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Writer of Songs and Nonsense

11/15/2018

By James S. Rockefeller Jr.


On a “mystical evening in the spring of 1952 that changed my life,” James S. Rockefeller Jr. met Margaret Wise Brown at a family gathering in Georgia. That summer, Rockefeller, a member of the famous family, made his way north to Vinalhaven Island, Maine, to spend time with the famous children’s author at The Only House. Rockefeller recounts that summer in Maine in the following excerpt from his new book, Wayfarer.

Islands can be personal castles or prisons depending on how one views their moats of water. That summer of 1952 when I traveled north from Cumberland Island to be with Margaret on Vinalhaven was a sweet sojourn. I saw immediately that this place at the head of Hurricane Sound was her castle of fairy-story proportions. Margaret called it The Only House, because looking out at night, more often than not, no other light was visible.
No road existed. The surrounding forest was yet another barrier against the outside world. Our entry started at the little fisherman’s cottage of Mildred Brewster and Maynard Swett on the edge of a small tidal drain behind Strauson’s Point. Mildred had done the cooking in the boarding house at Wharf’s Quarry back when granite was king. Maynard, well past seventy, lobstered out of his white peapod with the green gunwales. They were devoted to Margaret and here she kept her gray flat-bottomed skiff built by a local shipwright called Skoog. It comfortably held the two of us, her Kerry blue terrier called Crispin, groceries, a case of wine, and other household necessities. The twenty-minute pull up the sound was a pleasant interval on that warm and sparkling day of my arrival as we were gently pushed along by the southwest breeze.


Dog and Margaret occupied the stern sheets. Crispin glared at me while I eyed his mistress. Crispin was disagreeable by nature, but then in all fairness, it was not easy for him being in the proximity of another male who also loved his person. The Bunny wore her usual working costume of white slacks, espadrilles, and a blue blouse open at the neck. Her straw-colored hair, tumbled by the wind, was a perfect frame for those crinkly blue-gray eyes that looked at me, through me, while absorbing everything within sight. She trailed one hand in the water, lifting it eventually to extend a dripping finger to a passing dragonfly. To my amazement the insect landed on this perch as if it had no other choice.


“Warlock,” she said. “What must it be thinking, flying over all this bright blue water? Must be all these lobster buoys look like flower beds.”


With Margaret one lived an ongoing series of mini-adventures. Deeply involved with the smallest event, she pulled her companion along through a magical world she composed on the spot.


Too soon we arrived at a tiny beach hidden behind a long boulder of rounded granite. Entrusted with the case of wine, I walked up to the tiny house through the tall grass of the miniature meadow dappled with hawkweed. The high-pitched roof, black attic window, black framed windows of the lower two floors, and gray, weathered clapboards made it intensely appealing yet mysterious. It was as diminutive as a child’s playhouse but one sensed immediately the inhabitant was neither child nor casual rusticator.


Saluting an ancient pear tree, one mounted steep steps, almost a ladder, that teetered upward to a circular porch fifteen feet above the ground. This platform in turn was guarded by a granite ledge to the west that resembled a beached but happy whale, and an apple tree that intruded over the railing to the north. Ice-cream-parlor chairs and table formed an eyrie for eating, talking, or just surveying the warblers, woodpeckers, ospreys, gulls, and terns that considered the place their own, which delighted Margaret. The long, narrow, steep steps were yet another psychological barrier against things and beings beyond the forest and water. “Here I am in my snug little ship safe from storms of that other ridiculous world,” she would say, talking about her frenetic winters spent in New York with agents, publishers, and a host of social commitments.


From this roofless treehouse one entered a tiny kitchen, off of which opened an eight-by-ten-foot room holding a loveseat, a reclining couch, a potbelly stove, and a long table in front of the window where Margaret did her writing. To the left of her writing station was a door that swung out to a ten-foot drop to the ground below. It bore a brass plaque saying “Bell McCann.” Bell had owned the house before it was jacked up and a floor was added underneath to house animals for milking and to create the larder. In winter, heat from the warm bodies leant a helping hand to the old potbelly. Off the sitting room was an even smaller bedroom with just enough room for a double brass bed and dresser. The whole place was the size of a ship’s cabin.


The window behind the writing table commanded the granite wharf from quarrying days, and Hurricane Sound with its myriad little spruce tipped islands arranged with an artist’s touch. This was the view that inspired The Little Island, one of her most charming books. I am sure some of the original script was written with a quill. A bird’s feather, sharpened at one end for a writing instrument, gave her great pleasure. The search for an appropriate quill followed along with all our walks.


Kerosene lamps were the sole illumination. A rose-colored globe hung over the tiny kitchen table on an adjustable chain. Another standing glass lamp, this one ruby-tinted, lit the writing table, while two companion pieces were moved about as needed. A pair of exquisite small, rococo candelabra created a floral display on the vertical paneling between sitting room and bedroom, adding further soft ambience when darkness fell.


