You know those projects kids get in school that are really projects for the parents, where you take clay and macaroni and pipe cleaners and end up with a gorgeous topological map of Virginia? Those assignments always filled me with dread, because I did not have the skill or will to do them myself, as some parents did; teach my daughter to do them, as a better parent would; or fail to care what people thought of my failure at the above responsibilities. I was much relieved, therefore, when the dioramas faded out. I CAN teach a kid to write a decent paper, when called upon, although my daughter is pretty much past the need for assistance.
I was alarmed, then, when she brought homework for me this spring break. She’d just read Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and was supposed to get a friend or family member to write a brief pretend autobiography of her, then reflect on the experience. “You don’t have to imitate Stein’s style,” she said. “Oho!” I yelled and dropped my own homework in favor of this much more interesting assignment. “Oh, no,” she said.
The Autobiography of Madeleine W. Gavaler, by Lesley Wheeler
I was born in Fishersville, Virginia, and wherever that is, there is no there there. I have in consequence always preferred living in a cosmopolitan environment but it is difficult to find a cosmopolitan environment and live in it. I conceived in my infancy a profound dislike of fish, creatures with which the fishers of Fishersville were possibly also disenchanted, since that village is bereft of waterways.
My mother was a quiet charming woman overfond of poetry. My father came from workaholic stock. His father was a research chemist with a specialty in superconductivity. His father’s father mined coal in Western Pennsylvania after escaping Slovakia via snowy passes in the Tatras. My father was a loud charming man fascinated by superheroes. This is sufficient information about the patriarchy.
I myself have no liking for coal or super items but have always enjoyed the pleasures of bagels and fruit. I am fond of paintings, hiking, coffee shops, and Russian history. I like a view but when confronted with beauty I burst into tears and can no longer perceive it.
I led in my youth the gently neglected existence of professors’ children. I joined my school’s academic team the better to study my fellows’ lack of substantive interest in art and literature. I was also elected to the National Honor Society the better to observe how members’ parents bought them out of public service. My greatest adventure was a semester attending high school in Wellington, New Zealand where fellow students berated me for United States racism and economic policy. Upon my return Virginia friends drove me to mountain swimming holes and taunted me with my fear of fish.
We were all living comfortably together with our disparate attitudes towards wildlife when the acceptance from Wesleyan University arrived. There was at that time a great deal of email coming and teenagers going. My mother and father gnashed their teeth quietly and then permitted me to go and I came to Middletown where no one required me to eat fish or indeed have any interactions with fish. There I met Nabokov, Plato, and Oscar Wilde and a bell rang in me although I was exasperated by their genius. I met many other important people and Instagrammed their book covers alongside beverages. In this way my new full life began.