Dreaming of a Thousand Things
As I sit here in Salt Lake City this evening, on the loveseat I inherited several years ago from my mother’s mother, Betty, the sky over the Wasatch foothills beyond my bedroom window turns dark, royal blue. Then navy. Now black.
Reflected back at myself, I have for company the yellow glow of a small glass lamp I bought several years ago when I lived in Virginia. Its soft light over the years has been a steady friend, offering comfort I have come to rely on, especially on long winter nights like tonight when the day is done. Gone.
What have I made of it, the day? What might I make of it yet? Only this lamp knows, bearing witness to the work I begin when the sun sets and evening—night—moves in.
When I first began my research for Desire, an excerpt from the Hawthorne family diaries turned up in a cute little book called Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa. This may be where my critical appreciation began, in his diary entries about just how difficult it is to be the sole caretaker of a child while Mama is out of town.
He allows Julian to make all the noise he wants that first day and then, realizing his error, bemoans his fate. Later, he forgets the milk. Almost daily, he burns Julian’s hair into a frizzle. He wakes one night to find Julian has wet the bed and his pants are all a-sop. Little Bunny dies and Papa buries him while Julian watches, wondering if a bunny tree will grow. Herman Melville even makes an appearance and keeps the Hawthorne men company.
The book is charming, and between it and his love letters and that gorgeous rosebush outside Hester’s prison’s iron-door-—not to mention her elaborate and wildly inappropriate embroidery emblazoned on her A—I couldn’t not incorporate his work into Desire. I’d already begun a manuscript about a ghost named Ogie, so I turned her into the ghost of Pearl. Which is to say, the ghost of his daughter, Una Hawthorne.
I remember reading the love letters for the first time during the third and final year of my MFA. Spring term. Daffodils beginning to peep out of the soil.
Early mornings, on my walk home from the aquatic center, the fog in the air still held the breath of winter but smelled sweetly, too, of wet grass and rain.
It was, as it always is for me, the time of year to start a project.
At home, I ran a hot bath to warm myself, to further desensitize after swimming an hour’s worth of laps. I settled in to soak and flipped through a few new books from the library. I made the trek to Fenwick daily, bringing back stacks of Hawthorne history and criticism.
Researching Una Hawthorne, the real-life inspiration for Pearl, I had checked out the love letters thinking they might reveal secrets about her childhood. Then one spring morning after my bath after my swim, wrapped in a throw on this very loveseat, I began to skim the pages on the lookout for any random mention of Una until, unaware of how or when it happened, I forgot all about her and read, page after page, these love letters from her father to her mother.
November 27, 1841: I love thee—I love thee—and I have no real existence but in thee. Never before did my bosom so yearn for the want of thee—so thrill at the thought of thee. Thou art a mighty enchantress, my little Dove, and hast quite subdued a strong man, who deemed himself independent of all the world. I am a captive under thy little foot, and look to thee for life. Stoop down and kiss me—or I die!
Swept up by the madness of that last line, I lost myself. I was transported through history, where I became, for a brief moment, Sophia Peabody, object of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s passion and affection. Such is the transformative power of reading.
Stephen King calls it telepathy—between the writer who transmits and the reader who, over distance and time, receives. Kathy Acker believed that every book is dead until a reader activates it by reading, which seems a variation on a theme—Borges, paraphrasing Emerson, lectured that a library is a magic chamber in which there are many enchanted spirits. They wake when we call them. And Sven Birkerts: Reading infiltrates. Books stay alive, not just in the active imagination, but in the very structures of our awareness.
And then, as quickly as that, I was myself again. When had anyone written such a line to me? Would anyone ever?
On my grandmother’s loveseat, I thought as I often do of her sitting on it in that small assisted living apartment she moved into after my grandfather died one Christmas Eve.
New furniture would be good for her, my mother said, not so saturated in memories of the past. So they went shopping and got a bedroom set. Two recliners. A coffee table. A flat-screen television. The loveseat I am sitting on now, tonight, as I transmit these words to you, and on which I wonder again what it must have been like for her. Nearly all trace of her former life wiped clean, a stranger to herself. Herself her only company at night.
Every morning, waking in that strange apartment that was not her home, that was not their home, opening her eyes to the fresh paint on the bedroom walls that only intensified my grandfather’s absence beside her in bed, highlighting just how alone, and old, she had become.
Stoop down and kiss me—or I die!
I didn’t know if anyone would ever write a line like that to me. It wasn’t likely. I was thirty-one years old and single by choice.
