“To me it seems that youth is like spring, an overpraised season– delightful if it happens to be a favored one, but in practice very rarely favored and more remarkable, as a general rule, for biting east winds than genial breezes.”
This quote, from Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, was one of my late mother’s favorites. It came to mind recently, when, just twelve days before the first day of spring, following an exceedingly warm winter which had flowers and trees blooming early in many parts of this country, down came a snowfall, beautifully, killingly settling on those tender blossoms.
Charlotte — my mother, the writer-editor Charlotte Zolotow , a beautiful woman who did not recognize her own beauty until late in life — so loved this Butler quote that she used it as both epigraph and title for one of her books, an anthology of short stories for teenage readers, An Overpraised Season, first published in 1973.
WRITER, EDITOR, AND HAPPY CROW
Few people know my mother’s work as an anthologist. The primary areas in which she is recognized are, first, as a writer of picture books for young children (almost a hundred different titles of hers were published by the most famous houses of her day and illustrated by luminaries like Maurice Sendak -the cover of her Mr. Rabbit, with his pictures, below – Garth Williams and H.A. Rey; many of these books are still being reissued to this day, in America as well as over a dozen of foreign editions).
The second area of her renown is as an editor of children’s books, at Harper & Row, later and still HarperCollins. There too she worked with the greats: Margaret Wise Brown, Paul Fleischman, Francesca Lia Block, Paul Zindel, all while being mentored by the terrifying and legendary children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom).
But Charlotte was also an anthologist. She scavenged her own works like a happy crow, plundering several earlier volumes of poetry to recombine and create new collections, often mixing earlier poems with new work (such as in Seasons and Everything Glistens and Everything Sings). She also borrowed short stand-alone bits from her narrative picture books, cutting them until they became something like free-verse poems or short-short stories, creating the appropriately named anthology Snippets.
Bur she also did two themed anthologies of the works of others. For Charlotte was a passionate and voracious reader. Like most writers and editors, her ravenous reading powered and informed both her writing and editing. One of the few solaces of her own difficult childhood was reading; the comfort she found in books, fueled her early determination to be a writer.
In An Overpraised Season she gathered ten short stories by writers like Doris Lessing, Nat Benchley, John Updike, Merrill Joan Gerber… writers we hardly think of as appropriate for or centered on adolescence. She wrote an introduction to the book itself, and a paragraph introducing each story, as if taking readers by the hand to usher them in. She curated similarly thirteen years later in Season’s companion-piece, her anthology Early Sorrow (1986) , showcasing authors like E.L. Doctorow, Carson McCullers, and Katherine Mansfield.
Charlotte believed deeply that childhood and adolescence were overpraised, their warp and woof mostly of sorrow. Certainly, her own growing-up years had been, as she saw it, though from them she found the flax with which she wove so much exquisite, deeply felt work for young readers. Over and over, she told journalists that her concern for children’s deepest feelings, lay in her own childhood.
It was, in her telling and memory of it, difficult and fraught.
The youngest of two children — she followed a sister who she believed throughout her life was prettier than she, and who was certainly more socially at ease when they were young — she was awkward and often ill. Sickly and shy, she was over-sensitive to the point of neurosis; she once found a ten-dollar bill in the street and cried for several days because its owner could not be found; what if he or she were starving or destitute, and that ten dollars was all that stood between them and the abyss?
Her family moved frequently; over and over, she was the new girl in class, in New York, Boston, Detroit. She was afflicted with scoliosis, and wore a back brace for several years that, combined with the coke-bottle lensed glasses and orthodontic braces she wore, left her excruciatingly self-conscious… especially in comparison to her glamorous seven-years-older sister. (The big sister/little sister relationship was another area she mined frequently in her works for children).
Now, not all Charlotte’s work — her own books and poems, those she edited, and these anthologies — emphasized the difficulties of growing up. Her depictions of childhood’s sensuality, wonder, and sheer dizzying delight at things like an icy pineapple popsicle on a hot night (in The White Marble) or a child’s first hearing of church bell ringing (in One Step Two) or astonishment at a first snowfall (in Over and Over), remain unmatched. She understood childhood’s moments of intoxication as few writers for the young have before or since.
