I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to summer—although there are those who are enduring this Georgia heat along with me who’d think I’m absolutely crazy to say that! But it’s been a light-hearted (if somewhat madcap!) season of visits to and from dear ones across the country, of kindred spirits returning home from across the world, and jaunts to “my” island with yet other beloved friends. A wealth and whirl of suitcases and road trips and birthday parties and champagne toasts and fat mystery novels and porch suppers and sailing adventures—and it’s all been so healing I’m a little loathe to turn my Susan Branch kitchen calendar to September, and to see the days getting shorter and the black walnuts starting to litter the backyard with a dusting of golden leaf-fall.
And yet, for all that, something elemental plucks at my sleeve this time of year. There’s a new languor to the crickets’ concertos, and the air is sweet with white-blossomed virgin’s bower (which seems to tumble over anything that stands still around here), and my heart is pierced like the longing of a half-remembered song. Suddenly I find myself thinking rather wistfully of open fires and Bordeaux-laced stews, starting to daydream about who can come and when for Christmas, and if we ought to shake up the Thanksgiving menu. I notice that the muslin drapes could stand to be freshly washed, starched and ironed, and I start walking around the house with a trusty can of Scott’s Liquid Gold in hand.
And then I realize one afternoon that the sunset has been creeping steadily to the south along the rim of the western pasture, and I remember that God is so terribly kind to give us such a yearly succession of familiarity and change.
This time of year my heart tends to gravitate towards the “hearth and home” authors, whose stories and cookbooks and memoirs suit my domestic fancies and feed my vision to create a haven in the midst of a topsy-turvy world. I want books that will at once undergird and inspire my ideals, written by women who feel more like friends than distant literary goddesses. In the midst of uncertain times, I want to read about the sanity of a well-tended kitchen garden, the holy companionship of faithful dogs, the sacred insights of a solitary beach stroll. I want to know that I’m not alone in believing that the earth is full of commonplace miracles, and that something as simple as a well-cooked meal or a fresh loaf of bread can bear a meaning so great it reaches the most hidden corners of the human soul. I want to be reminded of goodness in the face of chaos; beauty that outshines the jagged glare of commercialism and haste; truth that endures in the most unsettling of times.
Few authors have achieved this, in my mind, as consistently as Gladys Taber. I was first introduced to her by my dear saint-among-booksellers, Katherine Downs, who could scarcely keep Gladys’ books on her shelves. Years later, I inherited a few cherished volumes that had belonged to my grandmother. And every time I’ve seen a quotation of hers rendered by the incomparable Susan Branch, my heart’s given a little flutter of kindred-spiritship. Of course Susan knows Gladys…
If you’re unfamiliar with Gladys Taber, she was the author of nearly sixty books, spanning over five decades of tempestuous American history. From 1937, her “Diary of Domesticity” column in the Ladies’ Home Journal was a perennial favorite, and during the 1960s she penned “Butternut Wisdom” for the Family Circle. But, best of all, she authored the Stillmeadow books, which were her friendly account of life and seasons at her beloved 1690 farmhouse in Connecticut, and later, the stories of Still Cove, her shingled cottage on Cape Cod.
Gladys’s books read like journals; her voice is that of a wise and friendly optimist, honest enough to admit the brokenness of the world, but brave enough to celebrate the victorious beauty that prevails. She must have had an enormous heart, to carry such opposing realities within it, but she never gave in and let the chaos of the times have the final word. She kept writing about winter moons and pet skunks and the unfailing comfort of “pleasantly worn furniture,” celebrating the ordinary miracles that each day had to offer, staunchly resisting darkness with loveliness and cynicism with faith and humor.
I think that Gladys’ books are good medicine in an age that seems to have forgotten the eternal value of a place on earth and its power to nourish the souls that inhabit it. Her commitment to her home never fails to remind me that there’s a vital essence to the most mundane (and often exhausting) details of keeping a home. I love her for that.
And it’s for all these reasons I’m absolutely delighted to be able to offer several of Gladys’ books in the bookshop!
Stillmeadow Seasons is a monthly account of life in Connecticut, endearingly illustrated by Edward Shenton. After 15 years of restoring and loving her early Colonial farmhouse, Gladys reflects on the habits of her place, her year, and the loved ones who share it with her:
Now, as I look back, I often think of all the people who lived and loved, were happy or sad, those who were born and those who died in this house. For there is a continuity of living if your house has sheltered its own down the long sweep of years.
