Our book today is Glady Taber’s 1955 Stillmeadow Daybook, but really it could be any of the many “Stillmeadow” books she made over the years by collecting the innumerable columns she wrote for Ladies’ Home Journal and Family Circle and half a dozen other paying venues. For millions of devoted readers from all over the world – and perhaps latterly even in her own self-imagining, Gladys came to represent the quintessential countrywoman (indeed, Stillmeadow Calendar is subtitled “A Countrywoman’s Journal”), concerned with poultry and wood stoves and simple country pursuits. But she was first and last a professional writer, with dozens of books to her credit in a writing career that lasted longer than most peoples’ entire lives. She even tried to teach writing for a few years, and she was always thereafter astonished at how many people “just don’t have the first idea what makes a story go.”
She knew from a very early age; she could make a great story out of anything at all, and the time she spent in her centuries-old Connecticut farmhouse provided her with some mighty fine raw material. Her columns gave busy urban readers a regular glimpse into a much slower, much more rewarding lifestyle (and they were very cannily marketed to to exactly that, as were the Wyman Richardson columns that eventually made the classic House on Nauset Marsh, and neither book any less the classic for being just a bit contrived). Her life came to be bounded by the most pleasant things it could offer: mail from friends near and far, the changing seasons and their always-new mysteries, the refreshment of a swim in the pond on a hot day (glasses stubbornly perched on her nose the whole time), the satisfactions of the kitchen, and maybe most of all, the constant happy whirlwind of dogs – in her case Irish setters and cocker spaniels, those dogs her readers came to know so well: Holly, Little Sister, Especially Me, Tiki, Linda, Hildegarde, and all the others over the years. They went with her everywhere and were a part of every ritual:
I like to go out at night for a last look at the sky – this is a custom with me. The dogs race around, I stand on the terrace and look at the sky, and then at the lighted house, so steadfast, so secure … the April moon hangs her silvery lantern in the soft night sky, and as I turn to the house, I think the stars are brighter than they ever were. I could pick them.
(Although some of us can’t currently read her line “Few dogs enjoy being idle, and most dogs like to use their intelligence” without a nostalgic little wince)(Fate will have its little pranks)
She tours us through every homely task, always with a brisk pace and a penchant for musing:
We have been sorting books for part of the fall cleaning. Hundreds of books have been dusted and piled in piles and packed in cartons to be given away to the little library. I find this a great emotion upheaval. Every book was somebody’s dream once, the best as well as the worst. Every book represents, I think, dusting away, hours of struggle, anguish, some joy, much pain.
And these little narratives are saved from banality by her awareness that all these good homely memories are the essence of life itself. “There is a the moment, and all the heartaches and sorrows of your life suddenly diminish and only the fine brave things stand out,” she reminds her readers often. “You breathe sharp clean air, your eyes lift to the eternal wideness of the sky.”
Gladys wrote a great many books on a great many subjects. Her dog books are some of the most enjoyable of that much-vexed sub-genre, and her Cape Cod book is very much worth tracking down. To the best of my knowledge, she’s never had a biography, and she’s certainly never had a revival, and that’s a shame. There are rich veins of pure joy in all her books, and in the Stillmeadow volumes particularly she seems aware of having stumbled into the perfect venue:
There is a kind of immortality in every garden.
As I close the garden gate and follow the crooked flagstone walk to the house on an amethyst evening, the dogs run before me, the Irish skimming as if she were airborne, the cockers scurrying, ears flying, bits of tails ecstatic.
Jill is bending over in the garden, planting young lettuce, pressing the earth gently around the pale roots.
And the ancient splendor of the evening star shines above Stillmeadow.
“There are many wonderful books which are fine to read,” she once wrote, “but there are very few that are better reread, and still fewer that should be reread every year. For one Thoreau there is a mort of best-selling books, ephemeral as mayflies.” She could stand for hours, like the child she never fully stopped being, staring at mayflies and watching them dance – but she never wrote a mayfly. She’s perfect to visit with, even when the reader’s heart is sad. Maybe especially then.