An American Childhood

An American Childhood Part Two Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Dillard compares Pittsburgh to Rome; it’s a palimpsest, now a new clean city (prompted by postwar money and political action), but with the old Pittsburgh and its original land underneath. Henry Watson dug two holes in their yard to plant maple trees when Annie and Amy were born, and once he found an arrowhead. Each time their mother remodeled the houses they lived in, the workmen found brick walls under plaster and oak planks under that. Some buildings apparently had dinosaur bones under them; layers of natural gas and oil were buried under the city.
A palimpsest is an ancient writing material that one could write on, erase, and then re-use for writing, though faint traces of the old message might remain. It’s thus a metaphor for the various layers of history that exist in Pittsburgh (like Rome, where a modern-day city is built atop the ruins of ancient civilization). Pittsburgh, too, has layers of history that run back through the Indians, but also far older, back to the time of the dinosaurs.
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Annie lived and breathed her Pittsburgh history, such a part of the country’s history, without really believing it: a child, Dillard notes, is asleep, her private life unwinding within her before she locates the actual, historical setting of her private life as a collective project.
Although Annie is curious about things like arrowheads, she treats history as a stage for her own curiosity rather than something real and outside of her—an attitude which, Dillard notes, is typical for a child.
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Annie and other children played outside among the big stone monuments of the Pittsburgh millionaire industrialists. They saw the low steel factories by the rivers, the sand at the glassworks beside the railroad tracks, the corporate headquarters downtown of Mellon Bank, Westinghouse Electric, and Gulf Oil. They were surrounded by the industrialists’ institutions, from universities to libraries and the Carnegie Museum and Mellon Park, all of which dominated the city’s life. These men left a legacy of Calvinism, a mix of piety and wealth acquisition, which continued to characterize the “old money” of Pittsburgh: anti-Semitic, Republican, hard-working, friendly, and also, paradoxically, egalitarian. No one gave any credence to aristocratic senses of hierarchies, and there was a vague pride about the immigrant diversity, even if “we,” Dillard says, never visited the hillside neighborhoods of Poles, Hungarians, Italians, and Slavs, who labored in the factories.
Dillard continues to describe the relationship between wealthy Pittsburgh children and the city. Pittsburgh is known, still, as a major city of American history, one that was made famous by industrialists (known as “robber barons” because of their sometimes unsavory business practices) who also founded a number of artistic, educational, and scientific institutions. Dillard attempts to characterize the tone and attitude of Pittsburgh as fairly as she can. She notes the strong egalitarian spirit, but is also careful to point out that there were elements of Pittsburgh’s history that didn’t fit into this narrative, such as the difficult lives of laborers.
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“We” knew, Dillard says, bits and pieces of Pittsburgh history. There was small industry there before big industry, iron and glass manufacturing for instance. Pittsburgh was the gateway to the West for pioneers. Annie treasured some pieces of this history, vivid in her private imagination as a spectacle in which no one got hurt.
Dillard reflects, now, that her youthful understanding of Pittsburgh history was limited—it was based on genuine and appealing curiosity, but it also failed to take account of how other people might have suffered in this history.
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Annie began to draw in earnest while her father was boating down the river. At a neighbor’s house she found a book called The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides, who taught at the New York Art Students League. She’d been drawing for years, and now decided to devote August to the strenuous schedule the book laid out: each day, 65 gesture drawings, 15 memory drawings, and one hour-long “contour-study.” She made an attic bedroom into her studio and moved in, drawing her baseball mitt over and over again. She was struck by how the same subject could prompt a one-minute or multi-hour activity. Things were interesting, she concluded, based on the interest you gave to them. The neighbor who’d lent the book to her explained that if you liked to draw, you became an architect, like his father; one didn’t become a painter today. Annie was disappointed, resigning herself to architecture school, though she disliked buildings.
Annie’s drawing schedule helps to make clear another aspect of her personality: she’s curious and might seem even scattered, but she can also be ambitious, committed, and stubborn. Drawing the same thing over and over again acquaints Annie with another aspect of the mystery of the external world, which might seem to be made up of mundane, uninteresting objects—yet the interest of the world is, she learns, perhaps less located in the objects themselves than in the way one looks at them. Annie’s parents seem to give her the room to explore artistically, although her neighbor’s attitude is more future-driven and pragmatic.
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In addition, Annie began reading in earnest. She traveled to the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library, the nearest one, though in a “Negro” section of town, where she sometimes saw Henry Watson. During the day the reading rooms were almost empty, though they were busy in the evening. The librarians had given Annie a card to the adult section, where she lingered over the Natural History section. There she found The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, which explained how to make nets, buckets, killing jars, slides, and how to label insects. It specified the proper costume for going into the “field.”
At a young age, Annie is beginning to sense the clear racial and economic divisions of Pittsburgh, where African Americans were segregated into certain neighborhoods and tended to have lower incomes than white residents (Henry Watson, who is presumably black, is Oma’s cook and driver). Dillard presents the library nonetheless as a place where some of these prejudices can be overcome.
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Annie thought about writing a letter to the author, asking how she might find a pond or stream, and what a “cheesecloth” was. She felt like the first person to stumble across this book in many years, so she was surprised to find, on the sheet glued to the last page, that the card was almost full with stamps—it was quite popular. She imagined contacting one of these adults, commiserating about the slim offerings of fields and streams in Pittsburgh. She thought of the poverty in Homewood, and the dreams of the people who lived there, who had little money or free time.
Living in an urban center, Annie isn’t familiar with the country lifestyle discussed in the book she’s picked up. Her shock at seeing its popularity is part of a more general realization that books are not just written for her own mind—other people are enraptured by them too. Annie senses, too, the unfairness of the relative poverty in Homewood, whose residents have dreams and imagination like her.
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Annie had been driven from fiction to nonfiction, frustrated by her inability to know in advance which fictional works would be good and bad. Adults’ suggestions were incoherent; they gave out anything which contained children or animals as a children’s book, as well as anything about the sea, or by Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. She was exasperated by Wuthering Heights, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, and Innocents Abroad.
Annie is frustrated by what seems to her to be adults’ inability to grasp what children actually want in books, and by the condescending attitude they seem to take in giving her only books about animals or sea adventures. She’ll read anything, but she is also curious about the wider world.