In our turn, we have cherished it, warmed it, and it has offered us days rich with contentment. It has given us back-breaking hours of work and the satisfaction of tangible results from that work. It has given us fire on the hearth on long evenings, spring sunlight through the windows, cool moonlight on the doorsills in autumn.
This is a small house, but wide enough for fifteen cockers, two cats, an Irish setter, children growing up, friends who drop in overnight and stay for three weeks…
Country Chronicle is the reflective 1974 seasonal celebration of the comforts and small adventures of life at Stillmeadow:
As I look back over the early days at the farm, I sometimes wonder why we were never discouraged; addicts of country living can easily understand. Once you put down roots in your own place, you have a special awareness of how blessed you are. The feeling is compounded of many things, such as walking on dewy grass instead of pavements and watching a harvest moon rise over your very own swamp and bringing in your own fresh asparagus from the bed down by the pond. And hearing the stillness of an early morning. And breathing snow-pure air on a January day. And putting a log of wood from the fallen apple tree in the old orchard on the open fire…
The Best of Stillmeadow, edited and introduced by Gladys’ daughter, Constance, is a glorious (and quite valuable!) anthology lovingly gathered from seven of Taber’s earlier books: Harvest at Stillmeadow, The Book of Stillmeadow, Stillmeadow Seasons, Stillmeadow Daybook, Stillmeadow Sampler, The Stillmeadow Road, and Stillmeadow Calendar.
In Constance’s introduction, she writes of how the Stillmeadow books came into being, growing out of her mother’s diaries and “bulging assortment of recipes and garden lists and reminders about dog shows.”
That first book, she writes, has been followed by many others, recording the changes that have taken place over the years. There was the time when most of the apple trees were flattened by a hurricane. Then one winter the old barn burned down. Puppies came and went and so did people. Of course, someone who had read only the latest book would not know about all of this. In time it became clear that a collection of excepts from the early books (now very hard to find) was needed…
My Own Cape Cod is the story of her cottage Still Cove, which, as Gladys wrote, “is exactly my idea of heaven.” Peppered with poetry and photographs and Thoreau-like meditations, it is the tale of a weathered cottage and the Cape community that made it home.
What is Cape Cod? Taber muses. It is an amethyst glow at the horizon over Mill Pond…It is the Full Flower Moon in May walking in gold on quiet water…Honey locusts and honeysuckle weighing the air with sweetness and sea lavender signing the beaches with delicate purple…
Still Cove Journal is a sequel to My Own Cape Cod, written ten years later, and faithfully edited for publication by Gladys’ daughter, Constance. Gladys herself died just before the completion of this book, which makes it extra-special, being the last contribution to grace the world with her own particular brand of goodness and optimism. It is a poignant and hopeful tribute to all that matters most in life.
Of the days after her mother’s death, Constance writes,
…I had to do something. My mother’s solution would have been to reach for a book. It occurred to me suddenly that I could go to one of her own books. In the past, her words had comforted so many people during times of sorrow and pain. Surely there would be a message for us now…
Especially Father gives us the story of Gladys’ idyllic early twentieth century upbringing, and the unforgettable father who made life so colorful.
I knew suddenly that I didn’t want the family to be forgotten. Especially Father.
No, nor the time lost, either. For history records the large events or the general condition of society, but only an individual can put down the way of life in a small town, the excitement of an old-fashioned summer colony, the days when nice girls came in at half-past ten.
Radio had not invaded the house, no planes drummed in the sky, and the sound of war was not in any ears. The iceman still drove up in the damp cool wagon, and the gas burner had only lately given way to the chandelier…
Spring Harvest is one of Gladys Taber’s many charming novels. This one, set in 1914 at Commencement time in a little Wisconsin co-ed college, sweeps students, faculty and townspeople into an interlacing little drama of small town life in a less-complicated era.
I welcome you to have a look at these beloved books. And if you’re already a Gladys Taber fan, I would absolutely love to hear your favorites in the comment section!
In closing, I was enchanted but not entirely surprised to learn that Susan Branch (whom I adore) has a page dedicated to Gladys Taber on her website. It’s very touching for me to consider that a woman whose writings I’ve so admired has left such an legacy in the life of another woman whose work has meant so much to me. Pop on over to Susan’s page and enjoy her gorgeous tribute. (There’s even a beautiful photograph of Stillmeadow!)
Happy reading, friends!