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Life and Loves

June 4, 2015 | by

Hugh_Bolton_Jones_1900_On_the_Green_River copy

Hugh Bolton Jones, On the Green River, 1900.

The other day, I mentioned my grandfather’s fondness for a certain line of poetry: “Hie me away to the woodland stream,” he would say whenever the brook in the nearby woods was running.

We walked that way almost every day on my visits to California—my grandfather was a great walker—but some summers it was too dry, and the brook was just a dusty furrow. Sometimes we walked around the lake at the Naval Postgraduate School, or on the beach. Always, his strides were so long you could barely keep up. Sometimes, we couldn’t, and he’d move far ahead of us, hunched, hands thrust into the pockets of his flight suit.

After I wrote about it, a kind reader sent me a link to the real poem. It seems the line is from William Cullen Bryant’s “Green River,” and actually reads, “hie we away to the woodland scene.” Which still doesn’t sound at all right to me. But then, my grandfather was not a stickler for accuracy. For instance, he also talked to me, often, of a mythical book “about a girl and her grandfather” living somewhere remote—he was only sure it wasn’t Heidi, and that he had read it at some point in the 1930s.

Afternoons, he read. Usually in the shed he called the greenhouse—it was also filled with broken cuckoo clocks, cookware, and brass animals—where he had contrived a chaise out of a deep chair, a lounge pillow, some folded blankets, and a footrest. It was very uncomfortable, and built for his sole use. He’d read there, stretched out, with a large silver milk-shake beaker close to hand, filled with iced tea. Usually classical music played from a small transistor radio that was said to have once belonged to Paul Anka.

He was always reading a lot of books at once, somewhat indiscriminately—biographies, fiction, poetry, history, anything that fell into his path or the free bin at the library. In the evenings, he multitasked: one could find him ensconced in bed with a book open, a procedural on TV, while music—Bartók, by preference—played into one ear. He also had a notepad nearby in case he needed to put down his book and do an equation. Often he’d hand the book to you to read.

I don’t remember his ever saying he disliked something. But there were certainly books that were in the pantheon. These included (but were not limited to) The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Balzac’s Droll Stories, and the pornographic and rather tedious L. Frank Harris memoir My Life and Loves. I read this on his recommendation when I was far too young, and never met the book again until I saw it on the shelf of the man whom I would later marry.

My grandfather was very insistent that I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Testament of Experience. He was also always trying to get me to “sing” Carmina Burana, and picking up rosaries for anyone he knew to be nominally Catholic, and buying Native American–themed things for my cousin because she had “Indian blood” and dark eyes, and giving my grandmother biographies of composers, despite her complete lack of interest in them. In short, he got notions. But he talked about the Brittain books so incessantly that I finally read them in college, and still have the copies he gave me on my bookshelf.

Now Testament of Youth has been adapted for the big screen, starring Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington. This feels utterly bizarre, somehow; while the Great War–era saga is a classic—and Brittain herself famed as a pacifist and feminist—it still seems to belong in that dirty shed, with that sweating beaker of iced tea, atonal music crackling through that crummy radio that we couldn’t throw away because of its alleged Paul Ankan provenance. They might as well make a Showtime miniseries about Frank Harris allegedly seducing half the women of the late nineteenth century, or a cartoon “about a girl and her grandfather” reading, indiscriminately. It just doesn’t make sense.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.