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Annie was at a loss for how to choose among the thick stacks of fiction. She went for books she’d heard of, like The Mill on the Floss, which she enjoyed. She noticed a figure of a man dancing or running on the cover—the Modern Library logo—and began to rely on that. While it brought her to Native Son and Walden, it also put forward Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a “bust.” Most books fell apart halfway through, she decided, their authors forgetting how to write and limping along. Only a loyalty to the early chapters kept her reading.
The library is an enormous gift for Annie, but it’s also overwhelming—with all its stacks of books, there seems to be little way to map one’s way through it, or to fix one’s attention on something the way she does with observations in her neighborhood. The Modern Library, which prints “classics,” is only an imperfect guide—Annie isn’t relying on other people but prefers to develop her own opinions.
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Annie felt that the Homewood Library part of her life, with its infinite books, was private and obscure: she never expected to meet anyone else who’d read the same things she had. Father sometimes raised his eyebrows at a title of a book she was clutching, but she figured he’d only heard about it, since he never seemed to care as wildly as she did about the books.
While describing her attitude as a child, Dillard is implicitly critiquing it, suggesting that even if she thought books were only written for her, they were not her property alone, and other people (maybe even her father) might have equally important reading experiences.
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Dillard describes how a person’s interior life expands and thickens: she wakes up one day to discover her grandmother, then to discover boys. First there were the “polite boys” of Richland Lane, with parents from the professional class, who took her to movies on Saturday afternoons in white shirts. At ten, in the fall of 1955, she met the dancing-school boys. The leaves were turning colors; Molly was beginning to smile and crawl around. Annie and Amy had started at a girls’ day school called the Ellis School.
“Awakening,” once again, is used to describe the way Annie begins to notice things and people that were there all along, even if she didn’t pay close enough attention to them before. Now her attention turns to boys, as she begins to interact with them more formally than she had in the football and snowball-throwing games in the neighborhood.
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Annie started dancing school, which was attended by girls at her regular school, and boys from the all-male private school paired with hers. She’d seen these boys at church and the country club, and knew the girls from school: she was surprised and bewildered to find them all convening here, where they’d be sent every Friday for many years until, eventually, marrying each other.
Annie still doesn’t have a sense of the small, closed world of privileged Pittsburgh families, which explains why the same girls and boys keep showing up at each of the different social environments she experiences.
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Annie’s friend would whisper about a boy she found cute each week: Annie would think of each boy, with his braces or bobbing head. She too, though, thought they were cute. They all wore white cotton gloves, and between dances they held hands, interweaving their fingers so tight that they cut off circulation.
With a dose of humor, Dillard describes the young boys from the vantage point of an adult, though she’s sympathetic to the allure that these boys held for girls in a new social context of dancing school.
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Annie was mystified to discover that all the dancing school girls were on a “list,” one that excluded people like the best-liked girl in her class, Ellin Hahn, who was half Jewish and so had to go to Jewish dancing school. Quiet, plain, and silly girls at school were invited, though, and seemed to find their place here in dancing school: Annie would be stupefied to later see them marrying the liveliest, handsomest boys.
Again, Annie is confused by the social arrangements that have been decided by adults, arrangements that clearly work based on distinctions of race, religion, and ethnicity. Though these distinctions are powerful in the children’s’ lives, they already seem to Annie to be arbitrary and wrong.
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The girls watched the boys in awe as they called each other names and slugged each other on the shoulder. Now Dillard reflects how little she understood them. She thought they were all alike, but she now understands they were only alike in learning to become responsible members of a real, moral world, learning self-control and accumulating knowledge—things the girls dismissed as irrelevant. The girls felt that there was something ahead for the boys that was barred to them. They vaguely understood they were being prepared for something by Latin class and ballroom dancing, but they couldn’t tell what.
Dillard is balancing, here, what she felt as a young person –the vague intimations of the future—with what she now knows, especially the fact that what she and the other girls were being groomed for was mostly marriage to these boys. While she implicitly critiques the limitations imposed by gender, she also looks sympathetically on the boys as well, who were also beholden to social expectations and standards.
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Dillard reflects that the boys must have known they would inherit “corporate” Pittsburgh, their right as boys: they since have joined the management of Fortune 500 companies and boards of schools and country clubs. They must have laughed so hard then because they knew they didn’t have much time left. Annie assumed the boys dreamed, like her, of running away to sea, painting in Paris, or hiking through the Himalayas; later, a few told her they wanted to be top man at Gulf Oil, or a senator. But at the time she loved them. For years she loved two of them particularly deeply: she hoped to change their ambitions, to save them, but that never happened.
Looking back on the dancing school boys now, it’s hard for Dillard not to remember them in the light of the kinds of people they became. Dillard obviously doesn’t think of the corporate world as her own, and in many ways these men are now alien to her own interests and passions, but she also is thoughtful and even sympathetic about them. In many ways, it only became clearer over time how their desires and ambitions were quite different.
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Annie considered Amy the world’s most beautiful child. She was smart, quiet, and obedient. She dramatized her dolls’ fights with old-fashioned expletives from comic books, “humph” and “pshaw.” While Annie had been skeptical of baby Amy, she adored Molly. As a baby, Molly dragged a blanket around and believed that if she draped it over her head, she was invisible. She grew terrified if Mother washed it, until Mother cut it in two so that she could wash one half at a time.
In a typical move, Dillard switches gears and jumps to an entirely different memory, now considering her relationship to her siblings. Annie also notices specific, often comical qualities about her two younger sisters: as the oldest, she can watch them grow up and pick apart their own unique characteristics and personality traits.
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When Father returned from his sailing trip, he became the business manager of a small company that made radio spots. He was able to do some radio acting, and would practice around the house. This was a different path from many of his friends: a childhood friend Edgar Speer, “Uncle Ed,” would soon become the chairman of U.S. Steel, for instance, while Father was getting involved in making a low-budget local horror movie with the company.
Despite his willingness to adhere to some social norms, Father also continues to have a creative, unorthodox streak, one that distinguishes him from the successful corporate men around him. His involvement with a low-budget horror movie is a humorous example of this difference.
