THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
SEPTEMBER 24, 2016
Note: A longer version of the following true story was first published in Black Lamb. Though it tells a sad story, it also celebrates the happy fact that writing stories can bring friends and relatives close to one another. Far-flung members of a dispersed tribe often know the same stories, although the versions they know and tell may differ in details. Here’s a tale about how writing stories brought me and my cousin Guy together: two very different writers, who shared their stories with each other and became close friends, even though they never met in person.
Sometime back in the early 1990s I wrote a short story about my grandmother’s funeral. She, Hannah Mallon, died in 1952, when I was ten. I didn’t attend the funeral in Cincinnati, but all of her eight children did, coming from as far away as Texas, Denmark, and Germany. These eight adult siblings, my mother and my aunts and uncles, gathered to bid adieu to the bossy, loving matriarch who had so shaped their lives. I don’t know what really happened at that gathering of tycoons, diplomats, wives, wits, and wastrels, and so the story I told was fiction, but I was as honest as I knew how to be about the personalities of the eight Mallons, all of whom were dead by the time I wrote the story.
The story was published in September 1994 by a small Southern California literary quarterly called Innisfree, which has also gone to its rest. I received my contributor’s copy, reread my story, and moved on.
About a year later, I received a letter from Guy Waterman in Vermont. Guy was a first cousin of mine whom I had never met, the son of my Aunt Mary, my mother’s oldest sister. As much as I loved Aunt Mary, I never knew her five children. I’d heard about Guy, though, whom family gossip had called a black sheep, one of several black sheep in the Mallon family. Guy had eloped when he was a teenager, had played jazz piano professionally, and now lived on a homestead in rural Vermont.
Guy opened his letter with the standard “Although we’ve never met…” and moved on to tell me that his wife, Laura, was a short story writer who subscribed to a number of little magazines, one of which was Innisfree. His and Laura’s favorite form of entertainment in the evening was to read aloud to each other, by lantern light. Usually they read classics from bygone centuries, but whenever Laura discovered a story she thought Guy might enjoy…
Bingo. “Those are my aunts and uncles!” Guy exclaimed to her. “Who wrote that story?”
And that’s how I met Guy Waterman, my first cousin, for the first time, when I was in my fifties.
As our correspondence took off, I got to know Guy better and better. I also corresponded with Laura, swapping short stories and congratulating each other when we were lucky enough to be published by the likes of Innisfree.
They called their homestead Barra, after the Scottish island ancestral home of one branch of our family. Their homestead was one and a half miles from the nearest village, East Corinth, Vermont. They had built their house entirely by hand, bringing materials in via paths through the woods. They lived without road access, electricity, and running water, except for a stream that ran through their little valley. The house was barely big enough for the two of them and Guy’s Steinway grand piano. Outbuildings included a guest shelter and an outhouse in the woods uphill, with a glorious view of their valley. They grew and canned all their own fruits and vegetables, and they harvested syrup from hundreds of sugar maples, all of which had names, many named after baseball players.
Guy was a baseball historian. He didn’t go to games or even listen to them on the radio because they had no radio, but he followed the statistics. The more I learned about Guy Waterman the more I realized he was a man of statistics, records, and lists. He kept years of meticulous records of the yield of their blueberry bushes (the bushes had numbers). Not how many pounds or how many pints per bush per year, but how many berries per day per bush. He also kept records of how many cartons of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream they consumed, sorted by flavor. They were obsessively frugal. Many of the letters I received from Guy were typed on the backs of food labels.
Guy and Laura Waterman were best known as mountain climbers and stewards of the wilderness. Guy had scaled every mountain in New Hampshire that stood over 4,000 feet, in winter, from all cardinal directions; and of course he kept records of each trip. The two of them wrote articles and books about conservation and wilderness history. They were widely published in their narrow niche.
I also corresponded with Laura, whose short stories got better and better as we exchanged writings and critiques. Her list of credits grew, with bigger and bigger little magazines. Many of her stories were drawn from her life of climbing and camping.
In the late 1990s I was hoping to expand my literary career to include agenting good writers to the small-press publishing world, where I’d made contacts and connections at book conventions and writing conferences. I proposed to Laura that she and I put together a collection of her best outdoor short stories, which I could try to place as a book. Guy intercepted the idea and came back with a different proposal. How about a book by both Guy and Laura Waterman, with short pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, all having to do with mountain climbing?
I said okay. I didn’t have any colleagues in the mountain-climbing publishing niche, if such niche existed, but I’d give it a shot.
So the two of them sent me a box of manuscripts and a table of contents. Guy’s essays and stories were wonderful (including a ghost story and a hilarious fantasy about mountain-climbing dairy cattle), and Laura’s stories were superb. I edited a bit, but only a bit, wrote a proposal package, and sent it to The Mountaineers, a book publisher in Seattle. They responded quickly and eagerly. I had negotiated a sale for A Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True. My first sale as an agent, which turned out to be my only sale as an agent.
