D'Ann Fago is my soul sister: a small town girl who, in a break for independence, made her way to New York; there she developed herself as an artist and met the love of her life. Her crowd in New York included some famous names: She once served her friend Billie (as in Holiday) canned salmon overturned on a bed of lettuce. On Saturday, we sat at the kitchen table in her old Vermont farmhouse and ate bread, cheese, a sliced avocado, and a whole tin of anchovies—which I happen to LOVE. Her studio, which occupies a wing of the farmhouse, is a world of marvels: Paintings and drawings testify to a life richly lived. During my visit, she brought out one of her children's books, published by Golden Press—the little scene above is cropped from one of its illustrations (shown in full after the jump). I was struck by the title: "The Merry Train." The childhood memoir that D'Ann has been working on is a bittersweet reminiscence about loneliness and self-discovery, and it begins with a train ride:
My first memory is of being held, wrapped in a blanket, in my grandmother’s arms on a passenger train from Atlanta to Lexington, Kentucky. I was three months old. Nauna, my grandmother, had been visiting my parents in Atlanta. My mother was ill with influenza—this was 1917, the year of the famous epidemic. Later, my mother explained that she didn’t want my grandmother to be lonely, so, since she already had one small child, she gave me to my grandmother to raise.
I remember heavy curtains surrounding the berths in the Pullman cars and angry people complaining about the noise I was making, which probably encouraged me to yell even more—which I did. Being somewhat stubborn is a characteristic that I’ve held onto through most of my life.
They tell me I can’t possibly remember these things from when I was three months old, but as far as I’m concerned it’s about as real as any memory I have: being handed to my grandfather and being held in his arms at the train station in Lexington. “Daddy” was what I called him forever after.
My grandparents! I loved them both deeply, but they were highly different personalities. My grandfather was a mellow, tenderhearted man. He came from an old farming family in the area, and he used to tell me stories when I couldn’t sleep at night. He was a respected businessman in the community, chairman of the Lexington school board for over thirty years, a member of the Optimist Club, and an elder in the Presbyterian church He was considered a very fair person. When the schools were desegregated, everybody expected everybody else to be totally opposed, but my grandfather thought it was the right thing to do.
My grandmother was a voracious reader. She voted the Socialist ticket when Norman Thomas ran for president, and she smoked Home Runs in the days when ladies didn’t smoke—at least not in public, but my grandmother didn’t much care. To my knowledge, she never set foot in the Presbyterian church or any other.
I never really knew what brought them together, never wondered very much about it at the time. When we were first introduced there was no basis for wonderment. There they were and there I was. We lived together, more or less, from the time I was three months old until I left home for my first teaching job in Jackson, Kentucky.
Looking back and reflecting on my experiences with my grandparents, I can only wonder at the adult I’ve become, and at the twists and turns my life has taken since leaving home for good some seventy-two years ago. On the other hand, it’s debatable whether I’ve ever left home; in terms of time and growth, it’s still with me. Its place in my being continues to feed decisions I make, goals I shape or change; attitudes I flow into or attempt to discard.