You will write a journal entry detailing your thoughts, impressions, and difficulties while reading the Above, you are expected to write down your thoughts as you read . Reading journals will be graded on a 10-point scale, for thoughtfulness and depth. all formal assignments should be typed using MLA citation style, Times New Roman font, 12pt font, and double-spaced. Text We are using is: A Prayer for Owen
MeanyReading Journal #1: A Prayer for Owen
Meany 1-2A copy from the book you can find Here:DOC Thank youA Prayer
Owen Meany
John Irving
I AM DOOMED to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because of his voice, or because he
was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but
because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims
to have a life in Christ, or with Christ-and certainly not for Christ, which I’ve heard some zealots
claim. I’m not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I’ve not read the New
Testament since my Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I
go to church. I’m somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in The Book
of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days-the prayer book is
so much more orderly.
I’ve always been a pretty regular churchgoer. I used to be a Congregationalist-I was baptized in the
Congregational Church, and after some years of fraternity with Episcopalians (I was confirmed in the
Episcopal Church, too), I became rather vague in my religion: in my teens I attended a “nondenominational” church. Then I became an Anglican; the Anglican Church of Canada has been my
church-ever since I left the United States, about twenty years ago. Being an Anglican is a lot like
being an Episcopalian-so much so that being an Anglican occasionally impresses upon me the
suspicion that I have simply become an Episcopalian again. Anyway, I left the Congregationalists and
the Episcopalians-and my country once and for all. When I die, I shall attempt to be buried in New
Hampshire- alongside my mother-but the Anglican Church will perform the necessary service before
my body suffers the indignity of trying to be sneaked through U.S. Customs. My selections from the
Order for the Burial of the Dead ate entirely conventional and can be found, in the order that I shall
have them read-not sung-in The Book of Common Prayer. Almost everyone I know will be familiar
with the passages from John, beginning with”. . . whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never
die.” And then there’s “… in my Father’s house are many mansions: If it were not so, I would have told
you.” And I have always appreciated the frankness expressed in that passage from Timothy, the one
that goes “. . .we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” It will be
a by-the-book Anglican service, the kind that would make my former fellow Congregationalists fidget
in their pews. I am an Anglican now, and I shall die an Anglican. But I skip a Sunday service now and
then; I make no claims to be especially pious; I have a church-rummage faith-the kind that needs
patching up every weekend. What faith I have I owe to Owen Meany, a boy I grew up with. It is Owen
who made me a believer. In Sunday school, we developed a form of entertainment based on abusing
Owen Meany, who was so small that not only did his feet not touch the floor when he sat in his chairhis knees did not extend to the edge of his seat; therefore, his legs stuck out straight, like the legs of a
doll. It was as if Owen Meany had been born without realistic joints. Owen was so tiny, we loved to
pick him up; in truth, we couldn’t resist picking him up. We thought it was a miracle: how little he
weighed. This was also incongruous because Owen came from a family in the granite business. The
Meany Granite Quarry was a big place, the equipment for blasting and cutting the granite slabs was
heavy and dangerous-looking; granite itself is such a rough, substantial rock. But the only aura of the
granite quarry that clung to Owen was the granular dust, the gray powder that sprang off his clothes
whenever we lifted him up. He was the color of a gravestone; light was both absorbed and reflected
by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times-especially at his temples, where
his blue veins showed through his skin (as though, in addition to his extraordinary size, there were
other evidence that he was born too soon). His vocal cords had not developed fully, or else his voice
had been injured by the rock dust of his family’s business. Maybe he had larynx damage, or a
destroyed trachea; maybe he’d been hit in the throat by a chunk of granite. To be heard at all, Owen
had to shout through his nose. Yet he was dear to us-“a little doll,” the girls called him, while he
squirmed to get away from them; and from all of us. I don’t remember how our game of lifting Owen
began. This was Christ Church, the Episcopal Church of Graves-end, New Hampshire. Our Sunday
school teacher was a strained, unhappy-looking woman named Mrs. Walker. We thought this name
suited her because her method of teaching involved a lot of walking out of class. Mrs. Walker would
read us an instructive passage from the Bible. She would then ask us to think seriously about what we
had heard-“Silently and seriously, that’s how I want you to think!” she would say. “I’m going to leave
you alone with your thoughts, now,” she would tell us ominously-as if our thoughts were capable of
driving us over the edge. “I want you to think very hard,” Mrs. Walker would say. Then she’d walk
out on us. I think she was a smoker, and she couldn’t allow herself to smoke in frontofus. “When I
come back,” she’d say, “we’ll talk about it.”
By the time she came back, of course, we’d forgotten everything about whatever it was-because as
soon as she left the room, we would fool around with a frenzy. Because being alone with our thoughts
was no fun, we would pick up Owen Meany and pass him back and forth, overhead. We managed this
while remaining seated in our chairs-that was the challenge of the game. Someone-I forget who
started it-would get up, seize Owen, sit back down with him, pass him to the next person, who would
pass him on, and so forth. The girls were included in this game; some of the girls were the most
enthusiastic about it. Everyone could lift up Owen. We were very careful; we never dropped him. His
shirt might become a little rumpled. His necktie was so long, Owen tucked it into his trousers-or else
it would have hung to his knees-and his necktie often came untucked; sometimes his change would fall
out (in our faces). We always gave him his money back. If he had his baseball cards with him, they,
too, would fall out of his pockets. This made him cross because the cards were alphabetized, or
ordered under another system-all the infield-ers together, maybe. We didn’t know what the system
was, but obviously Owen had a system, because when Mrs. Walker came back to the room-when
Owen returned to his chair and we passed his nickels and dimes and his baseball cards back to himhe would sit shuffling through the cards with a grim, silent fury. He was not a good baseball player,
but he did have a very small strike zone and as a consequence he was often used as a pinch hitter-not
because he ever hit the ball with any authority (in fact, he was instructed never to swing at the ball),
but because he could be relied upon to earn a walk, a base on balls. In Little League games he
resented this exploitation and once refused to come to bat unless he was allowed to swing at the
pitches. But there was no bat small enough for him to swing that didn’t hurl his tiny body after it-that
didn’t thump him on the back and knock him out of the batter’s box and flat upon the ground. So, after
the humiliation of swinging at a few pitches, and missing them, and whacking himself off his feet,
Owen Meany selected that other humiliation of standing motionless and crouched at home plate while
the pitcher aimed the ball at Owen’s strike zone-and missed it, almost every time. Yet Owen loved his
baseball cards-and, for some reason, he clearly loved the game of baseball itself, although the game
was cruel to him. Opposing pitchers would threaten him. They’d tell him that if he didn’t swing at their
pitches, they’d hit him with the ball. “Your head’s bigger than your strike zone, pal,” one pitcher told
him. So Owen Meany made his way to first base after being struck by pitches, too. Once on base, he
was a star. No one could run the bases like Owen. If our team could stay at bat long enough, Owen
Meany could steal home. He was used as a pinch runner in the late innings, too; pinch runner and
pinch hitter Meany-pinch walker Meany, we called him. In the field, he was hopeless. He was afraid
of the ball; he shut his eyes when it came anywhere near Mm. And if by some miracle he managed to
catch it, he couldn’t throw it; his hand was too small to get a good grip. But he was no ordinary
complainer; if he was self-pitying, his voice was so original in its expression of complaint that he
managed to make whining lovable. In Sunday school, when we held Owen up in the air-especially, in
the air!-he protested so uniquely. We tortured him, I think, in order to hear his voice; I used to think
his voice came from another planet. Now I’m convinced it was a voice not entirely of this world.
“PUT ME DOWN!” he would say in a strangled, emphatic falsetto. “CUT IT OUT! I DON’T WAN
But we just passed him around and around. He grew more fatalistic about it, each time. His body was
rigid; he wouldn’t struggle. Once we had him in the air, he folded his arms defiantly on his chest; he
scowled at the ceiling. Sometimes Owen grabbed hold of his chair the instant Mrs. Walker left the
room; he’d cling like a bird to a swing in its cage, but he was easy to dislodge because he was
ticklish. A girl named Sukey Swift was especially deft at tickling Owen; instantly, his arms and legs
would stick straight out and we’d have him up in the air again.
“NO TICKLING!” he’d say, but the rules to this game were our rules. We never listened to Owen.
Inevitably, Mrs. Walker would return to the room when Owen was in the air. Given the biblical
nature of her instructions to us: “to think very hard …” she might have imagined that by a supreme act
of our combined and hardest thoughts we had succeeded in levitating Owen Meany. She might have
had the wit to suspect that Owen was reaching toward heaven as a direct result of leaving us alone
with our thoughts. But Mrs. Walker’s response was always the same-brutish and unimaginative and
incredibly dense. “Owen!” she would snap. ‘ ‘Owen Meany, you get back to your seat! You get down
from up there!”
What could Mrs. Walker teach us about the Bible if she was stupid enough to think that Owen Meany
had put himself up in the air? Owen was always dignified about it. He never said, “THEY DID IT!
But although Owen would complain to us, he would never complain about us. If he was occasionally
capable of being a stoic in the air, he was always a stoic when Mrs. Walker accused him of childish
behavior. He would never accuse us. Owen was no rat. As vividly as any number of the stories in the
Bible, Owen Meany showed us what a martyr was. It appeared there were no hard feelings. Although
we saved our most ritualized attacks on him for Sunday school, we also lifted him up at other timesmore spontaneously. Once someone hooked him by bis collar to a coat tree in the elementary school
auditorium; even then, even there, Owen didn’t struggle. He dangled silently, and waited for someone
to unhook him and put him down. And after gym class, someone hung him in his locker and shut the
door. “NOT FUNNY! NOT FUNNY!” he called, and called, until someone must have agreed with
him and freed him from the company of his jockstrap-the size of a slingshot. How could I have known
that Owen was a hero? Let me say at the outset that I was a Wheelwright-that was the family name that
counted in our town: the Wheelwrights. And Wheelwrights were not inclined toward sympathy to
Meanys. We were a matriarchal family because my grandfather died when he was a young man and
left my grandmother to carry on, which she managed rather grandly. I am descended from John Adams
on my grandmother’s side (her maiden name was Bates, and her family came to America on the
Mayflower); yet, in our town, it was my grandfather’s name that had the clout, and my grandmother
wielded her married name with such a sure sense of self-possession that she might as well have been
a Wheelwright and an Adams and a Bates. Her Christian name was Harriet, but she was Mrs.