Two years after my head trauma, I wasn’t ready to share my life with anyone. I didn’t want to let anyone in. I was afraid of getting hurt. I was already hurting, always. I was afraid of being touched, of wanting to be touched. I was afraid of touching, afraid of reaching beyond myself, and afraid of asking anyone for anything. I didn’t want to want, didn’t want to need. My recovery, I had decided, would be my own. And it was. But I was alone, and those years were lonely.
Nathaniel Hawthorne had been calling Sophia Peabody his Dove for over two years by the time he wrote the line Stoop down and kiss me—or I die! On July 3, 1839 (the day before his 35th birthday), he explained: Other dear ones may call you daughter, sister, Sophia, but when, at your entrance into Heaven, or after you have been a little while there, you hear a voice say Dove! then you will know that your kindred spirit has been admitted (perhaps for your sake) to the mansions of rest. That word will express his yearning for you—then to be forever satisfied; for we will melt into one another, and be close, close together then. The name was inspired; it came without our being aware that you were thenceforth to be my Dove, now and through eternity.
Is it creepy, imagining their deaths? Or romantic, the suggestion of eternal union in Heaven?
I am partial to the latter, simply because of their need for letters in the first place.
I must admit my own delight when my phone dings or buzzes, notifying me of a text, the immediacy of that transmission hardly comparable to the days, weeks even, between the transmission of one person writing a letter and the other receiving it.
The world was darker then. Sophia couldn’t, in a moment of weakness, FaceTime or Skype. She couldn’t send a snapchat hoping it would elicit some response. She couldn’t call to hear his voice. She couldn’t send a smiley face emoji and a second or two later receive one in return with hearts in its eyes. She couldn’t go to bed that night knowing that somewhere else, far away he was thinking of her, too, that very moment. No, all she would have had was his letter, dated however many days past.
For all she knew, he was dead.
As it was to my grandmother (who, in her final years spoke often of being reunited with my grandfather, a cheap plastic rosary in her fingers), it must have been some comfort to Sophia—the idea that she would see her husband again in the afterlife, that she would recognize him by the sound of his voice calling out to her, his own Dove.
Meanwhile, in his many, many letters, which arrived regularly and faithfully, he continued to address her thus: My dearest Sophie, my beloved, my Dove, My blessed Dove, and, after they had married, Dearest wife, Dearest and best wife, my sweetest wife, Belovedest, Belovedest wife, and on and on.
All of these, may I venture to say, better than any emoji.
April 2, 1839: Mine own Dove, I have been sitting by my fireside ever since teatime, till now it is past eight o’clock; and have been musing and dreaming of a thousand things, with every one of which, I do believe, some nearer or remoter thought of you was intermingled. I should have begun this letter earlier in the evening, but was afraid that some intrusive idler would thrust himself between us, and so the sacredness of my letter would be partly lost;—for I feel as if my letters were sacred, because they are written from my spirit to your spirit. I wish it were possible to convey them to you by other than earthly messengers—to convey them directly into your heart, with the warmth of mine still lingering in them. . . .
Hawthorne has been idly dreaming about a thousand things for hours by that evening’s fire. Imagine him there, while the sky grows darker and the loneliness of night creeps in. No computers, no emails, no chats, no phones, no texts, no Netflix. Just a fire and some paper and a heart full of longing.
I have to admit that for a while now, probably since Daylight Savings, I’ve hoped for quieter evenings. Fewer electronic distractions. More books. Simply: time to sit and think.
I love that Hawthorne planted outside the prison door a wild rose-bush, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. I adore him even more for plucking one of these roses and offering it to the reader—to you, to me—in order to relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.
When is the last time you looked at a flower? When is the last time you held one in your hands, touched its petals with your fingertips? Brought it to your nose and closed your eyes?
Duras: We never throw out flowers in this house. It’s a habit, not a rule. Never, not even dead ones; we leave them there. There are some rose petals that have been in a jar for forty years. They are still very pink. Dry and pink.
In 1896, in memory of Hawthorne, Henry James wrote: He is outside of everything, and an alien everywhere. He is an esthetic solitary. His beautiful, light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky window.
Tonight, sans all electronic distractions, I sit on my grandmother’s loveseat in the company of my little lamp and celebrate love, carving out time to reread the letters of this great American writer to his belovedest dove, love letters composed in the darkest and loneliest hours of the night.
Molly Gaudry is the author of Desire: A Haunting (2017) and We Take Me Apart, which was a finalist for the 2011 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry and shortlisted for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil.