The Aroma of Pine

Excerpted from A Journey For Our Times, the autobiography of Harrison E. Salisbury, © 1983:

In the bay window where the Christmas tree stood, stiff lace curtains hung. Father had had candles on his tree since childhood in Mazomanie, and he had them as long as we celebrated Christmas at 107 Royalston, small candles of red, white, blue, green and yellow affixed to the branches with snap holders.

The tree was lighted at evening. Mother presided over a pail of water. Dad, matches in hand, climbed a stepladder and lighted the candles, one by one, until the tree sparkled with captured stars. Almost immediately the aroma of pine filled the room as the candles warmed the needles. Janet and I sat beside the tree in delight edged by fear communicated by Mother. Dad seemed oblivious of the moment, his gray-blue eyes distant, a smile on his face such as I never saw at other times. Mother hovered beside the water pail, nervously calculating the distance between herself and the tree, an exercise in emotional geometry. Hardly were the candles lighted than she said: “Perce– that’s enough, don’t you think?” Dad would stare at the tree. He was years away from the present. God knows what thoughts were passing through his mind. He would not answer. Possibly he did not hear. He sat and watched the play of lights, the reflected image on the plate-glass window. Three or four minutes passed. Mother spoke again: “Really, Percy, I think we’d better put them out. They’re beginning to burn down.” Soon, very quickly, she would stride to the tree and begin to snuff out the candles, and Dad, with reluctance that slowed every muscle in his body, rose and helped at the task. Christmas was over.

I just love the way he writes.  This is a book to read slowly, so every line is savored.


Tightening the Heartstrings

“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart. Sometimes I think songwriting is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.” ~Keith Richards, from his autobiography Life, © 2010

Trying To Say Things They Couldn’t Say

Excerpted from Keith Richards’ autobiography Life, ©2010:

I was taking in a lot of music then, without really knowing it. England was often under a fog, but there was a fog of words that settled between people too. One didn’t show emotions. One didn’t actually talk much at all. The talk was all around things, codes and euphemisms; some things couldn’t be said or even alluded to. It was a residue of the Victorians and all brilliantly portrayed in those black-and-white movies of the early ’60s– Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life. And life was black-and-white; the Technicolor was just around the corner, but it wasn’t there yet in 1959. People really do want to touch each other, to the heart. That’s why you have music. If you can’t say it, sing it. Listen to the songs of the period. Heavily pointed and romantic, and trying to say things that they couldn’t say in prose or even on paper. Weather’s fine, 7:30 p.m., wind has died down, P.S. I love you.

I’m discovering, to my delight, that Keith Richards is not at all the man I thought he was.


…the delight on my father’s face.

In this excerpt from his autobiography, I Remember ©1991, Dan Rather shares a warm memory from his childhood:

Late one night when I was five or six years old and had long been put to bed, I woke up and heard music being played in the kitchen. This was unusual for such an advanced hour, so I got up, cracked my door open quietly, and peeked to see what was going on.

They didn’t see me, but I glimpsed what looked to me like a magical sight. I didn’t want to disrupt it. My parents were dancing.

They danced for a long time, maybe an hour, off an on, sometimes stopping to fine-tune the radio through the static, trying to bring in one of the outlaw stations across the Mexican border, the ones that carried slow and fast tunes. These outlets were also home to “Doc” John R. Brinkley, once candidate for governor of Kansas, who promised rejuvenation with a “goat gland” treatment that cost $750, which made us laugh our heads off. He was our Johnny Carson.

Doc Brinkley was not on the air that night, so Mother and Father danced through the static, ballads, and all other kinds of music, and they were plainly happier than I’d ever seen them. Mother hummed along much of the time and both were smiling a lot. It was especially sweet and remarkable to see the delight on my father’s face. The pressures of the workday had been lifted from his features; I remember that distinctly.

Just Like Buddy and Waylon

In her autobiography On Reflection, actress Helen Hayes recounts an incident from her childhood between theater producer Charles Frohman and actor John Drew Jr.:

I saw Mr. Drew angry with Mr. Frohman only once, from a great distance and with good reason. The producer cabled that he was returning from a European business trip.

