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Books: Die-Hard Puritan

2 minute read

GRANDMA CALLED IT CARNAL—Bertha Damon—Simon & Schuster ($2).

Readers who liked Clarence Day’s Life With Father and other such recent memoirs should be glad to meet Bertha Damon’s Grandmother Griswold. Author Damon was brought up by her grandmother in a small Connecticut town according to the gospel of Thoreau. Plain living in the vegetarian Griswold household never quite achieved Thoreau’s budget of 27¢ a week. But to little Bertha it seemed a narrow miss.

“As Henry Thoreau says,” Grandma would begin, and Bertha’s heart would sink; she figured (rightly most times) that it meant beans again. Bertha’s favorite poem (secretly) was a parody of Emerson, reading By the rude bridge that arched the flood . . . Here once the bean-fed Thoreau stood. . . . She was envious rather than horrified by cannibal stories. Grandma Griswold’s favorite horror story was about a deacon who wanted a Cooked Meal at night and, mind you, got up the next morning and wanted another.

High thinking was promoted by barring all children’s books, starting Bertha right off with Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen and, of course, Thoreau. Grandma allowed no gossip about people—”not people outside of books.” Grandma disapproved of dolls and pets. Bertha once tried to hatch out an egg herself in order to acquire a pet, at last resigned herself to loving a tree.

Like Clarence Day’s Life With Father, Bertha Damon’s portrait is more serious than the title suggests. It serves in fact as an excellent psychological document, illustrating in vivid elementary terms how childhood influences act on adult character. For as a grownup Author Damon has reacted against the Thoreau-inspired austerity of her grandmother’s house and diet by building and remodeling houses, collecting cookbooks. Reacting against Grandma’s taboo on pets, Author Damon makes a hobby of cocker puppies and little pigs.

But notwithstanding Grandma’s hard-bitten highmindedness, Bertha Damon remembers her with affection as well as amazement. One of her most touching memories recalls how Grandma Griswold, then 96, apologized just before she died. She apologized for two things: 1) for having refused to let Bertha have pets and 2) for having all her life lacked will power.

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