Yes! I’ll buy the gift wrap before I buy the present! Years ago when I was a teenager, Hallmark started carrying their products in Dart Drug. I lathered over the Hallmark section, spending my allowance on Peanuts cards and gift tags and wrapping paper, yarn and fancy bows. My sister once said that I always spent more on the wrapping than the actual gift.
Even now I buy beautiful paper in museum gift shops. In April I took a trip to New York. I bought so many paper goods I had to buy an extra suitcase. My favorites? Sheets of Cavallini gift wrap from the American Museum of Natural History. I carried the rolled tube on the train like the Holy Grail.
What’s the first book report you ever wrote?
I don’t remember the very first book report, but I do remember writing a wonderful book review of The Yearling for eighth grade English. And then, the teacher lowered the boom. Instead of turning them in, we had to give them orally. I froze. At that time, I was so shy I couldn’t even answer the phone. Only a certain number of students read each day. Each day I waited in terror for my name to be called. On the fourth day, it was. I could not—simply could not—get up in front of the class. So I lied and told my teacher I hadn’t done my report, even though it was in my notebook, beautifully written, and I took a zero.
What book do you tell everyone to read?
When I was eleven, the most wonderful book ever fell into my hands, A Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton. Even now, I chase everyone down and beg them to read this fantasy-mystery-historical-family story liberally sprinkled with Thoreau, Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott. It changed my life. I had to be married on Valentine’s Day because of a chapter in the book (try explaining that to your husband-to-be during the Blizzard of ’79—three feet of snow on the ground, but we made it).
Ten years ago I met Jane Langton and told her how much her book meant to me. I was so eager, so, I don’t know, hero-worshipful that I was not ready when she said in her kind voice, “Oh, every year people tell me the exact same thing.” The breath left my body. No! Her book only changed my life!
Well, I still tell everyone to read it, if they can get hold of a copy. It might change their life, but not the way it changed mine.
Describe your most favorite pair of pajamas ever.
I was five and we had just moved into a house in the country (read: sticks). I had my own bedroom for the first time, and my own bed (until then, I lived in someone else’s house and slept in a crib—that’s why I’m so short). My mother bought—or made, she sewed all of our clothes—a pair of Donald Duck pajamas. The print was turquoise and yellow. I loved those pajamas beyond all reason. When I finally outgrew them, my mother tucked them in her bottom dresser drawer with her sewing supplies.
When I was in my twenties and on my own, my mother made me a twin-size quilt. Not a fancy quilted quilt, just a nine-patch tied off. She’d used fabric from some of clothes she’d made me. There in the center is a piece of the Donald Duck pajamas. I still have the quilt. I love it beyond all reason.
What do you wish you could tell your ten-year-old self?
Oh, my. She was such a brave, funny girl. Shy and yet adventurous. Smart but she failed math and the President’s Physical Fitness tests (she was proud of walking the 600, earning the slowest time in the history of field day—over 13 minutes). She wanted so many things, that girl. She wanted to be a writer and a detective and maybe a vet and, secretly, a ballerina even though she was stiffer than barn wood and had never had a dance class in her life. She also wanted to be an artist and she believed she could do all of those things!
Part of me wants to warn her of what’s coming, but a bigger part of me wants her to stay in the dark, let her be herself as long as possible. I wouldn’t tell her that she won’t be able to do all the things she wanted: the sight of blood makes her faint, she can’t stay up long enough to be a detective (all those night stake-outs), and, saddest of all, that she won’t be able to go to art school. Or any school, really, until she’s 50. No, I won’t tell her that.
I think I would tell her to remember better where she lived, every little bit of it. The trees, the garden, the strawberry patch in June, the martin house she asked her stepfather to build but stayed empty, the blue candle lights in the picture window at Christmas, the canning-jar smell of the basement, the rumbly sound of Half-Pint purring, the taste of fried squash washed down with sweet iced tea on a hot July evening, the feel of the brush as Mama worked the tangles from my hair.
Yes, that’s what I’d tell her. Remember better, girl, because your sixty-three-year old self will have trouble. And she needs the gifts of those memories to get through the day. They don’t even have to be wrapped in fancy paper.