WILD RIVER BOOKS
Body and Soul – Escapes – Excerpt
After emigrating from Scotland, my father’s father built a handsome Victorian home on land just outside Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1873. In the 1940s, my parents and I lived in a rented house in Owensboro, but I felt that my true home was the Victorian establishment. To me it seemed a mansion, with its alternating dark and light floor- boards and wainscoting, brass doorknobs and chandeliers, a two-story curving staircase, and the first indoor bathroom in Daviess County. Grandpapa planted the land around the house with fine fruit trees, and the tradition continues today on the “Reid Orchards.”
No one consulted me before my parents decided to move when I was eight to join my mother’s family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a place I disliked intensely. I longed for time back on the Reid Farm, where I spent all school holidays, sometimes with both parents, but always with my father at what had been his birthplace. I was twelve when the beautiful Reid home burnt to the ground and my happy holidays there ended.
Perhaps that early dislocation and longing explains why I have a history of trying to escape places I’ve come to dislike or resent. I calculate that after my parents moved into my grandmother’s Alabama house—which seemed like an old folks’ home to me—it took me nearly twelve years to escape it. My escape hatch was a foolish marriage. Twelve or thirteen years became the timeframe that shaped much of my adult life. It was how long I stayed in my first marriage; how many years passed between marrying John and my purchase of a transformative new house; and how many years passed before I insisted we leave Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for Princeton, New Jersey.
By 2014, after thirteen years in Princeton, I’d begun to argue that we should leave the North for a warmer place. John maintained that the South was too imbued with old hatreds and prejudices to move there. I reminded him that he’d survived thirty-five years in Baton Rouge. “Not happily, until you came,” he reminded me, blowing a kiss across our kitchen table and fixing those still-sexy eyes on me.
John and I had met back in 1974, when I made my most decisive escape. Here William Faulkner played a small part. I had written my dissertation at Chapel Hill on Faulkner, finishing in 1971. Revising my dissertation into a book in 1972, I read with fresh attention Faulkner’s most experimental novel (and my favorite), The Wild Palms (a title even- tually changed to If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, the title Faulkner originally wanted for the book that his publisher had rejected). It juxtaposes two narratives: “Old Man” is about a convict who surmounts the challenges of the Mississippi flood of 1927 but returns to prison rather than live with a woman; while “Wild Palms” is about two lovers who choose to give up everything to live together. I liked the unconventional device of alternating the stories and loved the romance in “Wild Palms.” I had no intention of dying, as Charlotte does at the end, but “Wild Palms” reinforced my sense that romance and passion were completely missing in my poor stunted life.
I wanted to escape that life and my increasingly crazy first husband, Claude. When I first mentioned divorce, he torpedoed himself off the second-story deck of our house, landing in the bushes and suffering only a few scratches. I was traumatized, since even the word “divorce” brought from him threats of violence, to himself or to me. So he pretended to shift gears by arranging, through an acquaintance, for me to have five days alone in a grand mountain house so I could finish revising my dissertation on Faulkner into a book. But like a stalker, Claude intruded my privacy. He brought our four-year-old son, Reid, and told him to go play on the deck. (I had given my son my maiden name as a middle name, but he was always called “Reid.”) With Reid outside, Claude pushed me backwards into my room, locked the door, and unzipped his pants. Perhaps “rape” is not the right word, since I didn’t resist. How could I? He was nine inches taller than I and weighed at least twice as much. In other such instances, I seemed to have no choice about sex, being his wife and hence, he thought, his property. When I said I wasn’t going to remain his property, Claude tried another strategy, promising to build me a study in a tower, where I could write and be mostly, he claimed, free of him. I knew better.
I felt like the mouse in Robert Burns’s poem, a “cow’rin, tim’rous beastie / O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!” Burns apologized to the mouse: “I’m truly sorry man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union.” Claude assumed that man’s dominion was Nature’s social union, his dominion over me. Despite the feminist movement, I remained a timorous beastie, afraid to start divorce proceedings against Claude. Instead, I plotted escape.
After LSU Press accepted my book on Faulkner, a visiting teaching post at Louisiana State University seemed a possibility. Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer, was scheduled to teach one class a week in LSU’s English Department. An appointment there would enable me to edit a book of essays on Percy’s fiction and nonfiction. Under those circumstances, Virginia Tech, where I taught, was willing to grant me a leave of absence. I had an interview at LSU in June of 1974.
Back in Blacksburg after the interview, my good friend, who knew some of the craziness of my life with Claude, asked if I’d met any attractive men. “Only one,” I said. “He’s magnetically handsome, slightly taller than I, with thick black curls and penetrating eyes that looked right into me. Unfortunately, he’s married.” I meant John Fischer.
During my two-day interview in Baton Rouge, the head of the department had escorted me down Allen Hall’s main corridor to introduce me to John Fischer, the department’s eminent eighteenth- century scholar and an authority on the works of Jonathan Swift. The head asked John if he could entertain me while I waited to see the dean. Outside Allen Hall, in a Louisiana sprinkle, John asked, “Hey, lady, can you run in the rain?” I could, and we did. He jogged along slowly, kindly checking to see if I could keep up. I could. At the entrance to the student union, we paused to shake raindrops out of our hair and off our shoulders, giggling together.
While John went for coffees, I’d sat alone, feeling a rush of happy relief and a quiver of excitement. I was surprised to find that a handsome, sexy-looking man could also be a brilliant and apparently very good man. I had not known that that magical combination existed. I just hoped I didn’t seem dull to this exciting guy. In later years, John liked to retell the story about the department head bringing a beautiful woman into his office and asking him if he could entertain her. John would laugh and say that he’d been entertaining me ever since, but on that June day in 1974, I had no way of knowing that he would one day become my lifelong entertainer and lover.
That fall, LSU gave me a visiting post. Claude reluctantly acquiesced, since I was accepting only a temporary appointment. I moved with Reid, then five, to Baton Rouge, grateful to my mother for shipping me an ugly sofa from her den and better furniture from her Alabama attic. I enrolled Reid in the public kindergarten near my rented house.
Settled and secure, I thought, I phoned Claude to tell him that I was not returning to Blacksburg. Before long, he came down to Baton Rouge, entered the elementary school, grabbed Reid, and ran.
I’ve called Claude crazy. But as I look back over those fraught times, my behavior is suspect too. Before I left Virginia, I had secretly, stealthily, stashed the good china, silver, my valuables, and clothes for me and Reid in my friend’s house until I drove away with it all, planning never to return, all the while assuring Claude that I had only a temporary post at LSU.
I fear I was too distracted to be much of a teacher. (I remember rereading Emerson’s “Nature” in preparation for teaching it the next day but falling asleep. I don’t suppose I made it very accessible to students; perhaps they fell asleep too.) My book on Faulkner was published quickly and was on display at the Modern Language Association’s convention after Christmas 1974 in New York City. At the book display, John Fischer began reading my book. The elderly man who had headed LSU’s English department for thirty years saw John at the book display and asked what he was reading. John showed him my book and apparently expressed surprise that it was so good. That night, John asked me out for a simple omelet dinner, affordable for an assistant professor. When my pockets produced only one of my new leather gloves, John insisted on going back to find the other one, which he did. I was as entranced as I’d been the previous summer, but despite how exciting I found John, my life was too torn up to get involved with another man, especially a married one.
That next semester, Walker Percy often stopped by my little Baton Rouge house after his Thursday class, bringing a bottle of Wild Turkey or Early Times. I gather that the English Department was rife with rumors that he and I were having an affair, but two events squashed those rumors. First, Walker publicly entertained me and his wife, Bunt, and daughter, Ann, in the Union’s Plantation Room. I recall Bunt talking about a monastery where monks bound books in leather with gold tooling, as their predecessors had done for centuries. She planned to have all of Walker’s books so bound, as she said to Ann, “to remember your father by.” Ann, whose eardrums had burst on a flight when she was a baby, quacked, “How could I forget him?” Walker smiled wryly, seeing that the Percy women and I had made friends. The second event ending that rumor was another rumor—that I was having an affair with John Fischer. The first rumor was false, the second premature.
