Mar 13, 2012

Always Reclusive

Eleanor Ross Taylor

From Aging Famously: 
Follow Those You Admire to Living Long and Well 

Widowhood provided poet Eleanor Ross Taylor a welcome retreat, the renewed pleasure of staying close to home, writing and reading, a time of review and deep reflection. 

Eleanor was widowed in 1994 at the age of 74. Her husband, Peter Taylor - a distinguished novelist and short story writer - had taught literature and fiction writing at the University of Virginia and in 1987 won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, A Summons to Memphis. 

 Although Eleanor was a poet of respected standing, her husband’s work was best  known and most widely acclaimed. She’d published her first poetry collection, A Wilderness of  Ladies, in 1960 at the age of 40. Her fifth collection, Late Leisure was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s 1988 Shelley Memorial Prize, which honored one or two poets each year "with reference to genius and need.”

It seemed especially cruel that Peter, unsparing, garrulous and amusing, suffered a stroke at 75 that compromised his southern cadence but not his charm. He died two years later. In 2001, Eleanor’s daughter Katie died of ovarian cancer. Katie lived in North Carolina and Eleanor had not seen her daughter for some years, a separation she blamed on giving Peter priority, and a loss she couldn’t reconcile. She remained close to her son Ross, his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter, Mercedes, who lived in Falls Church, Virginia. 

I looked forward to time with Eleanor, intensely private, candid and observant, as she  would permit. We’d met the Taylors in 1970 when they entered Ross Tandem, John’s new school. Five years later we followed their lead to Key West for a winter break, our introduction to the renegade island where we would often return. Together we explored the flats, swapped books and ate cheap and tangy Cuban dinners at El Siboney and The Fourth of July.  We talked easily around the table with Peter’s stories getting an animated run before put to paper. Eleanor, abstemious and restrained to his ebullience and conviviality, never missed the bull’s eye aiming her own nimble salvos into every conversation.

Now I found quiet comfort sitting beside Eleanor on the sofa under the window picturing her tangled garden, a portrait of young Peter in white linen suit – reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald–-framed above the fireplace. Dainty glass bowls overflowed with peppermints and chocolate kisses. Card tables were neatly stacked with family photos and writing projects. Eleanor collected pictures of children reading as evidence of its early joys. A photo of young Mercedes caught her reading under the Christmas tree; she was now a student at Amherst College. 

Our ages came closer as we talked frankly of marriage, children and writing still to be done. At 87, Eleanor mentored even as she sought consolation; she confided and retreated, wrestling through unfinished dialogues with her husband and daughter. She replayed conversation she wished she'd had with Katie, blaming herself for distance never bridged.

I had hoped that Late Leisure -- published five years after Peter's death -- would include poems of reconciliation, healing insights into Eleanor's marriage and Katie's death.

I found none. Instead, many years after Peter's death, Eleanor reread personal journals, searching yet for new understanding of matrimony and her literary years. She studied notes from long ago summers with writers Caroline Gordon and her husband, poet Allen Tate, as well as years when Katie was a baby, and she and Peter lived in a duplex near critic and poet Randall Jarrell and his wife, Mackie. Eleanor and Peter's literary circle also included poets Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom.

Eleanor had encouraging mentors in Tate and Gordon when she was their student at the Woman’s College, now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “They were wonderful to students, and Caroline particularly always said, ‘You owe it to young writers to help them.’ And she did,” said Eleanor in a 2002 Blackbird interview. Allen Tate also taught at Vanderbilt when Eleanor had attended graduate school. He introduced her to his friend Peter Taylor at his home in Monteagle, Tennessee. Eleanor and Peter married in 1943. 

Later living in Greensboro, Eleanor asked Peter to introduce her to Jarrell, a poet on the Greensboro faculty whom she looked up to. Jarrell read her work, recognized her talent, and urged Eleanor to write and publish her first poems however torn she evidently felt between writing and raising two young children. She recalled her mentor’s prophetic  words in a 1977 Southern Review interview: “Randall used to come and say, ‘Do you have any poems?’ and when I didn't, he'd say, ‘You'll be sorry. God will make you sorry."

When A Wilderness of Ladies was published in 1960, Allen Tate’s introduction praised Eleanor’s poems of “violent emotion” stemming from a restrained life. Jarrell, Tate and other teachers’ confidence in her work surely persuaded Eleanor to keep producing  poems. “I think that the continuing influence of people who believe in you can help,” she said in the Southern Review, recognizing the tutelage of poet Frank Bidart while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Peter taught at Harvard. “Frank taught me how to choreograph a poem. He would talk for a long time about where he'd prefer to put a comma.”