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Around this time Annie spent many afternoons practicing pitching against the back wall of the garage, lost in concentration. She drew targets with crayon and pretended she was playing a real baseball game.
Annie’s ability to concentrate wholly on something is evident here, as is her wide-ranging set of serious interests, from drawing to baseball.
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Amy had a friend, Tibby, whose older brother Ricky began playing a two-handed baseball game with Annie, basically throwing the ball back and forth and calling it as a “ball” or “strike.” They had a formal working relationship, playing the game, drinking water from a hose, thanking each other, and leaving. On Tuesday evenings in the summer Annie would ride her bike to watch Little League games, though the league didn’t accept girls. Softball at school wasn’t exciting enough for her, since the ball seemed so much less real than a baseball in the palm of her hand.
Dillard describes the peculiar nature of many childhood friendships, which can be limited to a single shared activity, and which can vary widely in terms of the intimacy involved. Annie seems to prize her relationship to Ricky in part because it’s the only way she can join in playing a sport that is limited to boys (and whose female equivalent, softball, she finds a letdown).
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One afternoon a tornado hit Annie’s neighborhood, breaking all the windows in the envelope factory on Penn Avenue. Annie roamed around afterward and found a broken power line that was emitting sparks and melting in the street. She watched the sparks pool and crackle around the cable, which was flailing like a cobra: Mother told her needlessly that she’d be a goner if she touched it. During the tornado, Mother had gathered Amy and Molly away from the windows, while Father and Annie ran over to the windows to watch.
The difference between the ways Mother, on the one hand, and Annie and Father, on the other, react to the tornado is indicative of a difference in personality: while Mother can be exuberant and wacky, she is also protective and less attracted by risk and thrill as her husband and daughter. Annie seems to inherit her fascination with nature, too, from her father.
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On Penn Avenue ran old, jerky, orange streetcars that jangled around corners, emitting a solemn bell if a car parked at the curb blocked them. The Avenue smelled like gas, exhaust fumes, and burnt grit. The sidewalks were hilly, creased with fissures from which grass sprouted: they were as topographically diverse as Pittsburgh itself. Switching to the second person, Dillard recalls riding her bike over these sidewalks and vibrating all over. The streetcars were hung from wires that cut across the sky, making Penn Avenue a kind of tunnel. They clanged along, sparks flying from their trolleys.
Sometimes Dillard uses the second person while describing something that happened to her; this means that she’s telling the reader that this is how “you” felt during a given moment. This has the effect of making the reader feel more present in Annie’s memory, as if the reader had lived it (or is, in the present, living it) just as Annie had. This is particularly effective, since Annie is so attuned to such specific details as these.
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Once Annie tried to “kill” a streetcar with her friend Pin Ford: they hid across the street, having stuck a stone in the streetcar track. (They’d started with pennies, which a streetcar could flatten and widen.) The streetcar hit the stone, rose like a whale, then fell and broke the rock. At that moment, Annie saw a future in which the car would tip over: she’d have to give herself up to the police, or else live as a renegade.
Annie is playing at “killing” the streetcar with her friend, but she immediately realizes, as the car rises, that this isn’t just a game for the two of them—it might have real consequences for other people, and even pose a danger to them. This is another moment in Annie’s childhood in which she realizes that the world is not limited to her.
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Dillard thinks about the “inexpressible joy” of children as they realize the extent of the world’s knowledge. For Annie, beginning to understand the magnitude of the unknown was alluring, rather than scary. Annie took joy in effort, but also in the world’s ability to yield to that effort, like the faces people cut out of Mount Rushmore
Knowledge is not described here as something to memorize, nor as an intimidating manifestation of the unknown. Instead, knowledge is appealing because there’s always more to learn.
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Dillard recalls running down Penn Avenue, imagining she might use up her store of joy by trying to fly. She raced past the drugstore where she once tried to steal a box of chocolates, reading “sampler” as “free sample.” She waved her arms, knowing she was foolish, but she still felt proud as she whizzed past a man in a business suit looking embarrassed for her. A linen-suited woman saw her from far away and gazed at her warmly, as if they shared a common sensibility. Finally she began to tire and slowed, still feeling exultant: she thought that dignity didn’t count for much, and she’d never give up joy for it.
In this memory, Dillard stresses the moments of pure joy and exhilaration that were part of her childhood. Here she describes hurtling down the streets, pretending to fly, as a way of burning off her wild energy, even as Annie is also aware and proud of the way that “foolish” games like this actually set her apart from other people. Dignity is prized in her social milieu, but she doesn’t care about it.
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One Sunday afternoon Mother entered the kitchen where Father was listening to the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game: she heard, “Terwilliger bunts one!” (Terwilliger being a player). She couldn’t imagine this was English, and for years she made the phrase her own, always testing a pen or a microphone by writing or saying it. She relished other odd syllables too, like the “Tamiami Trail” they visited on a trip to Florida. This was the road people had built from Tampa to Miami, across the muck and alligators and jungle of the Everglades. Building it was a 14-year task with the result that now anyone could drive over the Everglades without a thought.
Mother doesn’t care for sports, but her penchant for odd phrases, jokes, and witticisms, makes her eager to take up new phrases like children fiddle with toys and games. Mother has a profound love of language, not just in order to communicate beautifully, but to appreciate the sheer fun of words—something that Annie, too, comes to adopt, though she’s also interested in the history behind these words.
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Mother often played games with words, telling Annie to spell “poinsettia” and “sherbet,” to remind her that there were things she didn’t know. Mother loved making up new jokes. When the children got older, she included them in her games: if someone called and it was a wrong number, she’d tell Amy to take the phone and pretend her name was Cecile. Once, when Annie and she were at the zoo, she approached a random couple and pretended she was the man’s former lover, then walked away quickly. During a game of checkers, she’d get bored and move the checkers around the board when no one was looking. At bridge she’d show her hand or bid wild amounts, driving Father crazy.
Mother enjoys knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but through the games she plays with Annie it also becomes clear that Annie, as precocious as she is, can sometimes act like a know-it-all. Dillard describes her mother’s antics with obvious affection and humor. While Father, too, appreciates jokes, and spends time cultivating them with his wife, it’s she who is the most fun-loving and exuberant member of the family, in some ways almost like a child herself.
