Monday, May 25, 2015

Now, Voyager

I like the idea that someone took with him on a weekend away a book that I had lent him. I do not yet know whether he enjoyed it; I barely know if he opened it once the agenda of the group he was joining on the Maine coast took shape. Things he may have pictured having time for might have given way to the long friendly preparations of meals or a side trip to the area’s antique stores.

I suspect that if the soft-cover copy of Now, Voyager made it out of his luggage and landed on a kitchen counter, one of the other men sharing the condo would have picked it up – if only to peruse the Hollywood still of Bette Davis and Paul Henreid on the cover of the novel.

The 1942 black-and-white film based on this work of fiction is something of a classic. One of my earliest gay friends used to be able to recite two hours of key lines before Bette Davis ever opened her mouth. One night in the late 1980s when the movie was scheduled to air, I set up my cassette recorder next to the television. After repeated playings, I became familiar with the pace and tone of the dialogue. I came to know when a pause meant that Paul Henreid was lighting a cigarette – or, rather, two cigarettes.

The name Olive Higgins Prouty appears on the screen whenever Now, Voyager is shown. It is her 1941 novel that brought to life the character of Charlotte Vale and the setting of her elegant Back Bay home where Doctor Jaquith, the compassionate director of a local sanatorium, first meets her at the family’s request. He becomes her lifeline.

It never occurred to me that I might enjoy reading the novel until I saw the 2004 paperback edition in a local bookstore. I have owned my copy for close to ten years without ever probing too deeply into the story of its author. This weekend, though, I gleaned enough online information to realize that Olive Higgins Prouty is buried only fifteen minutes from where I live. I might be able to make the kind of literary pilgrimage that delights bookish types.

While my copy of the novel was up on the Maine coast with my friend, I set about a little sleuthing here at home. It helped that Memorial Day weekend had most cemetery offices open. I got to engage someone official who eventually paused over an index card, typed back in 1974 when the novelist had been buried. He pointed out the general area on a cemetery map where I should begin my search for the Prouty graves.

Before he put away the index card, I glimpsed a nearby address that had been typed under the author’s name. “Is that where she lived?” I asked. Without any hesitation, the cemetery official made a photocopy of the index card for me. I was on my way.

Ten minutes later I was standing over the grave of someone I had never met. It was a far-distant Boston that I got to sense briefly there, quiet and still on a Sunday afternoon. I took pictures with my phone.

I was ready to leave when I saw a locked gate at the end of the roadway along which I had walked in my search for the grave. I recognized something that I did not expect. As a car passed on the other side of the locked gate, I suddenly knew where I was. It dawned on me that here was a stretch of road along which I drive once a week. Seldom able to glimpse over the stone wall surrounding the cemetery, I nevertheless weekly drive within a short walk of Olive Higgins Prouty.

When I pass there, I am on my way to an appointment with my own Dr. Jaquith.

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