With Reid snatched from me, I got a Virginia lawyer, who advised me to come to Virginia and retrieve my son. I can’t recall all the details, but I was certainly less timorous now, even adventurous. A former student of mine knew that Reid spent afternoons with a young woman, perhaps a girlfriend of Claude’s. After considerable plotting, I secretly returned to Blacksburg, and my student drove me to the woman’s trailer. “Mommy,” Reid called as he ran to me when I walked in.
“We’re going back to our house,” I said, grabbing his coat off a couch and slipping it on him. My student drove us by back ways to the Roanoke airport. I can’t explain his devotion to helping me see my plan through. I don’t think it was desire; though he was an older student, not much my junior, he never made a pass at me. Maybe he had some reason to detest Claude. Maybe he was just loyal to his favorite teacher. Now, I’m sorry to say, I don’t even recall his name.
Back in Baton Rouge, John Fischer picked us up, and Reid and I spent a couple of nights with him and his wife. I remember three things about that stay with them. One, I thought John’s wife kept a terribly messy refrigerator. Two, I disagreed when John said that Reid carried a lot of suppressed anger, but then I had to admit that Reid did look troubled while playing with John’s knife. And third, I felt a thrill of future intimacy when John smiled at my bare feet on his kitchen floor.
Back in my cozy little house, I felt settled and happy to have my child with me. Before long, however, his father once again snatched him from his school. My courage had accomplished nothing. I felt utterly defeated. Permanently reclaiming my child seemed simply hopeless. I felt broken, defeated.
I hated losing my son and feared that Claude would next come for me. All I could do was to muster the courage to go to court. In Louisiana, I was granted custody of Reid, but a Louisiana court order was a worthless piece of paper in Virginia. I was not going to snatch Reid back and continue the kidnapping cycle. My distress was so obvious that Walker sent me a note regretting my troubles and offering to help. Of course there was nothing he could do. There was not much that I could do either, except teach my classes (poorly, no doubt) and argue with lawyers. John Fischer listened to my troubles and advised me to pursue a custody hearing in Virginia. My lawyer agreed and began the procedure. Between teaching my classes, grading student papers, and trying to reclaim my son, I was exhausted. I knew that LSU colleagues thought the department had hired me as John Fischer’s competition, in hopes that he’d publish books and articles more quickly if he had to compete with a woman who already had a book out and was planning to edit another. LSU tenured and promoted us both in the spring of 1975. John’s Jewish parents and grandparents would have been shocked to know that a female colleague now earned more than he did. John was shocked too, but his manhood was not challenged by a few hundred dollars. Still, he was pleased when his salary later topped mine.
By then, John and his wife were breaking up, and he and I began courting. On Thursday afternoons, he joined Walker at my house. Then John began returning on other days on his BMW sidecar, looking like a World War II warrior. He and I would sit on Mother’s old sofa in my little house or he’d drive us to the university lakes, where we’d walk and talk together. Though I was terrified of motorcycles, I naïvely thought the sidecar was safe and in no danger of flipping. Thankfully John’s arms were strong enough to anchor it to the road, and I always thrilled to see the muscles in his arms tense as he took curves, sinews in his right arm rippling with strength.
Our meetings were ever more tender and intimate. John began kissing, licking, and fondling me, not aggressively, but gently. I was already entranced by the combination of excitement, brilliance, and decency John embodied. He lit up my life. We had yet to undress each other. When he asked me, “Any scars?” at first I didn’t even understand him, but when I did I said, “Only from chicken pox and a bee sting. How about you?”
“Just one.” He opened his shirt a few buttons to reveal some dark chest hairs and a hardened blister-like scar.
“May I touch it?” “Of course.”
Fingering that smooth pinkish skin, I felt an electric shock course through my body. “What happened?”
“It was in London in 1971. I picked up my new Triumph motorcycle to clean it before crating to ship it home. A bleb in the lining of my lung burst. It’s called a spontaneous pneumothorax.”
The little pink spot looked rather like a burn just below his clavicle.
I touched it again. “How did you survive a hole in your chest?” “The wonders of the National Health Service.”
“The Brits saved you?”
“Handily, I fell just a block from the University of London hospital.”
I felt something like Charlotte’s passion in “Wild Palms” from the Faulkner novel I so loved and longed for further intimacy with John.