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After moving across town, Mother persuaded the post office to let her keep her old address forever, since she’d had stationery printed: every new post office worker over decades had to learn mail was addressed to one place and delivered to another. She followed politics closely and saw how things should be run, although she wasn’t in a position to change them; instead she worked within the household, drawing up plans for new appliances and challenging the form of every pair of scissors and tape dispenser.
As Dillard attempts to characterize her mother in the light of how she saw her growing up, she also adds to her depiction by drawing on certain things that she has come to understand as an adult—in particular, the ways in which Mother compensated for not being able to have a job outside the home.
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Mother kept a number of unfashionable positions. She was anti-McCarthy. She asserted that people living in trailer parks were poor rather than evil, and that they should be allowed to settle on beautiful lands. She insisted that steelworkers and country-club workers and bus drivers were “people,” which was not a point of view that was very common among their social milieu.
The first of Mother’s opinions suggests that she is more liberal than most of the Doak family’s social milieu in Pittsburgh. Dillard links her mother’s politics to her general sense of compassion and sympathy for the poor.
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Annie was, around this time, obsessed with the French and Indian War. She was impressed by its high stakes: the American continent. She wasn’t sure whom to root for, but she kept reading, enraptured. She felt the war’s presence even in modern-day Pittsburgh, built on the site of the French Fort Duquesne. At the same time, Annie felt the war had a magical, literary quality, that it took place right outside her window with costumed characters and antique rifles—it might as well have taken place within her own mind.
Dillard switches gears again as she returns to another element of her reading, this time about a war that took place between 1754 and 1763. The fact that Pittsburgh was a site for the war helps to explain Annie’s fascination, though she generally enjoys the imaginative quality of history (and even has trouble, sometimes, separating fiction from fact).
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Dillard reflects that parents have little idea that their children, in their bedrooms, are reading in horror and awe, preferring the wild world of books to the actual world. Children become limp and breathless, thrilled but unable to tear themselves away. Annie felt she was born too late; she would have been a great war scout, walking silently in the woods as a look-out.
Dillard emphasizes the ways in which childhood and growing up often take place outside the purview of adults. Dreams and imaginative realities, she suggests, are also real parts of one’s life, even though they take place inside one’s head.
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At school, Annie memorized a poem about the Indian children that used to play where they now live. On quiet Richland Lane, Annie and her friends played “Indian Ball” (a baseball-like game) in the street. “Indian Burns” were punishment for cheating at a game, wringing a bare arm with both hands until the skin chafed. “Typewriter torture,” also understood to be Indian, was the worst, involving tapping one’s fingertips lightly on the breastbone endlessly. Annie and Pin Ford (her real name Barbara) played straightforwardly at Indians too, practicing knife-throwing, baking clay bricks, naming the trees. They came home to find their mothers tanning together, holding up silver cardboard reflectors to their chins.
In many ways, the games that Annie describes are a typical part of children’s lives, especially in neighborhoods where many kids can play together. But Dillard also draws attention to the way that even children’s games are wrapped up in the history of a place—as well as in stereotyped ideas about Indians. Dillard ends this memory by contrasting it to the “games” of adult women, spending their summers tanning rather than playing.
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Annie had drawn her baseball mitt in the attic bedroom, which was a studio, office, fort, and treehouse. She was especially drawn to a brown water stain there that looked like a ship bent over in a storm: she examined it closely for months. Annie, sometimes with Pin Ford, would play at detectives from that room, looking out onto the street for suspicious activity. One rainy afternoon Annie spied a case of beer inside the trunk of a man’s car: she memorized the license number and the man’s appearance, then went to the attic to write down everything she could remember. She closed her eyes tight as she tried to remember what he looked like to draw it. She wished she could memorize sentences and then reel them off like rolls of film, though she knew it didn’t work that way.
Annie’s penchant for observation, her natural curiosity and attention, comes to the fore once again in the way in which she is drawn to the stain, something that most other people would think of as ugly or unworthy of attention. Annie’s interest in detective work makes sense in this light: to be a detective requires seeing the world as a set of clues, as mysteries that only someone observant and clever enough can decode. Still, Annie is frustrated with the limitations of her own powers of observation.
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Annie was suspicious of the Homewood Library librarian, who, the week before, had given her (in broad daylight) the book that held the key to Morse code: at home she memorized it and burned the paper. She read the library’s collections on forensic medicine and ham radios and its copies of Sherlock Holmes. She dreamed of drawing sketches of criminals that would be printed on the front page of a newspaper or on wanted signs. Soon, Annie became obsessed with drawing things and people she knew, but also the faces of people she saw in the streets.
Looking back on this particular memory, Dillard sees the humor in the way her childhood self, for a time, was obsessed with cracking codes and solving mysteries. This obsession, like so many others in Annie’s childhood, takes shape in large part thanks to the books that teach her about the world of detectives and spying.
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Like Holmes, Annie wanted to notice everything. She missed the house on Edgerton Avenue and worried about beginning to forget its floor plan or details of her old neighborhood. But scenes dissolved, leaving only fragmented images.
In Sherlock Holmes, Annie finds a model for the kind of person she wants to be—even as she worries that she won’t be able to live up to that standard.
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Fragmented words, in turn, also rattled around Annie’s head: phrases from the Bible, from the Gospels mainly. She and Amy went to Presbyterian church camp every July for four years and became much more pious than their parents realized or wanted. They memorized Bible chapters and had nightly prayer devotions. Annie was drawn to religious ideas as the first kind of intellectual life that she encountered. Phrases about gaining the world and losing the soul, about one’s neighbor, about the earth being the Lord—all in a traditional, formal Biblical language—enraptured her. She studied this language at camp, at Sunday school, and at Thursday in regular school: they were crammed into her brain.
In this section of the memoir, Dillard reproduces a number of phrases from the Bible, stringing them together in a way that makes them seem like poetry. Although her father has been described as a “lapsed” Presbyterian, and religion is more social than spiritual for the Doak family, Annie comes to see religion as set of knowledge and truth about the world much like the science and literature she admires. The Bible, then, is another vehicle for knowledge, just like the books she checks out from the library.
