I Cannot Tell A Lie.

I got a phone call from a woman who is cleaning out her Greenwich, Connecticut house so she can down-size to living full time in her Long Island house. The Connecticut house has a lot of really really good books because her grown children are lawyers and great readers and their books — oh! — their books! — are fantastic and she can’t — no! she can’t! — just throw them away and the local library doesn’t want them but they gave me your number. . .

Well, at the used book store that I co-manage for the local library here on the north shore of Long Island, the cupboards are bare, so I have been putting it out to the universe: Please send me a huge donation.

So I agree to take any and all books that the caller can schlepp in from Greenwich, Connecticut.

Things get complicated; she can only get here on a certain day when I don’t work at the store (I say, I live a mile from the book store — I’ll run over); she can’t make it during opening hours of the book store (I say, I can stay late); she’s been hauling books all day and she’s leaving Greenwich in an hour (I say, OK, you’ll get here by 8 o’clock, that’s OK); traffic was bad so she’s running late (I say, Call me when you’re 15 minutes from the library because I am a fucking SAINT).

So that’s how I came to be all alone in a dark and empty library parking lot at 10 o’clock last night, waiting for the lady from Connecticut to show up with about 500 books.

Such is the romance of running a used book store.

The books await me, still incased in 25 cardboard boxes piled up in the hallway outside the book store.

Even if the universe is pranking me and this donation isn’t pure gold, that means that, as usual, 80% of those books will be crap but at these numbers, that still gives us 100 decent books for the stock. I will let you know.

Last month we got in a small dump of books of the usual crap variety, except for one stand-out that had a very nice cover,  considering that it’s self-published:

Abby Elizabeth Woodbury was born in Salem, Massachusetts on May 5, 1851, the 4th of seven children of Isaac Woodbury. Isaac, according to a very confusing history of the Woodbury family written by Margaret Waddell, the “co-author” who transcribed Abby’s diary, is not a gifted narrator) was living off of his grand-father’s money, which was begat by publishing music in New York City in the 1850s.

By 1870 money must have been tight because Isaac shipped off his wife and his 5 youngest kids to Europe, which at the time was the place where genteel but impoverished Americans went to lay low until the creditors could be sorted out. (See: Mark Twain’s financial troubles and his 10-year exile.)

Abby was 19 when she set sail for Liverpool, the same age I was when I lit out for my first European adventure.

This is a sample of Abby’s handwriting in the diary:

The inside cover of the book explains:

This is a work of non-fiction. [I’m OK with the hyphenation, but some people are sticklers and insist that the correct term is nonfiction.]

Abby Elizabeth Woodbury was a real person who wrote almost daily in her diary during her two year journey through Europe about the people she meets, the places she visits, as well as her innermost thoughts and feelings.

I assume that the woman who mixed the tenses in this blurb is the woman who is listed as the “co-author” of this book, Maragaret Waddell. Margaret Waddell is a Woodbury descendant whose father was given Abby’s diary, Margaret writes, “as an heirloom”.

I dislike the word “heirloom”. Rich people do not use the word “heirloom”, only poor people do. If you’ve grown up with loads of hand-me-downs (Sevres dinner plates, Chippendale cabinets, Malbone miniatures, Tiffany parures and the like) you don’t call them “heirlooms”. You call them, “Granny’s amethysts”, or “Uncle Biff’s candelabras”.

A diary is not an heirloom. It’s a keepsake.

Getting back to Abby’s story, during the sailing from New York to Liverpool, Abby’s older sister Mary meets a guy and they get engaged right off the boat, so Mary is able to go home and prepare for her wedding and ditch the family’s long slog through England and Germany and France. Her fiance, James Neilson, is from an old, rich New Jersey family so Mary Woodbury did pretty well for herself and her descendants. During their marriage, Mary and James collected rare Americana and became well-known philanthropists. Her portrait, along with her husband’s, hangs in the former mansion, which they bequeathed to Rutgers University (along with the surrounding 193 acres) in 1937.