Instead of avoiding sex, as I’d tried to do with Claude, John’s romancing and teasing made me, for the first time in my life, long for it. It’s a cliché, but I really felt like a sleeping princess awakened by her Prince Charming. I fell deeply in love with John, and he with me. In early May 1975, we disrobed each other and became lovers. His body was taunt and strong and even more exciting than it had seemed under clothes. “Thank you for being you,” I said. He said the same to me.
John not only awakened me, he rescued me from the mess I’d made of my life. With him, I must have seemed a combination of the two women Jonathan Swift called Stella and Vanessa. In his dissertation, John had written of them as opposites, like reason and love. By then I seemed both passionate and sophisticated, like Vanessa, and docile, like Stella. (Swift defined docility as “an aptness to learn.”) Really, I was neither Stella nor Vanessa. As I’ve said, John and I made an improbable couple. I was sheltered and Southern, the granddaughter of a Methodist minister from the South Alabama Conference as well as a Scottish Presbyterian patriarch, married to a Scotswoman who had been, it was said, a formidable horsewoman. John was the grandchild of two sets of Russian Jewish immigrants, who each settled in Chicago. His maternal grandparents were forceful characters; not so his Fischer grandparents. John was most like his maternal grandfather, who, after he retired to Surfside, Florida, regularly took John for early morning walks on the beach trying to instill in his brilliant studious grandson the notion that he was meant to be a rabbi.
I was told that I was like my maternal grandmother, whose name I bear. She was a talented painter in oils, until she decided that a preacher’s wife shouldn’t paint. Then she took up “fancy work,” embroidering tea towels, crocheting doilies, carding wool for extra-warm comforts, stitching exquisite lace tablecloths—all, she felt, more proper expressions of her Methodist talents than oil painting. People who said I was like her did not mean in artistry but in strong-headedness. The more snobbish objections she voiced about Claude, for example, the more determined I became to marry him anyway. (Back in the early 1970s, trying to figure out how to leave him, I was glad Grandmother wasn’t around to say, “I told you so.” In the later ’70s, I was sorry she didn’t know John, whose theological seriousness would have pleased her mightily.)
When John and I announced to a few friends, including Herb Rothschild and Walker Percy, our plans to marry, Walker invited us into his office, opened a file drawer that held only some paper Dixie cups and a bottle of Early Times, poured us hefty doses of bourbon, and toasted us. John said that was the only time he ever taught a class tipsy, but his students didn’t even notice. Walker sent me a card with a Miro painting on one side and his congratulations on my “new happy life” on the other. When word spread around the English Department, the elderly gent who’d found John reading my book at the MLA convention dropped by his office to congratulate him. He also warned John not to read any more books by female authors when he was next at a convention.
I was not yet rid of Claude, who was threatening to kill us both. John borrowed a shotgun and stashed it by the front window of my rented house and enrolled in a police gun-training program. I gather that he became quite a legend among Baton Rouge law enforcement circles for refusing to be passive before such threats and for turning out to be a deadly accurate shot—oddly enough with his left hand, despite being right-handed.
I think Claude lost his job, which gave him freedom to harass John and me while we maintained heavy professional responsibilities. I knew that Claude told Reid that John had stolen his mother from him—despite the fact that I had never heard of John when I first told Claude I wanted a divorce. Claude’s mother lived near Mobile, Alabama, so I suppose he used her house as a staging ground for ongoing intrusions into my life. Once he got into my house and stole my birth-control pills as evidence that I was an adulteress. He also read John’s letters, including one in which John described our relationship in Jungian terms, then called me to tell me how silly such ideas were. I was furious, but my anger was as ineffective as the little mouse’s protest against Burns’s plough. I was sure Claude wouldn’t physically hurt Reid, but I worried that his emotional manipulation could psychologically damage my son. I felt panicked for Reid’s sake but also stymied in this as in everything having to do with Claude. I so despaired over losing my child, and even John’s calming presence did not help much.
During the appalling child-snatching saga, I had sought another escape by applying for a teaching fellowship abroad. Despite my then- chaotic life, I won a Fulbright to teach American literature in Porto, Portugal, in the spring of 1976. I arranged for Reid to join me, but his father would not allow it. Claude was mounting a manic claim that I could not divorce him because I was still a resident of Virginia. He claimed that Louisiana law did not apply to me, much less to him or to Reid.
