I can’t tell you what a great time I’m having reading We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich about life on the shores of Lake Umbagog in northern Maine in 1942. Well I could, but it would take too long. Just to give you an idea, here’s a bit about her stepdaughter Sally:
“The first twelve years of her life she lived in Southern Illinois and attended school regularly. Then she came with us for a while. Just as she was getting used to our peculiar mode of life, her mother sent for her to come to Lichtenstein — a small country betweeen Switzerland and Austria, in case you didn’t know — and she spent two years there and in the West Indies.
“She didn’t go to school at all, but she was being educated, nonetheless. She learned, among other things, not to giggle when a Count kissed her hand, no matter how much it tickled, how to get through the customs with the least trouble, how to wear clothes, and how to order a meal in German. Then came the war, and Sally came back to us.”
[Sally boards with family friends, the Allens, and goes to school in Upton, Maine.]
“When she was fifteen, her birthday party was held in the bar of a hotel in Haiti, closed to the public for the occasion. When she was sixteen, her birthday party was held in the Allens’ kitchen, open to the public for the occasion. Apparently everyone in town attended. As far as I can tell, she enjoyed both parties equally.
“She belongs to the 4H Club, and teaches a Sunday School class, and has a boyfriend. In fact she has a different one every time we see her, which makes it nice. If she stuck to one I’d probably think I had to worry about its being too serious…”
Louise takes very seriously her responsibilities toward Sally and Rufus, her son with Sally’s dad, Ralph Rich. The first picture ever taken of Rufus shows him in the arms of Jonesy, the cook in the local logging camp.
“Most of them [the loggers] were homeless and familyless, and a baby was a treat,” she writes.
I particularly love her advice on parenting: “All any parent can do is to stagger along as best he is able, and trust to luck.”
Reminds me of Robert Coles, the esteemed child psychologist, who said, “I learn a lot from my neighbors.”
And it reminds me of the time my daughter Sarah was three and we were watching Slim Goodbody on television and he was explaining the heart and the lungs and the liver and the brain, and she turned to me and asked, “Where is the knowing?”
“What?” I asked.
“The knowing. Where is the knowing?”
That’s when I realized that I was gong to be holding on to my hat for this entire journey. “Some say it’s in the head,” I said, “and some say it’s in the heart.” But I was winging it, and I have been ever since.
I do have one tip, believe it or not, despite my predeliction against pontification of any kind. I have always focused on learning from my kid.
I figured if she wanted to know where the Atlantic Ocean was, she would ask, and I would tell her, but my main focus was on learning from her. Kids are closer to the other side, like old people. They know tons of stuff we don’t know.
Did I learn a lot? You betcha. I didn’t even know what a toe sock was! Now I can sing all the tunes from Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. I’ve seen My Girl and My Girl 2, and I cry at the opening credits of Anne of Green Gables. I’m a deeper, more nuanced person.
Did she learn a lot? Who cares? That’s her look-out.