“I was ten years old, a chubby little girl with a round face and two long braids of brown hair,” Helen V. Taylor writes in the opening chapter of her 1963 memoir A Time to Recall. The innocence of Taylor’s child-voice narration and her description of a horse and packed cart bring to mind Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie more than Pigs Can’t Swim, my own childhood memoir of growing up in Maine. Automobile-empty roads, undeveloped fields, woods, daily adventures of rowing around the lake, picking berries, swimming, sleeping in the hayloft, and climbing mountains all speak of a time that really seems like it was a pleasure for Taylor to recall, a time when the way of life in Maine was the way life should be: childhood, at its most idyllic.Indeed, A Time to Recall shares with Wilder’s Little House memoiristic series the purity of a childhood unruffled by trauma, but very much ruffled with an unspoken certainty that the world is safe. My memoir shares few similarities with Taylor’s other than our first names and the state we grew up in. For her, an adults-are-always-right dictum reigns, and there is always a treat of “brown, crispy fried, salt pork”; for me, an adults-are-always-mixed-up dictum reigns, and there always seems to be a dead animal that was once my friend in the mind’s-eye picture. Even so, I recognize myself in her narrative now and again, and despite the differences in our times and circumstances, I feel a kinship with her all the same. Maybe it’s because, then and now, the men in a female child’s life go missing in one way or another.I could never have been described as chubby when I was a child, having little to eat after I learned that meat could be the cows I had sat with a week or so before in the pasture, or my rabbits that my father insisted with a grin were surely not the ones missing from the rabbit pen. I did have a round face—round, I suspected then, because my mother pinched my cheeks often in reprimand. And I sometimes had two longish braids of a dirty blond shade, the dirty more from the condition of my hardscrabble life than from my hair’s actual color.Helen and I are both eager to exit our houses at the opening of our stories. She is excited to leave her city home to begin a summer vacation in Waterboro, “I was happy to be leaving the red brick house on the quiet street in Saco. I was going to the country where a lake, a gentle mountain, and a big sunny house were waiting for me.” Her Saco home, the reader can with a bit of research, was on North Street in Saco. It was owned by her grandfather, Benjamin Leavitt, a prosperous merchant who also owned the summer residence in Waterboro Center where they vacationed. The Waterboro house was built by Benjamin’s father James in 1850; James bought farm produce locally and shipped it to Portland and Boston with much success. My summer and winter country residence was built in 1790 not by a savvy businessman, but likely by a dirt poor farmer who lived on the nearly impassable Cleaves Road with other dirt poor farmers, all of whom died with poor children, leaving their bones and the bones of some of their young descendants in a poor cemetery. All that remained was their poor homes, built into in rocky foundations loved by snakes and no one else. My memoir begins when I am leaving this chunk of ghost-filled Auburn, Maine, real estate for a brief vacation to a relative’s lake camp south of Waterboro:
On this day the car took us away from pulling weeds, shoveling manure, shelling peas, scraping corncobs, and mowing yards and took us toward rowing, floating on inner tubes, and swimming in the lake. But the most important things we left at home were tirades on how hateful and disagreeable we could be…. At my aunt’s camp my parents would laugh, play Spades and Hearts, swim and fish….