Wheelwright to almost everyone-certainly to everyone in Owen Meany’s family. I think that
Grandmother’s final vision of anyone named Meany would have been George Meany-the labor man,
the cigar smoker. The combination of unions and cigars did not sit well with Harriet Wheelwright.
(To my knowledge, George Meany is not related to the Meany family from my town.) I grew up in
Gravesend, New Hampshire; we didn’t have any unions there-a few cigar smokers, but no union men.
The town where I was born was purchased from an Indian sagamore in by the Rev. John
Wheelwright, after whom I was named. In New England, the Indian chiefs and higher-ups were called
sagamores; although, by the time I was a boy, die only sagamore I knew was a neighbor’s dog-a male
Labrador retriever named Sagamore (not, I think, for his Indian ancestry but because of his owner’s
ignorance). Sagamore’s owner, our neighbor, Mr. Fish, always told me that his dog was named for a
lake where he spent his summers swimming-“when I was a youth,” Mr. Fish would say. Poor Mr.
Fish: he didn’t know that the lake was named after Indian chiefs and higher-ups-and that naming a
stupid Labrador retriever “Sagamore” was certain to cause some unholy offense. As you shall see, it
did. But Americans are not great historians, and so, for years-educated by my neighbor-I thought that
sagamore was an Indian word for lake. The canine Sagamore was killed by a diaper truck, and I now
believe that the gods of those troubled waters of that much-abused lake were responsible. It would be
a better story, I think, if Mr. Fish had been killed by the diaper truck-but every study of the gods, of
everyone’s gods, is a revelation of vengeance toward the innocent. (This is a part of my particular
faith that meets with opposition from my Congregationalist and Episcopalian and Anglican friends.)
As for my ancestor John Wheelwright, he landed in Boston in , only two years before he bought our
town. He was from Lincolnshire, England-the hamlet of Saleby-and nobody knows why he named our
town Gravesend. He had no known contact with the British Gravesend, although that is surely where
the name of our town came from. Wheelwright was a Cambridge graduate; he’d played football with
Oliver Cromwell-whose estimation of Wheelwright (as a football player) was both worshipful and
paranoid. Oliver Cromwell believed that Wheelwright was a vicious, even a dirty player, who had
perfected the art of tripping his opponents and then falling on them. Gravesend (the British
Gravesend) is in Kent-a fair distance from Wheelwright’s stamping ground. Perhaps he had a friend
from there-maybe it was a friend who had wanted to make the trip to America with Wheelwright, but
who hadn’t been able to leave England, or had died on the voyage. According to Wall’s History
ofGravesend, N.H., the Rev. John Wheelwright had been a good minister of the English church until
he began to “question the authority of certain dogmas”; he became a Puritan, and was thereafter
“silenced by the ecclesiastical powers, for nonconformity.” I feel that my own religious confusion,
and stubbornness, owe much to my ancestor, who suffered not only the criticisms of the English
church before he left for the new world; once he arrived, he ran afoul of his fellow Puritans hi
Boston. Together with the famous Mrs. Hutchinson, the Rev. Mr. Wheelwright was banished from the
Massachusetts Bay Colony for disturbing’ ‘the civil peace”; in truth, he did nothing more seditious
than offer some heterodox opinions regarding the location of the Holy Ghost-but Massachusetts
judged him harshly. He was deprived of his weapons; and with his family and several of his bravest
adherents, he sailed north from Boston to Great Bay, where he must have passed by two earlier New
Hampshire outposts-what was then called Strawbery Banke, at the mouth of the Pascataqua (now
Portsmouth), and the settlement in Dover. Wheelwright followed the Squamscott River out of Great
Bay; he went as far as the falls where the freshwater river met the saltwater river. The forest would
have been dense then; the Indians would have showed him how good the fishing was. According to
Wall’s History of Gravesend, there were “tracts of natural meadow” and “marshes bordering upon the
The local sagamore’s name was Watahantowet; instead of his signature, he made his mark upon the
deed in the form of his totem-an armless man. Later, there was some dispute -not very interestingregarding the Indian deed, and more interesting speculation regarding why Watahantowet’s totem was
an armless man. Some said it was how it made the sagamore feel to give up all that land-to have his
arms cut off-and others pointed out that earlier “marks” made by Watahantowet revealed that the
figure, although armless, held a feather in his mouth; this was said to indicate the sagamore’s
frustration at being unable to write. But in several other versions of the totem ascribed to
Watahantowet, the figure has a tomahawk in its mouth and looks completely crazy-or else, he is
making a gesture toward peace: no arms, tomahawk in mouth; together, perhaps, they are meant to
signify that Watahantowet does not fight. As for the settlement of the disputed deed, you can be sure
the Indians were The Foid Ball not the beneficiaries of the resolution to that difference of opinion.
And later still, our town fell under Massachusetts authority -which may, to this day, explain why
residents of Gravesend detest people from Massachusetts. Mr. Wheelwright would move to Maine.
He was eighty when he spoke at Harvard, seeking contributions to rebuild a part of the college
destroyed by a fire-demonstrating that he bore the citizens of Massachusetts less of a grudge than
anyone else from Gravesend would bear them. Wheelwright died in Salisbury, Massachusetts, where
he was the spiritual leader of the church, when he was almost ninety. But listen to the names of
Gravesend’s founding fathers: you will not hear a Meany among them. Barlow
Blackwell Cole
Copeland Crawley
Dearborn Hilton
Hutchinson Littleneld
Read Rishworth
Smart Smith
Walker Wardell
Wentworth Wheelwright
I doubt it’s because she was a Wheelwright that my mother never gave up her maiden name; I think my
mother’s pride was independent of her Wheelwright ancestry, and that she would have kept her
maiden name if she’d been born a Meany. And I never suffered in those years that I had her name; I
was little Johnny Wheelwright, father unknown, and-at the time-that was okay with me. I never
complained. One day, I always thought, she would tell me about it-when I was old enough to know the
story. It was, apparently, the kind of story you had to be “old enough” to hear. It wasn’t until she diedwithout a word to me concerning who my father was-that I felt I’d
been cheated out of information I had a right to know; it was only after her death that I felt the
slightest anger toward her. Even if my father’s identity and his story were painful to my mother-even if
their relationship had been so sordid that any revelation of it would shed a continuous, unfavorable
light upon both my parents-wasn’t my mother being selfish not to tell me anything about my father? Of
course, as Owen Meany pointed out to me, I was only eleven when she died, and my mother was only
thirty; she probably thought she had a lot of time left to tell me the story. She didn’t know she was
going to die, as Owen Meany put it. Owen and I were throwing rocks in the Squamscott, the saltwater
river, the tidal river-or, rather, / was throwing rocks in the river; Owen’s rocks were landing in the
mud flats because the tide was out and the water was too far away for Owen Meany’s little, weak
arm. Our throwing had disturbed the herring gulls who’d been pecking in the mud, and the gulls had
moved into the marsh grass on the opposite shore of the Squamscott. It was a hot, muggy, summer day;
the low-tide smell of the mud flats was more brinish and morbid than usual. Owen Meany told me that
my father would know that my mother was dead, and that-when I was old enough-he would identify
himself to me.
“If he’s alive,” I said, still throwing rocks. “If he’s alive and if he cares that he’s my father-if he even
knows he’s my father.”
And although I didn’t believe him that day, that was the day Owen Meany began his lengthy
contribution to my belief in God. Owen was throwing smaller and smaller rocks, but he still couldn’t
reach the water; there was a certain small satisfaction to the sound the rocks made when they struck
the mud flats, but the water was more satisfying than the mud in every way. And almost casually, with
a confidence that stood in surprising and unreasonable juxtaposition to his tiny size, Owen Meany told
me that he was sure my father was alive, that he was sure my father knew he was my father, and that
God knew who my father was; even if my father never came forth to identify himself, Owen told me,
Go* would identify him for me. “YOUR DAD CAN HIDE FROwi YOU,” Owen said, “BUT H
And with that announcement, Owen Meany grunted as he released a stone that reached the water. We
were both surprised; it was the last rock either of us threw that day, and we stood watching the circle
of ripples extending from the point of entry until even the gulls were assured we had stopped our
disturbance of their universe, and they returned to our side of the Squamscott. For years, there was a
most successful salmon fishery on our river; no salmon would be caught dead there now-actually, the
only salmon you could find in the Squamscott today would be a dead one. Ale wives were also
plentiful back then-and still were plentiful when I was a boy, and Owen Meany and I used to catch
them. Gravesend is only nine miles from the ocean. Although the Squamscott was never the Thames,
the big oceangoing ships once made their way to Gravesend on the Squamscott; the channel has since
become so obstructed by rocks and shoals that no boat requiring any great draft of water could
navigate it. And although Captain John Smith’s beloved Pocahontas ended her unhappy life on British
soil in the parish churchyard of the original Gravesend, the spiritually armless Watahantowet was
never buried in our Gravesend. The only sagamore to be given official burial in our town was Mr.
Fish’s black Labrador retriever, run over by a diaper truck on Front Street and buried-with the solemn
attendance of some neighborhood children-in my grandmother’s rose garden. For more than a century,
the big business of Gravesend was lumber, which was the first big business of New Hampshire.
Although New Hampshire is called the Granite State, granite- building granite, curbstone granite,
tombstone granite-came after lumber; it was never the booming business that lumber was. You can be
sure that when all the trees are gone, there will still be rocks around; but in the case of granite, most
of it remains underground. My uncle was in the lumber business-Uncle Alfred, the Eastman Lumber
Company; he married my mother’s sister, my aunt, Martha Wheelwright. When I was a boy and
traveled up north to visit my cousins, I saw log drives and logjams, and I even participated in a few
log-rolling contests; I’m afraid I was too inexperienced to offer much competition to my cousins. But
today, my Uncle Alfred’s business, which is in his children’s hands-my cousins’ business, I should
say-is real estate. In New Hampshire, that’s what you have left to sell after you’ve cut down the trees.
