He scared me the first time he called me out of his class. With this coke-bottle-thick glasses and booming English accent, I thought I had really bombed on the creative essay Professor Jack Morpurgo ordered. But no, he had something else in mind. He told me that I had talent. (He enjoyed my description of living in rural Tennessee no less!) He said that I was a writer, horrible grammar notwithstanding. He wanted to take me aside and judge my writing more harshly. He also admitted that he and his elderly wife, Catherine, were in need of someone to drive them about Nashville. As a visiting professor from Leeds University who was nearly blind and a wife crippled with arthritis, they were also very lonely.
Thus began our friendship. Drives to appointments led to dinners at their house. They were starved for the sort of young attention that they received in Leeds from students. Once they left for England, Jack wrote to me within a year and invited me to come and spend the summer working for them. He was retiring from Leeds and moving his 2,000 book Penguin library to their Mews house in London.
I was chauffeur, housekeeper, cook, shopper, and personal librarian. Jack wasn’t kidding about his Penguin paperbacks; they lined the walls of every room in the house, even bedrooms. I knew that he was an editor at Penguin and that his daughter-in-law was the goddaughter of Agatha Christie, but I only discovered recently the rest of the story. Jack and the founder of Penguin, Alan Lane, were famous feuders throughout his tenure at Penguin. The two just couldn’t get along. But, they were held together by a strong link that neither could separate: Alan’s daughter married Jack’s son, Michael, author of children’s books including War Horse.
So, where did the Morpurgos take me? Well, Catherine was a stage actress in Stratford-Upon-Avon when Jack first saw her and said, “That woman will be my wife.” Never mind that she was married with two small boys. His will must have been powerful, because she became his wife, and he adopted both boys before having two more children with Catherine. She wanted me to experience the stage, so they took me to the Haymarket Theatre to see Heartbreak House starring Rex Harrison.
At night, I was homesick, so I stole down to the small television set to catch re-runs of Dallas. Jack would not hear of my watching such bunk, so he usually sat with me over tea and challenged me to get out and discover who I was. “Go to Hyde Park to listen to politicians on Speaker’s Corner!” he demanded. “Then tell me which side closely resembles your own political views.” I complied, but I began to hate him for his challenges. I wanted to walk the streets of Chelsea and see the punks, not listen to politicians! I longed for American newness and baseball.
One weekend, Jack and Kippe (as I learned to use the familial reference to Catherine), took me to Canterbury, another of Jack’s favorite literary haunts. I was quite moved by the cathedral as well as the lovely southern setting. I touched the stone on the building and marveled at its antiquity. I longed to live in such a magical world and wondered why places so quaint are hard to find in America. We visited Margery Allingham’s sister, Joyce, for lunch in her garden somewhere near Canterbury. This visit, with its customary conversation over tea after lunch, changed my mode of thinking forever. “I shall tell you of this garden,” Joyce declared as I walked through paths and touched her somewhat unkempt flowers. “You will understand why I treasure it even after I cannot keep it up.”
Then she told me. She held me enrapt with stories of Agatha, Margery, and Patrick (Allingham) and their literary, artistic, and political friends who gathered there and shared a camaraderie that only creative types can understand. I immediately thought of Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. He, along with his famous contemporaries, created the same milieu. I could only imagine their conversations.
I was twenty years old when I began the dream of having a garden and inviting my friends to join me for conversations and camaraderie. Even after creating said garden I hoped. Over time, though, I lost faith. Certainly I had many friends to come here for entertainment, but non were interested in artistic and creative conversations. Not a one. I began researching retreats and wondered if I could host one of those. Then I discovered that such ventures are actually business opportunities, not just friendly writers’ gatherings. One writer said, “Never share your unpublished books with other writers! Someone might steal your ideas!” That information just makes me sad, while admitting this shows my naivité.
Loneliness set in. Not for friendships, per se, but for writing relationships and friendships together. I cursed Funny Farm for its idealistic view of country folk and small town settings. I knew the main characters could not survive without the very thing I needed to sustain my writing. Still I wrote and gardened and loved my life. I decided that I could make it on my own. After all, I had a husband who would brainstorm chapters and conversations. He was my rock and my support. My children and family too.
Then I opened myself to other writers, first at SheWrites and later with some of the same writers on Facebook. I discovered a milieu of women scattered across the country who shared my openness. These amazing women are me! They are black and white, published and non-published. They feel! They send good vibes and wishes and prayers. They actually love! They are unafraid to share their feelings, non judgmental and always kind. This is not exactly what I dreamed for so many years, but then it really is. For we do gather and share and create. The setting is just online instead of in my garden. But it is a view that I now embrace and love and depend on for nurturing my thirsty creative soul. Thank you, my lovely writer friends, especially those in A Purely Accidental Writer’s Group. Someday, somehow, I will figure out how to get us together in body as well as in spirit.