© Gilbert P. Mansergh

(707) 827-3438    

gilmansergh@comcast.net

Welcome to the opening chapter of “The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill”  The book was created from stories my mother told me about growing up in Gloucester, Massachusetts after the “Great War.” Raised by her suffragette mother to be “proper,” and her doctor father to hunt, swim and smoke cigars, instead of acting “ladylike,” “Ginny” preferred hanging out with her best friend, Tibby Bloomberg, and the boys from Maplewood Avenue.

  

© Gilbert P. Mansergh

(707) 827-3438    

gilmansergh@comcast.net

       When Miss Cluff asked everyone to begin their seventh grade autobiography assignment with the earliest thing they could remember, I didn’t think it was strange that I remembered being born; after all, it’s probably the most important thing that ever happens to a human being. But when I read the words aloud, my teacher suddenly stood up and pointedly stared at me.

“Virginia,” she said, “Why don’t you give that to me?” Then she took my notebook and left the room.

I noticed that her face had the same worried expression Smokey gets when it’s raining outside and she meows to get us to open door after door trying to find some way outside where water isn’t falling from the sky.

I ended up in Mr. Ireland’s office where the principal told me,

“People don’t remember being born,” and then he pointedly glanced at Miss Cluff.

“Oh, no,” my teacher nodded in agreement. “Babies don’t remember things at all. Their minds are much too small.”

I could have tried to argue, of course, but by the time you are eleven years old, you better know when to keep quiet.

I really remembered much more than I put down on paper—the filtered redness before the celery color appeared, the crashing, wailing, booming noises all mixed up and jumbled together, and finally, after things had quieted down to a manageable level, the smell of the room— the rich, heavy, moist smell like Parker’s Bog at the end of summer mixed with the sharp, ozone crispness just after a thunderstorm. Even today, after a summer storm has passed, the smell makes my birth memories come alive.

I asked Tibby if she remembered being born and she sat still while, twisting her hair around and around the way she does when she’s thinking real hard and said, “No. I don’t think I do, but then, I’m not precocious.”

Tibby Bloomberg is my dearest and closest friend in the whole world, and she has teased me about that ten letter word ever since we first met seven years ago.

<<<<<>>>>>

It was moving day, and I came to our new home right after Montessori kindergarten so I was dressed in my bonnet and pinafore uniform. Mr. Carter and his men were closing the tailgate on the drayage wagon, so I knew the last of the furniture and boxes had been moved inside.

I had visited the house when it was empty, and I rushed upstairs to see how my things looked in my new room where Emily, my maid, had already unpacked, made my bed and placed a carafe of filtered water and a drinking glass on my nightstand.

Even without the curtains, the room felt perfect. The afternoon sun came in through a window that framed a fine view across the harbor—all the way to the Ten Pound Island lighthouse.

I could smell the sea, the flowers in the garden and the beeswax from the freshly polished floorboards as I sat down on my bed and took time to savor these wonders.

When I heard voices coming up the stairs, I jumped off the bed and straightened the covers just in time to turn and see a handsome woman in a dark blue dress outlined in the doorway. She came into my room, followed closely by my mother who told me, “Mrs. Bloomberg has come by to welcome us to the neighborhood and she brought her daughter with her.”

I already started to curtsy before I noticed two brown eyes peeking shyly around Mrs. Bloomberg’s skirts.

Taking the cue from my curtsy, Mrs. Bloomberg introduced herself in a formal way: “I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Pettingill. I would like you to meet my daughter, Dorothy.”

A girl in a gray skirt and buttoned jacket slowly stepped forward. “Call me Tibby,” she said in a small voice, “ and these are for you.” Tightly clutched in her left hand was a nosegay of flowers.

“They’re lovely,” I said. “Thank you so very much for the kind thought. And you can call me Ginny.”

“My mother had the kind thought,” Tibby continued. “But I picked the prettiest flowers I could find.”

As soon as we were alone, Tibby began exploring the room like it was a museum—walking from article to article with her hands behind her back and looking carefully at each new thing. She finally walked to the window and studied the scene below like it was a famous painting. “What a lovely view. My room looks into the side yard and I can’t see the water. That’s because I’m the youngest child. My big brother has the best room. Why do you wear that funny hat?”