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If the adults had actually read the Bible, Annie thought, they would have hidden it, recognizing its danger and opposition to their serious world and obsession with wealth (“Sell whatsoever thou hast” was one phrase she recalled). Now Dillard repeats these phrases, seeming to relish in their musicality.
Already, Annie is developing a sense of opposition to the wealth and worship of material possessions that she sees around her in the privileged Pittsburgh community she’s grown up in.
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Dillard moves on to the subject of her rock collection, which began as a gift from her grandparents’ paper boy, who got it from an old neighbor named Mr. Downey, who’d given the rocks to him before he died. Now they were Annie’s; they were all different colors, and the children’s books at the Homewood Library failed to satisfy her desire to know what they were. Instead she used Frederick H. Pough’s Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals, using Mr. Mohs’s homespun tests for rock hardness. With scratch tests she learned what was yellow pyrite and black limonite. In the books, people also dripped acid and shone ultraviolet lights on them. At the end, Annie could hope to learn what was inside those bags.
Like other interests of hers, Annie’s rock collection comes to her through a series of random, almost arbitrary events—not too dissimilar from pulling a book a random from the library shelf. But once she has the beginnings of a rock collection in her possession, she applies her natural curiosity to it with eagerness. And again, it’s through books that Annie learns most of what she needs, applying the information in those books to her specific circumstances.
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Finally, Annie identified the rocks as bauxite, barite, obsidian, and chalcopyrite, among others. She learned from her book that beautiful, precious stones were hidden in the earth. In Maine someone had discovered a twenty-foot crystal with a hammer; she’d never thought to knock open rocks and see whether they contained billion-year-old gems. Now, Annie decided rock collecting would be her new aspiration. The earth newly seemed to her like a shut eye: she could pry it open and unearth its treasures.
Annie is very interested in the information and straightforward data she’s gathered about the rocks in her collection, but there is also a poetic element to her interest. She’s enraptured by what she thinks of as the beauty hidden in the earth—for her, science is akin to artistic beauty.
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Annie wasn’t nearly as moved by the story of the movement of the earth’s crust, but she was fascinated to find that there’s one reason the ground doesn’t shatter and become a heap of broken rubble with all that friction: it’s silicon, which seeps underground and fills in the earth’s scars. The entire planet was “healed rubble,” she realized.
Again, Annie reads voraciously in order to learn specific information, but she also clings on to certain pieces of information more than others, based on what strikes her fancy and on what kind of beautiful images she can extract from the data.
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“Rockhounds” were, Annie learned, the moniker for the amateur rock enthusiasts whose obsession went beyond wealth—these books advised their readers not to sell crystals to a gem dealer, since they were more beautiful uncut, and not to refine any found gold, since that would oblige the person to sell it to a gold dealer or to the U.S. mint. Annie was struck that these books were about how to avoid making money—in America, no less.
Annie is learning, as she grows up, about what matters to society at large—in her community, it’s money, success, and hard work. But she’s also learning how that differs from what seems important to her. It’s in books and in hobbies like rock collecting that she discovers views more similar to her own.
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Annie learned how one could find fossil oysters and clams turned to agate in Puget Sound, dinosaur bones turned to jasper and petrified wood, and other mineral discoveries in New Jersey, Germany, Westchester County, and Mexico. She thought she might specialize in interesting names: sillimanite (found in Connecticut and named for a Yale professor), radio opal, agaty potch. She didn’t spend much time differentiating between the rocks she had and those she imagined, making this an ideal hobby for a reader like her. Eventually she had 340 rocks and labeled them all, cutting up index cards and cataloguing her collection by name, date, and locality (often the Carnegie Museum shop). She wondered about Mr. Downey, taking off for Oklahoma, perhaps, to scour the hills with a hammer. She wondered if he hadn’t died—if maybe he was simply underground Pittsburgh, exploring the crystal cavities of cobalt, onyx, or jacinth. Of course he wouldn’t come back, she thought.
The world seems to open up to Annie as more than simply names on a map or globe: places like New Jersey and Germany are now familiar to her in terms of the minerals and gems that they contain hidden within the earth. Annie’s interest in rock collecting is not based on what’s most rare or valuable, but rather on her idiosyncratic tastes—on what she finds most odd and interesting. But she also continues to appreciate structure and organization, as well, just as she set out a daily schedule for drawing a single baseball mitt. Finally, Annie’s imagination lingers on the donor of her rock collection, as she unleashes her creative fancy to wonder if Mr. Downey hadn’t died after all.
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Annie was thrilled to receive a microscope kit for Christmas that year. It included an array of test tubes, which she could peer into in awe all winter. She was committed to finding the famous amoeba. Finally, one week that spring she gathered puddle water from Frick Park and, after waiting a week, spread a drop of it onto a slide. Peeking in, she saw a grainy blob, recognizable from pictures. Annie ran upstairs, where her parents were smoking and drinking their after-dinner coffee. Mother seemed happy Annie had found something interesting to her, but she made it clear that she was enjoying herself too.
A microscope kit is the perfect gift for Annie, who loves observing things on her own: it’s like an extra set of eyes, enabling her to examine whatever interests her and discover even more about it. These interests take place, once again, in close proximity to her parents, though they might as well be in a world totally distinct from the after-dinner coffee and cigarette that her parents enjoy.
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Annie realized, as a result of her parents’ indifference, that passions must remain private. Her parents always would support her artistic and scientific pursuits, but they wouldn’t ask about her exams, listen to her play piano, or examine her insect collection with her. Her life was, instead, her own.
This realization is not disappointing, but rather liberating for Annie: indeed, Dillard seems to approve of her parents’ low-key attitude in retrospect, as well.
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Dillard compares the feeling of being alive to shedding your dusty clothes and standing under a waterfall, barely able to breathe as the hard water is pelting you—though you do learn to breathe, even amid the racket. Time is what’s pounding at you: you might fall asleep, but knowing you’re alive means to feel the planet hurling you around, as you’re aware that life is only for a short while and awake to life.
Here, Dillard uses a different metaphor from that of “awakening.” This description doesn’t emphasize the gradual process of growing up, but rather the intense, overwhelming, even wild feeling that being alive can also bring.