John returned the shotgun to its rightful owner before leaving to join me in Portugal on his sabbatical in February 1976, a month after I had arrived there and had begun teaching a weekly class in American literature. My first class in a big room was filled with about seventy students. I passed out a syllabus of reading assignments and told them (with some trepidation) that I expected each of them to write a short paper in English before the term’s end. At the next class, I had only twelve students, all female, all with the first name Maria, all trained by nuns. They were eager to write in English and to benefit from my teaching.
John and I were so deeply in love, even bombs celebrating the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution did not faze us. After I taught my class, we read and wrote and enjoyed exciting sex. We drove a rented Mini into Paris with little guidance other than the map in my high school French book. We even invited my mother to visit. While she was with us, one of my students invited us to her home in Viseu. Her father spoke to John exclusively in Spanish, which John knew from a semester in Mexico as a twenty-year-old. The father shocked John with his support for the deposed dictator, Salazar. (Ever afterwards, when I copied the marinated mushrooms dish we were served that day, John called them “mushrooms fascisti.”) The mother took us into the town of Viseu to see lace-makers, all dressed in black sewing in a darkened cave-like room and, it seemed to me, going blind. We toured an ancient church, and John and I actually crawled out of a window and balanced on the roof beam. I was not paralyzed by fear of falling because, as in so many ways, John gave me confidence.
We also took Mother on an excursion to Spain. On an overnight train, we had to suppress giggles when we heard her in the next compartment tell the Spanish customs inspector at the border, in a Blanche Dubois voice right out of Tennessee Williams, “You know I don’t speak a word of Portuguese.” Still, we gave her a good time, and she conveniently forgot that we were living “in sin,” as her Methodist parents might have called it. John and I did not think of sin. We felt joined, body and soul, our union ordained by our love. Our behavior further scandalized the English Department at LSU and ended expectations of competition between us.
Reid was with us part of the summer of 1976, thanks to arrangements my Virginia lawyer made. At the end of the summer, when I took Reid to the airport, John went to the police academy to practice his marksmanship. At the airport, I found that Claude had not paid for a return ticket to Virginia. “That’s great, Reid,” I said, victoriously. “You can stay on with John and me and go back to your Baton Rouge school.”
When we got home, John had taped up on the kitchen window a large paper with a man’s frame outlined in it. There was a hole right in the center of the man’s chest. Reid noticed it immediately and asked, “What’s that?” I rolled my eyes at John, tempted to say, “Your father with a bullet in the chest, well placed by John.” Instead John tore it down, and I offered Reid ice cream and he forgot about it. Neither John nor I did.
Claude eventually paid for Reid’s return ticket to Virginia, and so I lost my child again. After a Virginia judge finally dismissed Claude’s claim that I was a resident of Virginia, I got a divorce in both states in time for John and me officially to marry two days after Thanksgiving 1976. Shortly thereafter, my Virginia lawyer finally got a court procedure scheduled to determine custody. Claude’s behavior was still aberrant, while mine as a settled married woman and associate professor at LSU was stable. I flew to Roanoke and my lawyer and I drove to Pearisburg, Virginia, for the final determination. There the judge granted me custody of Reid, with only supervised visiting rights for his father. After the hearing, Claude asked my lawyer if we could stop by the road to his house so he could hand over Reid’s suitcase. I should have known better, but I had no clothes for my now almost eight-year-old boy, and it seemed reasonable to get at least a suitcase of his things. Instead, Claude leaned into the backseat of the lawyer’s car, pulled Reid out, ran to his car, and took off with my son.
“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley,” I remarked. “What’s that?” my lawyer asked, chasing down Route 460 after Claude.
“My father’s favorite poem by Robert Burns: Our best laid plans often go awry.”
The lawyer soon gave up the chase. “He’s burnt his bridges now,” he exclaimed. Then, when he took me to the airport motel in Roanoke, he offered to come up to my room. I can’t recall exactly what he said, but it became clear he’d reduce his fees if I’d have sex with him. I refused.
After I flew to Baton Rouge the next morning and told John about the lawyer’s propositioning me, John was outraged. “You mean the guy who’s supposed to be protecting you from a sexual predator was one himself?” “Well, at least he didn’t force himself on me,” was my weak reply.
