I stumbled onto the works of Helen Bevington about two months ago and was immediately captivated by the charm and intelligence of her writing. It was a honor and pleasure to feature three of her books over the last few weeks. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the power of Charley Smith’s Girl. Subtitled “A Memoir,” it’s much more than that–it’s a profoundly moving attempt by a child to understand her parents and a book full of such deep sadness that it brought tears to my eyes near the end–something I don’t think has happened to me since Charlotte’s Web.
Helen Smith was born in 1906 in her grandfather’s parsonage. Her parents were living there because a few months earlier, her father Charley had been forced out of his own Methodist parsonage after his affair with a married woman in his congregation became public. Helen’s mother, Lizzie, had lied to defend her husband, but she refused to do it a second time when he was caught in another adulterous relationship, in another congregation, when Helen was about two years old. Lizzie insisted on getting a divorce–a rare and shocking act at the time–and Charley was sent packing.
Although the lot of a single mother was a tough one in 1908, Lizzie Smith managed to provide a home for herself and Helen by teaching music and piano. There was no day-care in those days, aside from the kindness of a few neighbors, and Helen learned to keep herself amused as she trailed along with Lizzie to lessons or, after a few years, to stay quietly in their house by herself.
Despite the scandal of the divorce, Lizzie Smith earned the respect of her community in Worcester, New York, through her unbending reserve and propriety. She maintained a rigid air of personal dignity and refused to convey vulnerability to anyone–including her daughter:
My mother chose to deal with the matter in her own brisk disciplinary way. She often boasted afterwards how well she succeeded, how she calmed my terrors and made me unafraid–as she herself has been fearless all her life–by taking me in hand before it was too late. Her method was spartan. To teach me courage she sent me night after night into the dark: on an errand to the black cellar for jelly, to the unlighted parlor for a book, across the deep-shadowed road to the Prestons’ with a message. Sometimes she slipped out of the house without a word, leaving me alone with the one kerosene lamp lit, and I would lean against the door and wair sobbing, shaken with fear, till she returned. The only flaw in her method was that it never worked. I kept on being afraid, and I am afraid still.
This grim regime was multiplied in its severity when, after a few years, Lizzie decided to move to Hornell, New York, and live with two dowager relatives, Aunt Net and Aunt Lydia. Like Lizzie, they were strong-minded women “of the same blood and temperament as my mother,” but “stronger-willed and even more durable than she.” Together, Net, Lydia and Lizzie provided for Helen’s material needs–food, clothing, shelter, and the security of a home. “Yet, as I know now what was lacking in that composed and stoical household,” Bevington writes, “I know the single omission was too great. The old ladies withheld the one needful thing–love.”
Although a position as a choir mistress in a Methodist church had drawn Lizzie to Hornell, her stubborness soon brought her into conflict with her choir members and the church leadership, and she was fired after less than a year. She enrolled in a few courses in the local business school and soon found work as a clerk for the Erie Railroad. She stayed there for thirty-five years until she was retired at the age of seventy-six. “The work was dull, from monotonous to deadly.” Yet she stuck with it. “It was,” Helen writes, “the unhappy solution to her life.”
Lizzie Smith died of cancer while Helen was writing this book. Helen “stopped short in the middle of a page” and returned to Hornell to care for her mother, who passed little more than a month later. Lizzie never gave in to the disease but fought for life until the very end. The nurses at the hospital told Helen that she resembled her mother, but she disagrees. “I am not a fighter like her, not unafraid, not able or willing to live without love. She kept her solitude–a lifetime of solitary days and lonely nights. She was somehow completely alone.” “And now,” she realizes, “I am the only person alive who remembers her story and mine….”
As is the case in many marriages, successful and unsuccessful, Lizzie Smith’s husband, Charley, was her polar opposite. A boisterous man with a fine baritone voice he delighted in exercising at full volume, he was the life of many a party–which inevitably ran counter to his responsibilities as a minister. After the divorce, he left the church for good and switched to a more compatible line of work as a traveling salesman.
Unfortunately, he was still too much of a ladies’ man and was soon spending more time flirting with a pretty secretary in his company’s Chicago office than out on the road selling. A couple of years after the divorce, the secretary, Addie, turned up on Lizzie’s doorstep to say that she and Charley were getting married.
Charley lost his job but he and Addie were able to move into an apartment over her father’s Czech grocery store. One summer, Helen spent a few weeks there with them. Addie continued to work as a secretary and helped out in the store every evening, while Charley … well, Charley continued to enjoy life. One Saturday night the three of them venture out to a lively party of Czech immigrants, but only Helen and Addie return home. “I learned that summer,” she writes, “when I was eight, how you can tell when someone beside you in bed is weeping in the dark. Addie breathed unevenly, holding her breath and letting it out a little at a time, in quick uneven gasps that made almost no sound.”
Charley’s turbulent spirit and Helen’s independence brought the two into inevitable conflict. He disapproves of her choice to attend the University of Chicago, her choice to study English, her choice of friends and living arrangements, and they finally part ways with angry words.
Twenty-two years later, Helen receives a call from Boyce, her half-brother, the son Charley had with Addie. Despite his wandering ways, over the years Charley grew more and more dependent upon Addie, and when she died, he suffered an unbearable despair. “Finally,” Boyce tells her, “he just stayed in the house–he lived with Marian and me, you know–sat all day in the apartment staring into space, twisting his ring around his finger and clenching it into his fist. One morning he didn’t get out of bed. He turned his face to the wall, never spoke, never got up again–”
“I see, much too late,” Helen writes, “that I lacked the one quality most needed for this simple tale–compassion. Any child can feel resentment, and any child can find a reason to rebel. It was compassion I took so desparately long to learn….”
The compassion Helen Bevington reveals in every line of Charley Smith’s Girl lifts this book from the level of a simple, open-eyed memoir to a masterpiece, a transformative meditation on the lessons a child can learn from her parent: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair,” she writes in the final lines of the book. “Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.” As readers of A Book and A Love Affair, House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, and her journals will discover, throughout her adult life, Helen Bevington pursued that third way.