But there will always be granite in the Granite State, and little Owen Meany’s family was in the
granite business-not ever a recommended business in our small, seacoast part of New Hampshire,
although the Meany Granite Quarry was situated over what geologists call the Exeter Pluton. Owen
Meany used to say that we residents of Gravesend were sitting over a bona fide outcrop of intrusive
igneous rock; he would say this with an implied reverence-as if the consensus of the Gravesend
community was that the Exeter Pluton was as valuable as a mother lode of gold. My grandmother,
perhaps owing to her ancestors from Mayflower days, was more partial to trees than to rocks. For
reasons that were never explained to me, Harriet Wheelwright thought that the lumber business was
clean and that the granite business was dirty. Since my grandfather’s business was shoes, this made no
sense to me; but my grandfather died before I was born-his famous decision, to not unionize his
shoeshop, is only hearsay to me. My grandmother sold the factory for a considerable profit, and I
grew up with her opinions regarding how blessed were those who murdered trees for a living, and
how low were those who handled rocks. We’ve all heard of lumber barons-my uncle, Alfred
Eastman, was one-but who has heard of a rock baron? The Meany Granite Quarry in Gravesend is
inactive now; the pitted land, with its deep and dangerous quarry lakes, is not even valuable as real
estate-it never was valuable, according to my mother. She told me that the quarry had been inactive
all the years that she was growing up in Gravesend, and that its period of revived activity, in the
Meany years, was fitful and doomed. All the good granite, Mother said, had been taken out of the
ground before the Meanys moved to Gravesend. (As for when the Meanys moved to Gravesend, it
was always described to me as “about the time you were born.”) Furthermore, only a small portion of
the granite underground is worth getting out; the rest has defects-or if it’s good, it’s so far underground
that it’s hard to get out without cracking it. Owen was always talking about cornerstones and
monuments-a PROPER monument, he used to say, explaining that what was required was a large,
evenly cut, smooth, unflawed piece of granite. The delicacy with which Owen spoke of this-and his
own, physical delicacy-stood in absurd contrast to the huge, heavy slabs of rock we observed on the
flatbed trucks, and to the violent noise of the quarry, the piercing sound of the rock chisels on the
channeling machine-THE CHANNEL BAR, Owen called it-and the dynamite. I used to wonder why
Owen wasn’t deaf; that there was something wrong with his voice, and with his size, was all the more
surprising when you considered that there was nothing wrong with his ears-for the granite business is
extremely percussive. It was Owen who introduced me to Wall’s History of Graves-end, although I
didn’t read the whole book until I was a senior at Gravesend Academy, where the tome was required
as a part of a town history project; Owen read it before he was ten. He told me that the book was
FULL OF WHEELWRIGHTS. I was born in the Wheelwright house on Front Street; and I used t
wonder why my mother decided to have me and to never explain a word about me-either to me or to
her own mother and sister. My mother was not a brazen character. Her pregnancy, and her refusal to
discuss it, must have struck the Wheelwrights with all the more severity because my mother had such
a tranquil, modest nature. She’d met a man on the Boston & Maine Railroad: that was all she’d say.
My Aunt Martha was a senior in college, and already engaged to be married, when my mother
announced that she wasn’t even going to apply for college entrance. My grandfather was dying, and
perhaps this focusing of my grandmother’s attention distracted her from demanding of my mother what
the family had demanded of Aunt Martha: a college education. Besides, my mother argued, she could
be of help at home, with her dying father-and with the strain and burden that his dying put upon her
mother. And the Rev. Lewis Merrill, the pastor at the Congregational Church, and my mother’s
choirmaster, had convinced my grandparents that my mother’s singing voice was truly worthy of
professional training. For her to engage in serious voice and singing lessons, the Rev. Mr. Merrill
said, was as sensible an “investment,” in my mother’s case, as a college education. At this point in my
mother’s life, I used to feel there was a conflict of motives. If singing and voice lessons were so
important and serious to her, why did she arrange to have them only once a week? And if my
grandparents accepted Mr. Merrill’s assessment of my mother’s voice, why did they object so bitterly
to her spending one night a week in Boston? It seemed to me that she should have moved to Boston
and taken lessons every day! But I supposed the source of the conflict was my grandfather’s terminal
illness-my mother’s desire to be of help at home, and my grandmother’s need to have her there. It was
an early-morning voice or singing lesson; that was why she had to spend the previous night in Boston,
which was an hour and a half from Gravesend-by train. Her singing and voice teacher was very
popular; early morning was the only time he had for my mother. She was fortunate he would see her at
all, the Rev. Lewis Merrill had said, because he normally saw only professionals; although my
mother, and my Aunt Martha, had clocked many singing hours in the Congregational Church Choir,
Mother was not a “professional.” She simply had a lovely voice, and she was engaged-in her entirely
unrebellious, even timid way-in training it. My mother’s decision to curtail her education was more
acceptable to her parents than to her sister; Aunt Martha not only disapproved-my aunt (who is a
lovely woman) resented my mother, if only slightly. My mother had the better voice, she was the
prettier. When they’d been growing up in the big house on Front Street, it was my Aunt Martha who
brought the boys from Gravesend Academy home to meet my grandmother and grandfather-Martha
was the older, and the first to bring home “beaus,” as my mother called them. But once the boys saw
my mother-even before she was old enough to date-that was usually the end of their interest in Aunt
Martha. And now this: an unexplained pregnancy! According to my Aunt Martha, my grandfather was
“already out of it”-he was so very nearly dead that he never knew my mother was pregnant, “although
she took few pains to hide it,” Aunt Martha said. My poor grandfather, in Aunt Martha’s words to me,
“died worrying why your mother was overweight.”
In my Aunt Martha’s day, to grow up in Gravesend was to understand that Boston was a city of sin.
And even though my mother had stayed in a highly approved and chaperoned women’s residential
hotel, she had managed to have her
“fling,” as Aunt Martha called it, with the man she’d met on the Boston & Maine. My mother was so
calm, so unrattled by either criticism or slander, that she was quite comfortable with her sister
Martha’s use of the word’ ‘fling”-in truth, I heard Mother use the word fondly.
“My fling,” she would occasionally call me, with the greatest affection. “My little fling!”
It was from my cousins that I first heard that my mother was thought to be “a little simple”; it would
have been from their mother-from Aunt Martha-that they would have heard this. By the time I heard
these insinuations-“a little simple” -they were no longer fighting words; my mother had been dead for
more than ten years. Yet my mother was more than a natural beauty with a beautiful voice and
questionable reasoning powers; Aunt Martha had good grounds to suspect that my grandmother and
grandfather spoiled my mother. It was not just that she was the baby, it was her temperament-she was
never angry or sullen, she was not given to tantrums or to self-pity. She had such a sweet-tempered
disposition, it was impossible to stay angry with her. As Aunt Martha said: “She never appeared to
be as assertive as she was.” She simply did what she wanted to do, and then said, in her engaging
fashion, “Oh! I feel terrible that what I’ve done has upset you, and I intend to shower you with such
affection that you’ll forgive me and love me as much as you would if I’d done the right thing!” And it
workedl It worked, at least, until she was killed-and she couldn’t promise to remedy how upsetting
that was; there was no way she could make up for that. And even after she went ahead and had me,
unexplained, and named me after the founding father of Gravesend-even after she managed to make all
that acceptable to her mother and sister, and to the town (not to mention to the Congregational Church,
where she continued to sing in the choir and was often a participant in various parish-house
functions). . . even after she’d carried off my illegitimate birth (to everyone’s satisfaction, or so it
appeared), she still took the train to Boston every Wednesday, she still spent every Wednesday night
in the dreaded city in order to be bright and early for her voice or singing lesson. When I got a little
older, I resented it-sometimes. Once when I had the mumps, and another time when I had the chicken
pox, she canceled the trip; she stayed with me. And there was another time, when Owen and I had
been catching alewives in the tidewater culvert that ran into the Squamscott under the Swasey
Parkway and I slipped and broke my wrist; she didn’t take the Boston & Maine that week. But all the
other tunes-until I was ten and she married the man who would legally adopt me and become like a
father to me; until then-she kept going to Boston, overnight. Until then, she kept singing. No one ever
told me if her voice improved. That’s why I was born in my grandmother’s house-a grand, brick,
Federal monster of a house. When I was a child, the house was heated by a coal furnace; the coal
chute was under the ell of the house where my bedroom was. Since the coal was always delivered
very early in the morning, its rumbling down the chute was often the sound that woke me up. On the
rare coincidence of a Thursday morning delivery (when my mother was in Boston), I used to wake up
to the sound of the coal and imagine that, at that precise moment, my mother was starting to sing. In the
summer, with the windows open, I woke up to the birds in my grandmother’s rose garden. And there
lies another of my grandmother’s opinions, to take root alongside her opinions regarding rocks and
trees: anyone could grow mere flowers or vegetables, but a gardener grew roses; Grandmother was a
gardener. The Gravesend Inn was the only other brick building of comparable size to my
grandmother’s house on Front Street; indeed, Grandmother’s house was often mistaken for the
Gravesend Inn by travelers following the usual directions given in the center of town: “Look for the
big brick place on your left, after you pass the academy.”
My grandmother was peeved at this-she was not in the slightest flattered to have her house mistaken
for an inn. “This is not an inn,” she would inform the lost and bewildered travelers, who’d been
expecting someone younger to greet them and fetch their luggage. “This is my home,” Grandmother
would announce. “The inn is further along,” she would say, waving her hand in the general direction.
“Further along” is fairly specific compared to other New Hampshire forms of directions; we don’t
enjoy giving directions in New Hampshire-we tend to think that if you don’t know where you’re going,
you don’t belong where you are. In Canada, we give directions more freely-to anywhere, to anyone
who asks. In our Federal house on Front Street, there was also a secret passageway-a bookcase that
was actually a door that led down a staircase to a dirt-floor basement that was entirely separate from
the basement where the coal furnace was. That was just what it was: a bookcase that was a door that
led to a place where absolutely nothing happened-it was simply a place to hide. From what used to
wonder. That this secret passageway to nowhere existed in our house did not comfort me; rather, it
provoked me to imagine what there might be that was sufficiently threatening to hide from-and it is
never comforting to imagine that. I took little Owen Meany into that passageway once, and I got him
lost in there, in the dark, and I frightened the hell out of him; I did this to all my friends, of course, but
frightening Owen Meany was always more special than frightening anyone else. It was his voice, that
ruined voice, that made his fear unique. I have been engaged in private imitations of Owen Meany’s
voice for more than thirty years, and that voice used to prevent me from imagining that I could ever
write about Owen, because-on the page-the sound of his voice is impossible to convey. And I was
prevented from imagining that I could even make Owen a part of oral history, because the thought of
imitating his voice-in public-is so embarrassing. It has taken me more than thirty years to get up the
nerve to share Owen’s voice with strangers. My grandmother was so upset by the sound of Owen
Meany’s voice, protesting his abuse in the secret passageway, that she spoke to me, after Owen had
gone home. “I don’t want you to describe to me-not ever-what you were doing to that poor boy to
make him sound like that; but if you ever do it again, please cover his mouth with your hand,”
Grandmother said. “You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?” she asked me. “I mean caughttheir little necks broken-I mean absolutely dead” Grandmother said. “Well, that boy’s voice,” my
grandmother told me, “that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life!”
