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A Tribute

May Sarton, 1936
Painted by Polly Thayer Starr

May Sarton was born in Belgium on May 3, 1912. She spent most of her life in the United States and lived for many years in Boston, Massachusetts; Nelson, New Hampshire; and York, Maine where she died in 1995.

She was a young actress and theatrical director for a short while after landing a job in Eva Le Gallianne's Civic Repertory Theator. Of course, she is best known as a prolific writer of prose and poetry.

Often readers come to know May first through the journals and then move on to her fiction. In the journals, May explores important themes: living alone, the artist's need for solitude juxtaposed against the need for companionship and society. In Plant Dreaming Deep, Journal of A Solitude, and House by The Sea she writes openly and intimately of her personal life, her life in letters and her personal demons.

Here is a glass of water from my well.
It tastes of rock and root and earth and rain;
It is the best I have, my only spell,
And it is cold, and better than champagne.
Perhaps someone will pass this house one day
To drink, and be restored, and go his way,
Someone in dark confusion as I was
When I drank down cold water in a glass,
Drank a transparent health to keep me sane,
After the bitter mood had gone again.
-May Sarton

My first taste from May's deep well was nearly 40 years ago when as the mother of two young children, both under 4 years of age we lived in a tiny village in the northeastern corner of Massachusettes where Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts meet. The town, Warwick had a small population of about 300 souls and we lived on the village green in a house that was always referred to as "The Anderson House". No matter how long we'd lived there, it would always have been "the Anderson House".

The village green was surrounded by a general store, the town hall, a Congregational Church that was only open for services in the summer, an elementary school, a rather down-at-heel country inn, and of course, the library which became very important to me as a young stay-at-home mom.

There were few external diversions in those days of early motherhood: we chose not to own a television; Dick took the only vehicle to work every day; the library was only open one and a half days a week. I literally could not keep enough books in supply to last out the time between open days.

One day, while at the library unable to find books that interested me, I asked Grace Morse, the librarian to recommend a title and author. Grace, in her infinite wisdom, said "have you read May Sarton". I hadn't and she went on to explain that if one did not choose to read about sex and violence or profanity, then May Sarton would be just right.

And May was, in fact, just right and has been all the years hence. I believe I've read everything May ever wrote and most of what has been written about her. I love her short novels: Joanna and the Donkey; The Poet and the Donkey; Mrs. Pickthorn and Mr. Hare; and, the Fur Person and have read and re-read them. Of her longer works, my special favorites are: Kinds of Love, Faithful Are The Wounds, Birth Of A Grandfather, Walk In The Spring Rain and Anger. And yes, I do return to them nearly every year, usually during the long New England winter. (My sister, Michelle, always wonders how I can re-read any book saying: "so many books, so little time".

Through the journals, I came to know May, her quirks and foibles, her drama and passions, her tempers and remorse. I began to see where and how her fictional work was autobiographical. Once, Larry and I rode up to Nelson long after she had moved to Maine; I wanted to see her home, which like my former Warwick home, was on the village green diagonally across from the town hall: it was just as sweet as I'd imagined. The big rock at the front door. The garden. It was easy to see her, in my mind's eye, planting flowers and bulbs or moving about within house. Many times I tried finding her home in York driving in and out of little streets and private lanes but without finding 'Windy Knoll'.

I came to know her daily delights, too: her need for fresh flowers daily throughout the seasons and her favorite York florist. Her love of champagne and strawberries, scotch and lobster. And favorite restaurants. I know she loved the Whistling Oyster in Perkins Cove and once while a tourist in Perkins Cove, I said to the hostess, "I understand that May Sarton is a frequest guest here". . . .

"Oh, yes," she said. "Would like to see where she always sits?" I did. I was her fan club of 1; her # 1 groupie!

I mourned her death in 1995 but knew it brought her peace .

And now, a tribute is being planned and I am on the committee. I feel I've come full circle: here I am. Retired. 65. Living in York. And having the opportunity to work on a 100th birthday tribute with former friends of May's and scholars who have published about May. We are starting with a small group of 7 but I have no doubt that our number will grow. As I am certain we will create a stellar tribute to the woman that I have loved for 40 years.


Celeste Maia said...

What a fascinating posting! Really enjoyed reading it, and seeing the portraits of May Sarton. Really good.

Pat said...

Thank you Celeste. You know how fond I am of May and her work. This is a rare rare treat for me.....

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