I just finished rereading the most delightful book I’ve read in a very long time: ‘Emily Dickinson: Friend and Neighbor’ by MacGregor Jenkins. “Mac” Jenkins and his sister Sally, known as “Did,” were part of a group of children who played on the grounds of the Dickinson mansion. Their father, the Reverend Jonathan Jenkins was the village pastor and a close friend of Emily’s brother Austin. The other children were Emily’s niece and nephew, Mattie and Ned, and three children of a Greek professor next door: Will, Ally, and “Little Ned.”
This little gang had adventures all over the neighborhood, but they were “drawn irresistibly” to the Dickinson mansion “by something – what we did not know.”
“I know now what it was,” Jenkins writes. “I know that the hearts of those children turned instinctively to a heart in that house as young and as pure as theirs. A heart not a day older [the poet was then in her forties] except in the wisdom of spiritual experience and a sensitiveness to life and its beauty that set it apart from all the rest of the world…”
The children were received warmly by “Miss Emily,” as she was known, and given cake and doughnuts and gingerbread, but beyond that, “She seemed to bring to us a world of fancy, a world of beauty, a world of hidden lovely things.”
And they came to accept her self-imposed seclusion. “The slightest incursion of the outside would cause her to disappear suddenly and completely.” Once while she was busy in the pantry, she said to the children, “You know, dears, if the butcher’s boy should come now, I would jump into the flour barrel.”
Often the children would be gypsies, or circus performers, or crusaders, and after a journey “as long and as indirect as the ingenuity of our leaders could devise” they always approached “the familiar castle.” They were rewarded by the sight of a slender figure in an upper window, and a basket of treats, usually gingerbread, would be lowered from the window.
Often there would be a note like one Jenkins had preserved: “Dear Boys, Please never grow up, which is ‘much better –‘ Please never improve — you are perfect now.” signed “Emily”.
There are so many glimpses of Miss Emily’s secret life that were concealed from the world. She would sometimes stay awake all night so as not to miss the circus that passed by on Main Street. She would often stand in rapt attention, “as if she were listening to something very faint and far off. And, of course, her love of nature and her garden.
Once “Mac” was leaving her house when she called him back. “Come quickly if you want to see something beautiful.” There in her conservatory, where she kept flowers blooming all year, was a “wonderful moth” that had just broken its chrysalis.
“She was a joyous person,” Jenkins writes. “Perhaps her other characteristics interested and allured us, but it was this that made us love her.”
Burleigh Muten of the Emily Dickinson Museum has written a children’s book about this world of “hidden lovely things” called ‘Miss Emily‘.