I was sitting by the gas-lit fireplace in my local library when a book on the table caught my eye. It was the collected correspondence of the novelist Marjorie Rawlings and her editor, Maxwell Perkins. As I read their letters I could hear their long-stilled voices speaking to each other, and to me, across the expanse of decades. I tried to check out the book, but was told it was a reject from a book sale, and if I wanted it I would have to buy it. So I did.
At home, I looked up Maxwell Perkins on the Internet. A link led me to Perkins’ granddaughter, the novelist Ruth King Porter, who lived in rural Vermont. Ruth was giving away her novels, asking nothing in return but that readers post reviews on her website. I sent for Ruth’s books, and a correspondence began. Soon, we wanted to meet in person. I scheduled a visit to Ruth in spring; then her mother’s dying began. I rescheduled in autumn; then my mother’s dying began.
Instantly I cancelled travel plans and let go of my already-purchased bus ticket, but a friend with a car offered to take me on a shorter day trip to Vermont. Encouraged by my mother, I accepted.
“We are two middle-aged women, both wearing glasses.” I told Ruth. “My friend is a blonde with dark roots. I still think of myself as brunette, but there is more salt than pepper in my hair, now.” Ruth wrote that she would be waiting for me under the clock tower of Montpelier’s City Hall. I knew what Ruth looked like from the photographs on her website.
We rode into Montpelier on a gloriously warm day at high noon. I saw Ruth sitting on a bench under the clock tower, scribbling in a notebook. Main Street was packed with tourists, and we couldn’t stop the car in front of City Hall. We found a parking space down the street. My friend waited in the car, while I ran down the block. “Ruth?” The woman on the bench looked up, and then leapt up.
Ruth was a pre-hippie Back-to-the-Lander, in her early seventies when I first met her. At our first encounter, she wore a white work shirt, faded blue jeans, and a black money belt slung over her shoulder. She walked like someone who rode horses.
“Where’s your friend?” Ruth called through the crowd of tourists blocking the sidewalk.
“She’s waiting in the car!” I called back. I led Ruth to the car and the friend in it. Ruth led us both on a tour of the golden-domed state capital building. “I hope we don’t run into my son.” Ruth twinkled. “He’d be embarrassed by the way I’m dressed. My son Louis works as an aide to the governor.” When the tour was over Ruth led the way in her battered old car out of Montpelier and higher into the Green Mountains, where another world awaited.
Ruth’s husband Bill and a second son, Robbie, rode their tractors out of the woods to greet us on the porch of a rambling farmhouse. Nearby, three large dogs stiffened in alert: Ellie and Flora danced in attendance to the top dog, Chief. Ruth’s daughter Molly, an artist who lived, Thoreau-like, in a cabin she built with her hands, bounded up a hill to join us. The open and friendly faces of Ruth’s family smiled at me kindly. I’m sure they were aware of my situation, though no one referred to it. Taught, lean, Alabama-born Bill wiped the grime off his hands and stepped forward to shake mine. I felt as though I’d stepped into an illustration by Norman Rockwell.
As early darkness fell my companion and I crossed back over the border, returning to Montreal and my mother’s apartment. “Hello sweetheart.” My dying mother smiled tenderly. “How did it go with the lady in Vermont?”
What could I say? I felt guilty at having left her, even for a few hours. I didn’t feel like relaying the details of an excursion to Vermont.
Six months later I returned to Montpelier by bus, alone. Once more, Ruth met me under the clock tower. For a few days I curled under Ruth’s wing, sunning on her roof, sleeping in Max Perkins’ bed, waking to birdsong and skimming the staggering array of autographed out-of-print books dedicated by grateful authors to their engaged and caring editor. “Grieving is hard work,” Ruth would say in greeting when, after a nap, I descended a steep staircase into her dark country kitchen. As we stood side by side in the verdant meadow which was her front yard, Ruth added, as much in amazement as in sorrow, “A year ago this time, both our mothers were alive.”
Ruth King Porter is an American blueblood whose antecedents hark back to a woman who held a door open for George Washington. I am the Canadian-born daughter of refugees. My mother, a woman who survived three invasions and the Warsaw Ghetto, later in life became a pioneer in Holocaust education. Many people find my mother’s story repellent and turn away from any mention of it, whereas Ruth and her husband Bill were fascinated. Ruth did for me what I had done for my mother; she listened. And she encouraged me to tell my mother’s story.
Six months after my first extended stay, I was back on the farm. Ruth and Bill acknowledged what would have been my mother’s birthday by lighting large candles in a spectacularly tangled chandelier made entirely of logs. Through the wall-sized picture window, we watched the cold autumn rain and wind lash the last leaves off a forest full of trees. As we ate hot squash and a pot full of peas grown in Ruth’s garden, the lit log chandelier shone, the tree-bark-shaded lamps glowed, and the wood stove burned.
I went back to Ruth and Bill’s farm several times after that. In between visits Ruth did for me what her grandfather did for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Marjorie Rawlings; she wrote to me and elicited writing from me, read and critiqued my material, encouraged, cajoled, indicated where and when she believed I veered off-track, and gently nudged me back. Clutching the psychic lifeline tossed to me by the descendant of a legendary literary editor, I lived and worked alone and in growing peace in my suburban Montreal apartment, producing a memoir of my mother. My mother knew that my writing would sustain me after she was gone. Ruth Porter’s mentorship sustained me during the darkest days of my life.