Co-author Margaret Waddell is from a different branch of the Woodburys. Margaret is a member (as of 2011, when she published Abby’s Diary) of the Colorado Paper Doll Club. I’m grateful that she published her great-aunt Abby’s diary, but (no judgment), she’s not someone I whose diary I would want to read. OK; maybe a little bit of judgement. Doll collectors creep me out.

This is not Margaret Waddell. This is the president of the National Federation of Doll Collectors. For Real.

On the other hand, I love Abby Woodbury. Poor girl; in the diary she tries so hard to be good, but travel bores her and her mother gets on her nerves. It being 1870 – 1872, there is not much entertainment for a 19-year old girl abroad, except for the weekly Sunday sermon from whatever church they attend in whatever foreign place they land. The family lives in a series of boarding houses and hotels, and she goes to dances, takes walks, and does some shopping when her grand-father (who seems to be paying the bills) sends some dollars to the local bank every now and then. She tries to learn German or a little French (she gets lessons when there is money left over after paying for her three younger brothers’ education), and tries to acquire a lady-like amount of musical ability, but, alas, she’s only a fair student and money is tight, so most of her hours are filled by mending stockings, or adding ribbons to an old bonnet, or wishing for letters from home. Once in a while she goes to a museum:

April 12, 1971

I went to the museum this morning with Maria Miller. Oh, the beautiful pictures! Raphael’s “Madonna” is lovely. I wish I had more taste for pictures. I wonder I cannot tell Mama the things I want to now and then. I want to tell her things so much, but she does not [two words crossed out] and my lips will not say it.

I don’t know why such mundanity interests me so much, but I find Abby’s diary fascinating. She seems to have a lot of intelligence but, due to her situation and her times, she’s not able to find her niche in the world as a proper “nice” lady; alas, that must have been the fate of many women born during her era, even up to today, eh?

September 9, 1871

I find the days are too short for me and I have no time to sew with all my studying. I have practiced three hours, read and translated all my French and been to Mama’s twice..I do wish she wouldn’t find something unpleasant in everything I say. 

Now, when I was 19 and traveling in France, I did not have much to keep myself occupied outside of sight-seeing. I did not drink, I was traveling alone, and I was not the kind of girl who enjoyed talking to strangers. So when the day was done, or it was Sunday, I read a lot, wrote a lot of letters, and obsessed about keeping expenses low (my budget was $100 per week for food, lodging, and travel — everything).

October 3, 1871

It rained all day today. I ordered myself a black alpaca suit to be made.  I hope it will be nicely and prettily made. I paid 1.25 francs per meter for the alpaca. I have been to Mama’s all this afternoon and came away unhappy as usual.

Abby Woodbury, the writer of this diary, never married and died in 1894 at the age of 44.

Cause of death is unknown, but I bet it was boredom.

She should have gotten cats. Never a dull moment.

I happened to glance out of my dining room window a few mornings ago and I saw Taffy in the rhododendron bush across the kitchen patio. In the 13 years that Taffy has been in charge of our backyard, I have never seen him in the rhododendron bush.

So of course I have to go outside to investigate, and that’s when I hear a blue jay, perched on the Japanese dogwood tree on the other side of the kitchen nation, screeching bloody murder. I presume, at Taffy.

Taffy decides that he has seen enough of the inside of the rhododendron bush so he tight-rope-walks across a branch and dismounts onto the roof of the shed, and saunters off. The blue jay flies intothe rhododendron bush that Taffy has just evacuated, and he’s clutching a long ribbon of plastic in his claws.

I watch as the blue jay drags this long ribbon of plastic into the rhododendron bush, chattering to himself, keeping busy. . .

. . . building a nest.

Lordy, this will not do. So I hang around, peering up at the nest to piss off the blue jay, who screams at me and flies off in a huff. I have not seen him/her back in there since so, You’re Welcome, Blue Jays; I saved you from becoming Taffy’s latest hors d’ouvre.

One last thing. I have a confession to make.

Last week I wrote about my afternoon in New York City, and then I mouthed off about narrative nonfiction.

