I am finally reading Jayber Crow, the novel by Wendell Berry. My friend Judy so graciously gifted me with a copy of my very own exactly five days ago. (Thank you, thank you, yet again and as usual, Mrs. C.!) I have not been living only between its pages, however, so I haven’t made amazing time reading… just 34 pages in as of tonight, but then again, Berry is like dark chocolate… there is a richness in each bite. Sometimes his prose is more poetry than anything. And he likes to surprise you with tiny and delightful turns of phrase. A window permitting him to observe “the life history of leaves.” A distant house “at the point of the meeting of earth and sky. I would let my mind go there and make itself a home.”
Mr. Berry and I are only slightly aquainted (in his writing), and as I only know the merest details about the man and his work, the only observations I can make are more notes of discovery and delight (or disappointment, I suppose) than anything. The first thing I could get my hands on bearing his name was a new novel, Andy Catlett: Early Travels. It is short, and basically plotless… and suddenly you realize it’s quietly come and taken your breath away.
There is one passage of the book that I found so evocative, I had to read it over and over– and aloud to my parents. I remember feeling it, feeling the darkness and the cold wind and the aloneness; it was real, so real. As I find the page and read it again now, I can almost feel what I felt at that moment. How did he do it? How did Berry lay out words on a page that could make me remember the feeling of something I’d never experienced?
Grandma blew out one of the lamps and picked up the other. We went through the shadows out into the cold front hall, up the stairs, and into the room over the living room. Grandma set the lamp on the washstand. I put down my grip and, standing over the register that let some heat come up from the stove, I began to take off my clothes.
That reminded Grandma and she said, “Did you brush your teeth, Andy?”
I said, “I don’t need to, I don’t reckon.”
We both knew that was a fib, but the pitcher on the washstand was empty and it was a long way to the kitchen, and so we both pretended that I didn’t need to.
I didn’t tell her that my pajamas were in my grip. The room was cold and it would be colder in the morning, and so I left on my shirt and long underwear, like Grandpa.
Grandma turned back the covers, I sank into the feather bed, and she covered me up, adding another quilt from the closet. I was so pressed upon from all sides I didn’t think I could move.
Grandma said, “You’re snug as a bug in a rug.” She said, “Go to sleep now.” And that reminded her of a scrap of eloquence she loved, and she repeated it: “Sleep is nature’s sweet restorer.” I was a long time learning that she was quoting from Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. But where had she learned it?
She kissed me goodnight then, picked up the lamp, and went out. She closed the door, perfecting the dark, and I heard her footseps cross the hall.
We had made little enough of a stir all the evening, but now as we settled for the night the quiet if the empty rooms began to seep into the occupied ones. The old house clicked and ticked in the nighttime cold, and the wind, I thought, was trying to wrap all the way around the walls. In that house, especially in winter, you never forgot the weather. There was no insulation in those days, no double-glazed windows. Only the two rooms were heated. The others, except for hearth fires at special times, stayed cold. And you could hear the wind. My earliest dreams that I remember were dreams of the wind, dreamed in that house.
At first the bed was ice-cold. But I began, gradually and deliciously, to get warm. When I was fully warm, I slept.
Typing it word by word, it still gives me a chill. I think it reminds of me something familiarly foreign, old people’s houses, other people’s grandparents; and darkness, and empty rooms, and being alone… which was to me as a child the worst sort of foreigness, a knawing fear. But now, remembering the feeling, it takes on a different quality. It is a loneliness that I can bear, and examine, and allow myself to feel, and maybe perceive as comfort and even beauty.