Life After Death
Mary Ladd Gavell's Posthumous Cache of Stories
Mary Gavell became a published writer in the spring of 1967, several months after she died. The editors of Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes were not accustomed to eking out space in their publication for a work of fiction, even a short one, but for several reasons her fiction was an exception. Still, tucking her story "The Rotifer" into the May 1967 issue required the editor to explain himself:
Mary Gavell, managing editor of Psychiatry since 1955, died of cancer on January 19, 1967. In publishing this story as a memorial to her, we could point out that many perceptive observers of human behavior consider the insights provided by the writers of fiction to be equal or superior to those of clinicians and scientists. But we prefer simply to say that a good story is its own excuse for being.
After "The Rotifer" was published in Psychiatry, it made its way into The Best American Short Stories of 1968, edited by Martha Foley and David Burnett. Several years after Gavell died, her husband, Stefan F. Gavell, gathered up the two dozen or so of his wife's stories -- a fair number of them set in Texas, where she grew up -- and mailed them to the University of Texas Press, who told him that they thought the stories were wonderful but regretted that they didn't publish fiction.
"The Rotifer" begins in freshman biology class at an unspecified state university in Texas, where the freshmen have gathered from all over the state, "the sleepy cactusy towns and the raw cities and the piney woods and the plains." Peering down her microscope, the narrator is eyeing the rotifer, an organism one sophisticated step up "the long evolutionary climb" from the protozoa. "Watching, I am a witness to a crisis in the life of a rotifer," she confides. "He is entangled in a snarl of algae, and he can't get loose. His transparent little body chugs this way and that, but the fence of algae seems impenetrable. He turns, wriggles, oscillates, but he is caught."
Like the rotifer, "The Rotifer" is a tenacious creature. John Updike selected it for 1999's The Best American Short Stories of the Century, where Jack Star, a writer in Chicago, read it and, curious to know if Mary Gavell wrote anything else, found her husband, who had registered a copyright on the stories through the Library of Congress. Star was surprised that the stories hadn't been published, so he contacted the University of Texas Press on his own and was told the same thing that Gavell had been told 30 years before. UT Press recommended SMU Press in Dallas, but because SMU Press is a small press, its editors said they didn't have enough money to publish the collection, though they, too, were impressed by it.
To Gavell, who is remarried, that seemed as if it might be the last gasp for his former wife's stories. But then David McCormick, a literary agent who used to work at The New Yorker and then Texas Monthly, read "The Rotifer" in the Updike collection. Because "The Rotifer" moves confidently but curiously from biology class to the narrator's investigation of a prominent family's archives and then to a resounding instance of her own moral negligence, after McCormick finished it, he thought, "I wonder what that was all about?" and was intrigued. He hunted down Gavell, asked him if his wife had written anything else, and was "bowled over" by many of the stories that were sent to him. With Gavell's blessing, he sold them to Lee Boudreaux, a senior editor at Random House who pre-empted other editors from purchasing the stories (a rare occurrence in the short-story market) by offering an undisclosed but by all accounts sizable amount of money. Now Mary Gavell's stories are receiving the kind of critical attention that she apparently never sought while she was alive. Sixteen of the stories that Gavell wrote "after getting the dinner out and after washing dishes and putting kids to bed," as her husband recently told me, were published this month as I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly and Other Stories.
Gavell's stories are wry, acerbic, and precise. Most of them are supremely assured and polished. What makes them come alive is an imaginative restlessness that pops up in only the most vibrant and necessary fiction. "The Swing" is about a woman who begins to dream again as she gets older; in Gavell's fiction, age imparts the promise of privileges for women that they weren't allowed when they were younger. Her husband Julius, worrisome and distant to begin with, is becoming increasingly withdrawn and cantankerous. She says she is "enormously proud" of her only son James, a married, highly paid mathematician who lives across town. But when she asks him how he's doing, she wishes "he wouldn't tell me that there is every likelihood that the Basic Research Division will be merged with the Statistics Division." She would rather know what he's feeling, what makes him happy or upset, and what he looks forward to in life. "Nonsense," she tells herself. "I can't expect him to tell me his secret thoughts. People can't, once they're grown, to their parents."
But "The Swing" is more than an account of a woman who has an interior life despite the fact that no one else thinks she does. One night she hears the swing creaking in the back yard, and then several nights later she hears it again, sits up in bed, puts on her robe, opens the back door, and sees a child arcing back and forth in the swing. It's Jamie, and over the course of several nights, as Julius is asleep, the two of them meet furtively at the swing and talk about all kinds of things until the night Jamie says that it's time for him to go and that he won't be coming back. Jamie leaves, and his mother sits by the swing sobbing, and Julius, "frail and stooped," comes outside. She tries to gather herself together, to make it look like she's not crying in the back yard in the middle of the night because
Julius had always felt she was a little foolish and needed a good deal of admonishing, and now he would think she was quite out of her mind and talk very sharply to her.
