There are things we can't undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.
That summer, Flora and I were together every day and night for three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August. I was ten, going on eleven, and she was twenty-two. I thought I knew her intimately, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her, but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in story-telling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.
At the beginning of that summer with her, I seesawed between bored complacency and serious misgivings. She was an easy companion, quick to praise me and willing to do what I liked. My father had asked her to stay with me so he could cross over the mountain from North Carolina into Tennessee while the public schools were not in session and do more secret work for World War II. This would be his second year at Oak Ridge. The summer before, my grandmother had still been alive to stay with me.
Flora had just finished her training to become a teacher like my late mother. She was my mother's first cousin. Embarrassingly ready to spill her shortcomings, she was the first older person I felt superior to. This had its gratifying moments but also its worrisome side. She was less restrained in her emotions than some children I knew. She was an instant crier. My grandmother Nonie, that mistress of layered language, had often remarked that Flora possessed "the gift of tears." As far as I could tell, layers had been left out of Flora. All of her seemed to be on the same level, for anyone to see.
Nonie, who had died suddenly just before Easter, had been a completely different kind of grownup. Nonie had a surface, but it was a surface created by her, then checked from all angles in her three-way mirror before she presented it to others. Below that surface I knew her love for me resided, but below that were seams and shelves of private knowledge, portions of which would be doled out like playing cards, each in its turn, if and when she deemed the time was ripe. My father, who was principal of Mountain City High School, was described as "exacting" or "particular" when people wanted to say something nice about him. If they were being politely critical, they might say, "Harry Anstruther can be very acerbic and he doesn't suffer fools gladly." His social mode was a laconic reserve, but at home, after a couple of drinks, he stripped down to his comfortable mordant sarcasm. His usually controlled limp, from a bout with polio in his teens, became more like a bad actor's exaggeration of a limp.
He married my mother when he was in his early thirties. He was assistant principal of the high school at the time and also taught the shop classes for the boys. He had learned carpentry when he was convalescing from polio. My mother-to-be, a new teacher in her early twenties, came to his office to protest her new assignment. She had been hired to teach English, and after she got there they had added Home Economics, which she felt she had to swallow, she said, because new teachers couldn't be picky. But now the public school curriculum had introduced something called Girls' Hygiene into the Home Economics hour. "I cannot stand up in front of a class and teach this," she told my father. She held the little booklet apart from her body like a piece of garbage. Her disdain along with the "cannot" impressed my father. Though she was from Alabama, she spoke like someone trained for the theater. "The girls would be shocked and disgusted," she told him. "Or they would laugh me out of the room."
My father took the booklet home and after dinner he and Nonie took turns reading aloud from "Social Hygiene for Girls." As I got older, Nonie would recall hilarious examples from this booklet. It became her way of imparting the facts of life to me without the hush-hush solemnity. ("I'll tell you one thing, darling. It made me glad I was brought up on a farm and saw animals go about their natural business without all the clumsy language.")
Excerpted from Flora by Gail Godwin. Copyright © 2013 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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