The Third Little Pig

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I had fun reading my Uncle Nat’s journals, which my cousin Max thoughtfully dropped off at the nursing home where I was recuperating. It’s a chance to sit down with my beloved uncle once again and hear what he’s doing and what he’s thinking about.

Except in his journals, he’s scathingly honest about everything. Uncle Nat was a kind, considerate guy, so naturally he didn’t always share his true feelings and opinions. It’s fun to see what he was thinking all that time.

There’s a lot of stuff I can’t write about until we reach a family consensus about how much we’re going to open the bag, and there’s some stuff I know I’ll never write about — that’s how honest and revealing these journals are.

And perceptive. Uncle Nat used to encourage people to go on and on about themselves. It was his way of amusing himself at cocktail parties. He liked to see how long it took them to realize that they were doing all the talking and he hadn’t said a word.

“So,” they’d venture, “what do you do?”

“I’m a novelist.”

One time he and my Aunt Valerie were visiting some wealthy friends, and he wonders in his journal why “these two capable, beautiful people seem to have everything but friends.”

Of the wife, he writes, “She grew up with the idea that she was very bright and talented and looks at people from that lofty perspective. But since she so rarely does anything with her talent, she must constantly think up excuses which is exhausting and depressing. This may be why she drinks so heavily.”

Of the husband, he writes, “Enormously successful, he is nevertheless unsure of himself – Why else would he feel compelled to blow his own horn so often? To be in his company for a day or even an evening is tiresome, even irritating. I think this must be why he has so few friends.”

But of course the most fun is when he turns his hot lens on people I know – our family. Max and I agreed to leave out the living relatives, for now anyway, but we can publish what he really felt about his brothers. They’re no longer with us.

During a visit from my parents, he wonders in his journal, “How has she stood the boredom all these years? The Hartshornes are truly an ignorant bunch, RDH [Robert, my father] being perhaps the more so. Where could he have been hiding when literature was given out?”

“Why do I go on so about RDH? Is there something evil in me that makes me do this? That makes me disloyal – badmouthing Essie [my grandmother] and my father and brothers?

hartshorne family
The Hartshorne family in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. At center is Esther Kimball Hartshorne Magargee. Her sons (standing) are, from left, Robert, Kim, and Nat. The author is bottom left.

Then he asks a telling question: “Is it anger or frustration that I can’t write what I want to write about them?”

“Talked – or tried to talk – to [John] Heller last weekend about this subject – disillusionment with one’s family. Oh what heroes my brothers were to me! When I look at that happy photo of us all at Edgartown –  could there have been a better looking family? A family with more talent or hope? Jesus! What happened?”

“One, an alcoholic hiding in the woods of NH trying not to admit his failure in his company; another, even more of a failure, hiding in his shrewish wife’s house being slowly henpecked to death; and finally – what do I write about the third little pig?

“‘Beautiful but dumb’ as his deceased father used to tell him? And not even beautiful now. Just dumb? What did this third little pig accomplish? A good editor? Not by New York standards surely. Could he have edited a big-time magazine? Probably not. He was a small-time copy editor whose greatest success was in editing a third rate alumni magazine.

“Jesus! What happened?”

In my opinion, Uncle is laying it on a bit thick here, declaiming, as it were. He was a dramatist after all. And he’s rarely this glum. He was a real enjoyer of life.

“I am so fortunate,” he writes, “to have such inner happiness. That is the secret of success. I can remember walking back from the farm along Brown’s Dock Road feeling this burst of happiness and being aware of how happy I was.”