But his cracked voice spoke mildly. "He went off and left his jacket," he said.
She looked, and there was the little red jacket hanging on the nail.
This kind of story, that turns in on itself to an increasingly revelatory degree, that delights in closing with an unexpected wallop, requires a writer to muster confidence that is usually nourished by a supportive editor or critical or commercial acclaim. Novelist Kaye Gibbons writes in the introduction to I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly that Gavell "must have had stores of willpower as well as confidence in her own intelligence and in the power and precision of her creativity, to write story after story without the steady encouragement that public acceptance can offer."
How Gavell managed to pull that off is a question that even the people who were closest to her do not know how to answer. Her husband says she was thinking about publishing her stories, but acknowledges that, although they would frequently talk about them, he was never quite certain what she was going to do about actually getting them published. Stefan Michael, the older of her two sons, who was 12 when she died, says that "it was something she enjoyed doing. She enjoyed the craft of it, and she probably didn't think they were good enough, I suspect. Or maybe she thought they were good enough, but it probably just seemed like, compared to the great writers around, 'What chance do I have?'"
Mary Pauline Ladd was born in Cuero in 1919 and raised in Driscoll. Her mother, Pauline Amande Schostag, was a teacher of German, among other things, and one of the early female graduates of the University of Texas; Arlington Ladd, her father, was a farmer. "It was the self-sufficiency of being on the farm that always amazed me," her son Stefan says. "And I don't mean just working on the farm and that kind of thing, but, for instance, my mother was also a good pianist. I always think about her being out there, out in Driscoll, with no electricity, playing Chopin. And I think, 'Hmm, that's astounding.'" This is her description, from "Penelope," of cotton season in South Texas:
Summer came and the cotton season was on, and the sky was hot and blue. Orange or gray or red wagons of bright white cotton pulled slowly down the roads past the Holmes' house in a great procession. The gins in the little town a mile or so away churned monotonously all day and all night, and the great piles of cotton hulls mounted in their yards and then were reduced to nothing in big bonfires and mounted again, and the cotton bales were stacked on the platforms by the rail siding and then sold and shipped away. The cotton buyers were about, citified men from Corpus Christi and Houston and even St. Louis and New Orleans, who smoked cigars and drank Cokes in Bresnahan's drug store. The local men who loafed around in front of Gibson's general store said, "Robin's passed a thousand bales today"; or "The Old Smith Gin is just at its five hundredth bale"; or "The Farm Bureau is gaining on Robins" -- taking an immense delight in the commerce and the competition and the enterprise of the season, because most of the year there wasn't much of anything to talk about.
Ladd also had an "immense delight": nabbing the colloquialisms of the place she came from, "hiding out" in its language in her stories, as Gibbons points out in her introduction. After she graduated from the Texas College of Arts and Industries in Kingsville in 1940 (it's now Texas A&M-Kingsville), Ladd came to the University of Texas at Austin to study how early Texans used English, how they made it their own. "It must have become evident very soon that vocabularies that had been adequate and satisfactory in Maryland or Virginia or even in Missouri could not cope with the life their proprietors led in Texas," Ladd wrote in "A Vocabulary Study of Early Texas English," her 1943 thesis. "There were no words for such commonplaces as a stampede or a ranch or a mesa and no idiom with which to explain economically that one while traveling had met and fought with an Indian or a Mexican."
Mary Ladd then left Texas for Washington, D.C., where she started working for the War Production Board. As a writer for that agency, which rationalized industrial production for the war effort, she met Helen Perry, and the two of them became close friends who traded the short stories they were writing. Later, in the Fifties, Perry became managing editor of Psychiatry, and after she quit, Gavell took the job.
Helen Perry died on July 26. Her husband, Stewart Perry, is a 73-year-old expert in community economic development who lives in Cambridge, Mass. (Helen Perry is the person who suggested that Psychiatry publish "The Rotifer.") During the Fifties, Perry and Gavell formed a writing group that included several psychiatrists. Stewart Perry was also a member of the group, although he wanted me to know that "[Helen] and Mary and a couple of the others were really good writers. I wasn't, but they allowed me to be a member." I asked him if he knew why Gavell didn't publish her stories while she was alive. "Well, I don't think she was very vigorous about submitting her stories," he said. "Mary was not an aggressive person. She was definitely more 'soft' than 'hard,' and she was a very sweet person so she wouldn't have been a driving character.