However willingly or reluctantly Eleanor contained her writing career in favor of Peter's and being wife and mother, her poems grew, showing the influence of other poets known for their restraint and controlled emotional powers -- Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. "I also read Edna St. Vincent Millay as a teenager and fell in love with her poetry," said Eleanor, perhaps revealing her own controlled passions.

Eleanor was only nine when her first poem was published in The Norwood News and earned her a dollar prize. The youngest of four was born on June 30, 1920 in Norwood, North Carolina. Eleanor and her sister, Jean Justice, widow of poet Donald Justice, were the family survivors. Her brothers James and Fred were writers too and in Norwood the siblings were affectionately dubbed “the writing Rosses.”

The daughter of a devout Methodist and a Sunday school teacher, Eleanor, in her late eighties, still deferred to their authority. “I look at photographs of my grandparents, and sometimes feel I’m going forth for them. My parents were simple, dirt farmers. They went to church and my father read to us from the Bible every night before we went to bed.  We were on our knees at the table, or beside the fire. My two older brothers had to be called from upstairs and one sometimes refused to come down. Prayers were part of our daily routine and I found it comforting.”        
And now? 

“I keep a hymnal by my bed, and in the night, read the hymns and marvel at the depths of the beliefs that fostered them. The people who wrote those wonderful hymns were believers and there must be something if they could found that inspiration.”

Eleanor was also reading William James’ 1902 classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience. “I can almost believe now,” she said, “but the older I get, I don’t understand faith. At 87 it’s hard to think humans live and then it’s all over. So much is unexplained... Wonders. ESP... Things like that… And the Bible is about love...a loving God. Don’t you think? Love is the most important thing, isn’t it? Don’t you think sadness and depression in life comes from being unloved?”

If so, Eleanor still plumbed the past for intimations of love in all its guises. She still tapped into youthful yearnings, perhaps only a refrain away from articulating what she’d  always felt but rarely spoke. One afternoon she hosted a tea of a half dozen women friends, among them a woman in her twenties trying to launch her writing career. Eleanor, demure in a gray cashmere cardigan, commented mostly to herself: “We start our careers, then sex becomes the most powerful thing in your life and you get married.  It confuses everything.” She passed the chocolate cookies to stunned silence.                 

Another afternoon, I brought my father’s doctor to meet Eleanor after discovering  that he’d also been one of Peter’s physicians and was a striving poet. He and Eleanor talked of poets that they both admired, and soon Eleanor, infatuated, became his mentor too.                                                     

Ever pithy and missing no nuance, Eleanor still restricted whom she would see,  preferring to consider the world without apology within her own confines, the later years  a time to enjoy contemplation as much as action. “Solitude without loneliness,” as poet Adrienne Rich wrote.         

She’d recently uncovered bits of “doggerel,” that made her want to write more. “It’s been a long time since I’ve written a poem, but when one hits me, I write a line down. “In poetry, I think something comes out of you, your inner self, that can’t be expressed in other ways. Don’t you think? Something you’re reaching for and give exposure to...Art is like religion in that way, reaching empathy you’re not aware of...”Jane Hirshfield’s Saved by a Poem says that poetry can be a form of prayer.

 If “art is like religion,” Eleanor implied that poetry and faith could provide us empathy, reconnection when needed most. “This morning I reread Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. I can understand it now,” she said. “I’ve seen everybody die. I can identify too with the country people. They remind me of people I grew up with. Gray was only 55 when he died. At my age, you don’t know if you have a year, nine years, or with people living so long, maybe more.”                                           
Now at home with the shutters snapped, Eleanor worked on her memories and politely resisted entreaties to hire needed help, a live-in companion or move to a “retirement community.”
Then Eleanor surprised me. She called in late January 2008 just before we left for Key West, saying she had the flu but wanted to say goodbye because she might soon move to an apartment in Falls Church near Ross. I didn’t believe she would ever leave the safety of home. 
Small and half hidden in her bright red bathrobe, Eleanor waved to me from  behind the front door. She formally accepted a hug and watched as I drove away. When I returned, I counted on seeing Eleanor open the door, but found her house dark. She had made her move.

Eleanor celebrated her 90th birthday in 2013. That year she was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Award, and winner of the William Carlos Williams award for Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2008. In 2010, Eleanor won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement. The prize came with $100,000 and much acclaim for her collection, Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960-2008.                                                                            
In presenting the award, Poetry editor Christian Wiman praised Eleanor’s work for its “sober and clear-eyed serenity…” He said, “We live in a time when poetic styles seem to become more antic and frantic by the day, and Taylor’s voice has been muted from the start. Muted, not quiet. You can’t read these poems without feeling the pent-up energy in them, the focused, even frustrated compression, and then the occasional clear lyric fury. And yet you can’t read them without feeling, as well, a bracing sense of spiritual largesse and some great inner liberty.”
Muted without being maudlin, a realist not without a streak of romance, Eleanor Ross Taylor still put forth her testimony to seclusion, life in the present, self-sufficient and rust-free.                                                                                                                                    
                             Always Reclusive

I won’t try getting out too soon, say for a
 tipsy fruit, or reckless stroll. What I don’t spend
on tickets I’ll apply to long-distance calls.
Hunters will come and shake my fence, dogs panting,
paws pointing. I’ll like that. I’ll cuddle up
and turn the page.

“The blackberry, permitted its own way,
is an unmanageable plant.” Here’s a
variety called Taylor: “Season late,
bush vigorous, hardy . . . free from rust.’
That’s it. Don’t let my brierpatch rust.”

Excerpted in Shenandoah, January 2012 
Essay nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize

copyright 2014 

A Legacy..


I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to attend the nursing home workshop where we were asked to wear cloudy glasses and tape our fingers together to understand how it felt to be old and disabled. I didn’t want to be paired with an elderly resident for six months, and, with him or her, create a “Legacy Project” of memories or keepsakes of their choosing.

I fled the nursing home grounds determined not to return. While the Legacy Project was most worthwhile, it wasn’t right for me. I wasn’t ready for nursing home residents in wheel chairs, some shrieking out, others demented or confined to bed. And, I just didn’t want to return to the place where my father had stayed before coming home for his final months. But now years later, I also didn’t have a real reason to say no. So I signed up.

Enter Bob on a cane..a gentle, quiet man in his late 70s eager for company. He shyly volunteered that he’d grown up on White Oak Mountain in Dry Forks, Virginia, had taught French at the University of Richmond, and liked to paint and enjoy poetry, especially poems about roses. Apparently he’d come to the nursing home from the hospital after a stroke; he apologized for memory lapses but otherwise showed few signs of debilitation. His niece, “Sandy,” was his guardian, and she and her family lived over an hour away.

I liked Bob immediately. He was frail but aware, attuned and receptive; we also shared many interests and had grown up in the same generation. Our first day, I talked about the Legacy Project’s deadline, goals and purpose. I soon began visiting Bob once a week and eventually tape-recorded three short interviews. I postponed doing more and somehow didn’t mention the Legacy Project again.

Instead, we fell into a routine of sorts. I’d go to Bob’s room where I often found him napping. I tapped his toe. He’d blink awake, politely asking, “How are you?” He’d recite a list of predictable aches and pains in his back, hips, knees or stomach. Then, complaints aside, he sat up ready to watch the noon news or shuffle forth on his walker.

While taking many medications, Bob was still more mentally cognizant than most residents and had found few likely companions. He also seemed naturally reticent, choosing to eat his meals alone in his room and only taking bites of the starchy fare delivered in covered dishes. Over the months, Bob was moved to more than five different rooms, usually to replace an ill or dying roommate.

With little to distinguish his side of the room, Bob took pride in the bright patchwork quilt sewn by his mother as well as her direct gaze from a bedside photograph. He said that he -- the youngest of six -- was his mother’s “pet.” He now dreamed about her a lot, a smart, country woman with a talent for math who’d gone on scholarship to the elite Chatham Hall girls’ school, but dropped out, embarrassed that she had “too few changes of clothes.” She’d cooked chicken instead of turkey at Christmas and baked butterscotch, banana and chocolate cream pies, the memory of which still made Bob smile. His father had been a mechanic in the nearby cotton mill, “a man who could fix anything.”

Some days we ventured from Bob’s room to the patio to pluck deadheads from a rose bush that we planted together. In spring, I folded Bob’s walker into my car, and we headed out for a sandwich at my house or a nearby restaurant. He always ordered egg salad. He and my husband talked on the
deck about painting rivers and clouds, and we hoped that a fresh canvas would inspire Bob to try his hand again. But it did not.