It seemed these men all just wanted to “get in my pants,” as the phrase went, and it had been happening to me for years. When I’d been twenty or so, I worked as a secretary at the country club. If I arrived early, I’d sit on a bench waiting for the office to open. Then the president of that august organization would sit beside me and try to feel my breasts. I didn’t know how to stop such harassment. (More recent cases including Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Donald Trump suggest that the problem has not evaporated.) I suppose one reason for marrying Claude had been that he was big enough to protect me from such behavior. I wanted to escape from such men, who John knew all about. In terms of sex, he waited until I invited him to be intimate with me and he promised never to force himself on me.
Meanwhile, Claude kept Reid hidden for nearly a year. My lawyer claimed to be pursuing some kind of a compromise. I didn’t see much of a compromise, but I did see more legal fees, which John paid from his savings. Maybe he’d planned to buy a sports car with the money, but he gave it up to help me get back my child—to no avail.
I began beseeching sheriffs and law enforcement officers in places I suspected Claude might hide. Something cowardly kept me from hiring a private detective. Maybe I was just being frugal. Maybe I didn’t want any more trauma. Or maybe I didn’t want my good life with John ruined. I went to a counselor on the university staff who suggested that if Claude wanted Reid so much, maybe he should keep him during school years. That idea shocked me, but it did also open the possibility of simplifying my harried life, at least for the immediate future. John and I proposed it to my lawyer. Frustrated by the lack of coordination between states, I wrote a brief op-ed piece on “The Nightmare of Child- Custody Laws.” It began:
Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Do With Me What You Will begins with a scene in which a very nervous man waits outside a school playground for the chance to kidnap his daughter. Actually, given the condition of family law in this country, he need not be apprehensive. Our legal system is almost impotent against a divorced parent dissatisfied with a custody decision. In fact, it virtually invites such a parent to “snatch” his or her child across state lines.
After the Washington Post printed my piece, I received calls from two California congressmen, both wondering if I would testify before a House committee. I put them off, and neither congressman called back. Still, I am glad to note that states have modified their child custody laws to consider other states’ rulings too. Perhaps I played a very small role in that change.
The Virginia lawyers finally reached a custody truce between Claude and me in time for the Christmas holiday of 1977. Before we drove north to pick up Reid, John took the pistol he bought for target practice, beat it with a hammer, then trashed it. This was not beating swords into ploughshares but it was much the same idea. On our way, we stopped in Tuscaloosa to visit my mother and see my dying father, a World War I veteran. Then we headed north to Blacksburg. I recall hearing Whitney Houston singing “You Light Up My Life” on the car radio. We sang along, I poorly, but John really did light up my life. I was alive with passion and tenderness and a new sense of strength and responsibility.
I recall getting out of our car in near-blizzard conditions outside the home of Ann Goette and her first husband. Dating from the eighteenth century, the house was drafty and uninsulated. “Geez! It’s cold,” John remarked. “No wonder you wanted to get the hell out of Blacksburg.”
Ann had left out a bottle of bourbon, but it didn’t warm us until we could curl up together on the sofa bed in her front room. The next day, we picked up Reid at a neutral shopping center and headed to Columbus, Ohio, to see John’s parents. On the trip, Reid was mostly quiet, except to ask why the window panes fogged up or why they were wet inside or why glasses left wet circles on tables. “Explaining condensation must be the trick to teaching elementary science,” John remarked.
We spent the next summer of 1978, when I was pregnant, in Newark, Delaware, where John was working with a coeditor on a collection of essays on Swift’s poetry. The Delaware countryside reminded John of the landscape around York, Pennsylvania, where he’d spent the happiest years of his childhood, mostly, I gathered, roaming the fields collecting butterflies after school. Then his parents took him to a seminar about becoming an Eagle Scout. (I doubt they cared about scouting, much less nature, but they did care to have their elder son win acclaim.) John told me that, though a manly young preteen, after the seminar he’d gone home to cry by himself. He realized that he’d soon be forced into jumping hurdles and overcoming obstacles. Quitting was not an option, so he’d have to accumulate badge after badge, which his mother could sew on the resplendent chest of his scout uniform, to transform him into an Eagle Scout. There would be no more happy-go-lucky butterfly chasings. Nor, I think, would John ever again have much appetite for fierce competition in search of acclaim. He’d had enough of that.
