Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Childhood's End: Observations from Ingalls' Fellow Mimi Wheatwind

Nestled inside one of those baby shoes that I found early in my exploration of the papers, notebooks and correspondence of Jeremy Ingalls’ life, I was amused that a small Cupie doll, no bigger than my thumb, would be preserved with an equally tiny note in Dearing Lewis’elderly hand, identifying it as Jeremy’s “first personally chosen gift from Graham,” when they were “about 4 or 5” years old. I had thought at first that Graham was one of Jeremy’s many cousins, as his parents, Arthur and Ethel, were referred to as “aunt” and “uncle” in photographs of summer family gatherings, from when Jeremy and Graham were infants. But the Brimmick surname did not appear in any of the genealogical records or ancestry charts of the Ingalls or Dodge branches of Jeremy’s family.

In a conversation with Dearing Lewis in 1996, when Jeremy was asked to reflect back on what she felt were the pivotal achievements or events from her undergraduate years at Tufts, she said, “Of course, it was Graham’s death, following so soon after Mildred Lincoln’s death. Those two events changed my life.” Mildred Lincoln was an influential literature teacher from Jeremy’s high school years and the Gloucester community, who had invited Jeremy to be her traveling companion in Europe during the summer after Jeremy’s freshman year at Tufts College.

Graham’s death occurred in early summer, 1929. At that point in their lives Graham’s relationship to Jeremy had changed from brother to cousin to classmate to fiancĂ©.

There was never a time that Jeremy hadn’t known Graham. He was born in late January, 1911, before her own birth on April 2nd in the spring of that year. Their parents had been friends before marriage, and continued to be throughout their lives. They lived close enough so that Graham and Jeremy attended the same Sunday school and public schools. Equally precocious, they both received “double promotions” during the primary grades, after which Jeremy wrote the class poem, “Success,” for their grammar school commencement.

The two remained intellectually competitive in their ambitions until their graduation from Gloucester High School: Jeremy wrote the class poem, “Peaks,” along with the lyrics to the class song, and Graham was Valedictorian of their class. Graham then went to Harvard, the recipient of the New England Chamber of Commerce Essay prize, the North Shore Harvard Scholarship, and a Harvard book prize. Jeremy’s scholarships took her to Tufts—not that far from Harvard—but their academic schedules and extracurricular activities prevented them from seeing each other very often, so they wrote letters to one another instead. In those letters, the close bond of surrogate siblings evolved into one of soul mates. No one in their family was surprised to learn that first Christmas home from college that they planned to be married after they graduated.

On the day that Graham died—June 26—Jeremy reminisced many decades later that they had planned to meet late that afternoon at what they always referred to as “their island.” It was also known as Bass Rock, in Good Harbor Beach, a place that could be reached by walking at low tide, but as the tide came in, it would become completely submerged. Graham had taken his parents’ car to the harbor in the late morning, so he could swim out to the rock when the tide was in. When he didn’t return by late afternoon, his parents became worried, and after finding their car parked near the beach with his outer clothing on the seat, the community began a search that continued into the early days of July. Both Graham’s and Jeremy’s fathers walked the beaches for days, while the mothers “sat at the Brimmick’s house and wept.” Jeremy “was left to answer the phone,” ringing all afternoon those first few days. Graham’s body, which may have been attacked by “dog fish” (small sharks), was never found.

Jeremy returned to Tufts in the fall, and continued her studies that year under a cloud of mournful grief. Late one night in the spring she walked to the reservoir with the intention of throwing herself in, but a friend persuaded her to return to the dorms, where an all night session of talk with friends helped to turn her thoughts away from death, towards the mystery of the unknown, the future, and the vast world yet to be explored. This awakened in her memories of her youth and of a beloved geography book, along with the realization, at age nine, as she stepped from her porch on Washington Street, “I’m walking on a turning earth.” Jeremy turned away from thoughts of suicide after those conversations, never to consider it again. She traveled to Europe that following summer, and in subsequent summers with girl friends from college, she took a walking trip across Connecticut and a road trip to Northern Maine. In later years, as she garnered fellowships and awards, she crossed the larger seas that would take her around the world, and some of her published books—The Woman from the Island, and These Islands Also—may have paid poetic homage to that rock in the Harbor of Gloucester, known to Graham and Jeremy as “their island,” where one imagined life became engulfed, and a vaster world emerged.

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