Dear Reader Steve commented that he was quite familiar with Manhattan and he had never seen the store front I photographed:

I confess that, for the sake of streamlining my blog post, I did not mention that I went out to Brooklyn for lunch, the hipster HQ of Fort Greene, to be exact, which is where I found this spiffy Eiffel Tower sign.

My question to you is this: after our discussion last week of the boundary between narrative nonfiction and fiction, is my omitting the fact that this shop front was in Brooklyn, and not in Manhattan as were all the other photos and clearly what my narrative implied (I wrote that I went to a friend’s book event in Manhattan BUT I also said that “New York City is a trip” and Brooklyn IS part of NYC). . .

. . . did I push too hard against the limits of narrative nonfiction into fiction territory? As a Dear Reader, are you offended or do you feel otherwise betrayed knowing that I left out a minor (and, to me, unimportant) detail as to every teeny moment and movement of my Big Apple gallivant? Do you, or do you not, condone this kind of artistic license to condense or omit bits of information in the service of a streamlined story?

Let me know. Because I have another long-form narrative nonfiction/memoirish thingy in the works and I want to know where to draw the line between keeping the story moving, and lying.

Thank you, Dear Ones. Have a great weekend, and stay out of birds’ nests.



18 Comments, RSS

  1. Megan

    I wonder where my comments go? Could quite possibly be too boring to materialise. I am proud of Taffy being able to balance in the rhodo. Sometimes birds do not think things through, Taffy is not invisible you’d think that was a clue to a bird wouldn’t you? I loved the dry cleaners sign last week, the quidditch trophy and the gentleman having a haircut on the edge of the footpath, how novel! I worked with a guy who had lived in New York and he said he loved the insanity of the people and the weird things you saw and the strange people who shouted at you… wish I still worked with him I would show him your post it epitomises what he talked about. Have a wonderful week and do tell about those books when you get them unboxed. Can hardly wait till next Friday.

    • Vivian

      Megan, I know what happens when you post a Comment and it doesn’t automatically appear. I had the same issue with my blog so I called my host/internet atoms herder and he told me to “flush the cache”. It’s a button on my WordPress dashboard. Very technical, but easy. maybe you need to flush the cache on your computer?

      I’m glad that there is so much enthusiasm about those boxes from CT, because I will give you an in-depth report in this week’s blog. I think you will be entertained. the darnedest things show up ion these kinds of donations.

  2. Casey

    I am DYING to know what’s in those boxes from the 10 o’clock book donation.

    Poor Abby. She looks very pretty and I wonder why she did not find a rich husband too.

    I had a boyfriend who had a mother who collected dolls and he says his childhood was traumatized by having so many of them all over the house, with their dead eyes that were always open, staring, watching, and their dead smiles and waxy bodies. ICK.

    Taffy, Taffy, Taffy. I’m sure he was not looking into the blue jay nest for a snack. Maybe he likes birds and wanted to welcome them into his back yard.

    I vote NO on the issue regarding minute truthfulness in a non-fiction narrative. If you had to tell every single detail it would be the same as hearing your mother tell you a story about her lunch date last Tuesday, no , maybe it was Wednesday, let’s see, I had a dentist appointment that same day and I was wearing my new blue dress, and I had that tooth filled on thursday so it was Thursday, no wait, Dr. Holiday doesn’t see patients on Thursday so it must have been Wednesday was that the day it rained real hard in the afternoon and I got my new blue dress all wet?

    • Vivian

      you can read all about the treasure hunt in those CT boxes this week.

      Ha! I can hear your mother’s voice, or maybe it’s MY mother’s voice in your little script. Yes, in the big picture, the little details are merely digressions.

  3. Ha! Well, I for one am not at all offended that you elided the fact that your shopfront was in Brooklyn. As you pointed out, your narrative was not technically incorrect. My presumption was incorrect! Anyway, I wandered around Fort Greene a lot too so I’m STILL surprised I don’t know that shop. (Or was it really in Bushwick? 🙂 )

    I hope you scared off that blue jay, although I feel bad that he’d (or she’d, I guess) already put so much work into the nest. Cats and birds definitely do not mix! The minute I saw that picture of Taffy in the bush, I thought, “Uh-oh!”