On the way to Delaware, we picked up Reid at some Virginia designation, where he informed us his father had left us a present. The cardboard box did not contain a bomb, as I’d feared, but a blue-gray Siamese kitten. Over the summer, the cat, whom Reid named Aslan after the great lion in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, became devoted to Reid.
We rented a cozy furnished Cape Cod house on the edge of campus. John spent the days working on Swift in an office the English Department loaned him. I spent mornings at home working on a review of the past year’s writings on Faulkner while Reid went to day camp. In the afternoons, I often took Reid swimming. Sitting by the pool, I felt like a balloon in my borrowed maternity swimsuit. John thought my swollen belly was lovely. “You’re rosy all over,” he remarked, patting me gently. When a tick at camp embedded itself near Reid’s private parts, I asked him if he’d rather have me or John remove it. He chose me, I suppose as a mark of our restored closeness. At the end of the summer, Claude wouldn’t take Aslan, so John and I inherited him.
Back in Baton Rouge that fall, despite my advanced pregnancy and my already overdue Faulkner review, I opted to teach one course. I timed it so the class could get to the section of Restoration drama just about the time I’d be having a baby. John’s parents booked a three-week trip to Baton Rouge, also timed for the baby’s birth. Our baby was expected in September but she did not arrive. I kept writing my Faulkner review and teaching my class, with major help from John when I had to teach a Congreve play. John’s parents were increasingly impatient. They didn’t like seeing Aslan playing with the mobiles above the baby crib, and John’s mother told me that it wasn’t natural for a pregnant woman to work so hard. She suggested that I should induce labor. Infuriated, I complained to John. Always my protector, he told them to leave me alone. When he told me what he’d said to them, I thanked him again for being himself; then I collapsed into an easy, comforted sleep beside him.
On the night of 4 October, while the Fischers watched the World Series, I finished my review of the year’s work on Faulkner for American Literary Scholarship. At dawn the next morning, my labor began. (John’s parents were convinced that I kept the baby from coming until I met my deadline; maybe they were right.) We were the first Lamaze couple to have a baby at the Baton Rouge hospital, and several nurses and doctors asked to observe. John coached me through the entire natural childbirth.
Some nurses cried. One of them later told me how wonderful John had been during labor. “Can I borrow him when I have a baby?” she asked. “NO,” I said, loud and clear. My mother drove over from Tuscaloosa when John’s parents had only a few days left before their flight home.
Soon they all left, and we were delighted to escape all the grandparenting “help” and be alone with our adorable baby: Hannah Cornelia Reid Fischer. Our only problem was lack of sleep. “You didn’t tell me how tough it would be,” John remarked. “I forgot,” I said, truthfully. When she woke in the night, I would nurse her, and then John would sing to her or recite poems. He even read her the poems of Theocritus, so it is no wonder she became a poet. John was such a devoted father that he gave up his BMW sidecar outfit knowing it was not a fit mode of transportation for a baby.
Panthea Reid has been an NEH Fellow, a Fulbright lecturer, an Honorary Fellow of Birkbeck College, University of London, and President of the South Central MLA. She holds a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, she is Emerita Professor of English at Louisiana State University.
Reid is the author of Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf (Oxford, 1996), called “a sensitive and meticulous biography” by Library Journal and which earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Dubbed a “biographic bombshell,” Reid’s biography Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles (Rutgers, 2009), earned another starred review in Publishers Weekly and was called a “richly textured history” by Forward and “a marvelously evocative book” by The Advocate.
After the death of her husband, Jonathan Swift scholar John Irwin Fischer in 2015, Panthea wrote Body and Soul, a memoir about their life together and the reflections of his sudden death as well as sound advice and resources for those dealing with grief and loss. During this time, Panthea finished for John his last work, which also appears to be the last work of Jonathan Swift to reach publication. Swift’s Word-Book, edited by Arch Elias and John Fischer, was accepted for publication by University of Delaware Press right at the time she finished Body and Soul.