I discovered Gladys Taber’s books last winter. I was out of town, rather anxiously watching a blizzard in progress. Yes, the snow was beautiful falling under the street light, but the TV reporters assured us that the next day would be a disaster, the National Guard probably called in to deal with the snow, etc., etc. And the next day I did find myself falling knee-deep in snowdrifts, gliding across glaciers in the street, and the city closed down around me.
Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow series, which are collections of columns and essays about her life in a 1690 farmhouse in Connecticut, were published in the ’40s, ’50s,and ’60s. They still have a cult following. These slight, charming essays are not in the same league as Wendell Berry’s or Annie Dillard’s, but they are plain, restful observations of the country that will delight readers who understand there is no such thing as a quiet life. Move to the country and you will appreciate nature, but it will not prevent the well from drying up, the septic tank from leaking, or the dishwasher from breaking. Taber balances her lyrical vignettes about the changing seasons with wry descriptions of skunks living under the storage house, and her forgetting where she buried the jar of homemade brandied peaches (a treatment that was supposed to improve their quality).
Taber (1899-1980), who graduated from Wellesley and earned a master’s at Lawrence, wrote 50 books and was a columnist for Ladies’ Home Journal and Family Circle. According to one online article, she and her husband bought Stillmeadow, a country house, in 1943 with another couple.
When I recently found a copy of her autobiographical novel Mrs. Daffodil, I was thrilled. The humor is reminiscent of D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books and Cornelia Otis Skinner’s humor books. I simply fell into this novel and loved every minute of it.
It is obviously autobiographical, or at least parallels the Stillmeadow journals (which may be slightly fictionalized; I can’t find much information about Taber). Like Taber, the heroine, Mrs. Daffodil, writes a syndicated column called “Butternut Wisdom.” She also writes short stories about young love, because she has discovered people are less interested in stories about ordinary older people like herself. And through this writing, she supports herself, her married daughter and graduate student husband, and presumably her housemate, Kay, a widowed college friend who agreed to share the country house after her husband died. Mrs. Daffodil is not good with money: sometimes she absent-mindedly sends two checks to the electric company.
Mrs. Daffodil and Kay love food. Mrs. Daffodil’s weight yo-yos up and down–we live with her through many diets–because she loves to cook and constantly reads recipes in women’s magazines that require a container of sour cream. When we first meet her,
She was between diets, so she was plump as a partridge. The dress, bought when she was thinner, barely zippered up. Her light brown hair had lost last week’s wave and flew about. Hr round, rosy face was no better, no worse than usual, she thought, dabbing on rouge. She had to take her glasses off when she put on her make-up. Being farsighted this meant that she could barely see what she was doing. Sometimes her short, soft upper lip came out read as fire and her underlip would be spotty.”
Mrs. Daffodil and Kay are animal lovers, who, in the beginning of the novel, live with Red Letter Day, an Irish setter, two cockers, and a Siamese cat. As the novel continues, Mrs. Daffodil also adopts a pheasant, barn cats left behind when a neighbor has to sell his farm (and they even have kittens), and even a baby Blue Jay, which of course she must let go. She and Kay spend hours preparing bird feed for their many, many bird feeders.
Each chapter is a discrete episode, but cumulatively builds a charming portrait of a smart, disorganized, kind, witty woman, who loses herself in writing and likes her fans so much that she even lets them drop in and tour her house. Which happens, of course, when she is washing the dogs.
I so much enjoyed this. Good luck getting a copy! The cheapest copy I can find online is $29.