We are all obliged, if we are to make reality endurable, to nurse a few little follies in ourselves.
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove
From “My Mother Takes a Tumble"
A FAMILY, some events that an outsider might consider important are allowed
to pass almost unnoticed and are soon forgotten; yet others, which seem
trivial to the world at large, may be elevated to positions of such eminence
that they acquire the status of milestones. In my family, for example,
no one remembers my birthday, but they all remember the day my mother tumbled
from her lawn chair.
In the years that followed her tumble, if talk around
the dinner table turned to Mr. Beaker, a former neighbor, my mother would
often ask, wistfully, I thought, “Do you remember the night he threw his
desk lamp through the window? When was that?”
Someone else, usually my grandmother, would answer,
“Why, Ella, don’t you remember? It was the day you fell out of your lawn
It is comforting, when one feels a bit “lost,” to
be able to put one’s feet up, close one’s eyes, and look back, as it were,
along the road that one followed from wherever one once was to wherever
one may be now, to “retrace one’s steps,” and find, along that roadside,
familiar milestones. It is certainly comforting for me; for if I
am feeling a bit “lost,” when I begin such a backward ramble, I am often
lost during it as well, wandering on someone else’s road, or backing out
of a cul-de-sac, and it is always a great relief to come upon one of these
milestones, or, if you prefer, landmarks. It is a particularly great
relief if I stumble upon the milestone that marks the day that, for the
of my family, came to be known as “The Day Ella Tumbled from Her Lawn Chair”
and is, on the map of my childhood memory, labeled “The Day I Was Chasing
Kittens,” for it is from that day that I date all the rest.
From “Do Clams Bite?”
CLAMS BITE?” began as a single brief anecdote, the account of my first
attempt to dig clams. Briefly, here’s how it goes. As soon
as I was old enough to keep my chin above water in the clam flats of Bolotomy
Bay, my big grandfather, my father’s father, took me clamming with him.
He was a casual clammer who usually wanted only a few clams for dinner.
He “treaded” for clams, walking around in the flats and feeling for the
clams with his toes. He walked with a jerky, shuffling step, pushing
against the bottom with the balls of his feet. When he felt a clam,
he would duck beneath the surface and scoop it out of the sand. He’d
bring it up and drop it into the front of his snug wool bathing suit.
I watched him go through this routine, filling the front of his bathing
suit, then waddling to the boat, his suit distended and lumpy, dumping
his catch on the deck and going right back to the hunt. I saw at
once that imitating this procedure successfully had something to do with
being or becoming a man, but I thought there was a pretty high risk of
being unmanned too. I wanted to ask Grandfather, “Do clams bite?”
but I knew that if I asked, he would look at me with his smart gray eyes
and know at once why I was asking, and that I’d be embarrassed, so I didn’t
ask, and instead each time I found a clam I pretended that it squirmed
out of my grasp before I could get it into my suit.
I had been using this little story effectively at
dinner tables for quite a few years. Sentimentalists could release
a wistful sigh or two for the innocent little Peter in it, and intellectuals
could ride the castration theme for a couple of hours. One evening,
early in the telling, just after I had introduced Big Grandfather and Big
Grandmother, my father’s large and sturdy parents, the realization struck
me that over the years, as I had told the story I had distorted the events
and characters beyond recognition. It was time, I thought, to strip
away the baloney and get down to the truth. The result of my effort
to tell it without embellishment, just as it happened, begins in a few
pages, but before we get to it I would like to give you an idea of how
I went about reconstructing the incident and to point out one or two facts
that I may have made up.
From “Life on the Bolotomy”
It has often seemed to us that life, in several respects at any rate,
is much like a river.
Susanna and Elizabeth Christensen
Boating on the Bolotomy
I KNOW THAT many people agree with the Christensen sisters, but it has always
seemed to me that life, in several respects at any rate, is more like clam
chowder. My development of the exposition of this notion reached
its zenith one evening not long ago when I was chatting with Porky White,
the entrepreneur responsible for the Kap’n Klam chain of bivalve-shaped
fast-food huts, and Congo Red, the bartender at Corinne’s Fabulous Fruits
of the Sea.
A surprising snowstorm had struck Babbington in
the morning, and Red was complaining about how long the trip from Hargrove
to Babbington had taken on the Hargrove-to-Babbington bus.
Suddenly, Porky poked me on the shoulder and asked,
“It’s a lot like life, isn’t it? A bus ride, that is.”
“Mmmmm?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Just think about it.
You’re always on your way from one goddamned place to another, and you
have to pay for the trip, and nobody cares whether you get there or not,
and you feel miserable the whole time, and when you get there nobody’s
there to meet you, and like as not you step off the bus into some dog shit.”
Porky and Red collapsed into phlegmy, racking laughter.
I thought about what Porky had said.
“It seems to me,” I put forth, “that life is more
like clam chowder.”
They stopped laughing and regarded me with some
“Some people’s lives are the kind of chowder made
with cream,” I said, “which is quite acceptable, but others are the kind
made with tomatoes, which can be superb, especially with a little cayenne.
Each life is like an individual batch of chowder: some have too many potatoes,
and others have too much cayenne. Each has its high points—”
“The clams!” suggested Red.