I was flustered a moment by her sudden change of focus. “It’s because I go to Montessori kindergarten. The hat and pinafore are part of my uniform. I’m only four years old, but I still get to go there because I’m precocious.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Tibby said with concern in her voice. “I hope you get well soon.”

I started to laugh and each time I tried to stop, I laughed some more until tears started streaming down my cheeks.

“I’ll go get some help,” my new friend announced, and I reached out quickly and grabbed her skirt so she wouldn’t leave.

“I’m not sick,” I finally managed to say. “‘Precocious’ is just a fancy word that means I act older than I am. I’m smart and talented and have been reading for years. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“I can read, too,” Tibby replied. “But I’m not precocious. I’m Jewish.” <<<<<>>>>>

It was Tibby who told me that instead of upsetting the adults by writing

about my birth, I should write something about my father for the autobiography assignment. I wondered at first if writing about my father was really about me, but I talked it over carefully with Tibby, and we decided that children’s lives have to include their parents—there is just no way around it.

As usual, she was right. For it was my father who insisted that I be born in that celery-colored room. He is the town chiropodist, which, as I keep having to tell people, is a doctor who takes care of people’s feet. As long as I can remember, he has always believed in taking advantage of the wonders of science and medicine. He probably said to my mother, “It’s 1910 dear. We don’t have to do things like we were living in the dark ages.”

Everyone across Cape Ann calls him “Doc” Pettingill and he is as famous for his singing voice as he is for electrical massages and x-ray foot treatments. So I wrote in my school notebook about how I traveled from church to church each Sunday morning to hear my father sing his solos.

We established a regular ritual. In each church or meeting room my father would drape his cloak on the chair closest to the exit. Then he placed a velvet covered, horsehair pillow on the chair and carefully perched me on top. Except for the hot days of summer, I kept my coat on, ready to leave when the time was right.

I watched as my father moved to somewhere else in the room—usually in the front pew or a chair in the nave—then, at just the right moment, he would stand and march to where he was needed—in front of the choir, or beside the organ, or even on the top step leading to the altar.

Once there, he would fill out his chest, look directly at me, and sing in a baritone voice that my Aunt Susie proudly says, “makes the walls pulse and vibrate with glory.” When his solo was finished, he would return to his seat, check his watch, and three to five minutes later he would silently rise and walk to where I was sitting. I slipped off the pillow and picked it up; my father retrieved his cloak, took my hand, and led me out the door and on to the next church where he would sing another musical piece in perfect keeping with their order of service.

He would usually sing in two or three churches each Sunday, but around Christmas and Easter we would go to as many as five different services a day. My scrapbook has a clipping from a Boston newspaper where the reporter asked my father how he “reconciled the religious differences among the churches” where he would sing.

My father’s reply became famous: “The differences are quite simple,” he said. “The Universalists start at 9:30, the Congregationalists start at 10:00 and the Unitarians start at 11:00.”

<<<<<>>>>>

Miss Cluff is really making a production out of this autobiography assignment. She says we are going to write bits and pieces of it all through the rest of the school year. “Some of these will be assigned topics,” she told us. “Today, I want you to choose something that symbolizes your life and explain why you think this is so.”

Then she began a discussion about symbols, and Smitty Smith had to make a joke about how he played the cymbals in the school band. As usual, Miss Cluff took his comments seriously, so she headed off on a sidetrack and lectured us about homonyms.

I already know more than anyone will ever need to know about homonyms, and synonyms, and antonyms as well, so I put on my attentive face and then let my mind go to work on much more important things. In no time, I decided that Tibby and I needed to write two different autobiographies—one for Miss Cluff and one for ourselves. This way, we could put our true feelings and recollections on paper and not worry about what the adults would think.

I shared the idea with Tibby over lunch. She pronounced it “superb,” and pointed out that by writing one paper each week by the end of the year we would have a book.

“We just need to label each week’s work a chapter. That way we will be writing a real book.”

“Only no one else will read it,” I reminded my best friend. “It’s our secret.”

“What about after we die? Can other people read it then?”

“I don’t see why not. I’d kind of like to be a famous writer. I think it might look good on my tombstone.”

“That would be marvelous,” Tibby agreed.

And we each began writing our next chapter.

Critics review copies of “The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill” are available directly from Jane Hunter at Harper Davis Publishing.mailto:Jane%20Hunter%20%3Ctimothyrosspublicists@comcast.net%3E?subject=Miss%20Virginia%20Pettingill