I was face down but leaning up on the floor at the living room end of the main room at White Pines. I was surrounded by file cards I was filling. I was copying quotes from an annual mimeographed book put out and sold to boarding school and high school debaters throughout the Northeast by a Mr. Walsh, who coached the Portland, Maine team. In the winter I, though only 15 and a fourth former, and my debate colleague Ken Kaplan, a fifth former, the two of us the home team at the Holderness School down in Plymouth, New Hampshire, had beaten Mr. Walsh’s usually victorious team (and I had been elected “best speaker” even though I was not in the anchor position).
Now it was summer but I was preparing for more debating. I was copying down, for future use, quotes Mr. Walsh had collected concerning our next national debate subject which, as ordained by the National Forensic League, had to do with the welfare state, which I privately favored, though in keeping with the institution of debating I was willing to argue either side. And I was aware that way back in the Boy’s Wing of White pines I had a batch of love letters from a girl from our sister school and a Brownie snapshot of her in a fairly revealing sun dress leaning against a tree, she a winter girl now seen in a summer picture she had sent me looking prettier than I remembered her in person, and making me wonder now about my attraction to a more appealing summer girl here in the mountains. All this – girls, debating – had given me definition. This was my world. Now, here on the floor, I was in the family world, but what was right in front of me was from the world I had created.
Above and behind me on the Steinway were photographs of my mother, of Aunt Betsy, who was my father’s sister, and of Aunt Peggy, my father’s extrovert brother‘s wife, all in their wedding dresses. And also a picture of my recently departed grandfather, a small worried but smiling man in a tweed cap, leaning with pretty Aunt Betsy, his daughter, at the railing of an ocean linter when they were sailing for England beneath war clouds so that Aunt Betsy could get married to a young architect who had joined the RAF. The past could be the main part of anything in the present, but the past was not my present right now. The past did not seem to weigh heavy any more.
To my left was a big old stand-up wooden radio, where five years back we had listened to the news of Hiroshima and also the news of Atlee’s unexpected defeat of Churchill, but the important thing about the radio was that occasionally my recently departed grandfather Gaga had been on it, as in the speech he had given trying to get America into World War II. Just past the radio were French doors, opening beneath a striped awning onto the familiar lawn, with white bird baths and stone benches, the lawn ending at iron-streaked boulders that fell off to a tangled blueberry field, and from there the view stretching to deep woods, owned by my grandmother still, but maybe about to be sold – and eventually the to mountains of the Franconia Range.
In front of me was Nana herself, reading a new book with a shiny new book jacket, mysteriously maintaining perfect posture while lying back on a silk covered chaise longue. She was dressed in white, as white as her hair, and with a cardigan sweater – but in the evening she would dress in silk Chinese-style formal pajamas, one of the many accouterments that since early in the century I knew, had pointed to her as an advanced person.
Two days earlier Kitty had gotten her aunt, Mrs. Grout, to drive her over from Sugar Hill to visit me – me, not the family. She had brought a record of Charleston music. The Charleston was in vogue. All the girls at Greenwich Country Day knew how to do it. Her visit had come in the afternoon when people napped and we could be alone here. I brought out from the Boys’ Wing my blue, fake leather portable LP player, and she taught me the Charleston in this place that, I knew, would always afterwards feel her presence.
Especially now as I lay on the floor preparing for the debate season in this most familiar of all places. It was always the same here, even with Kitty in the air. Scattered around the room were end tables with drawers containing Chinese checkers and Parcheesi. On one of the tables the most recent important new books, in crisp shiny book jackets. They were forever coming to Nana in the mail. And there was a formal fireplace – definitely not a country-style rough stone fireplace. And after that the bookcase, quite large but much smaller than the bookcase in Gaga’s study, which was still looking just as it did when he was alive. It was among Gaga’s books that I had just discovered Turgenev. Turgenev was now part of my world – not their world. This was me, here on the floor, preparing for triumph, thinking of girls. And here in the same room this afternoon was Nana, who not only never made fun of me but seemed, I dared think, to know who I was.