The next bundle of paper I received from Guy was an enormous, unfinished autobiography, from which I learned more about Guy Waterman than I’d ever known before, and perhaps more than anyone else (other than Laura) knew either. He told me he had no intention of publishing the book, but he wanted me to read it.
So I did, and that’s how I learned about Guy Waterman’s lifelong struggle with what we now call bipolar disorder. Guy adamantly refused to consult any professional or even read any book on the subject. His soul was the battleground between two warring personalities, whom he named after characters from The Tempest: Ariel, the high-minded, light-hearted idealist, mountain climber and jazz pianist; and Caliban, the dark, angry, self-loathing failure.
I learned facts about Guy’s life that surprised the hell out of me. Not only was he a baseball nut, he was an ardent Republican who had written speeches for Nixon and a whole roster of Republican Senators and Congressmen in the 1950s. After that, he quit Washington and moved to New York, where he wrote speeches for the Public Relations department of General Electric. He and his wife couldn’t get along, and by this time he had three sons. He began drinking seriously, three-martini lunches every day, and he passed out almost every night on his living room floor. Caliban was in charge of his life.
Then, without AA, without counseling of any kind, Guy cleaned up his act. He started walking—marching—instead of drinking lunches. As he walked he memorized Paradise Lost. Not all of it, but eight books out of the twelve. In the process, he dried out. He began climbing mountains. He left his wife. He took his sons on climbing trips. He met Laura, and they began hiking, camping, and climbing together. They married. They bought property in rural Vermont. They left New York and built Barra, their homestead in the wilderness. Guy had a new cause to work for, the stewardship of the forests, trails, and mountains. Ariel prevailed.
But Caliban had never really gone away. The closer I got to the end of Guy’s manuscript, the sadder it got. Two of his sons died in mountain-related accidents, and Guy blamed himself for their deaths. As for the causes so dear to him—wilderness preservation and stewardship of the mountains, he felt the books he and Laura had written had failed to make a difference.
The ending of the autobiography was unwritten. The last chapter I was allowed to read ended with Guy wondering who would win the ball game, Ariel or Caliban. I got the feeling Guy was rooting for both teams.
Then, in February, 2000, during cocktail hour, the phone rang.
“Johnny? It’s Nicky. I’m afraid I have some rather dreadful news.”
Nicky, another cousin, told me by telephone that our Guy Waterman had frozen to death on Mount Lafayette in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
About two weeks after his death I received a hand-written letter from Guy himself.
“Dear John,” he wrote, “I have decided that old age is not for me.…” The letter was personal, recounting the way we had met and the importance of our correspondence to him. He thanked me for helping him to find a publisher for what was to become his last, and posthumous, book. He assured me that Laura would be provided for, with a new house in the village, and that suitable new owners and stewards would be found to care for Barra.
I later learned from Laura that during the last few weeks of his life Guy wrote other such letters, each different, to family and friends who mattered to him. He wrote them by hand, sealed them, addressed them and stamped them, with instructions to Laura to post them when she got word that Guy had been found.
Yes, Laura was in on it. It was the hardest thing she ever did. But Guy was determined, and it may have been that the only happiness he found in the last winter of his life was in writing more lists, as he planned every detail of his death.
Finally (for once a proper use for that adverb) Guy did it. Said goodbye to his wife and walked off across his snow-covered valley and up into the woods, where he disappeared from Laura’s sight. She cried and began the wait. She opened up the manuscript he had handed her that morning: the conclusion of his memoir. Caliban had won the struggle.
The funeral service was in the community church in the village, and it was packed. Later Laura sent me a tape of the musical climax of the service, a medley of waltzes that Guy had played into a portable cassette recorder on his Steinway Grand. They were all American standards, traditional favorites like “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
In June 2000, we assembled, some twenty or so relatives and close friends, at Barra to scatter Guy’s ashes around the homestead. Susan and I came from California. Cousin Nicky and her husband came from Texas. There were several cousins I hadn’t met before. I had never met Laura before in person either, and it was a bittersweet joy to finally hug her. Of all the seventeen Mallon first cousins (grandchildren of the Hannah Mallon who was buried in Cincinnati in 1952), the oldest (Guy’s brother Alan, then in his eighties) and the youngest (Nicky, in her fifties) were both on hand. Friends and family spoke, sang, played the piano, ate, and drank.
And then we scattered Guy’s ashes according to his wishes, on each of the blueberry bushes, at the base of several of his favorite maples, and on the compost pile.
As I held a handful of Guy in my hand, I realize that in a sense I was finally meeting Guy Waterman in person. If I was not shaking his hand—and who knows, maybe I was shaking his hand—at least I was making physical contact.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for October’s 99-word story submissions is Octoboer 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for October 8, and will stay posted for a week.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story inspired by the following sentence: Are you trying to tell me that you never even met this person before?
Calling all published authors—
I try to feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at email@example.com.
Thank you for visiting. Please drop by next week.