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Annie’s friend Judy Schoyer, a thin, shy girl with curly hair she often forgot to comb, was from an old upper-class Pittsburgh family: her ancestor Edward Holyoke had been Harvard’s president in the 1700s. The family spent weekends at a farmhouse outside Paw Paw, West Virginia, four hours away, and they sometimes invited Annie. She adored the place with its careening river and bridge and bucket showers: when she arrived on Friday afternoons, she would already be mourning how close Sunday was.
Annie often socializes with the children of well-off, old-money families in Pittsburgh—another example of the ways her idyllic childhood was also the result of a sheltered, privileged life (something that Dillard is at pains to point out). Still, that doesn’t make her memories any less vivid or powerful: Annie’s curiosity and joy in living also lends her a sizeable dose of nostalgia.
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Annie loved Judy and was impressed at how much more comfortable she was at Paw Paw, treating Annie with amused detachment, even though Annie was the one who was more popular at school. With Margaret, another friend, they would spend Saturday mornings boiling and eating river mussels, or staging and writing plays. After dinner in the evenings, Mr. Schoyer would tell them Victor Hugo stories. He’d studied classical history and literature at Harvard and he asked the girls about intellectual questions, assuming they knew about the speech of Pericles or capital punishment. Once, Annie declined an invitation to the Schoyers’ because she couldn’t bear to leave it again. She was having her own childhood, but also haunting it with her nostalgia, struggling between living and memory.
Annie recognizes that, like at dancing school, the divisions created by certain institutions can be arbitrary and can fail to mean anything outside those places. Dillard describes these weekends at Paw Paw with evident joy and wistfulness. While her own father is clever and friendly, Mr. Schoyer provides a model for a different kind of intelligent man, one who is steeped in the classics (rather than the classic jokes) and treats the children as intellectual equals—something that Annie finds very appealing.
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Dillard argues that children know bewilderment but not wonder: they treat the world around them as equipment for their games. Now she recalls a teacher named Mrs. McVicker with fondness, but recalls that she was more enraptured by caterpillars, leaves, and snowflakes than the students.
Wonder, Dillard suggests, requires not only a sense of self but also a feeling of the wider world’s separation from the self: as a child, she doesn’t quite manage to understand that distinction.
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At thirteen, though, the world was coming to seem marvelous to Annie. She began to lose her sense that the whole world was a backdrop to her own life, and she became amazed by the actual world. Science, medicine, drawing, painting, and criminology now held the center of her attention. Literature and ideas would become central interests again only a few years later.
Dillard traces her process of growing up as, in part, a growing awareness that there is a world outside her own head that has little to do with her, other than the fact that she can be fascinated by it for its own sake.
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Soon, though, Annie would become invaded by a blind rage. She would gaze with hatred out the car window onto the rocky hills, carved of sandstone and covered with soot and coal dust and car exhaust: she wanted to flee the dull, bleak sight. At thirteen, though, she still looked at these rocks in amazement.
Dillard briefly skips ahead to a later moment in her life, when her amazement and sense of wonder would be replaced with an adolescent rage at everything around her, including her city, parents, and teachers.
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Annie imagined there must be fans of every cranny of knowledge, from birdwatchers to violin makers and Islamic scholars: these people could teach her about what she didn’t yet know. Having written a paper on William Gorgas, the doctor in charge of workers’ health during the construction of the Panama Canal, she grew fascinated by medicine.
Annie’s curiosity is bolstered by the idea that she doesn’t need to start from scratch with every realm of knowledge herself: there are other people who have done background work before her—knowledge on which she can build.
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One sight that particularly struck Annie, at school, was a newborn Polyphemus moth, crippled because its mason jar was too small. The students watched around the teacher’s desk, transfixed, as it tried to spread its wings and couldn’t. They followed the teacher as she set it outside on the asphalt driveway, where it crawled out toward the rest of Shadyside, a fashionable, expensive area where people like Annie were expected to settle after college. She knew it was not long before the moth died, and yet it seemed to have amazing vigor and excitement at being born.
Annie’s fascination with the Polyphemus moth makes sense in light of her interest in insects and the natural world. But there also seems to be something about the fragility and delicacy of the moth that appeals to her, together with its stubborn determination to make it on its own. In that sense, she seems to see something of herself in the insect, and she also sees an inspiration to have greater strength in her own self.
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For awhile, Gene Stratton Porter’s Moths of the Limberlost was Annie’s favorite book. Porter had been a curious kid in the wilderness of Indiana. Once Annie found a yellow swallowtail, a large beautiful butterfly: she wanted to show it to her father, but as she ran over to him she tripped and her fingers tore through the butterfly, killing it: Annie thought it was like her father’s bar jokes.
Gene Stratton Porter is an apt role model for Annie, since this author too spent her childhood exploring and learning about nature. At the same time, Annie’s interest is not always as compassionate as it could be: she sees the act of killing a butterfly, even accidentally, as more funny than upsetting.
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Annie continued reading about beetles, wasps, and caterpillars. She collected them in jars, but was frustrated: in comparison, her stamp collection never tried to crawl away. Butterflies die with folded wings, and it involves an elaborate process to spread their fragile wings to display them: Annie gave up. She was afraid of insects, but never imagined she wouldn’t study them as a result. They were barely visible, which was why she liked paying attention to them.
Annie has moved on from one collection to another as her interests change and evolve. As with the “monster” that turned out to be the reflection of car lights in her room, Annie is convinced that the way to get over a fear is not to hide from it, but to pay greater attention to it.
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Annie went from an interest in medicine and microbes to a biography of Louis Pasteur, who established the germ theory of disease. Mother’s own favorite story was about a modern-day mystery: premature babies were turning up blind, and finally doctors realized that there was too much oxygen in the hospital incubators—hospitals all around the world changed the air mixture and fixed the problem.
Sometimes, Annie prefers to style her investigations as entirely self-driven. But here, it becomes evident that she’s also influenced by her parents’ interests. Her mother, too, is curious, and enjoys learning and sharing what she’s learned.
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Right in Pittsburgh, Annie had seen the polio epidemic crushed. The University of Pittsburgh had created a controversial vaccine for it in 1953: people said they had gone public too quickly, rather than waiting for a safe live-virus version, but almost all Pittsburgh parents signed the consent form for a doctor to test the vaccine on their children.
