Six acclaimed writers reflect on their most memorable years, from 4 to 64.
In those days, they were called spinsters. I knew them by name. Miss Prescott was a librarian at Columbia University. Miss Cutler was a watercolorist. Miss Jourdan, a novelist and a magazine editor. The ladies lived in the apartment one floor above ours, at 36 Gramercy Park, in New York City. In the afternoons, while my mother taught school, I climbed the back stairs and visited them.
Their apartment was dark: dark paneling, dark furniture, and maroon velveteen on the window seats. Most walls were lined with books. Others were adorned with shields with coats of arms, crossed swords, and ornate tapestries. There was a wastepaper basket made from a rhinoceros's foot and a little white elephant carved out of ivory. As a child, I found it highly interesting that someone would carve an elephant out of ivory but never commented on it.
Miss Prescott was tall and bony, with a voice that cracked. Miss Cutler seemed composed of pastels. They served me milk and cookies as they took their tea, and taught me canasta, at which they openly cheated. They read to me-Doctor Doolittle, The Wind in the Willows, and Tom Sawyer-pausing to ask me questions, such as why Tom pretended to enjoy whitewashing the fence, and did I think Pooh silly or smart. Toward the end of the afternoon, Miss Jourdan would arrive home from work. She greeted her companions tersely, laid down her briefcase, and looked me over. She was a large woman who breathed heavily and always dressed in black, like Queen Victoria. She preferred to head straight to the concert grand in the living room and play, her huge hands extending nearly two octaves and coming down hard on the keys.
One day she played "The Blue Danube" and "Londonderry Air." I listened. And when she finished, I sat beside her on the piano bench and played the pieces pretty much as she had done, though with simpler chords and a lighter touch. Miss Cutler and Miss Prescott shrieked with delight at my small accomplishment. Miss Jourdan gave me an abrupt nod of approval.
Near the top of 36 Gramercy Park, between the ladies' floor and mine, were stone gargoyles that jutted out into the air. The moving men had to carefully work their ropes and pulleys around the gargoyles as they hoisted my family's new piano through the window. I was sorry that Miss Jourdan was not there to watch the piano arrive, as it was she who had inspired my parents to buy it. That event occurred when I was six, just after Miss Jourdan died.
By then my upstairs visits had begun to wane. But at age four, I spent as much time with the three ladies as I could. I enjoyed watching them go about their grown-up lives-writing letters, gossiping, bickering-as much as the milk and cookies. On Christmas Eve, they would hire a sleek black car to drive them up and down Fifth Avenue, where they would admire the blazing store-window displays. I sat in the back of the car on a little fold-down seat facing them. They made the same tour every year, and every year the city sights struck them with surprise. "Oh look!" they would call to one another and to me. "Isn't that wonderful?" And it was.
Roger Rosenblatt, 70, is the author of, most recently, the book Making Toast, about his family's life after his daughter's death, and the forthcoming Unless It Moves the Human Heart. He lives in Quoque, New York.
The summer when I was 12 was famous for its heat wave. For several weeks, my family escaped our London suburb to go camping on the grounds of a country manor. My parents had given me a small tent for my birthday and allowed me to pitch it as far from them as possible. When it rained, I loved to zip myself inside with a book and listen to the drumming of raindrops on canvas. Mostly the days were clear and hot, and I ditched my younger sister to hide with a book, up on the thick, gray lower limbs of elm trees, which soared together overhead like a cathedral. I read my way through countless books-some from the library, stiff in their smooth plastic sleeves, others from the moldy campground community room and various rummage sales.
A Shakespeare troupe set up on an outdoor stage at the base of a sloping meadow, and I lay for hours in the long grass, watching them rehearse. A stout Mark Antony struggled to manage a dangling sword below his paunch. Cleopatra lolled and gestured in such extravagancies of emotion that one day she rolled right out of her costume and had to stuff her bosom back into her toga along with the asp.
There were boys that summer-two brothers or cousins around my age-to whom every tree was a great Everest to be conquered. They carried a coiled length of thick, white rope and pocketknives. The rope was used to help haul us into bigger trees. We scrabbled into clefts smooth of any foothold and clung to limbs high enough to see over the fields. I was fearless in my own climbing but dizzy watching my little sister dangle her legs over the drops. I was conscious of a budding crush on one boy; I admired his way with a rope and a pocketknife.
That summer I had scabby legs and untidy brown hair and limbs that were gangly but strong and good for running and balancing. My parents, normally so cautious, allowed me to roam and, in evenings that stayed light for hours, forgot to enforce bedtime. I was oblivious to the expectations and silly cruelties that were about to chip away at my teenage years. I had yet to hear a girl pretend to know less about a subject than a boy. I was unaware that smart-mouthed girls were unpopular. I knew I was tall but as of yet had no idea that I should slouch in a corner while pretty girls danced in platform shoes. I didn't know Shakespeare was not cool.
Sometimes when I'm out hiking or watching my sons watch Shakespeare (and get the bawdy jokes), something bubbles up inside me: an uncomplicated happiness. A trapdoor opens to that endless summer, and if I concentrate, I catch a fleeting glimpse of myself.
Helen Simonson, 46, is the author of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Born and raised in England, she now lives in Washington, D.C.
Imagine a hummingbird, a drab one with a body that suddenly becomes iridescent in sunlight; wings a blur, moving fast in order to stay suspended. In the summer of 1986, the hummingbird was my feeling of anticipation, that exquisite moment before the beginning of something new.
I had just graduated from high school in suburban Houston-a behemoth institution centered around football and cheerleaders. In less than three months, I would be headed to Yale University, in New Haven, a town that sounded like a beautiful promise.
My high school was where my young soul (or at least self-esteem) could have easily shriveled up and died. I wasn't, shall we say, physically gifted. I wasn't golden in hair or in temperament. I wasn't full of cheer. I had a voluptuous brain, though. I used it to devise Janus-like strategies for escape. Externally, I embraced nonconformity. My hair was a black, tangled mop, my clothes came from thrift stores, and my friends reeked of cigarettes. Inside I was a grade-conscious overachiever who had memorized the top-10 universities and the SAT scores that I would need to get into them. The former was my quick-fix refuge. The latter was my long-term salvation.
When the envelope from Yale arrived, my mother got to it first. She waited for me at the front door of our house, identical to so many of the other houses in our subdivision except for the colors of the shutters, and she waved it up and down, like a wing.
Summers in Houston were hot and humid, and there was never anything to do, and that summer was no different. I was different, though. Or I was about to be. If I could go back, I would take a photograph of myself, and then an X-ray. I like to think I would see the small bird, humming inside.
Monique Truong, 42, is the author of Bitter in the Mouth and The Book of Salt. She lives in Brooklyn.