Life was changing so fast, inside and outside, everything peeling away. I was not capable of that much change that quickly.
We all live in nested cultures, like Russian dolls. The one closest to me, the tightest fit, was the culture of my own family. Beyond that was the culture of Hanover and of Dartmouth, founded when New Hampshire was still a wilderness in a British colony. Dartmouth was a men’s college, a red-brick elm-shaded machine for turning out young men. The whole town was a machine for turning out young men—at that time women were forbidden from being on the faculty at Dartmouth, and very few other jobs beyond teaching, nursing and secretarial work were open to them. Most middle-class, college educated women stayed home, pouring their ferocious energy into homemaking and volunteering. Hanover children created their own intense culture inside a protective palisade of mothers.
The only exception to the ban on women faculty members at Dartmouth was a quiet, kind Russian lady who had escaped the Stalinist purges, smuggling herself and her young daughter out of the Soviet Union. She taught Russian, the only woman on the faculty, and lived in a stuffy little apartment in the same big yellow-clapboarded house where my young parents and I moved when my father took a teaching job at the college. When neighborhood children knocked on her door she greeted us with a thick accent and gave us little hard candies from the fancy jar she kept on the coffee table; a giant oil portrait of her daughter, now grown up and living in Southern California, hung over the fireplace. It was hard for me at age five or six to fit the glamorous young woman in the painting, dressed in a full-skirted evening gown, her light brown hair waved and satiny, into the story my parents told of Mrs. Koroton running silent and desperate hand-in-hand with her tiny daughter through the dark wintry forest. Mrs. Koroton’s husband, my parents told me, was arrested by the secret police one night and never came back.
That’s the way news of the outside world came to Hanover much of the time: personified. I watched as my mother hung blue homemade curtains for a family of Hungarians who had emigrated to America after the uprising of 1956. Plenty of my friends’ fathers had fought in the Second World War–Monte Cassino, Guam, Normandy—and we played war tirelessly, stalking through the neighborhood lilac bushes and peony beds in summer and establishing fortifications on giant gritty snow banks in winter. There was a girl the age of my friends’ older sisters who walked awkwardly on iron leg braces; she was the one we thought of when we lined up in the school nurse’s office for the first painful polio shot. Later my parents had a friend who marched in Selma and knew Dr. King. Famous Dartmouth alumni—Nelson Rockefeller, Dr. Seuss—streaked briefly across the local sky but for the most part the big business of life seemed to be happening with more coherence and more intensity somewhere else.
On the other hand, life—my life—was good. I learned to read, gained two brothers and a sister, rode my bike, constructed tiny encampments for imaginary thumb-sized people out of acorns and twigs, spent the night at friends’ houses, flew kites, made salt-and-water maps of South America, tried to teach my parakeet to talk, walked home from the library reading, went to summer camp (and sobbed for three days with homesickness until they sent me homw), got my period, got a crush, wrote in my diary. Every now and then I would look up from my bike and be startled into awe by the bright seam of summer sky between the elm trees, or lie in the back yard and feel the terrifying, exhilarating rotation of the earth. Dreamy and inattentive, given to intense enthusiasms and listless boredom, capable of being brought to a standstill by a new word or an insight, I was dogged by a sense that I had been out of the room or fiddling with my pencil when instructions were being handed out. As I entered adolescence, rode my bike less, held my school books tighter to my chest, I still knew perfectly well how to be my interior intimate self, the self that read books and looked out the window during geometry class, but was only barely capable of being the outer public self. I was a teenager by rote, never by heart.
In 1964, in the summer between my ninth and tenth grade years, the whole family packed into the big white Rambler station wagon and drove down to the New York World’s Fair. There were four children by then—I had just turned 15, my next youngest brother was 8, the brother after that was 7 and my sister was 5. My parents were still young, 35 and 36, beautiful, capable and energetic. I was in love with my family. We were a tribe and like all tribes were both warmly self-supporting and, at times, shockingly xenophobic. Things were only funny if they suited the Seymour sense of humor. Things were worth reading if they were something a Seymour would read. An idea explained the world best if it explained a world of Seymours. Clothes were only suitable if they suited Seymours; houses were only beautiful if they were the sort of houses Seymours lived in; history was only interesting if it was populated by proto-Seymours. I can’t say that my parents imposed this insularity on me—I think they worried sometimes that I was too timid–but the rewards of going along were simply too rich to be foregone.
I was tall for my age, always, and then simply tall; tall and distracted, unable to manage curlers and bobby pins, dreadfully unlike the carefree pink-lipped summer blondes in Seventeen. Even worse, just as I had developed a figure like my mother’s, fashion took an abrupt left turn. Waists became irrelevant; busts were a nuisance; legs were meant to be long and straight and thin. Dresses were as simple as a child’s drawing–short, A-shaped, crisp. My parents have a picture of all of us sitting in front of the Unisphere at the World’s Fair, dressed up as people did in those days to go on an important family outing. I am wearing a light blue sleeveless linen dress and black flats, my hair is short and cut at home. I am neither grown up nor not grown up, smiling that ambiguous smile of the teenager with braces—the weighty lead-gray braces of 40 years ago—knees pressed together, legs decorously swiveled to one side.
