Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

§   Unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step backwards into my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of a little girl so like myself.  §

When I was in the fifth grade, my all-time favorite teacher, Miss Shireman, gave me a book to read titled Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.   That book, written by Rumer Godden, became a lifeline for me.

The story describes the adventures of the eight-year-old Nona, who has been sent home from India to live with her British relatives. Lost in a unfamiliar culture, surrounded by strangers, cut off from everything she has ever known, Nona retreats into herself, terrified and abandoned, until she is given the gift of two Japanese dolls (the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower of the title).

I can say without intentional punning that the book spoke volumes to me.

I still recall Miss Shireman asking me if I was enjoying the book, and my enthusiastic reply. She smiled as she remarked that she’d been sure I would like it. Looking back through the mists of time, now, I wonder—how did she know? How did she know that I, enduring my first year in a new school and feeling so frightened and lonely that I could have died, needed that story? But Miss Shireman always seemed to understand what her young students were thinking and feeling, and did whatever she could to mitigate their distress.

A large part of the book concerns the Japanese doll house which the main character’s cousin builds for her dolls. I remember trying unsuccessfully to convince my older brother to build such a dollhouse for me. I also remember him throwing very cold water on the idea! But not long ago, reminiscing about my own daughter’s childhood dollhouse, now stored in the attic of my father’s home, I unexpectedly recalled the Japanese dollhouse of the story, and the book itself, and how much it meant to the child I’d once been.

Misses Happiness and FlowerIntrigued, I searched for the book, locating a copy on a used book site. The price was not exorbitant, and I could not resist; I immediately slapped down my credit card to order it. The precious book appeared in my mailbox during the weeks of Covid-19 lockdown, and I reverently carried it into the house like the treasure it was.

Already, during the weary hours and days of lockdown, I’d learned that I was resistant to reading anything new. Despite the fact that reading is my passion, I faced hourly headlines summarizing chaos, death and panic.  I couldn’t bear to begin a novel. A new book might kill off a character I liked, or direct a series down a route that I hadn’t wanted it to go. It might be badly written, or irritating or upsetting.

Instead, I took comfort in rereading both old and recent favorites: Tracey Quinn’s hilarious Breezy Spoon Diner series and Clara Benson’s marvelous Angela Marchmont mysteries.  The timeless classics of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting. The Moonspinners.  I delved into the familiar, fantastic and funny world of Kim Watt’s Beaufort Scales dragon cozies. I travelled once more to Aunt Bessie’s home on the Isle of Mann, and the secretive world of McIntyre’s Gulch in the Canadian north.

And now, unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step even further back into my comfort zone, communing with my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of the little girl I had so resembled. There she was, just as I remembered her: a young girl trying to adapt to a totally unfamiliar setting, friendless and frightened—exactly the situation in which I had lived at that age.

Rereading the book, I was delighted to find it just as enchanting a story as I recalled.  I marveled at the fact that at age 10, I’d been able to work my way without help through unfamiliar British terms and spellings, and to visualize a town so different from those that I, a suburban kid, had always known. How astounding and wonderful to have a bookstore on the same street as one’s home! And my adult-self thanked heaven that the book, written in 1960, predated the British changeover to the metric system, for then I might have been truly lost.

But what I really gained from re-reading this childhood favorite was a surprising realization of my own unquenchable spirit. At age 10, living in a new house that was not yet a home, lost and frightened in an unfamiliar neighborhood, too shy to make friends easily and trapped in a troubled, chaotic family situation, I, like the little girl of the story, somehow still found ways to adapt: to make friends, to be brave.

Half a century later, navigating the unfamiliar waterways of lockdown and pandemic, trapped in a home that’s begun to feel more like a prison than familiar territory, and lonelier than I have ever been throughout a very solitary life, I find it once more necessary to call upon that unquenchable spirit. She is in there still, somewhere, that inner child; that flame of life force reignited by a childhood memory and a beloved story. She is still finding ways to adapt; to be a friend to herself, and, most of all, to be brave.

Surviving the Lockdown

§   Despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty.  I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.  §

Like a good portion of the nation right now, I am living in a State that is “on lockdown”. Those who work in essential fields – hospitals, groceries, pharmacies, that sort of thing—are permitted to go to their jobs; others who can work from home are doing so. Schools are closed (and a friend who has taught for many years tells me that preparing the e-learning lessons and homeschooling packets is much more difficult and time consuming than just showing up in the classroom and teaching). The children without internet access struggle through trying to complete instruction without a teacher, while far too many children who are much too young to be doing so are dealing with minimal supervision. Others who depend upon school meals for their nutrition make due with sack lunches cobbled together at school cafeterias, picked up and then ferried home.

I, who am retired and living alone, am blessedly exempt from many of the stresses endured by those around me as all of us seclude ourselves from an invisible enemy. I am aware of and grateful for my good fortune. I do not have small children for whom I must find nearly-nonexistent childcare; I do not have to supervise homeschooling. I do not have to endanger myself by working in public venue, constantly at risk of viral exposure. I venture out only on the most necessary of trips for groceries or medicine—or, recently, for the materials to sew masks for my family members. Retirement assures me that I do not have to puzzle out how to complete my daily work from home,  fulfilling assignments without coworker or supervisor input. Instead, I’ve been filling my days, or trying to, by spring cleaning and catching up on chores too long neglected.

But, despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty. Never  one to watch much TV, Netflix is just a pipe-dream for me anyway, since my internet provider severely limits my data streaming.  And so I read—books, news sites, magazines, other blogs and personal essays ad nauseam. I had never realized, would never have believed, that I could grow weary of reading. More importantly, though, since I live alone, the days have begun to feel torturously like solitary confinement. The only human voices I hear beyond those on videos are caught from people in the street as they walk for exercise, passing by my windows. I find myself quite literally aching—a genuine, physical ache, a hurt–for the touch of a human hand. I imagine with longing just a pat on the shoulder, a touch in passing, a hug. Families trapped in the confinement of their homes with one another hour after hour, day after day, would probably sell their souls, and cheaply at that, for a half-hour of alone time; I would gladly give a pint of blood and my right arm just to rest my head on another’s shoulder; to be wrapped in someone’s arms.

I call to check on others whom I know to be alone,  while waiting vainly for phone calls from acquaintances, desperate for conversation. Video calls, like Netflix, are a pipe dream, also; the cell phone provider which I can afford is just as ungenerous with data allowances as my internet company. And so I shiver to discover that I am holding full-blown discussions out loud with myself. My cats look on as if I’ve gone mad—who the devil is Mom talking to? But they glory in the fact that they’ve never been petted so much in their lives.

I pelt friends and family with too many texts and emails, again often waiting vainly for replies; most of them, after all, have other people in their homes with whom to hold face-to-face conversations. When they do connect with me, they tell me of irritations and disagreements and quarrels brought on by too much togetherness, and, envying them, I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.

Introverted and inadvertently solitary for much of my life, I plumbed the depths of loneliness for years, suffering  friendlessness and bitter solitude.  But I have never endured so piercing an aloneness as this I’ve experienced during lockdown. Stealing out for a legally-permissible few hours to provide necessary childcare for my granddaughter was like encountering a wellspring of rising joy that rushed torrentially upward,  then cascaded down in sparkling droplets upon my soul. As I clasped her small body close to mine, all the while praying to any available deity that I was not bringing her danger along with my love, I felt as if I had been re-humanized.

We—all of us who survive this plague, that is—will somehow get through these days and hours of social isolation, eventually returning to some form of normality. But for all of us, I hope, our eyes will have been opened, and we will never again take for granted so much of the simple fabric of daily life.