"I don't think she was systematic about [submitting her stories]," he recalled. "But a lot of times it's just luck. For heaven's sake, for Helen to suggest that the journal publish 'The Rotifer' as a memorial to Mary, that started it. And that's an accident."
In the introduction to The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Updike works on the supposition that since "The Rotifer" was published in 1967, it was also written about that time. "Could Mary Ladd Gavell's airy, melancholy pastiche, 'The Rotifer,' leaping so gracefully from the microscopic to the historic to the contemporarily romantic, have been composed ten years earlier, without the examples of Barthelme's pastiches or Salinger's interloping authorial voice?" he asks. But Perry says that "John Updike is wrong about that. He suggests it was written in the Sixties, but it was written in the Fifties. I can't give you the exact year but it would be the mid-Fifties."
Stefan Gavell read his wife's stories as she wrote them. After she died, he found a letter from the members of his wife's writing group that commented on a story she had written based on her parents, to whom she was very attached. Her colleagues complimented her on the story; it elicited comparisons to "The Rotifer," but his wife destroyed it, he says. "If she wrote something critical, it was probably also on the humorous side and not actually critical in the sense that she was unhappy with them or didn't like them or something like that," he told me. If, as her son says, Mary Gavell was writing stories because she enjoyed the craft of it, there was no reason for her to do what she didn't enjoy.
But Gavell found something else after his wife died that leaves an indelible image of her as a person who grappled, as all writers must, with the often harsh responsibility to convey the truth of experience. "Baucis" is about Martha Hedges, a "devoted" wife and mother who merely wants a little time to herself before she dies. "Being, in her shy and quiet way, a devout woman, she expected eventually to rejoin Harold in Heaven for all eternity; but she counted on a nice long vacation first." She takes a delight in her three sons: an engineer, a writer, and a musician. James, the writer, loved to read stories with his mother when he was young, and one night they came across the myth about Baucis and Philemon:
In the mythic byways of ancient Phrygia, that devoted old couple, Baucis and Philemon, spread on a clean coarse cloth a frugal meal for the stranger who came to their humble door. And when he told them that he was Jupiter, and that he would grant them one wish, they wished, since they had passed their whole lives together in concord, that the same hour might take them both from life, and neither should live to see the other's grave.
Martha doesn't get her wish; she gets a sudden illness. At the hospital one night, with all her sons taking care of her (Harold needed a rest), she says, in a moment of clarity, "I didn't want to die first." That's the last thing she says, and her sons don't talk about it for several days until James decides that he's figured out the meaning: She was so devoted to her husband that she wanted to die with him. The truth, of course, is a little less palatable.
It can be dangerous to assign to an author the attributes of their creations. Unlike Martha Hedges, Mary Gavell had a job that required her to transform scientific prose into engaging reading in addition to raising two boys and cooking for and taking care of a family of four. I asked Gavell if he discerned any autobiographical elements in the stories, and he immediately brought up "Baucis." Even though he thought he read all of his wife's stories as she wrote them, he never saw "Baucis" until after she had died. "I was shocked because it almost describes exactly what had happened to her," he said.
In September of 1966, the Gavells went to Manassas, Va., to a small cottage on a lake that they owned. She complained about some pain under her arm, and he insisted that his wife go see a doctor. After she did, Gavell was surprised that he was the one hearing from the doctor, and he told Mary that she had to go the hospital right away. More tests were done, and it was confirmed that she had lung cancer. "She never said anything of seriousness about her case," he told me. "In fact, when I learned there was no hope of recovery, I thought that I should talk to her about it. But I did not feel capable of doing that, so I asked her best friend, a psychiatrist -- her name was Mabel Cohen. I said, 'Mabel, you are a professional, and I think that I would like you to talk to Mary about it.' And she agreed, because I was afraid I may break down. And then Mabel arranged to meet my wife for lunch, and during the lunch, she broached the subject very tentatively and gently and she was pretty much stopped by my wife, who said, 'Mabel, there are certain things it's best not to talk about.'" The likely conclusion is that Gavell wrote "Baucis," a masterpiece of suffocated sorrow and regret, during the nearly six months that she knew she had lung cancer.
But later that day, after Gavell had told me about his wife's illness and the fact that he found "Baucis" after she died, I spoke to Perry, who had been in her writing group. "Oh yes, I remember it very well, very well," he said. "I remember discussing the meaning of it with Helen." "Baucis," in fact, was written in the Fifties, presumably lurking all that time in a drawer where her family wouldn't think to look until after she died.