No questions asked;
No comments milked;
No statements revealed (until now).I am usually someone who loves to hear stories and elicits them from others.
There has been one notable exception: my twenty-year friendship with Miss Isabel Wilder, herself a novelist and the sister of a celebrated American author.
I promised myself when I met her after her brother's death in 1975 that I would NEVER initiate a conversation about her brother, nor would I seek more information if she initiated such a conversation in my presence.
I would listen.
Hence my recollections of Miss Wilder's comments about her famous brother are few,----and undeveloped----- as I kept my promise not to pry.
Years after she died a friend of hers told me I was a fool not to ask. "She lived to be asked about her brother. She enjoyed it" was the Wilder acquaintance's little sermon to me.
I had exactly the opposite opinion: I thought she had been "Thornton's sister" all her life and that I wanted to have an authentic friendship with her, not with Thornton's sister. I waited ten or twelve years before I told her of that promise to myself.
She was 85. and she was absolutely silent when I told her. (A rare occurrence since she had opinions on just about everything). I believe she was thinking it over---the ten years I mean ---to see if I had kept my promise or was just talking through my hat.
I never knew--since in tradition ---I didn't ask.
I felt the same way about her nephew when I was introduced to him around 1976: It must have been a terrible burden to be the only male heir to Thornton Wilder (of the five Wilder siblings, there were only two offspring, those of the oldest brother, Amos: Tappan A. Wilder (Tappy) and his sister.
Tappy would inherit Miss Wilder's role as literary executor on her death in 1995 and has since created (LINK) The Thornton Wilder Society . Some would say he embraced the burden.
Here are a few comments I did not pursue. I am glad I didn't --- and history's demand be damned.
- "Thornton drank himself to death" [ I'd have guessed it more likely he "smoked" himself to death from Gilbert Harrison's biography.]
- "He never would have died if he knew the mess he was leaving me in [as his literary executor]."
- "He told me to sell the house [50 Deepwood Drive in Hamden, 'the house The Bridge built' as Thornton dubbed it after using royalties from The Bridge of San Luis Rey to pay for its construction] and get an apartment in the Crown Towers. I said, 'What about you?'. He said, 'I'll get an apartment down the hall.' "
- When she took me to hear her nephew Tappy (Tappan A. Wilder) give a talk on town planning (?) at the New Haven Historical Society, she nodded to me as he took the lectern and said, "He's our purchase on the next generation."
- On our way once driving from Hamden to her younger sister Janet Dakin's house in Amherst, Miss Wilder wanted to stop for lunch. I drove past a Burger King and said "You'd never consider that." She replied, "Thornton loved places like that" and we went back for lunch at BK.
- In her home on Martha's Vineyard which Thornton bought for her as "payment for my work for him", the upstairs of the cape-style house on Katama had one large room. In it was a ten or twelve foot long plain drawer-less oak conference table. "Thornton bought it from the telephone company to use as a desk."
- For years Miss Wilder drove a Studebaker Lark. It was just the right size for her and she loved "Larky" as she called it. When Studebaker went out of business, she couldn't find a replacment. "Thornton bought me the Mercedes for Valentine's Day. It was about the same size as Larky," Miss Wilder said of her '68, four-door grey Mercedes which I often drove ferrying her to destinations far and near.
She had no idea that I saw her driving that day (I was at a stop sign on Hamden's Carmel Street perpendicular to Whitney Avenue as she flew by entering Mt. Carmel and the land of the Sleeping Giant.). She was wearing a hat and I think she had on gloves as she held the wheel tightly with both hands.
I knew intuitively that she was on an errand important to her; the hat gave it away, and so did her uncharacteristic speed.
It was the beginning of the end of my days in Hamden and New Haven, my birthplace and home.
I would be flung by vicissitude to Oregon for a year and then Vermont from 1985 to the present. The history of Miss Wilder's deepening emotional (and financial) investment in my growth and development, literally grubstaking me (wrong word: her funding was a gift not a loan) while I interned at Bethel, Vermont's Whitcomb High School to become a certified Vermont English teacher in a Vermont town much like Grover's Corners is a record which which can be found in (LINK) my donation of her notes, cards and letters to Yale's American Literature Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book Library, 2013.
I have spent most of my life trying to preserve history,(LINK) from Kent State, 1970 to the aftermath of the (LINK) Boston Marathon bombings, 2013.
In the case of Miss Wilder, I declined to do so, except in the matter of (LINK) our town's memorial to her brother, from 1976-1985.
Now, that I am about to enter my 70th year, I choose to comment here and there, but with a son's care for the feelings of a great lady.
|April, 1985: Miss Wilder with my parents |
at the dedication of Thornton Wilder's desk, portrait, and memorabilia
in our town,