I have beside me as I write this two spiral bound pocket notebooks, the inexpensive kind with shiny brown pasteboard covers. My ninth grade diaries. Babysitting, clothes and hair (“I watched TV tonight but I didn’t do any homework. I bought a new skirt and blouse but the skirt is still a little large in the waist. I don’t know what I’ll wear tomorrow….” “Henry asked Anne out. I watched TV tonight and now I am trying to set my hair…”), petty squabbles, breathless underlinings and multiple exclamation points. The scrawly penciled-in young woman who fills the blue-lined pages sounds like a nice enough girl, but she is so…ordinary. Where is that sensitive, dreamy person, that frog princess, that I remember? Where is that lonely soul set loose in the world of ideas? I look for her and find November 17, 1963 “Dear Diary, Please pardon my not writing for so long, but really nothing is happening. I went to Canteen last night, but I didn’t have any fun, so I decided to come home. I saw a whole bunch of Canadian geese flying in a V which was kind of cool.” And then I pause and put down the notebook. I remember that night. Walking home alone from the dense high-pitched awkwardness of a school dance in the elementary school gymnasium. A group of my classmates—confident, popular classmates–half a block ahead, confusions of laughter coming back towards me in the dark, the animal smell of my wool coat, the intimate loneliness of the night air on my cheeks, shadows from the streetlight on a stone wall, fighting inside my head with envy and regret and then suddenly, traversing slantwise the moonlit autumn clouds, an irregular formation of wild geese. The lid of the world raises, the borders expand, I am dipped sideways into otherness, and then the sound of my footfalls on the concrete returns in the night silence and the geese disappear over my shoulder and are lost in the black silhouette of the trees. For a moment that moment is more real to me than the sunlight here in the room where I am writing, more real than the shadows wavering on the screen and insects chiming forty years after that walk in the dark. Everything I remember is encoded in those inadequate lines, but no more truthful than that sudden sensual memory, no more truthful than the moment just passed, a moment that I will remember someday when I reread what I’ve written here (rattle of a lawnmower in the yard next door, cardinal chirping like the squeak of a sneaker on a wooden gym floor). There’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that reads in part: “The thought behind, I strove to join/Unto the thought before–/But Sequence ravelled out of Sound/Like Balls—upon a Floor.” I sit for a minute on a June morning with sequence raveling and two little brown notebooks in my lap.
My ninth grade diaries might have been lost or boxed away and forgotten if it hadn’t been for an odd incident. When my family came home from the World’s Fair that summer we talked about the time capsule that we had seen on display in the Westinghouse Pavilion, a sleek missile-shaped cylinder that was going to be buried at the end of the fair next to the capsule interred at the 1939 World’s Fair, both of them to stay under Flushing Meadows until sometime in the incomprehensibly distant future five millennia away. The contents of the World’s Fair capsule reads like an elegy to the Age of Anxiety: bikini, plastic wrap, electric toothbrush, tranquilizers, ball-point pen, credit cards, filter cigarettes, pocket radiation monitor, birth control pills, plastic heart valve. That Thanksgiving we buried our own family time capsule in my uncle’s old Army-issue steel ammo box. Our ambitions were more modest. Twenty five years instead of five thousand, although in 1964 the year 1989 seemed nearly as remote and chancy as the year 6939. Magazines, newspapers, family photos, letters in childish handwriting to our mysterious adult selves, a bottle of Scotch, a packet of zinnia seeds, a big reel of shiny brown audio tape. And my ninth grade diaries. For a quarter of a century we reminded each other of how many years were left until we could open the time capsule. It lay buried in a secret spot in New Hampshire, was dug up prematurely ahead of bulldozers, traveled to Florida with my parents and was hidden beneath a trapdoor in the bathroom.
We gathered for another Thanksgiving—more of us: a fifth sibling, a sister, still three years in the future when we buried the capsule and now grown up and married; husbands, wives, children. The elegant grandparents dressed up in city coats on the day we buried the time capsule were gone; marriages had been made and dissolved. The world had moved deeper into uncertainty, and some hopeful spirit—whether it was of youth, of history, or of family character—had eroded and darkened. Twenty-five years, it turns out, is a lot and not so much. That evening, crowded into my parents’ warm family room, thighs packed tight against each other on the sofa, babies balancing themselves at the edge of the coffee table, children sitting cross-legged on the floor, my father and my uncle making speeches in front of the fireplace, cameras flashing, bursts of laughter, we anticipated the completion of a long ritual.
We’ve talked about it since, my brothers and sisters and I, and no one can quite identify the source of the melancholy and irritation that settled on the room as we passed around the contents of the capsule. It wasn’t, I think, that the contents of the capsule were a disappointment—it was quite the opposite. The things we had chosen did their job too well, brought the past cannonading too violently into the present. The past is supposed to stay the past, to fray and fade and make way for the present, be edited and mediated by what follows after. But there the past sat, too close for comfort, in all its dumb ignorance, as bright and unworn as the day it was buried. As the evening went on we drank a little too much of the Scotch, laughed a little too hard at each other’s jokes; the room grew hotter and brighter. In the end we packed everything back in the ammo box and put it in the basement and I don’t think anyone has looked at it since. Almost as an afterthought I pocketed the two little diaries and put them in my closet at home.