My summer with the Hemingway women
When a granddaughter recently expressed anxiety over finding part-time work, I shared with her the story of the summer job I found in 1939, and how it taught me that often when we are most desperate, happy endings await.
Back then, I was working my way through college in Detroit. As summer approached, I desperately searched for a job. Times were hard. Ads on the school bulletin board were few. My desperation grew.
Then I spotted an ad for a mother's helper. As the eldest of seven children, this was not my favorite choice until I saw the ad was signed by Marcelline Hemingway Sanford. I knew from my literary crush on the great writer, Ernest Hemingway, that Marcelline was his older sister. I campaigned for the job and was hired.
The place was Marcelline's summer cottage at Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, the lake where Ernest spent all his boyhood summers, the place he described in many of his earliest stories.
I rejoiced as I washed the laundry by hand in the lake, cooked rather badly, and looked after the Sanford children - John and James of grammar-school age and Carol in early high school.
I wakened to bird songs often followed by the clicking of Marcelline's fingers flying over the keys of the Smith Corona portable typewriter she had installed on a desk on the screened-in porch.
I'd find her still in her robe, often with a blanket wrapped around her to ward off the chill of early morning. She was writing a play, one of her many talents, for she was also, I soon learned, an actress, lecturer, sculptor, and Detroit society leader.
She rose early to write so she could spend most of her time with her children and her women friends among the cottagers. She, like most of them, was there without a car except for the weekends when her husband, Sterling, visited or came for his summer vacation.
I grew to admire Marcelline, whom I never called anything but Mrs. Sanford. For all that she was an intellectual, she had an appreciation for life without fuss or pretense. The cottage furnishings were plain, the grounds to be enjoyed in their natural state. She often led us on hikes to nearby farms or hidden streams.
From framed snapshots on the cottage's pine walls, I learned that she and Ernest, l8 months her junior, were raised as twins by their romantically inclined mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. Brother and sister were dressed alike, and Marcelline was held back from starting school so they could be in the same class.
I met Mrs. Hemingway when she drove up alone after a painting trip in the West. She was en route to join the artist's colony on Martha's Vineyard. Widowed for several years, she was a painter of landscapes, following her earlier career as a singer and music teacher.
A tall, full-figured woman, she retained a certain stage presence, perhaps from her early years when she studied for the opera in New York. She wore long dresses and broad-brimmed straw hats that added a dramatic aura to her appearance.
Mrs. Hemingway had built her own private cottage across Walloon Lake, where she occasionally retreated from her family of six children and her doctor husband, Clarence Hemingway.
I spent a memorable day there with her. I swept away cobwebs while she reminisced about the days she escaped to paint and compose music, then rejoined her family, feeling refreshed in spirit.
By the end of that summer, I began to see my mom in a new light - to realize how much she resembled these two women with their dual roles in family and the arts.
My mother, in a cotton housedress, ran her home and brood of seven children with an energetic hand. She wallpapered, canned food, sewed our clothes, and made things hum. Then she would change into a pretty dress and hat, and race off to a social engagement with my father or to meetings she conducted in several civic clubs.
At the end of that summer, I bought my mother a gold watch with the money I had earned. It was my way of telling her that I saw her in a new light, thanks to two Hemingway women, Marcelline and Grace.
They helped me appreciate my mother as a person and to understand there were many roles for the compleat woman; that love of family, love of the arts, love of nature, love of work, love of the community can intermingle and bring great joy.