappointments and my successes, in life as well as writing. But I can't think of any other career I'd like better. Except maybe a fantasy I used to have of loading my daughters and my worldlies into a VW van and traveling around the country, home schooling Kate and Beth and entertaining audiences with story telling and puppet shows. Ah, for the life of a gypsy.
Actually, it's not too late, but I'd have to take my cats instead of my grown daughters.
Kate is a freelance writer in Los Angeles; among her published work is an account of her appearance on Hollywood Squares, recently published in the Los Angeles Times. Newsweek featured one of her humorous essays in "My Say," and Dissent ran an opinion piece. She also writes for several Internet sites, most notably Behind the Chair, a site for cosmetologists; Kate writes clever, informative articles about new beauty products. She's also a performer with a California stand-up comedy group. Beth lives in Manhattan. She teaches English and communication classes at Jersey City College. At one point, Beth was interested in becoming a children's book illustrator, but she now writes fiction for adults. She's had several short stories published. At the moment, she's looking for a home for her first novel, The Lives of Animals. I'm happy to say that both Kate and Beth are better writers than I am.
To sum it all up, I've never illustrated a published book, I've never learned to write an outline (which doesn't matter now—my editor doesn't require one). I still make up stories as I go along and am often surprised by the things my characters say and do. I still love to read (my current favorite book is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). I still write and rewrite, typing with two fingers as I always have. Sometimes I fail to finish a book, but I always keep the beginning in case I think of a good ending.
I'm pleased to say that this sometimes happens. Last fall, I finished a book I began about fifteen years ago. I kept returning to it, hoping to come up with a middle and an end (it had a great beginning). That book, Witch Trap will be published at long last in 2006.
At the present, my editor is reading my most recent manuscript, a ghost story called Nothing but Trouble. Like The Old Willis Place, the story centers around an unsolved mystery. I'm sure Jim will have a few suggestions.
While I wait to hear from Jim, I have two ongoing projects. "Sophie and the Graveyard Cats" is only a few pages long at the present, too new to talk about. Then there's "Closed for the Season," a sprawling mess of a manuscript, begun around the same time as Witch Trap. As Jim says, the characters are good, the setting is good, but the plot—well, it needs some work. Right now I'm not sure which one I'll finish first. Maybe I'll be inspired to write something else entirely.
Who knows? It could be "Small Town Life" or "The Strange Happenings at Misty Cliffs."