Ironically, almost as if the universe runs parallel and linear simultaneously, Taylor’s crammed buggy is similar to our crammed station wagon. She and her family head into Waterboro over the dirt-packed roads, robes over their legs to protect them from the discomfort of a breeze, while mine and my siblings’ bare legs stick to the burning vinyl car seats, our father ordering us to knock off the whining so he can hear to drive. Where Taylor’s family took four and half hours to be pulled from their winter to their summer home by an old horse named Nellie, it took us just over two hours as we stopped to steal a piglet in Taylor’s beloved Waterboro Center, and my brothers, used to stealing but not to thinking, named the baby porker after the town and then bragged to everyone they met about their free pig, Waterboro.Helen Taylor’s father passed away when she was just seven, prior to the time-line of her memoir, and, although the reader understands there must be grief and stress in this event, it is not felt, likely because Taylor had only vague memories of her father when she wrote the book 55 or so years later. The reader deduces that he was a minister because the narrator mentions that she moved to the Saco house from a parsonage, and that her mother treasures 12 ornamental spoons engraved with ministers’ names that were a wedding present. “It was during a vacation our family had spent with Grandfather in that faraway time when my father was living. I was a very small girl and Father would let me sit in a little wire seat strapped to the handlebars of his bicycle. We often went to see sick people.”My own father didn’t like to be near sick people or church, and, never in my memory rode a bicycle anywhere. He refrained from visiting the ill or the injured at all times, even when they happened to be his children or were having children. Childhood memories of my father are sparse, like Taylor’s, but not for the same reason. Mine chose not to spend time with us even when we were healthy. Parenting was noisy and messy and my father had an aversion to both, so he left us to my mother who had even more aversions, ones she enjoyed sharing with us, especially on non-school days.I read of Taylor’s grandfather and mother with a certain envy and wistfulness. If I am to be honest, I even envied her younger sister, referred to as Susan in the book (her actual name was Ethelinda). My father tells me even now that no men had time to spend time with their kids back then, his “then” being the 1970s rather than the 1910s. Fathers worked. Mothers parented. Yet in the Brady Bunch and the Little House on the Prairie, and even in Bonanza, which I saw my father watch, the opposite of his parenting sentiment was clear, as was a casual count of the time he spent playing horseshoes and baseball with his sons-in-law. Although Taylor chooses not to disclose the actual date when she was ten years old, possibly to disguise her age as of 1963, the timeline of A Time to Recall must be the summer of 1911 because Taylor describes one of Waterboro’s two historic fires, the second being in 1947, when she was a mother three times over herself.Taylor describes how her father took her with him on his rounds, and her grandfather, although identified as stern, is a significant part of her daily life as well. She describes her mother’s gentleness and fairness in various ways and illustrates the same throughout her story. “Mother always spoke quietly. She had a kind, understanding manner toward everyone, but there was a spark inside her that made her fun to be with.” The “but” is intriguing, as if being kind and understanding somehow obviates also being fun. Taylor’s words contrast markedly with mine on page one of Pigs Can’t Swim, “My mother was able to make a face of venomous contempt with only slight adjustments to her mouth and eyes. She could go from speaking to my father with a pleasant, approachable expression to speaking to her kids as if pleasure never existed.”The children in my memoir weren’t allowed to use any form of address other than “Mamma.” She even insisted on the oddly un-phonetic spelling. “Mother,” she observed, her mouth a tight punctuated line of disapproval, was a flippant, hoity-toity form of address, and she took great pride in teaching us to never act smart or wise, emphasizing the point by dragging us around by our ears and ever rounding cheeks so that we never think we were too hi-falutin’ to weed and dig holes. As with Helen Taylor’s mother, my mother had “a spark inside her,” but it was of perhaps a slightly different nature. It was anyone’s guess on any given day what might trigger it. But she exercised control; she understood well the difference between what was acceptable in public and in the privacy of her home.Taylor’s mother did a bit of sewing, “though she found this hard to do.” This is the only actual touch skill the reader hears Taylor’s mother as not having, even though it seems that much of her mother’s education was spent at European boarding schools, not at the hearth with needle and thread. “Every fall Mother sent to Best & Co. [an upscale children’s clothing retailer in New York] for a special sailor suit for each of us, but all our clothes, as well as Mother’s dresses, were made by a dressmaker.” The girls went to Portland for boot fittings and hair ribbon purchases followed by an ice cream. Taylor doesn’t give the source of her mother’s income, but she does explain her own finances by telling the reader how her mother pays her and her sister a penny for each fly they kill, and her grandfather pays her in quarters for occasionally stripping vines of their leaves.In contrast, the children of my parents and grandparents labored, my mother lectured us, for the right to live under a roof and eat, which I didn’t much appreciate because her food involved cow tongues and major organs. The reader isn’t told, but it appears that even with the death of her husband, Helen’s mother, Louella Frey, and her daughters were well provided for. Having no businessmen-like ancestors, merchants or otherwise, in my family, I wore plastic bread bags over wool socks “fitted” to my legs with rubber bands. My clothes were not made by a seamstress named Mrs. Guptill, but by Mamma, and although Mamma demonstrated considerable skill with her sewing machine, she couldn’t sew boots or buy cloth that wasn’t often irregular. The child narrator of Pigs Can’t Swim doesn’t even know that such a person as a seamstress exists, or that children wear such a thing as sailor suits. Portland, to her, was a far off place cursed for its one-way streets.Taylor does allude to some clothing hardship when she describes how her mother tries her hand at sewing for fun, “I would have to stand for a very long time while she tried it on and fitted me,” and her mother’s reaction when she caught her new dress on a picket fence “that took her mother hours and hours to cut out.” No fear of trouble, no spankings, run through A Time To Recall as they do through Pigs Can’t Swim. “Mother was more sad than angry. She didn’t understand why I had to go over the fence instead of around.”Mother does all the cooking that summer for Helen, Susan, and Grandfather. She likes to experiment with recipes, and she buys meat from a butcher who comes to the house daily like milkmen used to do. Taylor recounts her ten-year-old self remembering her gentle mother and the failed calf-brain meal.
