Friday, August 3, 2012

Conversations with Gladys

Gladys Taber came into my world when I was ten. That was the year that my parents gave me books for Hanukkah, and one of them was Taber’s Amber: A Very Personal Cat. I got up early the next morning and read the book in one sitting, falling in love with the photos of Amber, a dainty soulful-eyed Abyssinian. But I also fell in love with Taber’s life, which was a writer’s life and something I already knew I wanted. She was an everyday grandmotherly sort of person, much like some of the older women in my mom’s craft groups: in short, she made being a writer seem like, well, a more possible sort of thing. And since she and Amber lived in Connecticut, too, perhaps some day I would visit them…when I had gotten myself published and had an Aby of my own. I had it all figured out in my ten-year-old mind.
That idea got filed away with my 4H ribbons as I got older. But I still re-read Amber and its sequel, Conversations with Amber, periodically and was saddened when I read of Taber’s death in 1980. She was soon followed by the little Abyssinian, who “just faded away, as if she sensed somehow that this time Gladys was not coming home from the hospital,” remarks the author’s daughter, Constance Taber Colby, in the introduction to Still Cove Journal, published a year after Taber’s death. And because children tend to live inside the books they love, I felt as though I had lost two very old friends.

Actually, I think Taber has that effect on most of her readers. Reading one of her books is like sitting down to visit with an old friend. Amber may’ve been a very personal cat; but Taber was a very personable writer. Her voice is a kindly one, warm and heartening as comfrey tea, as she writes about Stillmeadow, the old farmhouse in Southbury, Connecticut that was her home for over twenty years; Still Cove, the house up on Cape Cod, where she spent her last years; the many dogs who tail-thumped their way through her life; and, of course, Amber. She is direct, thoughtful, and more than a little Thoreauvian. “We all need tranquility, and getting close to the earth is a good way to find it,” she remarks in that last book of hers. At another point, she says, “I have often noticed that trees often seem to do well just after transplanting but then begin to wither in a short time. I have never been a good transplant myself. Where my roots are comfortable, I thrive best.”

Maybe that’s it. In a fragmented world, Taber offers us both tranquility and roots. Taber belongs to a time of card catalogues, white milk glass (which she collected), leisurely reading, and more leisurely conversation. A time when neighbors dropped in on one another and were there with the casseroles, kind words, and comfort when you needed them. Maybe that’s why readers have turned to her books in times of sadness or crisis. One woman wrote about how Taber's books got her through the aftermath of a bad divorce; another found a sort of haven in them following 9-11.

The real Taber, however, was more complicated than the grandmotherly persona in her books. She was a single mother in the late 1940s, having “lost” (read “divorced” – “lost” is the euphemism she uses in her books) her husband Frank. She taught creative writing at Columbia University and Randolph-Macon Women’s College; she also bred and showed cocker spaniels and Irish setters. She was highly knowledgeable about world affairs, shrewd about business, and often downright opinionated. She was well-versed in the classics (she wrote sonnets and once contemplated doing a dissertation on the Bronte sisters) but wrote regularly for such mainstream publications as Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and Redbook. And she was thoroughly professional, a workhorse to the end. Colby recalls how during that last hospital stay, whenever Taber “had even a scrap of energy, she would reach for the yellow pad and felt-tipped pen on the bedside table. 'What day is today? There’s a column due on Wednesday.’…Nothing, absolutely nothing – not even what we all came to recognize as a final illness – could shake a commitment to writing that was, quite literally, lifelong.”

Quite a few years ago, I talked with Kim Baker, who had just completed a Master’s thesis entitled Gladys Taber, a Writer for All Seasons (Rhode Island College. 1992). Taber, as Baker put it, created not only a persona but also “a way of life that we want to read about. It’s possible to draw on your own experience and yet create a [different] persona that people want to read about, and that’s what Taber did. She was a sophisticated, complicated woman who chose to escape to the country. I think that she did have a real good sense of the simplicity of nature and the way it relates to our lives….Taber fills the void that’s created by the very fast, complex lives we lead.”

With over 40 books to her credit, it’s hard to focus on just one, but Another Path (1963) comes up frequently in people’s comments. Taber wrote it following the death of Eleanor Mayer (“Jill” in the Stillmeadow books), “my beloved companion of thirty years.” Mayer and her husband Max co-owned the Stillmeadow property with the Tabers; the women continued to live together after Gladys’s divorce and Max’s death.

My husband Tim and I drove out to Southbury with our son Zeke once so that I could finally see Stillmeadow. The house was closed up, so we headed over to the Pine Hill Cemetery, where Taber was buried. The stone was old-fashioned in style, the inscription neat and elegant:

                                        GLADYS BAGG TABER
                                   of Stillmeadow and Still Cove
                                               April 12, 1899

                                               March 11, 1980

 We stood there and talked a bit while Zeke, a toddler at the time, played in the grass.

 A little over a year later, I reached for Another Path when I lost Tim in a car accident. “Undertows are tricky, so is grief,” Taber reflects. “With undertows, you do not fight them nor give up and swallow half the salt water and drown. You try to swim in a slanting course, so the experts tell me, and you gain a little distance toward shore as you stroke not against but across the pull. If you are skillful and lucky, you land far down the beach – but you land, and feel the security of packed sand under your feet….It is possible to be happy even if one is lacking a mainspring. It is a different kind of happiness but it can be attained.” There’s some powerful imagery there – and some powerfully good advice.

So I never did get to meet Taber – unless, of course, you count the afternoon that Tim and I visited her grave. In another sense, I meet her every time I open one of her books. There’s a lot more to her than that ten-year-old girl reading Amber could’ve imagined. But that is, after all, what keeps our conversations interesting.