Before the 1950s, polio was a devastating disease that often led to children becoming disabled or paralyzed (President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in a wheelchair because of childhood polio), so it makes sense that Pittsburgh parents would be so eager to test a cure.
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Annie was learning that all things could be solved with hard work. Old, dirty Pittsburgh air had become clean and the city was becoming renewed. The Russians had shot Sputnik into space, and down the Ohio River a generating plant using atomic energy was being built. Jonas Salk was working 16-hour days to isolate strains of polio virus in tissues cultured from monkey kidneys. Annie was exhilarated by the idea of devoting her life to one monumental task.
Looking around her at the projects happening in Pittsburgh and the discoveries being unveiled in the news, it seems clear to Annie that one should take an optimistic attitude towards the future. She also sees herself as contributing to this unending process of discovery and improvement in some way.
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Annie had little idea of the malice and greed in the world. She thought that she’d never harm anyone and that she’d never meet an unsolvable problem. She didn’t know anything about parting or mourning, like her own mother whose father had died when she was seven. Still, she was familiar with longing and loss even though she’d lost no one. Loss came and went with the seasons: she lost memories, neighborhoods, details. For her life’s work she’d remember everything, she thought.
Dillard acknowledges, here, that she grew up in relative privilege, without tragedy striking her or her family—a childhood that enabled her to look at the world optimistically. At the same time, her sheltered childhood didn’t, she argues, protect her from the kind of loss that comes from the process of simply living.
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The year that Annie got a microscope and traveled to Paw Paw was also the year her grandfather died. She was a bit put out not to be able to attend an upper-school dance at the boys’ school, then ashamed of herself for feeling that way. Oma sold the Pittsburgh house and moved into a penthouse apartment for the fall; in the summer she, Mary, and Henry went to Lake Erie, and in the winter and spring to Pompano Beach, Florida.
Dillard continues to acknowledge the self-centeredness that can sometimes be a part of childhood. Oma’s move is one of the inevitable changes that Annie faces as the people around her grow older; she has to acknowledge, then, that their lives are changing just as hers is.
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Annie’s family had bought Oma’s house, high on a hilly street: nowhere higher up to go in life, Annie thought. It was close to the Edgerton Avenue house horizontally, but separated by the Glen Arden concrete steps where children played on the cliff. The first spring, the family walked down those steps to watch the Memorial Day parade. Afterward, the families from the two sides of Dallas Avenue were left to look at each other—Annie’s family’s earliest neighbors. Mother waved, but the Glen Arden families mostly climbed back up and shut their doors.
Throughout Annie’s childhood, her parents seem to be growing wealthier—each time they move they go to a nicer, more expensive and exclusive neighborhood. Although Annie might not be quite aware of it at the time, Dillard draws attention to the way in which the Pittsburgh of her childhood was segregated by race and by economic status, even if her mother tried to cross those barriers.
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The new theme of Annie’s reading was the Second World War, a popular topic for teenagers her age, who read Anne Frank and Leon Uris’s novels about the Warsaw ghetto. In fact, Annie never talked about what she was reading with her friends: this was part of her private life. But she imagined they were reading the same things—the theaters of war were the settings that stirred her generation’s imagination like earlier European children had read The Count of Monte Cristo or about Robin Hood.
Ten years after the end of World War II, there are beginning to be a number of histories and novels that deal with the traumatic—but, to a young person, also exciting—events of the war. Annie’s generation, unable to remember the war themselves, rely either on others’ memories or on these books to learn about the past.
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Annie imagined running a submarine and parachuting enemy lines, using her high-school French and German to practice her Resistance effort. Her librarian gave her Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, but she felt far too old for that. Since Hitler had fallen, they now read about the atomic war too, and had air raid drills at school. The teachers would lead the students to the basement, stand in the middle of the room, and tell the students to fold their arms over their heads against the walls and lockers.
Reading about the war gives Annie another set of ideas about the world, ideas that allow her to imagine a different kind of future for herself (one that she imagines to be more exciting than the portrait of American life in the South she’d get from Thomas Wolfe. The war, and now the Cold War with the Soviet Union, seems far more real to her.
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In the basement of Annie’s house was a room with tables and chairs, a couch, fridge, sink, piano, and record player, among other things. There were other larger underground rooms with a washer and dryer and canned and frozen foods: they could live there for many years, Annie assumed, based on what she read. One day she asked Mother, who said there wasn’t much more than two weeks’ worth of food there.
Dillard describes a version of the bomb shelters that many families in the United States kept for much of the Cold War, when there was a constant fear that the United States and Soviet Union would descend into nuclear war. Annie knows the danger, but also sees it as an exciting adventure.
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Annie wasn’t sure why adults approved of children who read, when the reading was so subversive. Now, she believed books more than the actual world she was living in. the French and Indian War had been a literary event for her, although WWII, whose survivors sometimes visited her classrooms, was different. Still, she sought imagination and depth of feeling in war: she wanted books where the surfaces actually matched the complexity of the inner life. For people of her parents’ generation (to whom she refers as “we”) who had grown up in the Warsaw ghetto, had family die in the death chambers, knew Morse code and battled Hitler, how could they settle down and send their children to dancing school, she asked?
Annie is able to read so much in part because reading is such a well-regarded activity by adults—and yet the content of the books themselves sometimes seems to flout the adults’ own authority, or to contain descriptions of dangers they would never want their children to read about. By using “we” to describe events of WWII that Annie and her peers never experienced, Dillard ironically alludes to just how strongly books allowed her earlier self to imagine her way into even devastating events.
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Annie noticed the boys beginning to change, gaining knowledge of Cicero’s opinions or the Battle of the Marne. The girls were astonished at the originality of something like paying attention in Latin class, and would copy them. While the girls whined under their parents’ authority, the boys waged war on them and disobeyed them outright, to the girls’ admiration.
It seems to Annie that the boys are always one step ahead of the girls—earlier, it hadn’t quite been “cool” to express interest in one’s learning, but now that’s changed, and the girls have to rush to catch up with this new standard.