“Of course,” I said. “And each has its low
“The potatoes!” offered Porky.
“Mmmmm—not necessarily,” said Red. “What about
the grains of sand that collect at the bottom of the bowl?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that,” admitted Porky.
“Those may be the dark, gritty bits at the bottom of any life
that one would really rather forget,” I suggested. “Any dark, gritty
bits at the bottom of your life, Porky?”
Red and I enjoyed a little snickering at Porky’s
“Of course,” I said, pushing my empty glass toward
Red, “some lives have no sand at all, because they’re made with canned clams, but they’re a bland bunch. Now here comes the real secret
to a good chowder or a good life—a good broth. Why? Because
in any life, even the richest, one finds so very many moments that are
neither high nor low, those times when you scoop up a spoonful of broth
without any clams or potatoes or dark, gritty bits at all.”
“Amen,” said Porky, and I knew that he was convinced.
And yet, the Christensen sisters and all the people
who agree with them may be right. I will admit that part of my life,
my youth, has had at least a geographic resemblance to the course of the
The Bolotomy flows from a spring-fed pond several
miles north of Babbington. This pond is at the heart of the Mayor
Harvey (“Heavy Harv”) McGee Memorial Park. At the center of the pond
is a tiny wooded island where, I believe, I was, on a January night, during
a skating party, just beyond the light and warmth of a bonfire, conceived.
In its early stretches, the Bolotomy is narrow and
shallow, barely a stream, but at one point, suddenly and surprisingly,
the river broadens and deepens, and for a short stretch it is an idyllic
swimming spot. When I was a boy, I often rode my bicycle to this
spot from my parents’ house. There the water was pellucid and cold,
the bottom was covered with small rounded stones, and the bank on one side
was flat and grassy. This spot was supposed to be a secret.
I was taught its location by a neighbor, an older boy who later broke my
foot for me by jumping on it. To reach the swimming spot, one rode
or walked along a well-used trail to a certain place where the sides of
the trail seemed to be closed by impenetrable bushes; then one stopped
as if to tie a shoe, looked over one’s shoulder and, if no one was in sight,
parted one pair of bushes carefully to open the way to another trail, a
narrow, damp one that led to the secret spot.
From time to time, the spot would be violated by
older boys and girls, who smoked and drank and frightened the rest of us,
and once a family arrived and spread out a blanket and ate a picnic lunch,
but most of the time children my age were the only swimmers.
Later, as a boy, and even more as a young man, I
spent a lot of time along the estuarial stretch of the Bolotomy, learning
things, talking, working, and wondering about the world outside Babbington.
And now, as I write this, some time after youth,
I’m on an island in Bolotomy Bay, surrounded by the river’s water, though
by the time it reaches this island the river water is no longer part of
the river. From where I work, I can look back across the bay and
a little way up the Bolotomy, back toward my beginnings.
I began planning “Life on the Bolotomy” while I
was sitting where I am sitting now, looking across the bay and up the river.
I remembered that I had wanted, as a boy, to travel the length of the river
and see what I could see. It would have been a perfect trip for Raskol
and me. I was taken at once with the idea of making the trip now,
of traveling up the river to find out where it began, how it became what
it was. If I were to make such a journey, I thought, I would need
a boat, a specialized boat, one that could navigate the narrow upper reaches.
I began sketching such a boat at once.
From “The Static of the Spheres”
AT HOME, in my parents’ house in Babbington Heights, in the corner of the
attic that was my bedroom, I had, on a table beside my bed, a small Philco
radio. It was made of cream-colored plastic. The radio had
seen years of use on somebody else’s bedside table before I got it for
my room. Over the years, the heat from the bulb that lighted its
dial had discolored and cracked the plastic in a spot along the rounded
edge of the top, right above the dial. On winter nights, when the
attic was cold, I would bring the radio close to me, onto the bed, under
the covers, and rest one hand on the warm, discolored spot while I listened.
Of all the programs that I listened to on that radio,
I can remember only one clearly: one about a boy about my age who lost
everyone who was dear to him—his mother and father and grandparents and
a clever younger sister with a voice like a flute—in a shipwreck, and was
left alone, entirely alone, on an island somewhere warm and wet and windy,
and called out for them in the night, calling against the persistent, overpowering
sound of the wind and the sea, and listened in despair for the sound of
their voices through the crashing surf and howling wind. I huddled
in my bed, with the blankets pulled over my head, and trembled when the
sound of his voice and the wind filled the little cave that I had made.
This program so terrified me that I wanted to cry out for my own parents,
to run downstairs for some comfort from them, at least to reassure myself
that they were still there, but I couldn’t run to them because I was listening
to the radio at a time of night when my mother didn’t allow me to listen,
since the programs that were broadcast at those late hours were, she had
told me often enough, the sort of thing that scared the wits out of young
Though I remember only that one program, I can remember
as clearly as a memorized poem or a popular song the susurrous and crackling
static that accompanied everything I heard on the little radio. Over
the course of time, this insistent sound has pushed its way from the background
of my radio memories to the foreground, and the private detectives, shipwrecked
travelers, cowboys, bandleaders, and comedians who once were able to shout
over it now call out only faintly and indecipherably, like voices calling
against the roaring of the sea and the wind.