Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ready to Take Steps off My Palm

The boxes were new: white,
acid-free cardboard file boxes, with snug lids and curved, recently folded-in hand slots at each end, marked with bold black labels, which indicated her name and a number on one side. I had a scope and content list-fifty pages long-general, intentionally sketchy (the detailed list would be the archivist's task) and I soon found, far from accurate. I went through the pages, circling items on various lists that I wanted to start with: journals, photographs, and tapes of the poet reading her work at various events. I could request only four boxes at a time, and began going through them with an oddly numbered mix, since the chronology of boxes did not guarantee a timeline of her life and work. I was looking for something other than the books, edited manuscripts, and professorial notations of Ingalls' scholarly life. I wanted to don headphones and listen to her poetry while turning pages of photo albums; I wanted her voice as a background to the slant or intensity of her scribbled, inner thoughts.

What I encountered first was a familiar, musty scent: not the moldy smell of attics or basements, but the familiar fragrance of old books that have been opened and read in rooms lit by fireplaces, or scented by autumn incense, or the summer vases of garden roses. What I found, first, was a disappointing silence: no cassettes, no reel-to-reel tapes, no digitized disks. To be sure, I completely unpacked each box first, to verify that they weren't hiding inside a folder, envelope, or stationary box, or slotted between the pages of an album. But then, slowly repacking each box, I began to make my own expanded lists, and encountered delightful surprises. Not just the tokens of success: a Poet Laureate Medal in a small brown box, a published collection of Ingalls Prize Poems of Glouchester High School, 1940-1955-so named to honor their alumni-or the pristine contributor's copies of literary magazines and journals, the author's copies of her published texts and translations.

What I also found were rejection slips, and more personal rejection letters, photocopies of manuscripts and documents of writing that brought up questions: did this radio play, "To Honor Medgar Evers" actually get performed in 1972? If this poem, bookmarked in the 1933 Tuftonian (Tufts College literary magazine) "by Mildred Ingalls, '32," is an early work of our author, what (or who) was the inspiration for changing her name from Mildred to Jeremy? And then, in a corner of Box #15, carefully nestled among a stack of small pocket journals, I found a pair of tiny leather shoes.

In faded handwriting, across each smooth sole, was an inked message: Jeremy Ingalls, First Shoes, assuring there was no question of their provenance. Holding the soft leather pair of footwear in the palm of my hand, I examined them. Each had an angled row of three tiny, tightly-stitched brown buttons along their ankle edge. Side by side, as I moved my hand, marveling at these remnants of a 1911 infant's wardrobe, the shoes seemed poised, ready to take steps off my palm and out into some great beyond. These were not the pastel, knitted booties of a sweet Mildred, nor were they the scuffed and bronzed reminders of a defiant Millie, toddling in fields and seascapes among family. They held the smell of calf-leather bindings, and the sturdy and sensible shoes of a future scholar and world traveler. As I tucked them back in the larger box, I decided let go of my initial fantasies. This wasn't going to be a sonorous sifting through the papers of another century, listening to a static voice as I handled aged photos with white cotton gloves. This was going to be a series of adventures. And Jeremy's first shoes were here to help me embark on the myriad intellectual, imaginative, and inspiring journeys ahead.

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