But few things unleashed greater fury in her than writing which sanitized, sugar-coated or sentimentalized the lives of the young. She never shied away from truth, and to her, especially where children were concerned, it was at least as often bitter, depressing, or perplexing as it was sweet, joyful, and comprehensible.
Her stand on this was firm; a matter not only of literary authenticity but moral responsibility. As a sensitive child raised by Victorian era parents, much was hidden from her in the belief that the truth would only upset her, and she must be protected. She saw it as lying, and when an adult always maintained that she could feel the perplexing weight of sensing when she was not being told the truth.
She was determined, in her work for the young, to do as she had not been done by. In 1974, speaking to Publishers Weekly in her role as an editor of young adult books, she said: “We have to allow authors to put in their books all the information that’s valid… allow them to write about abortion, sex encounters, death, divorce and all kinds of problems if these are vital to the story. (No) subject is taboo if it’s handled with taste. We have to tell young people the truth. I don’t see how this position can be altered.”
TRAGIC WEATHER; AN ECOLOGICAL OUTLIER
Looking at the snow-covered tree blossoms as I walked last weekend and thinking about Charlotte, I also considered this: that she was also an outlier environmentally.
Her love of the natural world and its plants and animals is evident in her picture books; she and my father were early readers of Rachel Carson, aware of the dangers of pesticides long before this was common knowledge. Climate change, had she understood it, thus those blossoms covered with snow, would have distressed her, even as she would have admired their strange beauty.
Spring is overpraised indeed when fruit trees blossom too early, out of phase due to months literally unseasonably warm. Often, such blossoms are frost-killed before pollination is complete, so that there is little or no no fruit crop the following fall. This would have distressed and frightened Charlotte, I believe, as it does me, her daughter.
Of course flukey weather has always happened occasionally; of course weather is by nature variable. Indeed, otherwise Butler could not have written those telling words. But still, freezes this extreme in the midst of warm winters used to be freakish: now they happen almost as often as they don’t. In Butler’s time the biting winds blew off the blossoms; they did not usually interfere with their very cycles.
Walking the streets of Nashville, Tennessee (where I spend part of some winters) on that snowy Saturday in mid-March, taking pictures of the snow-covered flowering trees, I thought about all this, and of Charlotte, and the Butler quote. When I got home, I Googled it to make sure I had it right.
FALLING INTO THE MELLOWER SEASON
And there, to my surprise, I discovered the rest of the quote. I had never read it before. Nor had I heard it from Charlotte.
It is this: “Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.”
I am 64 as I write these words, and three years past Charlotte’s death, at age 98.
I think I can say truthfully that for both Charlotte and me, in our individual lives and in the life we shared in our relationship as mother and daughter, aging — Butler’s autumn — has been far more mellow and fruitful than youth, or even middle age.
One tiny, superficial piece: Though Charlotte swapped the coke-bottle lensed glasses and switched to contacts the minute they came on the market, she continued to say and believe she was unattractive, for decades (though most who remember her recall her as elegant, beautiful).
However, going through her papers after her death, I found this comment, written when she was 65 and in the middle of a passionate love affair (the only one with a man other than Maurice)… ” Earlier I didn’t like the way I looked at all, and certainly I think I was an ugly little girl. But now I look back at the pictures taken when I was a young woman, and even middle-aged and I think, I was actually rather good-looking.”
Now here I am, almost the age she was when she wrote these words, and I too — for the first time in my life — look in the mirror and like what I’m seeing. I am so glad, both individually and in the strange bendy peculiar world of mother-daughter parallels, that we both came to love even our physical selves.
And each other.
I have talked about Charlotte’s early sorrows; mine … well, you can always read my memoiristic novel, The Year It Rained, to get a sense of it. In addition to her husband, my wildly charming, wildly inconsistent, brilliant alcoholic father, Maurice Zolotow (pictured left) , Charlotte was herself was a difficult person to have as a mother (though also brilliant, depression and artistic and professional drive battled it out in her for much of her life). In 1969, after 33 years of marriage, Charlotte and Maurice divorced, neither ever remarrying.