And it occurs to me now that Owen’s voice was the voice of all those murdered mice, coming back to
life-with a vengeance. I don’t mean to make my grandmother sound insensitive. She had a maid named
Lydia, a Prince Edward Islander, who was our cook and housekeeper for years and years. When
Lydia developed a cancer and her right leg was amputated, my grandmother hired two other maidsone to look after Lydia. Lydia never worked again. She had her own room, and her favorite wheelchair routes through the huge house, and she became the entirely served invalid that, one day, my
grandmother had imagined she herself might become-with someone like Lydia looking after her.
Delivery boys and guests in our house frequently mistook Lydia for my grandmother, because Lydia
looked quite regal in her wheelchair and she was about my grandmother’s age; she had tea with my
grandmother every afternoon, and she played cards with my grandmother’s bridge club-with those
very same ladies whose tea she had once fetched. Shortly before Lydia died, even my Aunt Martha
was struck by the resemblance Lydia bore to my grandmother. Yet to various guests and delivery
boys, Lydia would always say-with a certain indignation of tone that was borrowed from my
grandmother-“I am not Missus Wheelwright, I am Missus Wheelwright’s former maid.” It was exactly
in the manner that Grandmother would claim that her house was not the Gravesend Inn. So my
grandmother was not without humanity. And if she wore cocktail dresses when she labored in her
rose garden, they were cocktail dresses that she no longer intended to wear to cocktail parties. Even
in her rose garden, she did not want to be seen underdressed. If the dresses got too dirty from
gardening, she threw them out. When my mother suggested to her that she might have them cleaned, my
grandmother said, “What? And have those people at the cleaners wonder what I was doing in a dress
to make it that dirty?”
From my grandmother I learned that logic is relative. But this story really is about Owen Meany,
about how I have apprenticed myself to his voice. His cartoon voice has made an even stronger
impression on me than has my grandmother’s imperious wisdom. Grandmother’s memory began to
elude her near the end. Like many old people, she had a firmer grasp of her own childhood than she
had of the lives of her own children, or her grandchildren, or her great-grandchildren. The more
recent the memory was, the more poorly remembered. “I remember you as a little boy,” she told me,
not long ago, “but when I look at you now, I don’t know who you are.” I told her I occasionally had the
same feeling about myself. And in one conversation about her memory, I asked her if she remembered
little Owen Meany.
“The labor man?” she said. “The unionist!”
“No, Owen Meany,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Certainly not.”
“The granite family?” I said. “The Meany Granite Quarry. Remember?”
“Granite,” she said with distaste. “Certainly not!”
“Maybe you remember his voice?” I said to my grandmother, when she was almost a hundred years
old. But she was impatient with me; she shook her head. I was getting up the nerve to imitate Owen’s
“I turned out the lights in the secret passageway, and scared him,” I reminded Grandmother.
“You were always doing that,” she said indifferently. “You even did that to Lydia-when she still had
both her legs.”
Meany cried.
“It’s just a cobweb, Owen,” I remember telling him.
“Stop it!” my grandmother told me. “I remember, I remember-for God’s sake,” she said. “Don’t ever
do that again!” she told me. But it was from my grandmother that I gained the confidence that I could
imitate Owen Meany’s voice at all. Even when her memory was shot, Grandmother remembered
Owen’s voice; if she remembered him as the instrument of her daughter’s death, she didn’t say. Near
the end, Grandmother didn’t remember that I had become an Anglican-and a Canadian. The Meanys, in
my grandmother’s lexicon, were not Mayflower stock. They were not descended from the founding
fathers; you could not trace a Meany back to John Adams. They were descended from later
immigrants; they were Boston Irish. The Meanys made their move to New Hampshire from Boston,
which was never England; they’d also lived in Concord, New Hampshire, and in Barre, Vermontthose were much more working-class places than Gravesend. Those were New England’s true granite
kingdoms. My grandmother believed that mining and quarrying, of all kinds, was groveling work-and
that quarriers and miners were more closely related to moles than to men. As for the Meanys: none of
the family was especially small, except for Owen. And for all the dirty tricks we played on him, he
tricked us only once. We were allowed to swim in one of his father’s quarries only if we entered and
left the water one at a time and with a stout rope tied around our waists. One did not actually swim in
those quarry lakes, which were rumored to be as deep as the ocean; they were as cold as the ocean,
even in late summer; they were as black and still as pools of oil. It was not the cold that made you
want to rush out as soon as you’d jumped in; it was the unmeasured depth-our fear of what was on the
bottom, and how far below us the bottom was. Owen’s father, Mr. Meany, insisted on the ropeinsisted on one-at-a-time, in-and-out. It was one of the few parental rules from my childhood that
remained unbroken, except once-by Owen. It was never a rule that any of us cared to challenge; no
one wanted to untie the rope and plunge without hope of rescue toward the unknown bottom. But one
fine August day, Owen Meany untied the rope, underwater, and he swam underwater to some hidden
crevice in the rocky shore while we waited for him to rise. When he didn’t surface, we pulled up the
rope. Because we believed that Owen was nearly weightless, we refused to believe what our arms
told us-that he was not at the end of the rope. We didn’t believe he was gone until we had the bulging
knot at the rope’s end out of the water. What a silence that was!-interrupted only by the drops of water
from the rope falling into the quarry. No one called his name; no one dove in to look for him. In that
water, no one could seel I prefer to believe that we would have gone in to look for him-if he’d given
us just a few more seconds to gather up our nerve-but Owen decided that our response was altogether
too slow and uncaring. He swam out from the crevice at the opposite shore; he moved as lightly as a
water bug across the terrifying hole that reached, we were sure, to the bottom of the earth. He swam
to us, angrier than we’d ever seen him.
“You scared us, Owen,” one of us said. We were too scared to defend ourselves, if there was any
defending ourselves -ever-in regard to Owen.
What I remember best is Sunday school in the Episcopal Church. Both Owen and I were newcomers
there. When my mother married the second man she met on the train, she and I changed churches; we
left the Congregational Church for the church of my adoptive father-he was, my mother said, an
Episcopalian, and although I never saw any evidence that he was a particularly serious Episcopalian,
my mother insisted that she and I move with him to his church. It was a move that disturbed my
grandmother, because we Wheelwrights had been in the Congregational Church ever since we got
over being Puritans (“ever since we almost got over being Puritans,” my grandmother used to say,
because-in her opinion- Puritanism had never entirely relinquished its hold on us Wheelwrights).
Some Wheelwrights-not only our founding father-had even been in the ministry; in the last century, the
Congregational ministry. And the move upset the pastor of the Congregational Church, the Rev. Lewis
Merrill; he’d baptized me, and he was woebegone at the thought of losing my mother’s voice from the
choir-he’d known her since she was a young girl, and (my mother always said) he’d been especially
supportive of her when she’d been calmly and good-naturedly insisting on her privacy regarding my
origins. The move did not sit well with me, either-as you shall see. But Owen Meany’s manner of
making and keeping a thing mysterious was to allude to something too dark and terrible to mention.
He was changing churches, he said, TO ESCAPE THE CATHOLICS-or, actually, it was his fathe
who was escaping and defying the Catholics by sending Owen to Sunday school, to be confirmed, in
the Episcopal Church. When Congregationalists turned into Episcopalians, Owen told me, there was
nothing to it; it simply represented a move upward in church formality-in HOCUS-POCUS, Owen
called it. But for Catholics to move to the Episcopal Church
was not only a move away from the hocus-pocus; it was a move that risked eternal damnation. Owen
used to say, gravely, that his father would surely be damned for initiating the move, but that the
Catholics had committed an UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE-that they had insulted his father an
mother, irreparably. When I would complain about the kneeling, which was new to me-not to mention
the abundance of litanies and recited creeds in the Episcopal service-Owen would tell me that I knew
nothing. Not only did Catholics kneel and mutter litanies and creeds without ceasing, but they
ritualized any hope of contact with God to such an extent that Owen felt they’d interfered with his
ability to pray-to talk to God DIRECTLY, as Owen put it. And then there was confession! Here I was
complaining about some simple kneeling, but what did I know about confessing my sins? Owen said
the pressure to confess-as a Catholic-was so great that he’d often made things up in order to be
forgiven for them.
“But that’s crazy!” I said. Owen agreed. And what was the cause of the falling out between the
Catholics and Mr. Meany? I always asked. Owen never told me. The damage was irreparable, he
would repeat; he would refer only to the UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE. Perhaps my unhappiness a
having traded the Congregational Church for the Episcopal-in combination with Owen’s satisfaction
at having ESCAPED the Catholics-contributed to my pleasure in our game of lifting Owen Meany up
in the air. It occurs to me now that we were all guilty of thinking of Owen as existing only for our
entertainment; but hi my case- especially, in the Episcopal Church-I think I was also guilty of envying
him. I believe my participation in abusing him in Sunday school was faintly hostile and inspired by
the greatest difference between us: he believed more than I did, and although I was always aware of
this, I was most aware in church. I disliked the Episcopalians because they appeared to believe moreor in more things-than the Congregationalists believed; and because I believed very little, I had been
more comfortable with the Congregationalists, who demanded a minimum of participation from
worshipers. Owen disliked the Episcopalians, too, but he disliked them far less than he had disliked
the Catholics; in his opinion, both of them believed less than he believed-but the Catholics had
interfered with Owen’s beliefs and practices more. He was my best friend, and with our best friends
we overlook many differences; but it wasn’t until we found ourselves attending the same Sunday
school, and the same church, that I was forced to accept that my best friend’s religious faith was more
certain (if not always more dogmatic) than anything I heard in either the Congregational or the
Episcopal Church. I don’t remember Sunday school in the Congregational Church at all-although my
mother claimed that this was always an occasion whereat I ate a lot, both in Sunday school and at
various parish-house functions. I vaguely remember the cider and the cookies; but I remember
emphatically-with a crisp, winter-day brightness-the white clapboard church, the black steeple clock,
and the services that were always held on the second floor in an informal, well-lit, meetinghouse
atmosphere. You could look out the tall windows at the branches of the towering trees. By
comparison, the Episcopal services were conducted in a gloomy, basement atmosphere. It was a
stone church, and there was a ground-floor or even underground mustiness to the place, which was
overcrowded with dark wood bric-a-brac, somber with dull gold organ pipes, garish with confused
configurations of stained glass-through which not a single branch of a tree was visible. When I
complained about church, I complained about the usual things a kid complains about: the
claustrophobia, the boredom. But Owen complained religiously. “A PERSON’S FAITH GOES AT
To these complaints, and others like them, I could respond only by picking up Owen Meany and
holding him above my head.
“You tease Owen too much,” my mother used to say to me. But I don’t remember much teasing, not
beyond the usual lifting him up-unless Mother meant that I failed to realize
how serious Owen was; he was insulted by jokes of any kind. After all, he did read Wall’s History
of Gravesend before he was ten; this was not lighthearted work, this was never reading that merely
skipped along. And he also read the Bible-not by the time he was ten, of course; but he actually read
the whole thing. And then there was the question of Gravesend Academy; that was the question for
every boy born in Gravesend-the academy did not admit girls in those days. I was a poor student; and
even though my grandmother could well have afforded the tuition, I was destined to stay at Gravesend
High School-until my mother married someone on the academy faculty and he legally adopted me.
Faculty children-faculty brats, we were called-could automatically attend the academy. What a relief
this must have been to my grandmother; she’d always resented that her own children couldn’t go to
Gravesend Academy-she’d had daughters. My mother and my Aunt Martha were high-school girlswhat they saw of Gravesend Academy was only at the dating end, although my Aunt Martha put this to
good use: she married a Gravesend Academy boy (one of the few who didn’t prefer my mother),
which made my cousins sons of alumni, which favored their admittance, too. (My only female cousin
would not benefit from this alumni connection-as you shall see.) But Owen Meany was a legitimate
Gravesend Academy candidate; he was a brilliant student; he was the kind of student who was
supposed to go to Gravesend. He could have applied and got in-and got a full scholarship, too, since
the Meany Granite Company was never flourishing and his parents could not have afforded the tuition.
But one day when my mother was driving Owen and me to the beach-Owen and I were ten-my mother
said, “I hope you never stop helping Johnny with his homework, Owen, because when you’re both at
the academy, the homework’s going to be much harder-especially for Johnny.”
“Of course you are!” my mother said. “You’re the best student in New Hampshire-maybe, in the whole
I wondered for a moment if he meant, or small people-that public high schools were for people who
were exceptionally small-but my mother was thinking far ahead of me, and she said, “You’ll get a full
scholarship, Owen. I hope your parents know that. You’ll go to the academy absolutely free.”
“That can be arranged, Owen,” my mother said, and I could tell that she meant she’d arrange it-if no
one else would, she’d buy him every coat and tie he could possibly have use for.
mother could hear Mr. Meany’s prickly, working-class politics behind this observation.
“Everything you need, Owen,” my mother said. “It will be taken care of.”
We were in Rye, passing the First Church, and the breeze from the ocean was already strong. A man
with a great stack of roofing shingles in a wheelbarrow was having difficulty keeping the shingles
from blowing away; the ladder, leaning against the vestry roof, was also in danger of being blown
over. The man seemed in need of a co-worker-or, at least, of another pair of hands.
“WE SHOULD STOP AND HELP THAT MAN,” Owen observed, but my mother was pursuing
theme and, therefore, she’d noticed nothing unusual out the window.
“Would it help if I talked to your parents about it, Owen?” my mother asked.
“Someone drives them,” my mother said. “/ could drive
you, Owen-at least until you got a driver’s license of your own.”
Mrs. Meany-both my mother and I knew-not only didn’t drive; she never left the house. And even in
the summer, the windows in that house were never open; his mother was allergic to dust, Owen had
explained. Every day of the year, Mrs. Meany sat indoors behind the windows bleared and streaked
with grit from the quarry. She wore an old set of pilot’s headphones (the wires dangling, unattached)
because the sound of the channeling machine-the channel bar, and the rock chisels-disturbed her. On
blasting days, she played the phonograph very loudly-the big band sound, the needle skipping
occasionally when the dynamite was especially nearby and percussive. Mr. Meany did the shopping.
He drove Owen to Sunday school, and picked him up-although he did not attend the Episcopal
services himself. It was apparently enough revenge upon the Catholics to be sending Owen there;
either the added defiance of his own attendance was unnecessary, or else Mr. Meany had suffered
such an outrage at the hands of the Catholic authorities that he was rendered unreceptive to the
teachings of any church. He was, my mother knew, quite unreceptive on the subject of Gravesend
Academy. “There is the interests of the town,” he once said in Town Meeting, “and then there is the
interests of theml” This regarded the request of the academy to widen the saltwater river and dredge a
deeper low-tide channel at a point in the Squamscott that would improve the racing course for the
academy crew; several shells had become mired in the mud flats at low tide. The part of the river the
academy wished to widen was a peninsula of tidewater marsh bordering the Meany Granite Quarry; it
was totally unusable land, yet Mr. Meany owned it and he resented that the academy wanted to scoop
it away-“for purposes of recreation!” he said.
“We’re talking about mud, not granite,” a representative of the academy had remarked.
“I’m talkin’ about us and them}” Mr. Meany had shouted, in what is now recorded as a famous Town
Meeting. In order for a Town Meeting to be famous in Gravesend, it is only necessary that there be a
good row. The Squamscott was widened; the channel was dredged. If it was just mud, the town
decided, it didn’t matter whose mud it was.
“You’re going to the academy, Owen,” my mother told him. “That’s all there is to it. If any student ever
belonged in a proper school, it’s you-that place was made with you in mind, or it was made for no
“Don’t argue with me, Owen,” my mother said. “You’re going to the academy, if I have to adopt you.
I’ll kidnap you, if I have to,” she said. But no one on this earth was ever as stubborn as Owen Meany;
he waited a mile before he said another word, and then he said, “NO. IT WON’T WORK.”
Gravesend Academy was founded in by the Rev. Emery Hurd, a follower of the original
Wheelwright’s original beliefs, a childless Puritan with an ability-according to Wall-for “Oration on
the advantages of Learning and its happy Tendency to promote Virtue and Piety.” What would the
Rev. Mr. Hurd have thought of Owen Meany? Hurd conceived of an academy whereat “no vicious
lad, who is liable to contaminate his associates, is allowed to remain an hour”; whereat “the student
shall bear the laboring oar”-and learn heartily from his labor! As for the rest of his money, Emery
Hurd left it for “the education and christianization of the American Indians.” In his waning years-ever
watchful that Gravesend Academy devote itself to “pious and charitable purposes”-the Rev. Mr. Hurd
was known to patrol Water Street in downtown Gravesend, looking for youthful offenders:
specifically, young men who would not doff their hats to him, and young ladies who would not curtsy.
In payment for such offense, Emery Hurd was happy to give these young people a piece of his mind;
near the end, only pieces were left. I saw my grandmother lose her mind in pieces like that; when she
was so old that she could remember almost nothing-certainly not Owen Meany, and not even me-she
would occasionally reprimand the whole room, and anyone present in it. “What has happened to
tipping the hat?” she would howl. “Bring back the bow!” she would croon. “Bring back the curtsy!”
“Yes, Grandmother,” I would say.
“Oh, what do you know?” she would say. “Who are you, anyway?” she would ask.
“HE IS YOUR GRANDSON, JOHNNY,” I would say, in my best imitation of Owen Meany’s voice
And my Grandmother would say, “My God, is he still here? Is that funny little guy still here? Did you
lock him in the passageway, Johnny?”
Later, in that summer when we were ten, Owen told me that my mother had been to the quarry to visit
his parents.
“What did they say about it?” I asked him. They hadn’t mentioned the visit, Owen told me, but he knew
she’d been there. “I COULD SMELL HER PERFUME,” Owen said. “SHE MUST HAVE BEE
unnecessary to tell me. Not only did Mrs. Meany not go outdoors; she refused to look outdoors. When
I saw her positioned in the various windows of Owen’s house, she was always in profile to the
window, determined not to be observing the world-yet making an obscure point: by sitting in profile,
possibly she meant to suggest that she had not entirely turned her back on the world, either. It
occurred to me that the Catholics had done this to her-whatever it was, it surely qualified for the
unmentioned UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE that Owen claimed his father and mother had suffered
There was something about Mrs. Meany’s obdurate self-imprisonment that smacked of religious
persecution-if not eternal damnation.
“How did it go with the Meanys?” I asked my mother.
“They told Owen I was there?” she asked.
“No, they didn’t tell him. He recognized your perfume.”
“He would,” she said, and smiled. I think she knew Owen had a crash on her-all my friends had
crashes on my mother. And if she had lived until they’d all been teenagers, their degrees of infatuation
with her would doubtless have deepened, and worsened, and been wholly unbearable-both to them,
and to me. Although my mother resisted the temptation of my generation-that is to say, she restrained
herself from picking up Owen Meany-she could not resist touching Owen. You simply had to put your
hands on Owen. He was mortally cute; he had a furry-animal attractiveness-except for the nakedness
of his nearly transparent ears, and the rodentlike way they protruded from his sharp face. My
grandmother said that Owen resembled an embryonic fox. When touching Owen, one avoided his
ears; they looked as if they would be cold to the touch. But not my mother; she even rubbed warmth
into his rubbery ears. She hugged him, she kissed him, she touched noses with him. She did all these
things as naturally as if she were doing them to me, but she did none of these things to my other
friends-not even to my cousins. And Owen responded to her quite affectionately; he’d blush
sometimes, but he’d always smile. His standard, nearly constant frown would disappear; an
embarrassed beam would overcome his face. I remember him best when he stood level to my
mother’s girlish waist; the top of his head, if he stood on his toes, would brush against her breasts.
When she was sitting down and he would go over to her, to receive his usual touches and hugs, his
face would be dead-even with her breasts. My mother was a sweater girl; she had a lovely figure, and
she knew it, and she wore those sweaters of the period that showed it. A measure of Owen’s
seriousness was that we could talk about the mothers of all our friends, and Owen could be extremely
frank in his appraisal of my mother to me; he could get away with it, because I knew he wasn’t joking.
Owen never joked.
have said this to me without starting a fight.
‘You really think so?” I asked him.
‘What about Missus Wiggin?” I asked him.
‘TOO BIG,” Owen said.
‘Missus Webster?” I asked him.
‘TOO LOW,” Owen said.
‘Missus Merrill?” I asked.
‘VERY FUNNY,” Owen said.
‘Miss Judkins?” I said.
“Miss Farnum!” I said.
“YOU’RE JUST FOOLING AROUND,” Owen said peevishly.
“Caroline Perkins!” I said.
“MAYBE ONE DAY,” he said seriously. “BUT SHE’S NOT A MOTHER, EITHER.”
“Irene Babson!” I said.
worshipfully. “AND SHE SMELLS BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE, TOO,” he added. I agre
with him about this; my mother always smelted wonderful. Your own mother’s bosom is a strange
topic of conversation in which to indulge a friend, but my mother was an acknowledged beauty, and
Owen possessed a completely reliable frankness; you could trust him, absolutely. My mother was
often our driver. She drove me out to the quarry to play with Owen; she picked Owen up to come play
with me-and she drove him home. The Meany Granite Quarry was about three miles out of the center
of town, not too far for a bike ride-except that the ride was all uphill. Mother would often drive me
out there with my bike in the car, and then I could ride my bike home; or Owen would ride his bike to
town, and she’d take him and his bike back. The point is, she was so often our chauffeur that he might
have seemed to her like a second son. And to the extent that mothers are the chauffeurs of small-town
life, Owen had reason to identify her as more his mother than his own mother was. When we played
at Owen’s, we rarely went inside. We played in the rock piles, in and around the pits, or down by the
river, and on Sundays we sat in or on the silent machinery, imagining ourselves in charge of the
quarry-or in a war. Owen seemed to find the inside of his house as strange and oppressive as I did.
When the weather was inclement, we played at my house-and since the weather in New Hampshire is
inclement most of the time, we played most of the time at my house. And play is all we did, it seems
to me now. We were both eleven the summer my mother died. It was our last year in Little League,
which we were already bored with. Baseball, in my opinion, is boring; one’s last year in Little
League is only a preview of the boring moments in baseball that lie ahead for many Americans.
Unfortunately, Canadians play and watch baseball, too. It is a game with a lot of waiting in it; it is a
game with increasingly heightened anticipation of increasingly limited action. At least, Little
Leaguers play the game more quickly than grown-ups-thank God! We never devoted the attention to
spitting, or to tugging at our armpits and crotches, that is the essential expression of nervousness in the
adult sport. But you still have to wait between pitches, and wait for the catcher and umpire to examine
the ball after the pitch-and wait for the catcher to trot out to the mound to say something to the pitcher
about how to throw the ball, and wait for the manager to waddle onto the field and worry (with the
pitcher and the catcher) about the possibilities of the next pitch. That day, in the last inning, Owen and
I were just waiting for the game to be over. We were so bored, we had no idea that someone’s life
was about to be over, too. Our side was up. Our team was far behind-we had been substituting
second-string players for first-string players so often and so randomly that I could no longer recognize
half of our own batters-and I had lost track of my place in the batting order. I wasn’t sure when I got to
be up to bat next, and I was about to ask our nice, fat manager and coach, Mr. Chickering, when Mr.
Chickering turned to Owen Meany and said, “You bat for Johnny, Owen.”
“But I don’t know when I bat,” I said to Mr. Chickering, who didn’t hear me; he was looking off the
field somewhere. He was bored with the game, too, and he was just waiting for it to be over, like the
rest of us.
• KNOW WHEN YOU BAT,” Owen said. That was forever irritating about Owen; he kept track of
things like that. He hardly ever got to play the stupid game, but he paid attention to all the boring
details, anyway.
“Fat chance,” I said. “Or is there only one out?”
“TWO OUT,” Owen said. Everyone on the bench was looking off the field, somewhere-even Owen,
now-and I turned my attention to the intriguing object of their interest. Then I saw hen my mother.
She’d just arrived. She was always late; she found the game boring, too. She had an instinct for
arriving just in time to take me and Owen home. She was even a sweater girl in the summer, because
she favored those summer-weight jersey
dresses; she had a nice tan, and the dress was a simple, white-cotton one-clinging about the bosom
and waist, full skirt below-and she wore a red scarf to hold her hair up, off her bare shoulders. She
wasn’t watching the game. She was standing well down the left-field foul line, past third base,
looking into the sparse stands, the almost-empty bleacher seats-trying to see if there was anyone she
knew there, I guess. I realized that everyone was watching her. This was nothing new for me.
Everyone was always staring at my mother, but the scrutiny seemed especially intense that day, or
else I am remembering it acutely because it was the last time I saw her alive. The pitcher was looking
at home plate, the catcher was waiting for the ball; the batter, I suppose, was waiting for the ball, too;
but even the fielders had turned their heads to gape at my mother. Everyone on our bench was
watching her-Mr. Chickering, the hardest; maybe Owen, the next hardest; maybe me, the least.
Everyone in the stands stared back at her as she looked them over. It was ball four. Maybe the pitcher
had one eye on my mother, too. Harry Hoyt walked. Buzzy Thurston was up, and Owen was on deck.
He got up from the bench and looked for the smallest bat. Buzzy hit an easy grounder, a sure out, and
my mother never turned her head to follow the play. She started walking parallel to the third-base
line; she passed the third-base coach; she was still gazing into the stands when the shortstop bobbled
Buzzy Thurston’s easy grounder, and the runners were safe all around. Owen was up. As a testimony
to how boring this particular game was-and how very much lost it was, too-Mr. Chickering told
Owen to swing away; Mr. Chickering wanted to go home, too. Usually, he said, “Have a good eye,
Owen!” That meant, Walk! That meant, Don’t lift the bat off your shoulders. That meant, Don’t swing
at anything. But this day, Mr. Chickering said, “Hit away, kid!”
“Knock the cover off the ball, Meany!” someone on the bench said; then he fell off the bench,
laughing. Owen, with dignity, stared at the pitcher.
“Give it a ride, Owen!” I called.
“Swing away, Owen!” said Mr. Chickering. “Swing away!”
The Foui Ball Now the guys on our bench got into it; it was time to go home. Let Owen swing and
miss the next three pitches, and then we were free. In addition, we awaited the potential comedy of
his wild, weak swings. The first pitch was way outside and Owen let it go.
“Swing!” Mr. Chickering said. “Swing away!”
“THAT WAS TOO FAR AWAY!” Owen said. He was strictly by the book, Owen Meany; he did
everything by the rules. The second pitch almost hit him in the head and he had to dive forwardacross the dirt surrounding home plate and into the infield grass. Ball two. Everyone laughed at the
explosion of dust created by Owen whacking his uniform; yet Owen made us all wait while he
cleaned himself off. My mother had her back to home plate; she had caught someone’s eye-someone in
the bleacher seats-and she was waving to whoever it was. She was past the third-base bag-on the
third-base line, but still nearer third base than home plate-when Owen Meany started his swing. He
appeared to start his swing before the ball left the pitcher’s hand-it was a fast ball, such as they are in
Little League play, but Owen’s swing was well ahead of the ball, with which he made astonishing
contact (a little in front of home plate, about chest-high). It was the hardest I’d ever seen him hit a
ball, and the force of the contact was such a shock to Owen that he actually stayed on his feet-for
once, he didn’t fall down. The crack of the bat was so unusually sharp and loud for a Little League
game that the noise captured even my mother’s wandering attention. She turned her head toward home
plate-I guess, to see who had hit such a shot-and the ball struck her left temple, spinning her so
quickly that one of her high heels broke and she fell forward, facing the stands, her knees splayed
apart, her face hitting the ground first because her hands never moved from her sides (not even to
break her fall), which later gave rise to the speculation that she was dead before she touched the
earth. Whether she died that quickly, I don’t know; but she was dead by the time Mr. Chickering
reached her. He was the first one to her. He lifted her head, then turned her face to a slightly more
comfortable position; someone said later that he closed her eyes before he let her head rest back on
the ground. I
remember that he pulled the skirt of her dress down-it was as high as midthigh-and he pinched her
knees together. Then he stood up, removing his warm-up jacket, which he held in front of him as a
bullfighter holds his cape. I was the first of the players to cross the third-base line, but-for a fat manMr. Chickering was agile. He caught me, and he threw the warm-up jacket over my head. I could see
nothing; it was impossible to struggle effectively.
“No, Johnny! No, Johnny!” Mr. Chickering said. “You don’t want to see her, Johnny,” he said. Your
memory is a monster; you forget-it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or
hides things from you-and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a
memory; but it has you! Later, I would remember everything. In revisiting the scene of my mother’s
death, I can remember everyone who was in the stands that day; I remember who wasn’t there, too-and
what everyone said, and didn’t say, to me. But the first visit to that scene was very bare of details. I
remember Chief Pike, our Gravesend chief of police-in later years, I would date his daughter. Chief
Pike got my attention only because of what a ridiculous question he asked-and how much more absurd
was his elaboration on his question!
“Where’s the ball?” the police chief asked-after the area had been cleared, as they say. My mother’s
body was gone and I was sitting on the bench in Mr. Chickering’s lap, his warm-up jacket still over
my head-now, because I liked it that way: because / had put it there.
“The ball?” Mr. Chickering said. “You want the fucking baUT’
“Well, it’s the murder weapon, kind of,” Chief Pike said. His Christian name was Ben. “The
instrument of death, I guess you’d call it,” Ben Pike said.
“The murder weapon!” Mr. Chickering said, squeezing me as he spoke. We were waiting for either
my grandmother or my mother’s new husband to come get me. “The instrument of death!” Mr.
Chickering said. “Jesus Christ, Ben-it was a baseball!”
“Well, where is it?” Chief Pike said. “If it killed somebody, I’m supposed to see it-actually, I’m
supposed to possess it.”
“Don’t be an asshole, Ben,” Mr. Chickering said.
“Did one of your kids take it?” Chief Pike asked our fat coach and manager.
“Ask them-don’t ask me!” Mr. Chickering said. All the players had been made to stand behind the
bleachers while the police took photographs of my mother. They were still standing there, peering out
at the murderous field through the empty seats. Several townspeople were standing with the playersmothers and dads and ardent baseball fans. Later, I would remember Owen’s voice, speaking to me in
the darkness-because my head was under the warm-up jacket.
Bit by bit, over the years, all of it would come back to me-everyone who was standing there behind
the bleachers, and everyone who had gone home. But then I took the warm-up jacket off my head and
all I knew was that Owen Meany was not standing there behind the bleachers. Mr. Chickering must
have observed the same thing.
“Owen!” he called.
“He went home!” someone called back.
“He had his bike!” someone said. I could easily imagine him, struggling with his bike up the Maiden
Hill Road-first pedaling, then wobbling, then getting off to walk his bike; all the while, in view of the
river. In those days, our baseball uniforms were an itchy wool, and I could see Owen’s uniform,
heavy with sweat, the number too big for his back-when he tucked his shirt into his pants, he tucked
in half the number, too, so that anyone passing him on the Maiden Hill Road would have thought he
was number . I suppose there was no reason for him to wait; my mother always gave Owen and his
bike a ride home after our Little League games. Of course, I thought, Owen has the ball. He was a
collector; one had to consider only his baseball cards. “After all,” Mr. Chickering would say-in later
years-‘ ‘it was the only decent hit the kid ever made, the only real wood he ever got on the ball. And
even then, it was a foul ball. Not to mention that it killed someone.”
So what if Owen has the ball? I was thinking. But at the time I was mainly thinking about my mother; I
was already
beginning to get angry with her for never telling me who my father was. At the time, I was only
eleven; I had no idea who else had attended that Little League game, and that death-and who had his
own reason for wanting to possess the ball that Owen Meany hit.
MY MOTHER’S NAME was Tabitha, although no one but my grandmother actually called her that.
Grandmother hated nicknames-with the exception that she never called me John; I was always Johnny
to her, even long after I’d become just plain John to everyone else. To everyone else, my mother was
Tabby. I recall one occasion when the Rev. Lewis Merrill said “Tabitha,” but that was spoken in
front of my mother and grandmother-and the occasion was an argument, or at least a plea. The issue
was my mother’s decision to leave the Congregational Church for the Episcopal, and the Rev. Mr.
Merrill-speaking to my grandmother, as if my mother weren’t in the room-said, “Tabitha Wheelwright
is the one truly angelic voice in our choir, and we shall be a choir without a soul if she leaves us.” I
must add, in Pastor MerrilFs defense, that he didn’t always speak with such Byzantine muddiness, but
he was sufficiently worked up about my mother’s and my own departure from his church to offer his
opinions as if he were speaking from the pulpit. In New Hampshire, when I was a boy, Tabby was a
common name for house cats, and there was undeniably a feline quality to my mother-never in the sly
or stealthy sense of that word, but in the word’s other catlike qualities: a clean, sleek, self-possessed,
strokable quality. In quite a different way from
Owen Meany, my mother looked touchable; I was always aware of how much people wanted, or
needed, to touch her. I’m not talking only about men, although-even at my age-I was aware of how
restlessly men moved their hands in her company. I mean that everyone liked to touch her-and
depending on her attitude toward her toucher, my mother’s responses to being touched were feline,
too. She could be so chillingly indifferent that the touching would instantly stop; she was well
coordinated and surprisingly quick and, like a cat, she could retreat from being touched-she could
duck under or dart away from someone’s hand as instinctively as the rest of us can shiver. And she
could respond in that other way that cats can respond, too; she could luxuriate in being touched-she
could contort her body quite shamelessly, putting more and more pressure against the toucher’s hand,
until (I used to imagine) anyone near enough to her could hear her purr. Owen Meany, who rarely
wasted words and who had the conversation-stopping habit of dropping remarks like coins into a
deep pool of water . . . remarks that sank, like truth, to the bottom of the pool where they would
remain, untouchable . . . Owen said to me once, “YOUR MOTHER IS SO SEXY, I KEE
As for my Aunt Martha’s insinuations, leaked to my cousins, who dribbled the suggestion, more than
ten years late, to me-that my mother was “a little simple”-I believe this is the result of a jealous elder
sister’s misunderstanding. My Aunt Martha failed to understand the most basic thing about my mother:
that she was born into the entirely wrong body. Tabby Wheelwright looked like a starlet-lush,
whimsical, easy to talk into anything; she looked eager to please, or “a little simple,” as my Aunt
Martha observed; she looked touchable. But I firmly believe that my mother was of an entirely
different character man her appearance would suggest; as her son, I know, she was almost perfect as a
mother-her sole imperfection being that she died before she could tell me who my father was. And in
addition to being an almost perfect mother, I also know that she was a happy woman-and a truly
happy woman drives some men and almost every other woman absolutely crazy. If her body looked
restless, she wasn’t. She was content-she was feline in that respect, too. She appeared to want nothing
from life but a child and a loving husband; it is important to note these singulars-she did not want
children, she wanted me, just me, and she got me; she did not want men in her life, she wanted a man,
the right man, and shortly before she died, she found him. I have said that my Aunt Martha is a “lovely
woman,” and I mean it: she is warm, she is attractive, she is decent and kind and honorably
intentioned-and she has always been loving to me. She loved my mother, too; she just never
understood her-and when however small a measure of jealousy is mixed with misunderstanding, there
is going to be trouble. I have said that my mother was a sweater girl, and that is a contradiction to the
general modesty with which she dressed; she did show off her bosom-but never her flesh, except for
her athletic, almost-innocent shoulders. She did like to bare her shoulders. And her dress was never
slatternly, never wanton, never garish; she was so conservative in her choice of colors that I
remember little in her wardrobe that wasn’t black or white, except for some accessories-she had a
fondness for red (in scarves, in hats, in shoes, in mittens and gloves). She wore nothing that was tight
around her hips, but she did like her small waist and her good bosom to show-she did have THE
BEST BREASTS OF ALL THE MOTHERS, as Owen observed. I do not think that she flirted; s
did not “come on” to men-but how much of that would I have seen, up to the age of eleven? So maybe
she did flirt-a little. I used to imagine that her flirting was reserved for the Boston & Maine, that she
was absolutely and properly my mother in every location upon this earth-even in Boston, the dreaded
city-but that on the train she might have looked for men. What else could explain her having met the
man who fathered me there? And some six years later-on the same train-she met the man who would
marry her! Did the rhythm of the train on the tracks somehow unravel her and make^her behave out of
character? Was she altered in transit, when her feet were^not upon the ground? I expressed this
absurd fear only once, and only to Owen. He was shocked.
“But yew say she’s sexy, you’re the one who raves about her breasts,” I told him.
“I DON’T RAVE,” Owen told me.
“Well, okay-I mean, you like her,” I said. “Men, and boys-they like her.”
Well, although she said she “met” my father on the Boston & Maine, I never imagined that my
conception occurred there; it is a fact, however, that she met the man she would marry on that train.
That story was neither a lie nor a secret. How many times I asked her to tell me that story! And she
never hesitated, she never lacked enthusiasm for telling that story-which she told the same way, every
time. And after she was dead, how many times I asked him to tell me the story-and he would tell it,
with enthusiasm, and the same way, every time. His name was Dan Needham. How many times I have
prayed to God that he was my real father! My mother and my grandmother and I-and Lydia, minus one
of her legs-were eating dinner on a Thursday evening in the spring of . Thursdays were the days my
mother returned from Boston, and we always had a better-than-average dinner those nights. I
remember that it was shortly after Lydia’s leg had been amputated, because it was still a little strange
to have her eating with us at the table (in her wheelchair), and to have the two new maids doing the
serving and the clearing that only recently Lydia had done. And the wheelchair was still new enough
to Lydia so that she wouldn’t allow me to push her around in it; only my grandmother and my motherand one of the two new maids-were allowed to. I don’t remember all the trivial intricacies of Lydia’s
wheel-chair rules-just that the four of us were finishing our dinner, and Lydia’s presence at the dinner
table was as new and noticeable as fresh paint. And my mother said, “I’ve met another man on the
good old Boston and Maine.”
It was not intended, I think, as an entirely mischievous remark, but the remark took instant and
astonishing hold of Lydia and my grandmother and me. Lydia’s wheelchair surged in reverse away
from the table, dragging the tablecloth after her, so that all the dishes and glasses and silverware
jumped-and the candlesticks wobbled. My grandmother seized the large brooch at the throat of her
dress-she appeared to have suddenly choked on it-and I snapped so substantial a piece of my lower
lip between my teeth that I could taste my blood. We all thought that my mother was speaking
euphemisti- cally. I wasn’t present when she’d announced the particulars of the case of the first man
she claimed she’d met on the train. Maybe she’d said, “I met a man on the good old Boston and Maineand now I’m pregnant!” Maybe she said, “I’m going to have a baby as a result of a fling I had with a
total stranger I met on the good old Boston and Maine-someone I never expect to see again!”
Well, anyway, if I can’t re-create the first announcement, the second announcement was spectacular
enough. We all thought that she was telling us that she was pregnant again-by a different man! And as
an example of how wrong my Aunt Martha was, concerning her point of view that my mother was “a
little simple,” my mother instantly saw what we were thinking, and laughed at us, very quickly, and
said, “No, no! I’m not going to have a baby. I’m never going to have another baby-I have my baby. I’m
just telling you that I’ve met a man. Someone I like.”
“A different man, Tabitha?” my grandmother asked, still holding her brooch.
“Oh, not that man! Don’t be silly,” my mother said, and she laughed again-her laughter drawing
Lydia’s wheelchair, ever so cautiously, back toward the table.
“A man you like, you mean, Tabitha?” my grandmother asked.
“I wouldn’t mention him if I didn’t like him,” my mother said. “I want you to meet him,” she said to us
“You’ve dated him?” my grandmother asked.
“No! I just met him-just today, on today’s train!” my mother said.
“And already you like him?” Lydia asked, in a tone of voice so perfectly copied from my grandmother
that I had to look to see which one of them was speaking.
“Well, yes,” my mother said seriously. “You know such things. You don’t need that much time.”
