Willow Temple: New and Selected Stories

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9780618329816: Willow Temple: New and Selected Stories
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Willow Temple, combining six of the most "notable and moving stories" (Robert Taylor, Boston Globe) from the 1987 collection The Ideal Bakery with six new stories written in the years since, is Donald Hall's most important short fiction collection to date. "From Willow Temple" is the indelible story of a child's witness of her mother's adultery and of the earlier shocking loss that underlies it. The other stories, too, are reminiscent of Alice Munro and William Maxwell in their mastery of form, their deeply observed portrayals of the interior worlds of only children, and their ability to trace the emotional fault lines connecting generations. In three stories we see David Bardo at crucial junctures of his life, beginning as a child drawn to his parents' "cozy adult coven of drunks" and growing into a young man whose intense first affair undergirds a lifelong taste for the heady mix of ardor and betrayal. Hall's short stories give a "breathtakingly successful" (Chicago Tribune) account of the passionate weight of lives.

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About the Author:

DONALD HALL, who served as poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, awarded by the president. He lives in New Hampshire.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

From Willow Temple

We lived on a farm outside Abigail, Michigan, when I was a girl in the
1930s. My father was a Latin teacher, which was how I came to be called
Camilla. I cannot say that I have lived up to the name of Virgil"s warrior. My
father served as principal of Abigail High School, and we kept chickens and
horses on our flat and scrubby land near the Ohio line. My father"s
schoolwork kept him busy, so we employed a succession of hired hands for
chores around the farm. Many were drunks. A weekly rite, when I was small,
was for my father to pay a fine on Monday morning—six a.m., before school—
and drive the befuddled, thirsty, shamefaced hired man back home. When
the advances for fines grew monstrous, so that our man was indentured a
month ahead, he hopped a freight west. In hard times the quality of help
increased, even as my father"s salary and the price of eggs went down; he
hired strong young men for three dollars a week, some of them sober. The
poverty of those years touched everyone, even a protected child. I remember
tramps coming to the back door; I remember men with gray faces whom my
mother succored with milk and buttered bread. I can see one of them now,
preserved among the rest because he addressed me rather than my
mother. "It"s hard, little girl. Could you spare a crust, little girl?"
The house was my mother"s house. She was Ella, the bright face
of our family, beautiful and lively—a lover of horses, poetry, and jokes.
People said, lightly, that she married my father to hold herself down. I grew
up loving my quiet father with a love that was equally quiet: I desperately
loved my serene, passionate mother. What a beauty she was. When I see
reproduced a Saturday Evening Post cover from the 1930s, I see my
mother"s face: regular features, not large but strong; bold cheekbones with
good coloring; dark short hair; fullish lips deeply red without lipstick; large
blue eyes, staring outward with a look both shy and flirtatious. When my
mother walked into a group of strangers, the room hushed.
She had grown up with four sisters, isolated on a backcountry
farm in Washtenaw County. The Great War was only a distant rumor. Her
childhood was a clutch of girls, a female conspiracy on a remote, patchy
forty acres, in a domain of one-room schools where half the pupils belonged
to her own tribe. They made one another clothespin dolls for Christmas;
they sewed and did fancywork in competition for their stepmother"s praise;
they passed their dreams and their dresses on to one another. How I wanted
a little sister to pass my dresses and dolls on to! When my mother told me
stories from her childhood, I heard themes repeated: The family was self-
sufficient (I grew up reading and rereading The Swiss Family Robinson)
and "got by on little." When she spoke of their genuine simplicity, she
spoke with wonder not with bitterness; she didn"t make me feel guilty over
my relative comfort. The Hulze farm never prospered as the Battell"s—my
father"s family—did for decades. The land was poor, and to survive by your
own labor on your own land was triumph enough. Another theme was death,
for she had lost a baby sister to a fever at eighteen months; and her mother,
Patience, died of diabetes, not long before the discovery of insulin, when my
mother was nine. Two years later she acquired a stepmother, my
grandmother Huldah, who was kindly but fierce, with a Christianity modeled
on Massachusetts Bay in the seventeenth century. Like my father, my
mother was an eldest child; she mothered her younger sisters, even after
Huldah"s access, as Huldah quickly bore Herman Hulze two more daughters.
Life at the Hulze farm was hard—Monday washing, Tuesday
ironing, Wednesday baking—but as my mother remembered it for me, it
mustered grave satisfactions. Everyone worked equally, according to age
and ability; everyone was clothed, warm, and well fed; in a venture of equal
labor, no one depended on another"s largesse. Weekdays were half school
half work; the children, who rose at five after their parents, did housework
before school, then darning or fancywork before bed. Saturday"s chores
finished the week and looked forward to workless Sunday. Yet Huldah"s
Sabbath was strenuous. Her church was two hours of hellfire in the morning,
with Christian Endeavor (hymns, visiting speakers) at night. Sometimes
Huldah searched out a Sunday afternoon church meeting, to occupy for her
family an otherwise idle moment.
An exception to my mother"s largely female nation was a dear
male cousin whose story she told me when I grew older. Rudolph Howells
was her first cousin, two years older, her father"s sister"s boy, who lived
three miles down the road. Even at ages when boys and girls avoid each
other, Rudy and Ella played together. They hiked to each other"s houses, or
barebacked a workhorse on a rare workless weekday; or they met under a
great willow beside a creek halfway between them. Its shelter was their
hideout, and they came to call it Willow Temple. In the absence of
telephones they exchanged penny postcards to arrange their meetings. For
my mother, isolated among sisters in that flat countryside, the boy"s
friendship was redemptive; Rudolph was the male of my mother"s early
life—after her father, who was alternately working or asleep. For Rudy, who
was an only child, my mother provided the sole companionship close to his
age. As she described him, Rudy sounds unnaturally solemn; it was Ella"s
childhood joy to bring out the child in Rudolph, to set him giggling or
imagining extravagance. Rudy was a reader. He brought books to my
mother, who became a reader herself in order to please him. In Willow
Temple they recited for each other the poems they memorized at school and
performed for Prize Speaking—Whittier, Longfellow, Joaquin Miller, Edgar
Allan Poe, James Whitcomb Riley. My mother could say "Telling the Bees"
right through, without a mistake, when she was eighty.
Rudolph was a "scholar," as Michigan country people called a
serious student. In 1900 few from the farmland went to college. After the
Great War people began to think about college, and to assume that
Rudolph would attend the University of Michigan. As my mother late in her
life told stories about Rudolph, I understood that for all his studiousness he
felt some diffidence about his capacities. He worried that he would not do
well at college. My mother not only made him laugh but encouraged him
about his ability to leave the countryside and enroll in Ann Arbor"s domestic
Athens. He would excel, she told him. Then, doubtless, he would become a
minister. What else did one go to college for? Doctor, lawyer, teacher,
pastor. Rudy in his solemnity found a way to combine the romance of his
reading—the South Seas, piracy, jungles of Africa—with his dark
Christianity. Some speakers at Christian Endeavor were missionaries
returned from outlandish places, where they had won souls to Christ,
ministering to the pigtailed hordes of China and the naked savages of the
Congo. Now they traveled the Protestant Midwest to raise money for
hospitals that would treat leprosy and pellagra.

