Saturday, November 9, 2013

* History's Demand, Miss Wilder, Paul Keane : 1975-1995

Around 1987 Miss Wilder asked me to take charge of removing overgrown shrubs around her family plot in Mt. Carmel Burying Ground and replacing them with dwarf shrubs.  Mr. Frank Esposito, a landscaper in charge of the Burial Ground,  effected the change. The Wilder plot is 100 yards from my own family plot.

 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. 
Mis Wilder  gave up driving at 85 in 1985, giving the Mercedes  to her nephew who by then lived in Chevy Chase. The last time I saw her driving was that year, clutching the steering wheel for dear life as she uncharacteristically sped down Whitney Avenue, apparently making one last call at the family cemetery plot in Mt. Carmel Burying Ground, a hundred yards from my own family plot. 

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,
Hamden, Connecticut

No comments: