Saturday, November 9, 2013

* To the Memory of Miss Isabel Wilder

Around 1987 Miss Wilder asked me to take charge of removing overgrown shrubs around her family plot in Mt. Carmel Burying Ground and replacing them with dwarf shrubs.  Mr. Frank Esposito, a landscaper in charge of the Burial Ground,  effected the change. The Wilder plot is 100 yards from my own family plot.

 No questions asked; 
No comments sought; 
No statements revealed (until now).

I am usually someone who loves to hear stories and elicits them from others.

There has been one notable exception: my twenty-year friendship with Miss Isabel Wilder, herself a novelist and the sister of  the celebrated American author, Thornton Wilder.

I promised myself when I met her after her brother's death in 1975  that I would NEVER initiate a conversation about her brother, nor would I seek more information if she initiated such a conversation in my presence.

 I would listen. 


Hence my recollections of Miss Wilder's comments about her famous brother are few,----and undeveloped----- as I kept my promise not to pry. 

Years after she died a friend of hers told me I was a fool not to ask. "She lived to be asked about her brother. She enjoyed it" was the Wilder acquaintance's little sermon to me.

I had exactly the opposite opinion: I thought she had been "Thornton's sister" all her life:  I wanted to have an authentic friendship with her, not with Thornton's sister.

I waited ten or twelve years before I told her of that promise to myself. 

She was 85. and she was absolutely silent when I told her. (A rare occurrence since she had opinions on just about  everything). I believe she was thinking it over---the ten years I mean ---to see if I had kept my promise or was just talking through my hat. 

I never knew--since in tradition ---I didn't ask.

However, she definitely spent time considering what I had just told her.

I felt the same way about her nephew when I was introduced to him around 1976: It must have been a terrible burden to be the only male heir to Thornton Wilder (of the five Wilder siblings, there were only two offspring, those  of the oldest brother, Amos:  Tappan A. Wilder (Tappy) and his sister.

Tappy would inherit Miss Wilder's role as literary executor on her death in 1995 and has since created  (LINK) The Thornton Wilder Society .  Some would say he embraced the burden.  Perhaps I was wrong.

Here are a few comments  I did not pursue. I am glad I didn't : history's demand to reveal everything will have to defer to my own rules for our friendship, from which, until this writing, I have never deviated.

  •  "Thornton drank himself to death" [ I'd have guessed it more likely he "smoked" himself to death from Gilbert Harrison's biography.] 
  • "He never would have died if he knew the mess he was leaving me in [as his literary executor].
  • [The year he died] "He told me to sell the house [50 Deepwood Drive in Hamden, 'the house The Bridge built' as Thornton dubbed it after using royalties from The Bridge of San Luis Rey to pay for its construction] and get an apartment in [ the New Haven high-rise ] the Crown Towers.  I said, 'What about you?'. He said, 'I'll get an apartment down the hall.' "
  •  When she took me to hear her nephew Tappy (Tappan A. Wilder) give a talk on town planning (?) at the New Haven Historical Society, she nodded to me as he took the lectern and said, "He's our purchase on the next generation [as the only male heir to pass on the Wilder name] ."
  • On our way once driving from Hamden to her younger sister Janet Dakin's house in Amherst,  Miss Wilder wanted to stop for lunch. I drove past a Burger King and said "You'd never consider that." She replied, "Thornton loved places like that" and we went back for lunch at BK. 
  • In her home on Martha's Vineyard, which Thornton bought for her as "payment for my work for him", the upstairs of the cape-style house on Katama had one large room. In it was a ten or twelve foot long plain drawer-less oak conference table. "Thornton bought it from the telephone company to use as a desk."
  •  For years Miss Wilder drove a Studebaker Lark. It was just the right size for her and she loved "Larky" as she called it. When Studebaker went out of business, she couldn't find a replacement. "Thornton bought me the Mercedes for Valentine's Day.It was about the same size as Larky," Miss Wilder said of her '68, four-door grey Mercedes which I often drove, ferrying her to destinations far and near. 
  • I drove Miss Wilder on errands in her ten year old Mercedes. One day in Hamden on Whitney Avenue heading toward New Haven, Miss Wilder ordered a detour: "Take a left" she said after the Wilbur Cross Parkway entrance near Howard Johnsons.  The left took us into Millbrook an upper middle class neighborhood of homes between Whitney Avenue and the exclusive neighborhood of  Ridge Road.  As I drove through the neighborhood Miss Wilder told me to slow down, "I had my chance" she said  as we drove by a particular house which  she pointed out. "The man in that hosue asked me to marry him.  I turned him down.".  I remained silent, but felt honored that she shared that intimacy with me.
  • One day Miss Wilder asked me to take her shopping at a large supermarket.  As I pushed the cart near the cheese  section, Miss Wilder sudeenly commanded me, "Turn around.  Turn around and close your eyes."  I never contradicted Miss Wilder (well, only once in 20 years did I contradict her.*) so i turned around and covered my eyes, although I left a little space between my fingers so I could peak,  even though I had turned around. To my astonishment, Miss Wilder lifted her dress in the middle of the store and took cash (bills) out of a garter on her upper leg, 
  • In 1980/81 Miss Wilder took my friend Pat Levy and me to lunch at the Lawn Club.  Pat was viiting from New Jersey. No stranger to the musical stge (she produced a film on her friend Dizzie Gillespie's visit to Cuba), she struck up a conversation about actors and acting.. Somehow she and Miss Wilder got onto the topic of Sir Lawrence Olivier, one of Pat's favorites as a devotee of Shakespeare from our college days in the 1960's.  Pat was amused at Miss Wilder's opinion about 'Larry' who Miss Wilder knew socially:   "What a bore. All he ever talked about was acting.  Acting, Acting Acting.  What a bore"

* I don't recall the conversation but it was after I had known her quite a while and she was criticizing something I had said  done. Usually I just swallowed her criticism, but for some reason this particular tidbit irked me and I recall saying quite distinctly, "That's not fair Miss Wilder, not fair at all." Uncharacteristically, her reaction was silence, rather than rebuttal. I think she was surprised that I spoke up for myself.

Mis Wilder  gave up driving at 85 in 1985, giving the Mercedes  to her nephew who by then lived in Chevy Chase. The last time I saw her driving was that year, clutching the steering wheel for dear life as she  sped down Whitney Avenue, apparently making one last call at the family cemetery plot in Mt. Carmel Burying Ground, a hundred yards from my own family plot. 

She had no idea that I saw her driving that day (I was in my own car,  at a stop sign on Hamden's Carmel Street perpendicular to Whitney Avenue as she flew by entering Mt. Carmel and the land of the Sleeping Giant). She was wearing a hat and I think she had on gloves as she held the wheel tightly with both hands.

I knew intuitively that she was on an errand important to her; the hat gave it away, and so did her uncharacteristic speed.

It was the beginning of the end of my days in Hamden and New Haven, my birthplace and home.

I would be flung by vicissitude to Oregon for a year  and then Vermont from 1985 to the present. The history of Miss Wilder's deepening emotional (and financial) investment in my growth and development literally grubstaking (wrong word: it was a gift not a loan) me while I interned  at Bethel, Vermont's Whitcomb High School to become a certified Vermont English teacher in a Vermont town much like Grover's Corners,  is a record which  can be found in (LINK)  my donation of her notes, cards and letters to Yale's American Literature Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book Library, 2013.  

I have spent most of my life trying to preserve history, (LINKS)  from Kent State, 1970 to the aftermath of the (LINK)  Boston Marathon bombings, 2013.

In the case of Miss Wilder, I declined to do so, except in the matter of  (LINK)  our town's memorial to her brother, from 1976-1985.

Now, that I am about to enter my 70th year, I choose to comment here and there, but with a son's care for the feelings of a great lady.

April, 1985: Miss Wilder with my parents
at the dedication of  Thornton Wilder's desk, portrait, and memorabilia
 in our town,
Hamden, Connecticut