Of an evening with perhaps a red spaghetti sauce laced with garlic bubbling on the kerosene stove, and wine in goblets, Margaret would seat herself at the table that had witnessed many things, her eyes shining in the fairy-story light. She was definitely the queen of this special kingdom. I say “queen” for everything in the tiny house appeared to be her personal subject, chosen for shape, color, or adding catalytic power to the overall sense of a cozy den, yet in such an unstudied way as if to be a natural extension of herself. Eggs were stored in a glass bowl for people to enjoy their shape and to facilitate their use. Wildflowers winked from glasses, cups, vases, or copper pots. The sublime imbued the whimsical with a frame typical of their originator’s genius.


Margaret loved fur and there was a lot of it around: a fur rug on the floor, fur on one of the couches, a fake leopard skin covering the bed. “Remember we are animals,” she was wont to say.


Rabbits were a special totem. Margaret had long eyelashes and would sometimes accent the corners of her eyes to suggest an almond bunny look when she was in her Bunny-No-Good mood, uttering statements like, “I’m going to buy all the bird-brains egg cozies for Christmas,” when exasperated at some human stupidity.


In earlier times before her reign, goats, chickens, and a cow had lived downstairs. Now the space was for a workshop and spartan guest room. The latter also served as a gallery for her paintings. She explained that from early on she knew she could be either a credible painter or a writer. Deciding that writing was her commanding drive she had taken up painting for relaxation and to sharpen her eye as to color, place, and position to aid her storytelling. She worked closely with her illustrators and in so much of their work one could see her perceptive genius. There was an oil painting of a dog with long rabbit like ears lying on the loveseat. Through the window in the painting peeped the Little Island. Another featured the horse weathervane she had mounted on the end of the stone wharf. Yet another showed a white china water pitcher filled with wildflowers exuding a tour de force of colors. The last conveyed a different mood. The Only House stood somber in its black trim under a lowering sky. A small drab figure huddled against the stoop. This she had done after the death of her dearest friend, Michael Strange.


“When I can no longer write, paint, or read, that is the end,” she once said to me.


Even going to the outhouse was an adventure. First met was an apple tree that shaded a washstand with white ewer, pitcher, and soap dish. A classic mirror was nailed above them on the trunk. Next one passed the icebox—a covered well with floating containers housing butter, milk, cheese, and other perishables. The white wine floated alone. Only then did one enter a short section of woods, rush up an incline, throw open the Dutch door, and choose one of two holes. As Billy Brown, her caretaker, put it, “Darn thing is so far away you’re pressin’ your luck.”


Once one was enthroned, the best was yet to be enjoyed. The view took in the rear cove with the large grout pile of Wharf ’s Quarry rising on the other side. Across to the left was a rock with a fissure that from half-tide down cast the silhouette of an Indian maiden demurely bending forward at the edge of the limpid tidal pool.


I asked Bill what he thought of the maiden. “Haven’t told my wife,” he said. “Might get jealous.”


The rest of Margaret’s dominion held other landmarks. Along the path leading eastward was the dug well where one hauled water up with a bucket. At the edge of the spruce forest dwelled the magic mouse in his mouse hole. From there the trail wove between the trees around several corners until bursting forth upon a small clearing with a cabin Margaret had built for Michael Strange. On entering, one met a large, ornate, gilt frame set with glass that revealed the picture outside—the best picture window I’d ever seen. The front of the cabin perched at the edge of a large, perfectly smooth ledge that sloped down to the sea. The roof, as if to emulate the ledge, also swooped downward forming two points, pagoda-like. These were supported by wood columns from her favorite antique store in Rockland. Convention to Margaret was as red to the bull.


Walking up the granite escarpment behind the cabin, one came to a flat expanse of stone some one hundred feet in diameter. As we approached, she would press fingers to her lips for silence. Here was the fairy ballroom where “the little people” danced at midnight overlooking Hurricane Sound far below. It was always just possible, even in broad daylight, that there might be one peeping from behind a bayberry bush.


I loved to go up there of an evening. We would stand on the edge of the rock cliff and watch dusk enfold the sound. Dawn and dusk were important times for The Bunny, as were the languor of noon, the rising of the moon, storms, and calms. Standing on the promontory outlined against the darkening bay, she radiated the elemental dignity of a wild thing in its native habitat. Often those eyes of hers would go far away where no one could ever reach, and one evening she turned suddenly and said, “We are born alone. We go through life alone. And we go out alone.” I never have forgotten that moment, painful as the words were, for what she said was true as I came to see in the ensuing years. She saw herself in a frame where human beings were but one component of a larger whole.


