My favorite part of the St. Louis Zoo was the children’s petting zoo, especially the area where all the kids and lambs were kept. I could have stayed there all day. We went to the zoo a lot in the summer months so at least I got frequent visits where I could feed my growing obsession. In between visits, I would fantasize about having goats and sheep of my own. It’s funny because I never saw this enormous farm. It was always a smaller place with just enough room for a small herd. And I always had a garden full of herbs and flowers–the Botanical Gardens were another favorite place to visit as a kid. I would even imagine myself in later years as an old woman with that herd of goats and sheep, and a yard full of flowers, herbs and vegetables. I can’t think of a better way to retire someday but I am working towards making that dream come true now. That old woman of myself was happily settled.
It started with the petting zoo. Books fueled it further. When my family relocated from Rhode Island to St. Louis, Missouri in December 1978, I felt completely lost. I missed my family. Granted, my stepfather’s family welcomed me as their own and I’ve been blessed with a third “set” of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins that I love dearly. It’s just the place where you’re born always has a special tug, no matter where you end up later in life. And I was convinced there would be at least one family member I would lose before we returned East again. You see, I lost my paternal grandfather shortly after we relocated the first time in December 1974. He was probably my biggest influence. He was a writer and a musician and he gave me a love of learning that I cherish to this day. He started teaching me chess at the tender age of 3–well enough that I held my own in a chess club against some with trophies bigger than houses, though I’ve never had an interest in competing; I enjoy the game just because it’s fun and requires one’s total absorption. My family managed to move back East just before Poppop’s passing in April 1975. Nanny, my paternal grandmother, passed almost a year to the day after Poppop and things were never quite the same in my world. Somehow it stuck in my head that major moves like that would result in losing someone dear again. And I did. My Uncle Jimmy was killed in a car accident 6 months’ after that second relocation in May 1979. We were only 4 years apart in age and our birthdays just 2 days’ apart. Mom and Grandma Heon would have a cake for us both on the day in between our birthdays. Anyway, at 12 years old, this was just too much grief and homesickness to deal with so books became my solace.
I remember being in Ms. Borden’s 7th grade class and picking up Elizabeth George Speare’s “The Witch of Blackbird Pond”. It was set in New England–Connecticut, more specifically–and the vivid descriptions of a Puritan village (I had already visited Sturbridge on a field trip and fallen in love…) and autumn foliage and the smell of salty sea air brought home a little closer to me. Maybe that’s where the dreams of myself being a little old lady with a bunch of goats really came from as the character of Hannah Tupper lives alone in her little dilapidated cottage with her goats and her cats (I am sort of in line for that title of “Crazy Cat Lady”…). She reminded me of another elderly woman who lived across the street from my maternal grandparents. Her name was Mae. And I know her last name but I am not sure of the spelling so please forgive the lack of etiquette. Anyway, this book became a major part of my life. I still have a copy. And I cannot count the number of times I have read it.
“Those Miller Girls” by Alberta Wilson Constant was another that captured my heart at that tender age. Though it was not set in New England like “The Witch of Blackbird Pond”, Swish the Goat was a major supporting character–at least in my book he was. This seemed to be a theme to my early readings. Ironically, I didn’t read “Heidi” until my early 40’s!
A couple of years later Mom had enrolled in the Doubleday Book Club. One of the first books she received was entitled, “The Tiger’s Woman” by Celeste De Blasis. Unlike “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” and “Those Miller Girls”, it did not feature any goats, though there were plenty of sheep. And this was not a young adult reader. If Mom had known the very adult content, she probably would have prohibited me from reading it at 14 years of age; the bedroom scenes were quite explicit. But this book actually became a major catalyst in my life as the lead character of Sarah-Mary Drake and I shared a common childhood: we both had fathers (in my case, stepfather) who wanted too much to do with us. I suddenly felt less alone in the world but, more importantly, the influence that this book in particular had on my life still has the power to astound me: my love of Newfoundlands from the character of Captain; my determination to learn American Sign Language from the characters of Maggie and Ben; Sarah-Mary learns gardening, spinning, weaving, breadmaking–all of the myriad aspects that make up homesteading. A later book by Celeste De Blasis, entitled “Wild Swan”, had almost as much of an impact as the lead character, Alexandria, is an herbalist, as is her grandmother, Virginia. The vivid descriptions of Virginia’s English herb garden stuck with me and put me in mind of Mae, too. Though I don’t recall Mae having an herb garden, she did know her plants, her herbs. Mom cured a case of pink eye (conjunctivitis) in me using a decoction of spearmint leaves, a remedy that she learned from Mae when she was a child.
I am definitely older now. Not sure if I’m any wiser. But copies of these books stand on the shelf of my library, tattered and torn, the bindings cracked, the pages yellowed from their many handlings over the years. Every once in awhile, I feel a need to re-visit some old friends and mentors, and remember the solace these cherished volumes provided for a lost and lonely little girl. It could be, too, that they’re simply some well-written stories with some vivid and memorable characters. I admit, if I can write just one complete novel with even half of the dynamics that Celeste De Blasis put into her novels, I will consider myself a success as a writer. She was an extraordinary author…even if she didn’t feature any goats in her novels.
Almost 40 years later, I am still in love with Swish the Goat. And I still linger overlong in the petting zoos.
May God bless you & keep you!