    DEFINITELY let us know what treasures are in all those boxes!

    I love old diaries. I have an old diary from a woman who lived in Massachusetts in the ’30s. I bought it at an estate sale. I’ve blogged about it before. It’s pretty fascinating, but Abby’s is more impressive from a historical standpoint!

    • Vivian

      Nope, it was Fort Greene, near Fulton Ave. You probably remember when Fort Greene was a scary place even in the day. Now it’s been hipster-ized: stores that sell hand-made paper, a laundromat with outdoor tables, a Cuban restaurant that has a huge garden, and a famous bookshop (Greenlight Books).

      So far, I ave not seen the blue jay anywhere near the nest. I would have LOVED to ave had a nest full of blue jay babies!! Oh, lordy, the sacrifices I make to have cats.

  4. Well, since you are an artist, you have an artistic license which you should wield at will. Otherwise you’d have, as the Emperor pointed out to Amadeus, “simply too many notes.” Only Mozart can get away with that.

    I do hope that Blue Jay wises up and finds a nesting place away from prowling kitty cats. And I, too, am eager to see what’s in the book boxes!

    As for poor Abby, I’m pretty sure her sister Mary was lucky to land a husband and wise to do it so quickly before he got to know their mother. She sounds like a potential monster-in-law. Potential Abby suitors probably took one look at Mom and ran like the wind.

    • Vivian

      Alex, you got it exactly! I didn’t think of that, but of course Abby’s mother had to be the reason our girl never married. If I ever have the chance to spit on Abby’s mother’s grave, I will DO IT.

      The boxes from CT are opened, and they have revealed a fair lot of surprises. Meet me here tomorrow to read all about it.

  5. Yes, I’d like to know the inventory from the book donation, too! The Abby diary looks interesting. I think these mundane stories can be very intriguing in that they show how we (or someone, at least) lived in a different time. The things that are the same or different or just plain weird. Mom problems. Some things never change!

    As for the narrative — you write it, I read it.

    • Vivian

      Abby’s diary is riveting. It’s almost visceral, the way you feel what it must have been like to have lived like that — bored, homesick, at odds with your mother. Abby even wishes she ad money of her own so she could buy a ribbon or some gloves without having to ask permission. O, her life was awful even though she was fed and had shelter. And there was NOTHING to do in the evenings except sew or read (novels, not newspapers). She takes pains to record the message of every Sunday sermon, as if they could give her guidance on who to endure her lot, and the preachers always advised the humility and obedience were The Way. I have a feeling that Abby, at er core, was dying to be disobedient and to let her freak flag fly, but she didn’t know how. Poor girl.

  6. Susan

    I enjoy your writing and am very supportive of creative license, especially when said writer is a superb artist and story teller. The diary is fascinating reading. I find life stories very engaging. Hopefully, there will be some new treasures in the new lot of books from CT.

  7. Kirra

    You are the saint of second hand books! And also blue jay protector. In your previous blog you did say you went to New York, so that can include naming specifically Manhattan and any place in NY generally, assuming you didn’t get a helicopter straight into Manhattan 😉

  8. Robyn Genau

    I am also dying to know what was in those boxes. It would probably take me a week to go thru them. Too bad I live in Ky. I just retired in December and am already looking for something to do. I could help you sort.
    I love your posts. Some make me laugh out loud.

  9. In reply to your question I refer you to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee…

    Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don’t know the difference.
    George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
    Martha: Amen.

    In my humble opinion, unless you are writing a legal testimony or a ship’s log, truth is allowed to wear some make up.

    By the way, what is the difference between a saint and a “fucking saint”?

    • Vivian

      Hi Mr. Pudding — “Truth is allowed to wear a little make up” is my new motto.

      A saint is somewhat whose love of humanity compiles them to help, heal, protect, and nurture the sick, the guilty, the ugly, and the unlovable.

      I am a fucking saint because I do saintly acts of kindness and generosity even though I know that good deeds are always punished, the people I help are not at all worth the effort, life is pointless, and I fucking hate people. Other than that, me and Mother Theresea are one and the same.

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