Chasing the Years of My Life

September 20, 2006

I’m twenty-two for a moment . . .
The sun is getting high, we’re moving on . . .
Chasing the years of my life.
John Ondrasick, b. 1968
                American singer-songwriter

I sojourned at Millersville University, my old college campus, last night. It is also Lynn’s college campus, but she wasn’t there. She was enroute home from a hockey game at Mansfield University, a sister school in the state system some two hundred miles north near the New York border. We go to a lot of the away games, but Ron didn’t want to go to this one. This meant I was available to attend (without feeling unsupportive of a struggling team) an event I saw advertised when I was on campus Saturday for a home hockey game. The fall lecture of the Friends of Ganser Library was to be given by Dr. Robert Sayre of the history department. His subject would be the correspondence between Elizabeth Britt, fifteen going on sixteen in 1861, and the young men of her acquaintence who were off fighting the Civil War.

I’ve been, very cautiously, stepping back into the nineteenth century. I attended a program about the Pennsylvania Germans last week and two more are on my calendar for October. I’ve missed the culture and the era.

All work on the historical novel I began writing in 1992 (from an idea that came to me in 1982) halted in 2003 when I endured a humiliating critique from the loathesome witch who was my workshop leader that year at Bread Loaf. I was so demoralized that I didn’t even bring the material in from my car for several months, and when I finally did open the box it was like pulling off a scab. I put all the nineteenth century material away and let my memberships lapse in the organizations whose resources were the core of my research. I very nearly abandoned fiction writing entirely and have never returned to that manuscript.

But the encouragement I got at Bread Loaf this year set me to thinking that maybe I can, and should, revisit those pages. It was not the loathesome witch’s finding of the faults in the work that upset me. She was right about that. It was the way she handled the matter, refusing to talk to me in the pivate session we all have and instead ridiculing me in class as sort of a performance piece. I know that the work I am doing now is different from and better than anything I’ve done before. My nineteenth-century manuscript treats some of the same themes I’m addressing in my contemporary novel — faith and spirituality and questions about what happens to us after we die. And I knew that Dr. Sayre’s work would cover the way a typical young woman of the time dealt with these same questions.

But if I was stepping back into familiar territory in addressing the nineteenth century again, I was also stepping back into my own history. I was stepping onto the campus not as Lynn’s mother and her Number Two hockey fan, but as a fiction writer and memoirist who owes much of her material to things that happened there.

I say I’m planning the next ten years of my life, and sometimes it occurs to me that at some point I might see the wisdom or necessity of leaving this pleasant seat I have occupied for thirty years. And I think I could be (or maybe I’m afraid I’ll become) one of those older women who lurk about college campuses in their Rockport walking shoes, using their alumni privileges to audit classes and read their e-mail. The apartment building I lived in my senior year, just one block from the back door of the library, has been converted to smaller units for senior citizens. The irony of this is not lost upon me.

The program was in the conference center portion of the dining hall building. I got a sandwich and a drink and spent some time in the lounge area of the dining hall watching the students come and go. Several young women were wearing pants that looked like pajama bottoms — flannel and with an overall print of ducks or frogs. I remembered a time in 1967 when I wore such a garment to walk down the stairs from my dorm room to the lobby to retrieve my mail and got reprimanded by an older girl for having the nerve to come to a public area dressed like that. I guess times have changed.

The program was held in a small banquet room with chairs arranged at round tables. I like tables at such an event. It makes it easier for me to take notes. But such an arrangement makes for limited seating, and the room quickly filled. A number of students arrived, some of them from the nearby high school. One was still in her cross country uniform with a bag of ice taped to her thigh. They all had notebooks and scribbled steadily throughout the presentation.

Dr. Sayre became interested in the Lizzie Britt material when a student gave him a notebook full of transcribed copies of the letters that had been found in an attic. The originals turned up in a nursing home and were conveyed to a historical society near the place where Lizzie lived. So much of what is written about a war era concentrates on the military campaigns and the politics and the important figures who shaped the proceedings. These letters contain the kind of material that delights historians of the personal and the quotidian, the fiction writers who seek to bring to life the ordinary flavor of the time, people like me.

Lizzie wrote to the boys of her town, some of them her relatives, some of them young men she knew from church. Some of them developed an affection for her that they hoped to pursue when they returned home. But in what was probably something of an arranged marriage, she became the wife of a man who helped her stepfather on the farm before the war’s end.

Dr. Sayre mentioned that he had used these letters with a class, and told about how his students, who had been following the love story apparently developing between Lizzie and one of her correspondents, were so very disappointed when they got to the letters that announce her marriage to someone else.

It doesn’t happen often anymore, but it happened to me in that moment — suddenly I missed the classroom, missed being part of an academic community, missed the way all that young energy channeled into discovery of things both ancient and new can give the teacher more than the teacher gives to the students.

When I got home I pulled my nineteenth century box out from behind my sewing machine (itself unused since 2004 or so). I did the same with the crate of books and other bound materials taking up space in a different closet. I didn’t open either, yet, but at least they’re out where I can see them. Maybe in the next weeks I can find a nice seat in an inconspicuous corner of a college or historical society library, and begin again.

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