“How many times have you known such things-before?” my grandmother asked.
“This is the first time, really,” my mother said. “That’s why I know.”
Lydia and my grandmother instinctively looked at me, perhaps to ascertain if I’d understood my
mother correctly: that the time “before,” when she’d had her “fling,” which had led to me, was not a
time when my mother had enjoyed any special
feelings toward whoever my father was. But I had another idea. I was thinking that maybe this was
my father, that maybe this was the first man she’d met on the train, and he’d heard about me, and he
was curious about me and wanted to see me-and something very important had kept him away for the
last six years. There had, after all, been a war back when I’d been born, in . But as another example of
how wrong my Aunt Martha was, my mother seemed to see what I was imagining, immediately,
because she said, “Please understand, Johnny, that this man has no relationship whatsoever to the man
who is your father-this is a man I saw for the first time today, and I like him. That’s all: I just like him,
and I think you’ll like him, too.”
“Okay,” I said, but I couldn’t look at her. I remember keeping my eyes on Lydia’s hands, gripping her
wheel-chair-and on my grandmother’s hands, toying with her brooch.
“What does he do, Tabitha?” my grandmother asked. That was a Wheelwright thing to ask. In my
grandmother’s opinion, what one “did” was related to where one’s family “came from”-she always
hoped it was from England, and in the seventeenth century. And the short list of things that my
grandmother approved of “doing” was no less specific than seventeenth-century England.
“Dramatics,” my mother said. “He’s a sort of actor-but not really.”
“An unemployed actor?” my grandmother asked. (I think now that an employed actor would have been
unsuitable enough.)
“No, he’s not looking for employment as an actor-he’s strictly an amateur actor,” my mother said. And
I thought of those people in the train stations who handled puppets-I meant street performers, although
at six years old I hadn’t the vocabulary to suggest this. “He teaches acting, and putting on plays,” my
mother said.
“A director?” my grandmother asked, more hopefully.
“Not exactly,” my mother said, and she frowned. “He was on his way to Gravesend for an interview.”
“I can’t imagine there’s much opportunity for theater here!” my grandmother said.
“He had an interview at the academy,” my mother said. “It’s a teaching job-the history of drama, or
something. And the boys have their own theatrical productions-you know, Martha and I used to go to
them. It was so funny how they had to dress up as girls!”
That was the funniest part of those productions, in my memory; I’d had no idea that directing such
performances was anyone’s job.
“So he’s a teacher?” my grandmother asked. This was borderline acceptable to Harriet Wheelwrightalthough my grandmother was a shrewd enough businesswoman to know that the dollars and cents of
teaching (even at as prestigious a prep school as Gravesend Academy) were not exactly in her league.
“Yes!” my mother said in an exhausted voice. “He’s a teacher. He’s been teaching dramatics in a
private school in Boston. Before that, he went to Harvard-Class of Forty-five.”
“Goodness gracious!” my grandmother said. “Why didn’t you begin with Harvard?”
“It’s not important to him,” my mother said. But Harvard ‘ was important enough to my grandmother to
calm her troubled hands; they left her brooch alone, and returned to rest in her lap. After a polite
pause, Lydia inched her wheelchair forward and picked up the little silver bell and shook it for the
maids to come clear-the very bell that had summoned Lydia so often (only yesterday, it seemed). And
the bell had the effect of releasing us all from the paralyzing tension we had just survived-but for only
an instant. My grandmother had forgotten to ask: What is the man’s name? For in her view, we
Wheelwrights were not out of the woods without knowing the name of the potential new member of
the family. God forbid, he was a Cohen, or a Calamari, or a Meany! Up went my grandmother’s hands
to her brooch again.
“His name is Daniel Needham,” my mother said. Whew! With what relief-down came my
grandmother’s hands! Need-ham was a fine old name, a founding fathers sort of name, a name you
could trace back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony-if not exactly to Gravesend itself. And Daniel was
as Daniel as Daniel Webster, which was as good a name as a Wheelwright could wish for.
“But he’s called Dan,” my mother added, bringing a slight frown to my grandmother’s countenance.
She had never gone along with making Tabitha a Tabby, and if she’d had a Daniel she wouldn’t have
made him a Dan. But Harriet Wheelwright
was fair-minded enough, and smart enough, to yield in the case of a small difference of opinion.
“So, have you made a date?” my grandmother asked.
“Not exactly,” my mother said. “But I know I’ll see him again.”
“But you haven’t made any plans?” my grandmother asked. Vagueness annoyed her. “If he doesn’t get
the job at the academy,” my grandmother said, “you may never see him again!”
“But I know I’ll see him again!” my mother repeated.
“You can be such a know-it-all, Tabitha Wheelwright,” my grandmother said crossly. “I don’t know
why young people find it such a burden to plan ahead.” And to this notion, as to almost everything my
grandmother said, Lydia wisely nodded her head-the explanation for her silence was that my
grandmother was expressing exactly what Lydia would have expressed, only seconds before Lydia
could have done so. Then the doorbell rang. Both Lydia and my grandmother stared at me, as if only
my Mends would be uncouth enough to make a call after dinner, uninvited.
“Heavens, who is that?” Grandmother asked, and she and Lydia both took a pointed and overly long
look at their wristwatches-although it was not even eight o’clock on a balmy spring evening; there
was still some light in the sky.
“I’ll bet that’s ton!” my mother said, getting up from the table to go to the door. She gave herself a
quick and approving look in the mirror over the sideboard where the roast sat, growing cold, and she
hurried into the hall.
“Then you did make a date?” my grandmother asked. “Did you invite him?”
“Not exactly!” my mother called. “But I told him where I lived!”
“Nothing is exactly with young people, I’ve noticed,” my grandmother said, more to Lydia than to me.
“It certainly isn’t,” said Lydia. But I’d heard enough of them; I had heard them for years. I followed my
mother to the door; my grandmother, pushing Lydia in her wheelchair in front of her, followed me.
Curiosity, which-in New Hampshire, in those days-was often said to be responsible for the death of
cats, had got the better of us all. We knew that my mother had no immediate plans to reveal to us a
single clue regarding the first man she’d supposedly met on the Boston & Maine; but the second manwe could see him for ourselves. Dan Needham was on the doorstep of Front Street, Gravesend. Of
course, my mother had had “dates” before, but she’d never said of one of them that she wanted us to
meet him, or that she even liked him, or that she knew she’d see him again. And so we were aware
that Dan Needham was special, from the start. I suppose Aunt Martha would have said that one aspect
of my mother being “a little simple” was her attraction to younger men; but in this habit my mother
was simply ahead of her time-because it’s true, the men she dated were often a little younger than she
was. She even went out with a few seniors from Gravesend Academy when-if she’d gone to collegeshe would have been a college senior herself; but she just “went out” with them. While they were only
prep-school boys and she was in her twenties-with an illegitimate child-all she did with those boys
was dance with them, or go to movies or plays with them, or to the sporting events. I was used to
seeing a few goons come calling, I will admit; and they never knew how to respond to me. They had
no idea, for example, what a six-year-old was. They either brought me rubber ducks for the bath, or
other toys for virtual infants-or else they brought me Fowler’s Modern English Usage: something
every six-year-old should plunge into. And when they saw me-when they were confronted with my
short, sturdy presence, and the fact that I was too old for bathtub toys and too young far Modern
English Usage-they would become insanely restless to impress me with their sensitivity to a waisthigh person like myself. They would suggest a game of catch in the backyard, and then rifle an
uncatchable football into my small face, or they would palaver to me in baby talk about showing them
my favorite toy-so that they might know what kind of thing was more appropriate to bring me, next
time. There was rarely a next time. Once one of them asked my mother if I was toilet-trained-I guess
he found this a suitable question, prior to his inviting me to sit on his knees and play bucking bronco.
One thing about my mother’s “beaus”: they were all good-looking. So on that superficial level I was
unprepared for Dan Needham, who was tall and gawky, with curly carrotcolored hair, and who wore eyeglasses that were too small for his egg-shaped face-the perfectly
round lenses giving him the apprehensive, hunting expression of a large, mutant owl. My grandmother
said, after he’d gone, that it must have been the first time in the history of Gravesend Academy that
they had hired “someone who looks younger than the students.” Furthermore, his clothes didn’t fit him;
the jacket was too tight-the sleeves too short-and the trousers were so baggy that the crotch napped
nearer his knees than his hips, which were womanly and the only padded pans of his peculiar body.
But I was too young and cynical to spot his kindness. Even before he was introduced to my
grandmother or to Lydia or to me, he looked straight at me and said, “You must be Johnny. I heard as
much about you as anyone can hear in an hour and a half on the Boston and Maine, and I know you can
be trusted with an important package.” It was a brown shopping bag with another brown paper bag
stuffed inside it. Oh boy, here it comes, I thought: an inflatable camel-it floats and spits. But Dan
Needham said, “It’s not for you, it’s not for anyone your age. But I’m trusting you to put it somewhere
where it can’t be stepped on-and out of the way of any pets, if you have pets. You mustn’t let a pet
near it. And whatever you do, don’t open it. Just tell me if it moves.”
Then he handed it to me; it didn’t weigh enough to be Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and if I was to
keep it away from pets-and tell him if it moved-cleatly it was alive. I put it quickly under the hall
table-the telephone table, we called it-and I stood halfway in the hall and halfway in the living room,
where I could watch Dan Needham taking a seat. Taking a seat in my grandmother’s living room was
never easy, because many of the available seats were not for sitting in-they were antiques, which my
grandmother was preserving, for historical reasons; sitting in them was not good for them. Therefore,
although the living room was quite sumptuously arranged with upholstered chairs and couches, very
little of this furniture was usable-and so a guest, his or her knees already bending in the act of sitting
down, would suddenly snap to attention as my grandmother shouted, “Oh, for goodness sake, not
there! You can’t sit therel” And the startled person would attempt to try the next chair or couch, which
in my grandmother’s opinion would also collapse or burst into flames at the strain. And I suppose my
grandmother noticed that Dan Needham was tall, and that he had a sizable bottom, and this no doubt
meant to her that an even fewer-than-usual number of seats were available to him-while Lydia, not yet
deft with her wheelchair, blocked the way here, and the way there, and neither my mother nor my
grandmother had yet developed that necessary reflex to simply wheel her out of the way. And so the
living room was a scene of idio…
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