To plug in the pagan tree lights, I reach behind some books. One of the books on the shelf fell into my hands, and this morning I opened it. There on the title page is the handwriting of my first literary mentor.
The book is Silences by Tillie Olsen, published in 1978 (the year I completed high school). My friend was John MacDonald Ludlow, known as Don John. We met when I was nineteen, and he was in his early to mid-seventies. He had known Tillie Olsen in San Fransisco when they were young radicals and writers in the 1930s. She went on to write, teach and speak with a sharp wisdom during the feminist movement of the 1970s. Silences is a collection of essays about why writers don’t write. She starts by looking at the reasons women in particular have not had the social and economic freedoms to completely fulfill themselves as writers, but then investigates more broadly. Men too have struggled with their writing lives, due to both internal and external circumstances.
Don John and I attended the same writer’s group in Leavenworth, Washington in 1979. I had heard of him, of course. And there he was, somewhat stooped with a magnificent shock of white hair swept away from his forehead, a bushy white beard, and incredible wizard eyebrows. He had crystalline blue eyes that could droop mournfully or twinkle with mischief. Later I learned that he was on good behavior at these gatherings. He sat silently while someone read an earnest poem about watching a chipmunk. We all wanted him to say pithy things about our writing, and sometimes he did after careful consideration. It was always useful criticism. Once in awhile he would read his own work. His specialty was well-crafted short stories, and he had a real gift for irreverent bits of doggerel.
Don John always brought the wine–a gallon jug of some cheap white wine with the silhouette of an old Italian on the label. “Dirty Old Man” wine, he called it. He rolled his own cigarettes with Zigzag papers, which I had known up till then as what people made joints with. He would shake the tobacco from the pouch slowly and deliberately, arrange the flakes and roll the paper. He licked to seal it, then set the cigarette between his lips and lit it with a match. The smokes were stubby, and he let much of them burn between his yellowed fingers as he talked.
There was a spark between us. “By God, you can write!” he said to me one time after I had read a description of a menial job I’d had. I was very much an innocent adrift, not sure what I was doing with my life. I was creative, hard-working, and willing to try things. I had found this community of writers, musicians, and artists and became part of it. Soon I was dropping by Don John’s house to borrow books and talk. He didn’t much care for chipmunk poetry.
Oh, how we talked. He loved to talk late into the night with a glass of Dirty Old Man wine and cigarettes. His wife Lonny would be cooking or washing dishes or watching Lawrence Welk on television. She was a sweet woman, his fourth wife, and hard of hearing. She rarely felt the need to participate in the intellectual discussions taking place at the kitchen table. Lonny had grown up on a fruit ranch in northern Washington, caring for brothers and parents until Don John showed up to sweep her off her feet. She was in her forties, an old maid. He had red hair.
I was adopted as a Ludlow semi-daughter. John and Lonny had no children of their own, but created family around them. Young women were invited to stay in a small apartment in the top of the funky old house. No money changed hands except for portions of the utility bills. The apartment dweller’s job was to mow the lawn, shovel snow, and talk to Don John.
I moved in a few months after my dad died in 1980. It was my first apartment, and I carried a couple boxes of mismatched dishes from my gramma up there. My stereo and a pile of vinyl albums. Books, clothes, journals. A rocking chair. The bathroom was papered with New Yorker covers, with a clawfoot tub tucked under a low part of the roof. My own place and I loved it. I would come home from my first Forest Service job and find a note on my table: “To My Golden-haired Loveress…” and there would be a message about some minor fixit he had done. The note would be signed “From Your Secret Lover”.
He adored the company of women. He was a shameless flirt–Lonny just laughed at him. For him it was about beauty and brains. He delighted in pushing feminist buttons, to make women huffy and call him a chauvinist pig. One time I came home from work with filthy clothes. “You’re a woman, not a working stiff!”, he said indignantly. I looked him in the eye, and said “I am.” He cackled joyfully. I always felt accepted and treasured by Don John. He was proud of his semi-daughters making their way in the world.
What happened to me was what happened to most of us. I met a man and moved out. The little apartment that had been home for awhile was too small to be a love nest. And there was a glowering protective old man downstairs. I would go for visits without the boyfriend, and the kitchen table was once again privy to gossip, stories, politics. Ronald Reagan was “that reactionary bastard!” When I left for north Idaho, the correspondence began between the Golden-haired Loveress and her Secret Lover. His letters got shorter. When he wrote “Your life is too exciting for me,” I knew it was time to go see him.
He was bedridden and skinny. His sight had been going for years, and was finally gone. All his life he had loved reading, and was now listening to books on tape when he wasn’t sleeping. We didn’t talk much. We sat there holding hands, loving each other through that touch. I remembered his stories of growing up in the Dakotas, near a large encampment of Sioux people. His best friend was an Indian boy and they loved horses. At sixteen, Don John lied about his age to join the Army, and went to Mexico to chase Pancho Villa. He wandered and adventured, and was recognized for his writing in the 30s. In the 40s, he was staying in a cabin in the California mountains. Steinbeck was across the canyon in another cabin writing the Grapes of Wrath while Don John laid on his bunk trying to write but succeeding only at taking potshots at rats with a pistol as they ran along the rafters. We had talked of death, how preferable it is to die in the mountains and have the coyotes come piss on your bones.
I wish with all my heart that’s what would have happened. But it didn’t. He was in bed when he let go of life, and a friend wrote to tell me. I was given a manila envelope of his writings and his old black Underwood typewriter. I also have his ancient bamboo fly rod and reel, as well as the Olsen book. The sound of his laugh can yet ring in my memory, and I can still see the incredible eyebrows and lascivious looks. But what I hold closest to my heart is his belief in me and my abilities.
What he wrote on the title page of Silences is this Langston Hughes poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I hear you, Don John. There was more writing in you that for some reason didn’t come out. It burned bright in you, and many of us were touched by the glow. Silence is no way to live.
So I write on, old friend.