One time Mother said she would like to try cooking calves’ brains. When Mr. Day came the next week, he handed Mother a paper bag and said it was the calf’s brain. That morning without opening the bag, Mother spent some time reading the cookbook. I was putting away the breakfast dishes in the dining room cupboard when I heard her give a little gasp, as if she’d hurt herself. I could see that her face was very white and I started to call Grandfather. She was twisting the top of the bag shut. “Don’t come in here children,” she said. “Stay away. I have to bury this bag and I don’t want you to come with me.” . . . Grandfather was curious by now and when Mother came back he wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Mother put her hand to her eyes. “That was the whole head of the calf,” she said. “Its eyes were looking right at me.”
This type of anecdote is more of an aside in A Time to Recall’s primary focus of recounting a memorable summer vacation, but it is a main theme in my Pigs Can’t Swim. The reader is led to understand that if Mr. Day, the butcher, had delivered the calf’s brain absent its original container, that Mother would have opened the bag and continued on with her recipe. Her “seeing” the calf as it “saw” her unsettled the amateur chef in such a way that she not only threw away the food, an extraordinarily wasteful and really unthinkable act in my childhood household, but buried it. She told her children to stay away, wanting to protect them from seeing something so grisly as their uncooked food.My not-so-gentle mother shares this contradiction of meat and its source with Taylor’s mother. Neither woman explores her ability to ignore the reality of the slaughtered animals they prepare and eat until they are “faced” with the evidence:
I trotted to my mother…. Bonnie and Jessie [cows] had been good friends…. I understood her pain because my father had killed my pet rabbits. The ending to my story was different, though, because my mother had cooked the animals I loved for supper. “Why do you eat cows if you love Bonnie and Jessie so much?” I whispered so my father couldn’t hear…thinking now the mystery would be explained. “I don’t love the ones I eat,” she wailed.
Taylor doesn’t comment on why her mother is so visibly repulsed by the raw and whole version of her ingredients. She ends the anecdote with, “It was a long time before she could speak of it again. Fortunately, Mr. Day was a quiet man and did not ask her about it,” as if there is some source of embarrassment and weakness in her mother’s failure to excavate and cook the brain.I suspect this is the reflective adult Taylor’s observation, as the narrator then begins to describe the challenges of storing perishable food in a time without unlimited ice and refrigerators. I also suspect that the author might not have been completely honest regarding her curiosity. She doesn’t question Mother’s reaction or examine the reasons behind her horror. Even later, when ten-year-old Helen falls in love with a baby pig and wants it for herself, the adult writing from the memory of her child perspective doesn’t connect the piglet with the pork she also loves. “He was very clean, and his pink skin shone through his bristles…. I wanted that little pig very much. I thought Grandfather could make a pen for it beside the barn and I would feed my pig every day.” She isn’t able to have the pig and is heartbroken, one of the few times the reader sees her physically and emotionally distraught. Even her recounting of the 1911 fire doesn’t hold this much emotion. Grandfather sees her in tears and “listens quietly.” Then she puts her “wet hand into his big, warm one” and he takes her to a neighbor’s barn:
“Look here!” he said. I looked and saw three big dirty pigs, their bristles coarse and dusty, their feet muddy and a horrid smell coming from the pen. “In just a few weeks your little pig would be like this.” I knew he was right, but it didn’t make me feel much better…. ”Mrs. Stewart wants to give away the kittens,” Grandfather, “and I told your mother we might take one. We need a mouser for the barn.” I knelt down and with a sudden feeling of happiness picked up the little black kitten … it began to purr, and at that moment I forgot the pig.
