Thursday, August 16, 2012

A brief appreciation of Jean Merrill

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2002, I went to a wedding with Alex. The groom was one of his work colleagues, and he'd waffled about whether we should go or not. In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have, or, at least we should have skipped the reception (more about that later). But the one fabulous thing that came out of that August afternoon is that I got to meet Jean Merrill, the author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Pushcart War.

The ceremony was held in Skinner State Park, at the Summit House on top of Mount Holyoke, and we obediently followed instructions and parked our car part way up the auto road to wait for the shuttle. As cars kept passing us on their way to the top, though, we realized that not many of the other guests had followed the instructions except for one older couple whom we met while we were waiting for the shuttle. Their names were Jean and Ronni, and we chatted with them pleasantly as we waited at the side of the road. They looked to be in their late 70s and had clearly been a couple for many years. Ronni had long white hair and was lovely. Jean's hair was short and her manner matter of fact. When I asked her what she did, she told me she was a writer, that she mostly wrote children's books. I asked what she'd written. She paused and then said, "Well, the most well known one is probably The Pushcart War." I gasped. I gushed. I gaped. "The Pushcart War was one of my favorite books when I was a kid," I told her. And so it had been. I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to meet, by happenstance and not in a more formal setting--a reading, a book signing, a lecture--a person whose book I'd loved as a child. But here I was, and here she was, and I was delighted.

I learned little bits about her over those few hours--how she had gone to summer camp in Vermont with the groom's mother; how she and Ronni had 2 houses in Vermont not very far from each other, their summer house and their winter house; how Ronni was an artist and had illustrated many of Jean's books; how The Pushcart War had never been out of print; and how Tony Kushner, a friend, had attempted to write a movie adaptation of it and failed. (According to the New York Times, "The quirkiness and dense originality of the book — qualities that made Ms. Merrill’s epic tale so compelling — ultimately made adapting it as a film impossible, Mr. Kushner said.") I learned that she too had had a Fulbright Fellowship to India--hers, in 1952 to study folklore in Madras (now Chennai). My Fulbright happened nearly 40 years later, but both had been life changing.

Meeting Jean and Ronni was the best thing that happened that day. I was delighted and, really, genuinely thrilled at the happenstance of it all. And as soon as the library opened a few days later, I went straight to the children's section and took out The Pushcart War, which I hadn't read in probably 25 years. It didn't disappoint. Published in 1964, it's written as a history (in 1986) looking back at the famous Pushcart War of 1976, in which the pushcart vendors of the lower east side of Manhattan strike back against the truckers who are trying, through bullying, malice and dirty tricks, to get them off the streets. The pushcart vendors decide to fight back, first by embarking on the Pea Shooter Campaign, in which they blow tacks into truck tires via peashooters, causing the flat-tired trucks to block the roads, inconveniencing everyone, thus swaying the public to their side. The books is clever, quirky and funny, even if you're not analyzing it for broader social commentary (a la Waggish). It appears, sadly, not to be in print anymore, but I hope that will change.

As for the wedding, well, I'm not proud of what we did next. After the ceremony on the top of Mount Holyoke, we drove to the Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst for the reception. The photos of the wedding party were taken, seemingly for hours. The not very expansive hors d'ouevres table was ravaged. We mingled as best we could, growing hungrier by the minute. We found our table and discovered that we were seated--not with Jean and Ronni, not with the bride's cool friends from the Peace Corps, not even with the groom's other friends--but with the minister, the bride's estranged father and a few other random people. We ate the sad salad and made strained conversation with our tablemates. We fidgeted with hunger and boredom.

And, now, I must say it. We had some whispered conversation between us. I left the decision entirely up to Alex, given that the groom was his colleague. He decided. I agreed. And so, dear readers, we left. We each excused ourselves to go to the rest room after the salad course, and we exited via the back door of the Inn. It was possibly the most deliberately rude thing I've ever done, but in the moment, it felt extraordinarily liberating. We ran happily down the street towards the car, breathing in the fresh August air, and then we went out for Chinese food.

That was the end of Alex's friendship with the groom, of course, but he doesn't seem to mind. When I think back to that day, I feel a twinge of remorse--yes, we probably should have been good citizens and at least stuck it out through the rest of dinner before making our escape--but I mostly remember my delight in meeting Jean and Ronni and grateful for the opportunity to have told her how much I'd loved her books. (I was also fond of her book The Toothpaste Millionaire, which I also read multiple times.)

Jean Merrill died, at the age of 89, earlier this month, according to her obituary in the New York Times. Ronni, her partner of more than 50 years, survives her. And in a strange twist, when I was googling Ronni's name, I found a photo of her taken by Jessamyn West, who was in David Foster Wallace's class at Amherst with me and whose remembrance of him I linked in this post. Jessamyn, apparently, was a tenant of Jean and Ronni in one of their Vermont houses. Small world, indeed. You can see some of Ronni's environmental art pieces here.

And in honor of Jean, I'd recommend a trip to the local library, where you should still be able to find The Pushcart War on the shelf. In Jean's honor and her memory, take it out and read about Frank the Flower, General Anna, Morris the Florist and the Pushcart King himself, Maxie Hammerman. You won't regret it.