The thing is: eventually, we both got over it. We both used what had happened to us as creative material. We both slowly, individually, not only came to peace with the circumstances of our “families of origin”, but came to feel that even in their imperfections, they were quite perfect for us… ideal soil from which to grow the people we would become. I am oversimplifying and condensing here; but I am telling the truth.
And her last years, and our relationship within those last years, were astonishingly, surprisingly happy, in a way neither of us could have possibly predicted (I wrote about this during that last year of her life, here).
That we not only made peace but fell in love as we never could have in any earlier phases – this just continues to astound me.
One night, late in the evening, Charlotte lay in the hospital bed in what had been the family living room but had become her bedroom when she could no longer climb the stairs. I was keeping her company as she fell asleep. The lights were out, but a small amount of light flowed in from the other room. We were holding hands. I could see her face, perfectly relaxed and happy.
I said, “I love you, Charlotte.”
She said, teasingly, “I love you more.”
I said, teasingly – because we both had trouble with numbers – “Why, did you measure it?”
She said, “I was here longer.”
She was. But now she is gone. Am I catching up to her? Perhaps.
It ought to go without saying, and yet I must say, how I treasure those odd, funny, intimate moments, in that season when she no longer dwelt in what we probably mistakenly call the “right mind.” There, we spent hours together in a floating, non-linear timeless kind of time. A time I was well aware would come to an end, at least on the physical level, as it has.
Now I walk the earth, with its sometimes frozen flowers, its falls full of fruit, without her.
I have reached the age where almost as many people who are important to me have “crossed over” (whatever that is) to “the other side” (wherever that is). I lost my beloved husband in an accident (he and I were both too young for such a loss). I lost a respected, fond partner to suicide. My father to cardiac arrest, three mentors and my aunt (Charlotte’s sister) to old age.
And each year Earth revolves around the sun, more people I love – friends, the man with whom I have been passionately involved for the last three years in a great late-life romance, my colleagues – I know will spin off and away. Either they will spin away, or I will, before them. Loss, either way. And what of my own old age, assuming I have one? My mother and aunt were so long-lived they outlasted almost all their friends. If this is the case for me, who, being childless, will be a Crescent to me when I and if I enter the last phase Charlotte was in?
These are only a few of the many legitimate reasons why I, or someone my age, might well feel late sorrow. Too, the particular era is fraught, our 45th president in his first hundred days as I write this. I fear the further degradation of our environment, the zombie rise of socially-condoned racism and anti-Semitism, the picking-apart of that brave, brilliant idea called democracy. I may have no children of my own, but I fear for the children of my friends and of the world, for their children, for the numberless innocent species that, like the frozen blossoms, are imperiled.
And yet, on a personal level, never have I been happier (it must be admitted, though, that one of the doubting observers which lives in me still does sometimes remark, after watching the news, ” Yeah, let’s see how happy and at peace you are when they come and put people like you in internment camps.” ).
Yet. Here in Nashville, staying at the home of friends , sometimes just the morning light coming in through guest-room the window in which Mary hung a small round prism, I am overcome with the kind of here-and-now rapture my mother described so well in some of her books.
The light and shadow, as ever partners, coming through the screen, make gingham of the venetian blind slat, make a small egg-shaped faceted planet of the prism. Make tiny sharp edged darting shards of rainbow.
Another day begins. Life again renews its hold, its invitation.
I find, suddenly, at this late date in life, at this uneasy time in history, that despite all the loss and uncertainty, I am often (as I have said more than once) “in love” the way a fish is in water.
Oh, Charlotte. We knew light and shadow too, and we both wrote about them. Did you ever read the last part of that quote? I wonder about this, as I enter autumn, in these years when you have passed through into winter.
We may have lost in flowers, you and I. But oh, did we gain in fruit.