When he was fourteen, Rudy left his one-room school to attend
an academy in the mill town of Trieste, eleven miles away. He endured his
semi-exile—boarding weekdays and coming home for weekends—until he
was sixteen. For two years, my mother saw him at church every Sunday
morning, and rarely at other moments except in summer. They wrote each
other a midweek postcard. They remained so close that people teased them
about being sweethearts, even about marrying—first cousins or not. My
mother assured me that it would never have happened: They were too much
brother and sister. One Sunday in the May when my mother turned fifteen,
the church members packed picnics and lunched together in a field beside
Goosewater Creek, not far from Willow Temple. It was Sabbath, not usually
a day for picnics, but they sang hymns and listened to a Christian nurse from
a mission on the island of Sapporo in Japan—a holy purpose that allowed
them to eat in the fields on the Sabbath. Ella remembered Rudy at the picnic
playing with a new baby, another cousin, by trundling her carriage fast and
slow, making the baby Agnes jerk and laugh with abrupt stops and
accelerations. After eating deviled eggs and pork sandwiches and rhubarb
pie, Ella and Rudy took a long walk together, talking about their futures,
and continually brushing away mosquitoes. They tramped happily among the
weed trees that grew along the creek, my mother remembered, and sat
inside the green dome of Willow Temple. They spoke of the university and
Ella"s high school, where she took Latin because Rudy had recommended
it. Ella told him jokes she had saved for him. Mostly they began, "A minister,
a priest, and a Christian Science practitioner . . ." One story made him laugh
until he wept; she could never remember which one. When she was terribly
old, and dying, Ella still recalled a small yellow butterfly abundant in the
fields like migrant buttercups; she remembered the blue dress she wore,
embroidered with red tulips.
That night, when Rudolph"s ride came to take him back to Trieste,
no one could find him. He was not in his room; he did not respond to his
mother"s "Yoo-hoo!" After half an hour his ride went off without him. His
father and the hired man took lanterns from the barn and searched for him in
the darkness among the outbuildings. Then they climbed the small pasture
hill. I remember seeing that hill when I was a child. In my mind I can watch
the yellow lanterns rise in the black evening, and hear the men"s voices
calling for him: "Rudolph! Rud-ee!" His parents were frightened; maybe Rudy
had fallen taking a walk after five o"clock supper; maybe he had hit his head
on a rock and lay somewhere unconscious. They summoned neighbor
cousins to help.
Three miles away, asleep in bed, my mother knew nothing.
After an hour searching outside the house, the men came back,
thinking to look in the rootcellar. It was Agnes"s young father, cousin
Michael, who found Rudolph where he had hanged himself in the attic. As
Michael walked up the steep stairs with his lantern low, his face brushed
against the boots. The impact pushed the boots away, and the boots
swung back to hit him.
As long as any of his family lived, Rudolph"s suicide was forever
the subject of speculation. Rudolph—everyone repeated—was a sensible
and lovable boy, affectionate if a little serious, "old for his age" but capable of
playfulness. He loved his mother and father and his cousin Ella; he was a
happy child. Ella"s family reconstructed, by gradual accumulation of detail,
the days and weeks before it happened. No one could find anything that
hinted of despair or violence. Why did a bright, cheerful, beloved seventeen-
year-old boy hang himself in his attic? Why? Why? Why? Could it have
been an accident? How could he tie a noose and slip it over his head by
accident? People said: It must have been something he read in a book. It
was decided at the end of every discussion that reading stories caused
Rudolph"s death.

