One of the best memories I have is of visiting my paternal grandmother in Shreveport, La. I called her Gram; everybody called her Gram except my father and his three sisters. To them she was “Mom.” Sixty-two when I was born, she lived in a two-bedroom frame house built by my grandfather with some help from my father. To visit her on my own, as I did from the time I was 7 or 8 until I was 14, was to experience the magic of a loving grandmother. My grandfather had died when I was nine months old, but his memory was part of the magic.
Donald Hall is a former poet laureate of the United States, recipient of all kinds of literary awards, and author of 16 books of poetry and 15 prose works. He had a Gram, too, and she lived with his grandfather in his favorite place in the world, a farm called Eagle Pond in rural New Hampshire. It’s where Hall himself, now 84, lives today. In Eagle Pond, published in 2007, Hall reflects on the farm, on change, on his family and on the nature of place.
The one thing Hall never did was to spend Christmas with his grandparents. And so he’s written himself a fictional memory that could easily be non-fictional. And he’s called it Christmas at Eagle Pond, and included beautifully simple illustrations by Mary Azarian.
It’s December, 1940. War is raging in Europe; even in rural New Hampshire they know London is undergoing a daily bombing blitz. Donnie, a 12-year-old boy and only child, is traveling to spend Christmas with his grandparents at their farm in New Hampshire. His mother is recuperating in the hospital from surgery (they did that back then), and Christmas is going to be spare and lonely if he stays in Connecticut. So he’s traveling by train to Boston, and then on to Gale, the closest station to Eagle Pond Farm.
Written is a simple, declarative style, the story is a very straightforward account of four days at Christmastime. Events unfold in a straight narrative fashion, one sentence after another. We are seeing Christmas celebrated in a way of life that was vanishing even then, with roads being paved, indoor plumbing being installed, and the old sleigh resting unused in the barn.
Donnie is a serious boy. He reads. He reads poetry and listens closely as his grandfather recites it from memory. He absorbs the stories about local characters and family members. He watches and notes everything, and little escapes his gaze. And he adores his grandparents; there is no place he’d rather be than Eagle Pond.
There is no mystery or tension in Christmas at Eagle Pond. But then, there shouldn’t be. This is a memory, or what would have been a memory had it actually happened. And it did happen, in imagination and desire if not in time. This is the story of four days spent by a boy with his beloved grandparents, at a farm called Eagle Pond.
Memories don’t get better than this. I know.
My post on Hall’s Eagle Pond.