 Other afternoons I looked forward to drives in the country, a time Bob and I breathed freer. He complimented the mountain views and changing colors. We discovered that we both enjoyed the July heat when everyone else turned up the air conditioning. He described what it was like to cure tobacco in the swelter of a summer barn. He confessed that after high school, he’d liked to smoke and drink, especially with his soda fountain buddies when working at a local drug store. For four years, he served as a Navy radar specialist aboard the S.S. Myles C. Fox, a destroyer docked off Rhode Island and Mediterranean shores. On leave, he’d enjoyed rare chances to visit Spain, France, Italy and Morocco.

 Somewhere in the mix, Bob had won University scholarships and also earned a PhD in French and the privilege to be called “doctor,” a respected title in the nursing home. He’d been a French professor at Ohio Wesleyan and later worked as a librarian, an archivist in a geology lab, and a caretaker in a rose gardener.

 Bob took particular pride in his collection of rose poems -- over 1500. Before his stroke, he’d started gathering copyrights but now despaired that the poems would ever be shared or published.

We leafed through the poems, sitting side by side. “I like the Persian ones best. I like their passion,” said this seemingly monastic fellow. Had Bob, in fact, had his own great love? Did he too remember longing and heartache; days driving by a lover’s house or waiting like a fool for someone’s call?
The first Christmas I gave Bob poems by Tagore and he gave me his ode, Lord of The Rose, praising the.... “Beloved, “Heavenly Gardner, Thou...
.... “Your love a delicate petal....”

Bob revealed that as a young man he’d gone to the Catholic church with a girl he’d dated but other- wise hadn’t been religious much of his life. His mother attended the Pentecostal Holiness church, and his father, a Methodist, only went to services in his last years. He said he now relied on his faith more than ever, desperate to leave the nursing home, to return to his apartment, his friends and a private life he could no longer afford or manage on his own. He’d written his niece requesting to move but had no reply. “I feel my life is over. I don’t want to live like this. I pray,” he said. “I pray.”

I wanted Bob’s prayers to be answered or to find a way to help him escape the nursing home. The Legacy Project’s six-month deadline had long passed. I, too, was ready to exit. I felt flattered and anxious when he said I was his only friend, and he didn’t know what he would do without me. I imagined that we’d keep meeting for years to come.

We now felt safe speaking of our doubts and losses. Bob listened to my questions about faith without judgment. He confessed that he’d stopped teaching because of his drinking and the rough times that followed. “Earlier, I didn’t believe in God really,” he said. “It was more theory. Now, the whole matter of the hereafter is real to me in a way it never was. I feel I have a personal relationship with Christ. It’s the real thing and gets better and better. It saves me. Right now, if I didn’t have that, where would I be?” Indeed.

And, our differences, never strong, only lessened as the months passed. We joked that we’d cancel each other’s votes on election day. Together we ate Hershey kisses, read Richard Wilbur poems and watched the early snow fall.

As Bob’s second Christmas approached, I readied a Santa bag of his favorite foods to deliver on Christmas Eve. Then, on December 23rd, I got a sudden call. “I’m leaving in the morning,” Bob announced at high pitch. “Sandy is moving me. It’s a place nearer her. I’ll write to you when I get there.”

I was setting the supper table when Bob called; I stopped and sat down. “That’s good news, Bob. I’m glad Sandy’s coming. It’s what you’ve wanted. I’ll come by before you go tomorrow,” I said. Maybe Bob’s many months of worry had paid off; maybe his prayers had been answered. Maybe I didn’t want him to go.

In the morning, I hurried to the nursing home and found Bob already dressed for departure in a heavy sweater and jacket. I stuffed his shirts, sweaters, slacks, letters, soaps, razors and too many pairs of white cotton socks into cardboard boxes. He’d already packed my photo of a pink rose from a garden we’d visited before the last blooms.

When Sandy, and her husband, Frank, arrived, Bob and I hugged goodbye. He seemed the kid off to the county fair, impatient for his ride on the ferris wheel. He pushed his walker faster than usual; he carefully climbed the truck’s high step and wedged into the cab between Sandy and Frank, his belongings strapped tight in its bed.

 I snapped pictures and waved Bob off as Frank’s green and silver truck circled out of the nursing home driveway and disappeared into the traffic. I told myself that Bob’s move was all for the best, that he’d be closer to his family. I was grateful that his wishes had been heard and acted upon. He’d be far away but in a better place. I turned, saw Bob’s walker against the tree, and started to cry.

Watching the red truck taillights fade in the cold before Christmas, I promised myself to stay in touch. I sat in my car, holding the keys. I thought of the Project we never finished and Bob’s very real legacy. He’d chosen dignity when given no privacy; he’d chosen patience when others decided his fate; he’d chosen faith when facing the unknown. His was a legacy I’d long cherish, one of sweetness, acceptance, courage, and yes, love.