That evening she eats July Fourth garden peas for supper, “Mother had made them especially delicious by mixing with them little pieces of brown, crispy fried, salt pork.”That other Helen, from 1911, probably wrote the events in this order to illustrate her distress over the piglet as a child’s silliness, and may have purposely avoided questioning the love for the pig that directly opposes the love of eating pork hours later simply because it was something people didn’t question at the turn of the century. Vegetarianism was still viewed as a great oddity when I stopped eating meat in 1978. My arguments against the cruelty and abuse of animals were not welcomed in my household preceding my decision and forty years later still meet vehement opposition.Young Helen Taylor wasn’t without empathy, however, and she wants the reader to know this. She includes several instances of compassionate acts, “I found the best prize of all for my treasure box. It was a luna moth that had fallen into the water. It’s pale green wings were the most delicate color I had ever seen…. I picked it up carefully, feeling sad to realize how short its life had been.” She and her mother also save two baby rabbits that were almost killed by the scythe during haying.Interestingly, though, compassion is noticeably absent in another instance, “I asked Mother if I couldn’t come in my bathing suit someday and swim out to the lilies, but she said I must never do that. People who had too many kittens drowned them in this part of the lake and the water is not clean.” The narrator omits any thoughts on this common cruelty despite owning Pinkie, a cat they love. In the very next sentence, as mother and daughter sit together in a rowboat on Lake Ossipee and call the birds to them, Taylor shows her lack of opposition to anthropomorphism:
The mother loon called to her babies to duck under, and she herself went down beside my boat, but the fluffy goslings were too young to stay under…. The mother did not leave them, but called and called to them in a very frightened way, Her notes were broken and despairing. I could easily have leaned over and picked up the little loons…. But the mother’s brave, sad cries made me feel very sorry and I took two quick strokes beyond them.
I recognize myself in this observation, which is why when Taylor sees a dead loon later on a taxidermy table, I am surprised that she doesn’t think back to this moment on the lake in sympathy for baby loons. Those babies were possibly left behind after her neighbor, Mr. Newcomb, killed and stuffed an adult. Mr. Newcomb, she writes,
…led us into a backroom where there was a long table covered with old newspapers, nearly spread out, and on it were crowded several hundred birds which he had mounted. (At the time it did not occur us to wonder if he had shot the birds). We were excited to hunt out the ones we knew and were happy to recognize a thrush and a bluebird and a chickadee. At one end of the table was a loon.
In contrast but in a similar context, I describe my child self with chickens in Pigs Can’t Swim:
We sat in a circle around the pot and chicken pile, holding the birds by their bony legs as we dunked their limp, warm corpses repeatedly into the hot water…the smell of flesh and guts crept into my nose, and feathers stuck like glue to my fingers…. I ripped feathers with one hand while holding the chicken in my lap, its wet, headless neck flopping against my bare arm. “Do you think it’s sad for the live chickens to see us plucking the dead ones?” I asked. “Do you think they worry they might be next?” … My mother, whose job it was to protect my father from annoyance said, “Just pluck the chickens, Helen, and stop talking nonsense.”
Never would A Time to Recall’s author, in the years when she was still Helen Virginia Frey, have been asked to help pluck dead chickens. Perhaps she never saw an animal slaughtered in her youth, or possibly even in her adult life. Her mother, like the mother loon, protected her chicks (not “goslings” as Taylor writes), protected her two daughters from the harsh reality of their world, just as Mother had presumably been protected from having to see where calf brains come from. Helen’s mother is so sheltered from what those in the lower classes know all their lives that when she sees the truth of her food, she gasps and quickly buries it, not allowing her children to see or even speak about the horrific incident. Helen Frey’s class and economic status are so different from that of Pigs Can’t Swim’s child narrator, Helen Herrick, that the dissimilarities far outweigh the similarities of both growing up in southern Maine, of both growing up around animals, of both sharing a name. Indeed, it is not too much of stretch to conclude that Helen Taylor lived a more opulent life in the 1910s than I did in the 1970s, notwithstanding all the material progress that intervened in those sixty years, even in Maine.The first pair of sentences that best describe this fundamental disparateness between these two Helens of rural Maine is when A Time to Recall’s Helen “shivered to think what would happen if the horse should suddenly kick” as she watches the blacksmith shoe a horse, and when Pigs Can’t Swim’s Helen “stood in awe of this horse who made me feel as if anything was possible.” The second pair is when each of us leaves the places we have anticipated with excitement. Helen Taylor writes of the melancholy younger version of herself on her last day in Waterboro, “Now it was time to go down to the boathouse and say goodbye to the lake and the mountain. . . . At the foot of the stairs I gently closed the door. The summer was over.” And in Pigs Can’t Swim, “The voices quieted, knowing that infinite work and potential punishment with switches and bars of soap were less than two hours away.” We would have passed through Waterboro, not far from its Center, but we would have been light years away from the Leavitt family’s way of life, from the way Maine was for some, and in some parallel universe, perhaps, should be for all then, now, and forever more.