On the evening of June 26, I had the pleasure of standing before an audience in North Bennington, VT and reading to them from Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The occasion was the celebration of Shirley Jackson Day, which commemorates both the day on which her famous short story “The Lottery” is set (June 27) and the publication date of the issue of The New Yorker in which it appeared (June 26, 1948).
The event was a literary dream come true for me. I was invited because my novel Lily is a finalist for this year’s Shirley Jackson Award, which itself is so thrilling that every time I think about it, I have to lie down with a cool rag on my forehead. When the organizer then asked if I would be interested in participating in a reading celebrating Jackson’s work, I responded immediately with an enthusiastic, “Yes.” Jackson has been one of my very favorite writers since the day almost 40 years ago when my sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Needle, handed out a mimeographed copy of Jackson’s story “Charles” and assigned it as homework.
On the morning of the 26th I began the six-hour drive from my home to North Bennington, feeling a bit like Nell, the central figure of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, who against her sister’s wishes takes their shared car and begins an adventure that will change her life. Once there, I sought out the two houses in which Jackson and her family lived during their time in North Bennington, taking pictures of myself in front of them. I also visited the grocery store she frequented and walked up the slight hill that, according to a story begun by Jackson herself, she had been pushing a baby carriage up when she was struck with the inspiration for “The Lottery.”
The reading was the main event, and it was unforgettable. I read my favorite section from Castle. I listened to the other three readers. I snuck furtive glances at the two of Jackson’s children who were in attendance. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d imagined it would be.
After the readings, the host asked each of the four readers a question pertaining to our connection to Jackson. I was last. When it was my turn, I was asked, “Do you have any other connection to North Bennington?” It was not an odd question, as earlier I had been at dinner with the host and had mentioned that I had family in Vermont. I had not, however, told the full story.
Immediately, I was taken back 27 years, to a fall night when I was sitting in my first apartment in New York. The phone rang. It was my mother. I thought she was calling to ask me if I was coming home for my approaching 22nd birthday. Instead, she informed me that she was leaving my father and running away with her also-married Baptist minister. She followed through on this the next day, causing enormous difficulty for a lot of people and changing the course of many relationships.
Where my mother and the minister ran off to was Vermont. There, they camped in the woods for several weeks, as the minister told my mother that the church congregation was actively searching for them and intended to harm them if they were found. It was during this period that my mother wrecked her car and sustained a head injury that may have caused or contributed to the Alzheimer’s she now suffers from.
Upon emerging from their exile in the forest, my mother and the minister settled in North Bennington, where they lived for a number of years while the minister attempted to establish himself in a new profession, working as, among other things, an ad salesman for a country radio station, the manager of a pizza parlor, and a furniture repair technician. It was a strange time, and for most of it I had almost no contact with my mother, so details are sketchy. In fact, when I was first invited to the Shirley Jackson Day event, I didn’t even remember my mother’s connection to the town, until my sister reminded me.
Standing in front of a group of people congregated to celebrate Shirley Jackson, I debated telling this story. Eventually, I did. Earlier, in describing my admiration for Jackson, I had said that, for me, her greatest skill lies in showing the million-and-one ways in which people are horrible to each other, and to themselves, in shining a light on the seemingly-mundane things we do that actually have far-reaching consequences.
I think Jackson would have loved the story about my mother and the minister. On the surface, it’s the story of a woman and a man who tear apart two families in their fumbling attempt at finding the things each believes are missing from their lives. But that’s only the beginning, merely the event that begins a story that comes to fruition decades later with my mother, now completely unable to remember the minister, the husband she left him for, or any other details of what transpired, being taken care of by two of the children whose relationships to her were forever altered by her decision on that summer night almost 30 years earlier.
My sister couldn’t remember our mother’s address in North Bennington, so I was unable to look up her former home. Driving around town, though, I thought about the irony of two of the most influential women in my life having inhabited the same small area. Jackson’s work inspired mine in profound ways for which I am enormously grateful, while my mother’s actions have, and continue to have, affected me (and my sisters) in ways we will probably not fully understand until after she’s gone.
On the drive home, I listened to the audiobook of The Haunting of Hill House, again thinking of Nell. In the book, Nell has recently been relieved of years spent taking care of her elderly, demanding mother by the mother’s most-welcomed death. Finally free to do as she likes, Nell goes happily to Hill House, to which she has been invited as part of a professor’s research project into supernatural activity occurring there. She hopes it will be a new start for her. Instead, it ends with her own death, although given what awaits her back at home, it could be argued that she actually gains her freedom.
As my drive brought me closer and closer to home, the joy I felt being away from my mother for 24 hours and doing something enjoyable was slowly replaced by the more familiar feeling of dread, the weight of responsibility, and the burden her illness has placed on those of us who care for her. When, I wondered, will it end? And what will be waiting for me when it does?
Michael Thomas Ford is happy that the fireflies have returned for the summer. More Michael Thomas Ford