Going home again with the help of books

They say you can’t go home again but you can visit.

This is what we did with my mom on a recent trip to her hometown of Mt. Vernon, Indiana. I wanted Max and Calvin to see where she grew up and where my brother and I spent a lot of time during our own childhood.

It was magical. My mom brought along a book of photographs she had bought her parents; she had marked for us various places we might see on our trip.

We started the day in the lovely and historical New Harmony, Indiana, which was as fascinating to the boys as it was to me as a child.

Gigi and Calvin

My mom (Gigi) and Calvin with her book about Southern Indiana.

We then drove on to Mt. Vernon where we visited my grandparents’ graves, their former homes and my mom’s friends, Susan and Will.

When we stopped in front of the house where my mom grew up, I was also interested to see the house of her former neighbor, Mrs. Ruth Hanshoe. I remember going into her kitchen as a child and she had a world map on the wall. Pins marked the many destinations she had visited.

Mom on Walnut St.

My mom and her childhood home on the left and the Hanshoe house on the right. Walnut Street in Mt. Vernon remains lovely.

Last year, Calvin and I read a book Mrs. Hanshoe had given my mom for Christmas as a girl – Eleanor EstesThe Hundred Dresses. Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, this is an evergreen story about kids being mean and learning that there are consequences.

When Calvin and I first read this book, I asked my mom about Mrs. Hanshoe. I was curious about this woman who was a world traveler and encouraged children to read. My mom shared that she was a second grade teacher and her husband was a farmer.

“They had a cottage on the Ohio River and we would go there for pitch-in suppers,” my mom, Mary Alice, said. “She was a wonderful neighbor and teacher. She was sweet and kind and liked kids.”

My mom recalls that she was so tiny that the day they first met her, my uncle thought she might be a child. When my mom graduated from high school, Mrs. Hanshoe came over to visit wearing her own high school graduation dress and it still fit!

Signed book

I don’t know what year Mrs. Hanshoe gave this book to my mom but the book sold for $2.50. “Her printing was beautiful,” my mom remembers.

I’m so glad we took this trip with my mom. My husband and kids were interested or at least patient with this sentimental trip and seemed to enjoy hearing our stories about our childhoods and my dear grandparents.

When I asked them what their favorite part of the trip was, here’s what they reported:

“I liked seeing Gigi’s house and the Ohio River and the swings there,” said Calvin.

“I liked the cabin with the hole where you could see the world upside down, “said Max.

(He is describing a pinhole where you really could see the outside projected upside down once your eyes adjusted to the dark.) I found a blog post about New Harmony that mentions this cabin; I recommend it.

When you give a book, sign it! Some day a writer or reader may find it and be curious about you.

(As a sentimental writer, I’ve written about my grandparents in the past. Check out this post about them and the book The Secret Garden.)

Mrs. Hanshoe

Mrs. Hanshoe, left, with my Papa (Verne McClellan) and Gigi (Alice McClellan).

Unlocking memories with The Secret Garden

My Papa and I blowing out my candles on my sixth birthday. My own kids just turned six! Read about it here: http://bit.ly/1OBPVUN

My Papa and I blowing out my candles on my sixth birthday. My own kids just turned six!
Read about it here.

On my first read of The Secret Garden, the first few pages made me burst into tears and tell my parents it was horrible.

Spoiler alert – I made it through the part where young Mary Lennox wakes up in India to find everyone she knows dead or gone.

My original misgivings aside, I fell in love with this classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett and read it several more times throughout childhood. The book was given to me my Gigi (my grandmother), who bought it in England. In subsequent years, we traveled there together.

My Gigi's inscription in the book.

My Gigi’s inscription in the book.

The story, first published in 1911, and the trip were a strong influence on my future as I later ended up living in England.

My mom and I recently saw the play of The Secret Garden at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

“I wish Gigi was here with us,” I said, referring to my grandmother. “But she would be 106 and senile.”

We laughed. We weren’t being cruel; sometimes laughter is all you can do about the hard things in life.

I had many years with Gigi; she passed away when I was 32. She was around 91 and had dementia for 10 years. Her later years, when our roles were reversed, allowed me to make amends for my bratty teenage self.

Mary finding the door of the garden. Illustration by Charles Robinson.

I wasn’t as fortunate with her husband, my Papa, whose memory is tied up in my first reading of The Secret Garden. He was dying of Cancer while I read the book in the hospital waiting room. I was surprised when he actually died. I was eight.

The gorgeous play not only made my mom and I cry and laugh; it caused us to talk about the past.

I know it’s always made my mom sad that her children don’t have as many memories of her dad. But I do have some nice memories tucked into my brain, including the fuzzy, not-so-nice ones of him being sick.

Revisiting the past lead me to a cool revelation. I have always had pieces of my Papa, right here in my mom. She looks like him (but pretty). She has his sunny outlook and social disposition. She has his smarts and work ethic.

And she carries his memories, like when she burst out one recent Christmas morning and said, “My Dad would have loved this.”

One more of us. Gigi made the cake. The dress had a duck on it. (She bought me my beloved stuffed duck.)

One more of us. Gigi made the cake. The dress had a duck on it.
(She bought me my beloved stuffed duck.)

This is the beauty of the written word and the glory of books. Stories tie us to our selves, our loves, and help us remember.

About the book and more info
My Papa, Verne McClellan, passed way years before the Internet – 1978 – but as a small-town lawyer and community-leader in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, I thought he might show up on Google. Besides his ancestry listing, I found one mention of him in his friend Bill Goss’ 2009 obit:

“Bill and Verne McClellan arranged for the purchases of the properties of GE Plastics, BWX, and WSI, located west of Mt. Vernon.”

My mom confirms this is true. I thought that was cool.

If you haven’t read The Secret Garden, please indulge. My copy was illustrated by Charles Robinson.

My other favorite book by Burnett is The Little Princess with gorgeous illustrations by Tasha Tudor.

For Cincinnati locals, the play has left the Playhouse but check out their current season.