“Stay there,” John Drew wired back. “Don’t come back now. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m on my way on the next boat,” Charles Frohman answered.

The star was ablaze with anger. “If the Huns sink you, I’ll never forgive you,” he cabled Mr. Frohman.

The Germans torpedoed the Lusitania, and our good friend was drowned. There are no words to describe John Drew’s shock. His flippant wire would haunt him forever.

Charles Frohmans last words, before being swept away by a giant wave, were a paraphrase from his play Peter Pan: “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure that life gives us.”

Wistful Sighs

Another excerpt from Helen Hayes’ autobiography On Reflection, © 1968:

In those days, grandmothers were always available for extra duties… Unthinkable as it would be to the eternal soubrettes of today, there was once a breed of women who by their mid-50s admitted that youth was a sweet memory. After a long, wistful sigh, they willingly moved on to the next step in their development. And they dressed the part. They didn’t defy the seasons of woman, and greying hair softened their worn faces. They didn’t lose their full-blown beauty in an effort to freeze its first bloom. Dark or quiet colors in dress were further reminders of a new-found stability. They didn’t compete with their daughters but, instead, presented a contrast that illustrated the logical sequence of life. There was a flow and a natural progression.

“Willingly?”  Nonsense.

She was a friend of Ronald Reagan and active in Republican politics, and makes the same mistake many conservatives do:  “This is the way I’m used to, so this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

I can understand how, as an actress, she would feel most comfortable with a role to play, but that’s not a “logical sequence of life,” not a “flow and natural progression.” That’s just local custom.

I’m glad we live in less stifling times.  I’m glad women don’t feel compelled to put on dowdy clothing and spend the second half of their lives catering to their children’s whims.

It makes me happy to see women in bright colors, singing and dancing and living their lives to the fullest.

Was Beyond Me

Excerpted from Helen Hayes’ autobiography On Reflection, © 1968:

Of course, I didn’t know what it all meant anyway, and the only shockers to me were Graddy’s (her grandmother’s) scarey tales of ghosts and supernatural goings-on. I always shivered and thrilled to the one about the beautiful bride who expired of a mysterious seizure in the arms of her groom just as the priest was declaring them man and wife. Shrouded in her own wedding gown, fairly floating in her many veils, the virgin was transported to her grave. Followed by a long procession of weeping mourners, she lay in a hearse pulled by fine black horses, each with three white plumes. As the carriage passed through the cemetery gate, it rolled over a sharp rock and the jolt was so great that up shot the lid of the coffin. The bride’s eyes and hands starter to flutter; and then sitting up in bewilderment, her pale lips formed those deathless words, “Where am I?” The horrified cortège dispersed in a panic– all except the bridegroom, of course, who now lifted her tenderly in his arms, brought the color back to her cheeks with a kiss, and carried her off to their marriage bed.

This story and my grandmother’s insistence that it wasn’t really unusual– “People, Helen, are being buried alive all the time!”– made such an impression on me that when she herself lay in her coffin a few years later and at the age of ten I looked upon a dead person for the first time, I of course wailed, “Sit up, Graddy! Please sit up now!

Graddy’s friends sat clutching their wrists, their necks pulled in like great turtles, their mouths twisted in scandalized disbelief.

“Well, I never.”

“What a little actress!”

“Essie, you shouldn’t allow her to show off like that.”

They were the first of a legion of critics who have tried to remove me from the stage.

I really was sure that, like the pop-up bride, she would rise and spin a yarn about this, her latest adventure. The finality of death was beyond me. I just couldn’t believe that my Graddy was gone.

When I was four, my grandfather died.  I wasn’t overly concerned, because I had completely misunderstood the stories they taught us in Sunday School and I had no doubt that he’d be coming back to life any time now.  All you had to do was believe, and it would all be okay.

A few months later my grandmother died,  and the truth crushed down on me like a boulder:  this was forever.  Nobody comes back.

I was devastated.

And I think that exact moment was when I quit believing in the things the grown-ups told me were true.