--The Richmond Times Dispatch, December 2011

copyright 2011


Ash Lawn

Who decides whether to keep or dispose of the grandfather clock, the four-posterbed or long-ago love letters? Whose ultimate responsibility is the stuff of past generations? How much of our legacy is tied to the belongings of our parents and ancestors?

After my father’s death 10 years ago, i resisted the answers. He and my mother—who had died 18 years earlier—were both only children. So am I. They had inherited, incorporated and slowly sold and given away family belongings. Now it was my turn.

My parents started their marriage on a dream and a dime, and while working up the new York ladder, they carefully saved to return to Virginia and build their future home. My father lived in his Charlottesville house for nearly 50 years. When I inherited and reluctantly sold his house, I replaced our early purchases with my mother’s treasured antiques and flea market finds. I tried to find perfect homes for other valued possessions. I gave some of my father’s favorite books to my favorite people. I gave my parents’ silver fish forks and sugar spoons as house presents. We delivered my family’s dining room table and chairs, a sideboard and chest of drawers to my daughter and her husband’s first home. Other pieces were crated to storage, awaiting my son’s move to his own home. It took a decade. I tried to reconcile too many years of storage bills with the belief that one day everything would find its proper place and that my children would want—even prize—the remaining family furniture.

But along with rescued lamps, mirrors, books and paintings was the invisible family flame. How could I divest and still honor my family’s past? How could I preserve the stories that spoke from every object and piece of paper? Forgotten sales slips, contracts, photographs and postcards were jumbled in boxes beside hammers and broken bric-a-brac. Faded grocery receipts shared space with my great grand-father’s letter of permission for his daughter, my grandmother, to marry her soon-to-be husband, and with another note, written by my grandmother during labor, reporting my mother’s imminent arrival.

Ironically, I found an essay voicing my mother’s own distress: “when my grandfather died, there were 10 trunks full of old letters, photographs and memorabilia in the attic,” she wrote. “There they stayed until my mother died 25 years later.... I couldn’t bring myself to just didn’t seem right. Now as the senior member present, I felt it was up to me to become   the family archivist. I made nine scrap-books, and 10 years later I am still sorting, but coming to the finish line.”

I shared my mother’s dilemma as I, too, eyed endless boxes, and pasted letters, documents and reminiscences into some 20 scrapbooks, discovering family narratives en route. Compiling my grandfather’s papers, I came to a fond kinship with a man I’d never known—an enterprising freelance editor and journalist who died when my mother was nine. I cherished tender letters written daily by my parents during world war II—my father in the Pacific and my mother looking forward to his home-coming. Had they saved these intimate love letters for themselves, for me or for posterity?

My biggest concern became all too clear when I met an auction dealer assigned to cart off the last family furniture in storage. There stood the four-poster bed in which my mother, father, grandmother and earlier descendants had died. My mother saved a letter claiming that the bed had been in her family since 1800, and that Lafayette likely slept in it duringan 1824 visit to Charlottesville. I remembered sitting at the end of this lofty bed making paper dolls with my grandmother. I pictured my mother tiptoeing to fit brass finials into the bed’s four posters. I saw my father retiring to bed, rereading his well-worn Shakespeare once again.

However esteemed the bed, no one in our small family felt it fit his house. Still, my guilt soared watching the bed trucked off and reassembled on the auction house floor. My son-in-law saw my discomfort and asked if I’d thought of donating the bed to an historical home. It had never occurred to me.

I contacted Ash Lawn, home of President James Monroe, and was astonished when the director said she’d love to have the bed, and if donated, would house it in guest quarters adjacent to Monroe’s home with a plaque to explain its origins. Although delighted at the prospect of the bed being in an historic setting, I still felt badly that the four-poster would leave our family. The auction house appraiser eased my conscience, saying, “think of it this way: Your family’s bed will be well looked after, and you have spared your children a decision they won’t have to make when you’re gone.”

Bingo. I suddenly felt lucky to have the four-poster in such a suitable place. Ideally, I would find perfect homes for all my family’s possessions. if not, as guardian of my parents’ memories, I could hold on or let them go. I chose to keep the stuff that offered the richest memories and to let go of what might burden the next generation.

When I later visited my family’s bed, I found it waxed, polished and royally draped in period finery, ready to welcome guests past and present. I snuck a moment to pat the pillows, hoping that my ancestors—and my children— would be pleased, and all sleep in peace.

Virginia Living, 2011