I propped my head on pillows this morning, listening to the sound of the rain on the roof. Still early, I picked up The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and finished it in one last gulp. It’s a classic I rued not already having read, if not for its importance in the cannon of feminist literature, then for its ties to my alma mater, Smith College.
COVID has provided time to address several gaps in my education and I was pulled to Sylvia after references kept popping up in contemporary work. In My Dark Vanessa, Small Fry, The Dollhouse, there she was again and again, a signpost pointing to what to read next. When synchronicities appear, I generally pay attention.
With the rain still falling and a grey morning unfolding, I splayed my copy of The Bell Jar across my chest and felt grateful to have waited the thirty-five years post Smith to read it. Back then, it would have given me even greater reason to despair.
John and I had no idea in 2012 when we bought the land and built that house that we would be positioned in the midst of incredible bird life. The osprey nest should have been our first clue, but there are also gulls, swans and herons and duck and geese that flock around us. Last fall bald eagles perched on our pilings. Hawks glide above and I worry sometimes about the puppies alone in the yard. There are swallows feasting on swarms of insects and now hummingbirds sparring for position on the feeders filled with “Perky Pet” nectar aka hummingbird crack. There are red cardinals and yellow goldfinch. The gulls drop fish and crabs on the lawn which the dogs like to scavenge.
This summer, while addressing further gaps in my education, I was reminded our house sits on land inhabited by the Eastern Niantic. Chief Ninigret may have knelt in the spot that is now our yard and peered across the Pawcatuck River to the land of the Pequot and Mohegan. His tribe named this land Misquamicut, the place of plentiful red fish. Misquamicut is also the name of the state beach where people flocked during this summer’s heat, not wearing masks, and the name of our country club.
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932 and graduated from Smith College in 1955. She was the beneficiary of a scholarship from the Smith College Club of Wellesley. She died in England in 1963, the same year The Bell Jar was published. Sylvia married Ted Hughes on Bloomsday, June 16. From what I have read, their marriage was troubled early on.
My great-grandmother, Florence Durgin attended Smith College between 1895 and 1897, and then as if our birthright, three generations would follow. Sylvia was sandwiched in between my mother and my grandmother, as a student and later as an instructor in the English department between 1957–1958.
Although my DNA did not physically overlap with Sylvia’s, the mood conveyed in The Bell Jar certainly did. Struck by her description of Esther Greenwood’s mental state, I recognized the darkness that creeped into my chest while living in Northampton. It was a loneliness, probably not unlike what most young people feel when first away from home, but it was exacerbated by the lack of typical college-age distractions and a feeling I did not fit in. There was just me and the work and an uncertain future looming in the distance. Immersed in athletics, I spent many hours inside my head. When I starved myself in an attempt to exert some control, my father said he would pay my tuition only if I kept a standing appointment with a psychiatrist. So I showed up dutifully at the health center once a week where a nurse inquired as to whether I might be pregnant, did I need any birth control?
We have a pair of binoculars in the kitchen with which to watch the osprey traverse from their nest among a small outcropping of rocks in the river to a grove of trees across the cove. Bass are plentiful and in summers when they have mouths to feed, we listened to the babies cry for more. The babies will be kicked out of the nest before summer’s end and I wonder if they know what is coming, if they worry about their prospects in the world. How they know where to go?
Sylvia Plath wrote “Mad Girl’s Love Song” while at Smith in 1954. The last two stanzas are as follows:
I fancied you’d return the way you said.
But I grow old and forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
When I looked up thunderbird, I discovered it is not an actual bird, but a mythological creature that native people credit with protecting the Overworld. It is said to be the dominating force of all natural activity.
Florence was undoubtedly a popular name in the late 1800’s as my great-grandmother, Florence Durgin attended Smith on the heels of Florence Merriam Bailey who was the country’s first prominent female ornithologist. She founded the Audubon Society of Smith College after being horrified by the number of exotic feathers her classmates wore on their hats. She wrote what is considered the first modern field guide called Birds through an Opera Glass published in 1890.
We keep two such guides of eastern shoreline birds on hand to catalogue visitors to the marsh surrounding our home. I imagine researching and writing such field guides would have been a satisfying career. I don’t know much about my great grandmother, Florence. She married in 1905 and in 1908 gave birth to a little girl who lived only seven days.
Sylvia Plath returned to Smith College after six months in an asylum. The Bell Jar is a fictionalized version of her cracking up. The protagonist, Esther Greenwood ultimately attempts suicide, desperate to reconcile her dream of becoming a poet with a future married to the likes of Buddy Willard. Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963, she left behind her estranged husband Ted and two small children.
My mother was diagnosed bipolar, among other things, and my grandmother drove a station wagon at full speed into a tree in front of her parents’ home, no skid marks. She would convalesce for several periods in an asylum, turning her talents to oil painting. Back home with her four children, she became a master gardener. I often think of her while gardening. Although she died before I could know her, we share a passion for the natural world. I like to think my grandmother, my namesake, would have also loved the birds.
I may not be able to summon mythological thunderbirds the way Sylvia or Chief Ninigret may have, instead I fancy our home graced by the spirit of the hummingbird. In New England we have only two species although 319 species exist worldwide.
HUMMINGBIRDS Family Trachilidae. The smallest birds. Usually iridescent, with needlelike bills for sipping nectar. Jewel-like throat feathers, or gorgets, adorn adult males. The wing motion is so rapid that the wings appear blurred. Hover when feeding. Pugnacious. S. Canada to Gulf States. Winters Mexico, Cen. America
Yes, Florence, exactly. They are pugnacious little devils especially in the face of late summer yellow jackets who have invaded the feeder. Their thrumming wings remind me of the golden snitch in a Quidditch match. They dart back and forth from a sugar maple we planted in memory of my mother-in-law. They prefer dawn and often come in pairs to syphon off nectar, but it will soon be time for them to pack their bags for Mexico.
Hummingbirds are spiritual totems reminding us to experience the joy in life, to be playful, childlike. During this summer of COVID, this summer of unjust death, I have reflected on my many layers of protection, all I was given and all I have assumed without a second thought.
This summer I am grateful for all the reading and for the birds, but it is challenging to summon even the briefest flutter of joy.