As one’s eyes are drawn to an animal to gauge its intent, so mine were constantly drawn to hers. There was always more going on in there than the viewer could ever grasp. Her look would vary from youth to venerable age to childlike wonder, mischievousness, gaiety, somberness, or the wisdom of a seer.


In the woods and fields Margaret moved like a deer. She told of going fox hunting, running with the hounds for hours. During berry excursions she wiggled through the most impossible tangles at incredible speed and ate berries off the bush like a bear I once had. A herring fisherman who set his nets out in front of The Only House said to me, “That Margaret! If you saw her in the woods come November and she was wearing horns it would take a steady mind not to shoot.” Then he added with a wistful grin, “I’d rather take her home, alive, myself.”


For venturing on the bay Margaret had a treacherous North Haven dinghy. One day we had a wonderful sail down to Hurricane Island at the end of the bay, trailing the bottle of white wine behind on a string. Margaret puffed on her pipe—she enjoyed smoking a pipe—reciting one of her many lyrics, The Fish with the Deep Sea Smile. The ballad begins:

They fished and they fished
Way down in the sea
Down in the sea a mile.
They fished among all the fish in the sea
For the fish with a deep-sea smile.

On the way home the southwest breeze turned into a small gale. We rushed along faster and faster until at the end of Leadbetter’s Island the dinghy sailed her nose right under. There we were with the sail up, going nowhere, paddling around in the swamped cockpit. I was mortified, considering myself somewhat of a sailor. But Margaret puffed away on her still-lit pipe, asked if there was any wine left in the bottle, and giggled with glee despite the chilly water. Just then Goldie McDonald, the guardian of neighboring Dogfish Island, happened by and pulled us dripping into his boat. Goldie was one of Margaret’s favorites. She even used him as a pen name. Goldie took one look at The Bunny, wet clothes clinging to her athletic body, and said with feeling, “Gawd Margaret! You look better wet than dry.”


She laughed all the way home. In her eyes it couldn’t have been a more perfect day.


Aside from sitting in the evening bathed in the ruby light from the kerosene lamps, going up to Wharf’s Quarry was among my fondest memories. Here the columns for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York originated. Carrying a hamper, towels, and soap, we would take the path around the back cove and plough through an overgrown meadow and tangle of brambles until coming to a granite ledge lying in the gloom of the forest like a forgotten Stonehenge. Over this we pushed and pulled ourselves, emerging on a gently sloping expanse of stone that we followed upward until standing atop the quarry. From there we could gaze down fifty feet of sheer rock wall to the pool of water. To the left stretched Hurricane Sound and straight ahead to the west was Leadbetter Narrows with the Camden Hills as a backdrop.


The entry to our destination was at the far end of the rock wall. The granite sloped down to cattails and blue iris with stone and vegetation arranged by a master’s brush to form a hidden water garden. Here on a flat rock by the water’s edge we would spread our things and have our biweekly ablutions. Afterward drying on the sun-warmed granite we would eat lunch in mystical serenity.


Often, Margaret would talk about her writing, returning to her thought that she had nothing serious to say. I would reply that seventy-two books meant she had a lot to say. At the time I didn’t comprehend what a pioneer she had become or how revered she was in the writing of children’s books. Facetiously I asked once what she would like to have put on her tombstone if not recognition for children’s works. She thought a bit, watching the white clouds pass overhead before turning and saying in all seriousness, “You will put ‘A writer of songs and nonsense.’”


“Writing nonsense,” I asked, “how does one go about that?”


She took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Sometimes it is easy, sometimes hard, to bring your feelings, your heart, and your interest together.” Then she turned mischievous. “I understand in words almost as well as I did without them. That is what one animal would say to another if they suddenly learned English.”


It was impossible to conceive what was coming out of that mouth and brain next. When I asked how she came by the title of her forthcoming book, The Noon Balloon, she replied, “I was looking out my window in New York at noon when this blimp came sailing by. It had to be the noon balloon to LaGuardia.”


More than sixty years have passed since that particular day in the quarry. As we lay in the sun drying ourselves, I had no reason not to believe that our time together was endless and our future secured. The darkness ahead was obscured. Even now, when I think back, that day is as clear to me as if it had only just passed. Like her books, Margaret is eternal and forever loved.


Today, children and grandchildren on Vinalhaven still stop by the magic mouse hole to whisper “Hi.” They know The Little Island, The Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, and a dozen others. As to The Fairy Ballroom, I am convinced it is Margaret peeping from behind the bayberry bushes, while the Indian maiden holds Billy’s hand across the eternal deep divide. And forever, ever, there will be the fish with the deep-sea smile, down in the sea a mile, just a swish of his tail from the Little Island in a world all its own within the enchanted kingdom that will always be Margaret’s.