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One year dancing school faded into the past, replaced by country-club subscription dances. It was the same boys and same girls who showed up, and Annie wondered how the hosts knew. They dined on shrimp cocktails, the few adults along the walls ignoring them and being ignored in turn. Annie’s dinner partner was a redhead from St. Paul’s school, polite and delicate, but she was grateful not to have to fall in love with him. Afterward there was dancing: in the bathrooms the girls talked about which boys they found cute, usually the ones that had grown tall.
Once again, Annie doesn’t manage to understand the closed, exclusive community of her parents’ white, Presbyterian Pittsburgh social circle, which involved the same families and their children from infancy to adulthood. Her description of the dance underlines the parents’ expectation that events like these would be preparation for a lifetime of such social intermingling.
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Annie noticed one blond boarding-school boy who was wearing patent-leather pumps with satin bows, and learned again that there were more possibilities in the world than she’d thought. He went to a Connecticut boarding school and, when home, visited whorehouses on the Hill, in the all-black ghetto. Annie danced with him and he swung her around. She and the other girls groaned when the dance was over: they didn’t know how to manage goodbyes smoothly, and a ride back home on the bus still awaited them.
Although the boys are mostly familiar to Annie, this one is different from everyone else, which proves alluring to Annie. The way Dillard describes him suggests that there might be something dubious in his eagerness to seek thrills by visiting poor black areas, but at the time Annie is too dazzled to perceive that.
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On Sunday morning, Mother asked Annie how the dance was and she barely remembered: the morning made it seem like another world. That morning in church the girls and boys from the night before all reconvened: though they were familiar, Annie was now struck that she didn’t really know these people at all. Generally, because she was a teenager, she felt she knew everything (and approved nothing).
Although Annie socializes with the same groups of people, she does so in what seem like different worlds, between home, school, and dances. She’s struck, here, with the difference between knowing someone in a social setting and truly understanding him or her.
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The church was a grave stone monument, carved with keys, pelicans, and anchors, decorated with a mosaic of Christ, that Annie now noticed in a moment of boredom. She imagined the war between the boys and their parents about whether they had to go to church. Looking down from the balcony, she felt like the families in the pews below seemed to have been planted there just after the Flood, the same old Pittsburgh families running the show. Annie knew the women better than the men, prizing gaiety and irony, sighing and coping, living basically alone as they managed their households. These families gained not closeness but respect for each other by seeing each other in carefully prescribed identities and institutions.
As Annie sits in church, her boredom leads her to examine the most minute details of the place, as well as to let her mind wander vaguely over the people who surround her at the congregation. With a dose of humor, she imagines different situations and thinks about the numbingly long histories of the Pittsburgh families there. But it’s Dillard in the present who describes the status of the women in these families, and the respect that she has for them, given the strict limits to their roles in the 1950s.
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Sometimes, some of the women would go a bit wild, appearing at parties in wild clothes, singing and dancing and acting like clowns. These were the best loved women.
Dillard suggests that the strict social mores of her community are not all-powerful; but perhaps the rules need these small exceptions in order to be maintained.
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Annie’s parents didn’t go to church and she “almost” admired them for it. They dropped the kids off to listen to the dramatic, British-sounding minister who was actually from a Canadian farm. Annie had been devout for a time, but now she disdained church like she did everything, seething about her parents’ hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of the people around her—once she could figure out how, she would quit church. On this, the first Sunday of the month, there was Communion, with its extended rituals of passing the collection, the juice tray holding grape juice, and the silver platters heaped with bread cubes, down the aisle. Annie passed up both and glanced at her friend Linda as if to confirm the absurdity, but Linda was silent and solemn.
Although Annie’s parents don’t attend church themselves, it’s important to them that their children grow up with some kind of authority outside home and school. As Annie noted earlier, she grew up having a religious sensibility, one tied to her own intellectual development. But now she sees religion not as an opportunity for further learning, but yet another requirement imposed on her by her parents and by other authority figures—and thus one that, as a teenager, she finds inevitably absurd.
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Annie glanced at the boys and, to her shock, saw that it seemed like they were praying. She wondered if they and the others were pretending to pray, so she kept watching. She knew these people, knew their world, that they loved their families, country clubs, hard work, and summer parties; and hated labor unions, laziness, spending, and wildness. But it seemed that people were, in fact, praying: she couldn’t understand. She never learned who her neighbors really were before leaving Pittsburgh.
It seems impossible to Annie that anyone else her age could fail to see the absurdity and silliness of the rituals of church—especially the boys, who in other situations could be goofy and break rules. Dillard reflects, now, that as a teenager—despite her imaginative capacity—she sometimes had failures of imagination when it was a question of people familiar to her.
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Years earlier, before Father sold his boat, he used to take Annie out on the Allegheny River. They stopped to swim at islands, tying up at Nine-Mile Island for Annie to jump from a high rope-swing into the water (he refused to watch, fearing she’d be hurt). Each time they visited, Annie seemed to be visiting a fascinating place she’d forgotten, where great things like bridges were completed because of slow, careful labor. Father would explain to her how dams worked, how the river locks worked, how glass was made from sand. He explained so much technology to Annie—steam engines, suspension bridges, and pumps—that for a long time she confused technology with American culture, assuming everything invented came from America, where people had figured out how to get rich from tapping into the natural power of water just rolling down the continent.
Dillard moves on to a quite different memory, moving backward in time from her Sunday mornings as a teenager to a time in her childhood when she had, it seems, a more genuine fascination with the world around her, rather than a near-constant irritation with authority figures like her father. Instead, Annie was impressed by everything her father knew, as well as by all the technology that he was able to explain to her. Annie seems to have gotten much of her penchant for exploration from her father, whose optimism about technology and discovery is mimicked in Annie’s own life.
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Now, nine years later, Father picked Annie and Amy up from church and, back home in the kitchen, began to explain American economics to them: money worked like water, he said, like the way water flowed from water towers into their attic bathroom, or the Allegheny into the Ohio into the Mississippi. Mother disagreed with him, recalling the blatant poverty they’ve seen. Father said those families shouldn’t have so many kids, but Annie was beginning to realize that Father might have some things wrong.
Returning to the memory described earlier, Dillard now suggests that there might be something more than innocent optimism to her father’s earlier explanations: that is, there’s a certain politics to the idea that the natural world is there for the taking, and that all people have to do is work hard and they’ll be successful. Mother has a different set of politics.
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