That Sunday night began the infection that throbbed and festered at the
heart of my mother"s life. Although she was warmhearted, charming, and
funny, although most of her life she appeared serene or even content, I
believe that a fever always burned inside her. What happened was so savage
and so inexplicable that it never let her go. Over fifty and sixty and seventy
years, her incredulity remained intact. She wept whenever she told me this
story or made reference to it. "Oh, Camilla," she said, "why did it happen?" In
my sexually obsessed youth, I tried out the notion that something had
occurred or almost occurred inside Willow Temple. But my mother"s
continual, massive astonishment—and her absence of guilt—convinced me
that nothing untoward or even unusual had happened in Willow Temple on
that Sunday afternoon. For Rudolph and Ella the erotic life concealed itself
under hymns and petticoats.
Part of the story was how my mother first heard the news.
Monday morning, ignorant of what had happened—it was ten years before
the Hulzes had a telephone—my mother took the seven o"clock train for
Bosworth and its high school. Every school day of the year, she and her
sister Betty took the milk train. When they sat down this morning, and the
locomotive jerked forward, they heard behind them two men who had
boarded three miles north, at the depot near Rudolph"s house. My mother
heard Mr. Peabody say to Mr. Gross what a terrible thing it was when his
own father, just last night, had had to cut Rudolph Howells down from a beam
in the attic. Why would a fine boy like Rudy go and kill himself?
My fifteen-year-old mother alighted at the first stop, took the next
train back, and went to bed. (Betty went on to school. It was part of the
story, always, that Betty continued to school.) Ella vomited and for three
days would not eat. She stayed home the rest of the school year, four
weeks. She turned pale, lost weight; Dr. Fowles said that she was anemic.
Once a week a Trieste butcher sent two quarts of steer"s blood for Huldah
to store in the icebox. My mother drank a tumbler of blood every day; it
nauseated her, but mostly she kept it down. Once she left her bed and
slipped from the house for half a day—terrifying her father and Huldah—to
walk by the creek until she came to Willow Temple, where she crept inside
and howled hysterical tears. ("I thought he would be there," she told me
when she was old. "Camilla, I thought he was there.") Thereafter her family
contrived to keep her in bed. She failed all summer, eating little, until one
evening she heard Huldah"s harsh voice in the garden beyond her window,
telling a visitor, "We"re going to lose our big girl."
This overhearing or eavesdropping appeared to startle my mother
back to life. By the time school opened in September she had become
bright and energetic again—brighter and more energetic than before. After her
mourning, she turned from a shy fifteen-year-old into the creature who
caused the intake of breath. As her beauty became obvious for the first time,
her youthful life began. She took part in high school literary and theatrical
groups, as much as commuting allowed her. A year later, in her senior year,
she boarded in Bosworth weekdays. If a hayride or a square dance took
place on a Saturday night, she stayed over in town for the weekend, despite
Huldah"s disapproval. The summer after graduation, turned seventeen, she
took a job at Gotwig"s department store in Ann Arbor, staying with a family
related to her own mother.
It was clear, when my mother recollected, that Ann Arbor raised a
pleasant devil in her. When another boarder arranged a blind date for her
with a university student, she undertook a new life, and its excitement still
reverberated when she was eighty and remembered those years. She
became popular, a powerful word in the vocabulary of the time, and dated
many young men. One fraternity—my father never belonged to one; it would
have been unthinkable—elected Ella Hulze its sweetheart, granting her a...

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