The morning of our field trip, I began reading an article in the new issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, called “The World of the Story” by Eileen Pollack. I had no business reading anything—I had to be at Donna’s house by 7:00. But the piece drew me in with Pollack’s notion of setting in a story:
A more interesting way to conceive of setting is to imagine the world—or
worlds—a story’s characters inhabit, the cultures that produced them, the communities within which they do—and do not—feel at home.
I skimmed the rest before hurtling out the door. My friend Donna and I were taking the commuter train to D.C. to visit museums. The night before I set out my clothes, like I did back in elementary school, and packed a light bag (apparently filled with uranium ingots judging by how heavy it felt as the day went on).
Like kids on a school trip, we brought cameras, snacks, and enough conversation topics to keep us talking nonstop. Our day was an open adventure! Poor Donna didn’t suspect my real mission was to see the passenger pigeon exhibit that marked the hundredth anniversary of the death of Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon.
I’d been to the Museum of Natural History several times, but for some reason when Donna and I entered the rotunda and saw that emblematic elephant, I was once again eleven years old, awestruck.
That summer my Uncle Benny decided to take me and my cousin Eugene to the Smithsonian. Benny always drove at least 50 miles over the speed limit. We sailed across the 14th Street Bridge, the Potomac below a gray-blue blur. I was going to see birds!
As a country girl, I loved all nature, but especially birds. The museum was my first dose of real science. As we approached the heavy brass-plated doors, I realized I was entering a new world. It had a sheen, this world, of people casually museum-hopping, of buses trundling along the city streets and kids playing on the grassy Mall like it was their own private back yard.
Eugene sped off to the dinosaurs. I headed for the Hall of Birds, entering yet another world. Science nature was very different from half-wild-in-the-woods nature. Eugene and my uncle covered the entire museum while I was still entranced in the Hall of Birds. In the gift shop, I bought a ten-cent postcard of a white-throated sparrow. Then it was time to hydroplane back across the 14th Street Bridge, leave city world behind.
Donna and I snapped pictures of the elephant. My focus was on the small birds “flitting” around the elephant’s habitat. I’d never noticed them before. Were those little birds there when I was eleven?
We went downstairs. The Hall of Birds with the elaborate dioramas I remembered had been reduced to three display cases of birds in the D.C. region. Around the corner we found the passenger pigeon exhibit. I gazed at Martha, still dead after all these years, her world vanished entirely because it collided with ours.
The museum cafeteria teemed with high school students. I watched them, comfortable in their own sheen, and was reminded of my own high school days when I was, as Pollack said in her piece, “embarrassingly unlike the kids into whose houses [I] longingly peered while watching TV.” I was like those little birds orbiting the elephant in the rotunda.
Suddenly I was seventeen again. My senior English teacher, who detected a spark in me, pressed John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman into my hands. The book bored me but I didn’t want her to think I was too dumb to understand it. I kept her copy so long she had to ask for it back and that made me feel even worse.
Miss Boyd knew I had no money for college, but her sorority sponsored students for scholarships. She invited me to her apartment for tea one Sunday afternoon to meet her sorority sisters.
I can still picture Miss Boyd’s apartment, small but nicely furnished, a maple desk, bookcases. No felt cardinal magnets clung to her refrigerator, no cardboard autumn scene hung above her sofa.
I recall what I wore, a dropped-waist floral print my mother made me in tenth grade. I have hazy impressions of well-dressed women, tea being poured, appetizers that weren’t of the cream-cheese-on-Ritz-crackers variety being passed. I felt drab as a sparrow, too shy to speak, too clumsy to sip from a china cup.
But my memories aren’t real.
I never went to Miss Boyd’s for tea. I couldn’t. Her world—one of literature and tea and sorority sisters—was too different from mine. I worried about going so much I imagined I actually did go.
In “The World of the Story,” Pollack says: “Most of us grow up assuming that everyone lives the way we live. Once we realize that the culture to which we belong is considered marginal or exotic, we often grow ashamed.”
I made some lame excuse about not going to the tea, miserable because I’d disappointed the only teacher who had ever cared about me, who offered a step up out of my world. I did make it out, and eventually became a card-carrying member in several other worlds, but it wasn’t easy, doing it my way. As Pollack eloquently states at the end of her piece:
We endure exiles and migrations. We cross from room to room, from house to house, from neighborhood to neighborhood, from school to school, from job to job, from family to family . . . all the while experiencing the pull and tug of conflicting rituals and beliefs. If mapping such journeys isn’t an essential part of writing, I don’t know what is.
I have the ability to shift between different communities. I speak the language, am skilled in the rituals, and share those experiences with my readers.
Donna and I hit three museums on our trip. Aiming for the earliest train back, we were swept along by the tide of commuters. “We’re just like city girls!” Donna said. And we were. We’d successfully navigated that world and could return whenever we wanted.
We chatted all the way to the station in Fredericksburg, daylight when we left, dark when we arrived. Donna’s husband was waiting for us. We climbed into the van, still talking, city air still clinging to us, glad to be home.