Fifteen Years, Fifteen Houses

Pam Lewis Until high school I never spent more than two years in any one place. My father had a series of jobs in aviation which in the 1950s and 1960s was the big thriving, shifting industry that electronics is today. People like us moved from city to city for each successive job. "Family" meant the five of us. My grandmother came once in a while for long, delicious visits. Otherwise, aunts and uncles were the people my mother wrote to and received letters from. Cousins were seen in snapshots occasionally sent to us.

I was a quiet, observant child. I did well enough in school. I always had a best friend, but each time we moved, I abandoned the old life and gave myself over fully to the next. Because my immediate family was my constant, I was mostly captivated by them — by my beautiful athletic sister, my older hilarious brother, my Dutch-born, very proper mother and a father who was descended from Mohawk Indians.

As a city dweller (Los Angeles, Montréal, Washington DC and New York) I was well schooled in urban dangers. I knew never to meet a stranger’s eyes on the street and never to appear lost even when I was. If I emerged from the subway and didn't know which way I was supposed to walk, I set out firmly in any direction until I could figure out where I was.

I attended Stanford University, lived in San Francisco in the late 1960s and then, in my 20's, married and with two young sons, I lived in rural Vermont. We heated with wood. We had a long steep driveway, often impassable in winter. Sometimes the pipes froze or the pump was struck by lightning. Often the electricity went out. It was like a foreign country to me.

Discovering hypothermia

One day I read an account of three people out hiking on a sunny day in March when the temperature was in the 40s, balmy by Vermont standards. One of the three died from hypothermia because the jeans he was wearing got wet. The information rocked my world. Wet jeans could kill you? I made it my business to learn abut the killers out there and there were plenty. — hypothermia, spruce traps, river seines. I took courses in water safety and winter safety. I learned how to escape if you fall through the ice, what to do if I became are lost in the woods or stranded in my car in a blizzard. (Basically, stay put).

One 30-below night, our furnace on the fritz, I had the idea for a novel in which someone pursued someone else through a frozen forest, with the intention of murder by hypothermia. I didn't know who they were or why their lives had come to this.

Years later, in Speak Softly She Can Hear, Eddie Lindbaeck sluiced icy water over his willful wife deep in a Vermont forest.

Reconstituted Families

It used to be very common for families to avoid talking about important things. One of the many subjects people didn't discuss was adoption. And we were no exception. My adored brother, or so we all found out later in life, was my mother's son from another marriage. Not a big deal in today's world, but just as my experience in Vermont had rocked my world, so did this. I went to the internet and found it full of stories of people who learned late in life that their parents were other than they'd thought and the enormous effect on them. I imagined a scenario in which a young man learns that he is not biologically connected to the long illustrious line of men before him in an old New England family, and how that information alters everything he has ever known. I called this book Perfect Family, not entirely ironically. Today families split up, regroup and make the best of things in all sorts of inventive ways. In my view, the reconstituted family is just as perfect, perhaps more so, that the old nuclear model.

Inventing the Past

For most of my life, my father's story was the romantic and edgy one. An ancestor named Angel deFerriere had fled the Napoleonic wars and married a native American in upstate New York, drawn to her by French, their common language. Other ancestors had been part of a sprawling family of thieves known as the Loomis Gang. But after my parents died, I discovered the rich trove of my mother's past. It took in Holland, Patagonia, New York. There were four beautiful daughters, and in the center of it all my wonderful grandmother holding things together in dire circumstances — poverty, betrayal and despair. As a young bride of sixteen she was shipwrecked off the coast of Argentina. The crew escaped with the lifeboats, but her husband knew the captain and they were saved. Only when she was pulled from the water did she realize she'd been attacked by a shark. I came upon these stories and had no way to glean the details, so they're the perfect stuff of fiction, and so they will become in the next book, which has no title, but will begin in Enkhuizen, the Netherlands. A girl of sixteen is sent to Amsterdam to care for the dying wife of a wealthy businessman. It's the same girl who will be shipwrecked, who will give birth to four beautiful daughters and who will occasionally visit her grandchildren in all the cities where they will live.