I’m not a loser. That is, I don’t lose things. Oh sure, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what became of much of my childhood detritus — toys, clothes, the contents of our dressing up box. Let’s blame Mom for some of those disappearances, my own enthusiasm for a mood-lifting purge for the rest.
No, I am not someone who has to replace a lost phone. Ever. Credit and debit cards don’t go missing. I can easily lay my hands on my marriage and divorce papers, on my birth certificate, and my British Citizenship documents. The only time I lost my wallet — 1981 — it was stolen. Loss is so infrequent that I am still pricked by angst recalling a crimson cut-velvet scarf I lost in a Manhattan nightclub, not to mention the circumstances that led me there, and the perhaps bigger loss — at the time — of my heart to the man I went with to hear that band. (Bigger? Ha. It’s the scarf I miss now and will always mourn. That’s perspective for you.)
I interact with my belongings regularly. I have an above average visual memory. I boast of these traits to explain why I’m distraught that I cannot find one of my books.
It is not just any book. It is a book I’ve cherished since childhood, reading and rereading it so often that it’s a wonder it’s survived. It has survived, and I would not have jettisoned it, even if it was in shreds. It’s one of the books I shipped from the USA when I emigrated. And it’s the object that, when I vowed to return to the original premise of this blog — blithering about myself by examining what I own — seemed an ideal place to start.
Classical Myths That Live Today must have come into the house with my father, a professor of education. I know that because it’s not a book for readers, it’s a book for teachers. Here’s the abstract from an online library: “A textbook or reference work that includes illustrative selections from English poetry, review questions, projects, and suggestions for additional reading.”
This is what my edition looks like — small, orange, austere.
The pages are slick, coated, like an art book. The authors are Frances Ellis Sabin and Ralph Van Deman Magoffin. The earliest edition was published in 1940 but mine must have been the 1958 edition, making it one year older than I am. I began reading this in the 1960s, as a girl, and never stopped, even though I’d memorised the stories of the Mount Olympus gods and goddesses.
There is a chapter for each of them, from Apollo to Vulcan. Next up, heroes, Bellerophon through Theseus. There are chapters about the Trojan War, The Adventures of Ulysses and the Wanderings of Aeneas. Useful appendices offer a who’s who, a summary of expressions, suggestions for ways to present the material that will have relevance to students’ everyday lives, picture credits, and a section of page references to other textbooks for additional reading.
Poetry and literature are quoted to illustrate not only the behaviour of these immortals, but to demonstrate the electrical current these legends shot through the creative juices of the world’s great writers. And not only writers. Though words are my livelihood and vitally important, what grabbed me as a child weren’t the verses, but the pictures. Throughout are engravings and photographs of classical works of art — Greek urns, temple friezes, statues, paintings. As happened with Madame X, via this book I made best friends with two of Bernini’s sculptures — The Rape of Proserpina and Apollo and Daphne. More than a dozen years later, as a university student, I managed to visit them in Rome’s Galleria Borghese. Eyes glistening with tears, mouth catching flies, I felt my heart open wide, felt it soar, deeply touched by this reunion. It was a homecoming, this communion with the companions of my childhood. I gasped at how Bernini rendered Pluto’s fingers digging into Proserpina’s thigh — it’s marble, why does it squish? — and at her splayed toes. They, more than anything, more than the horror in her face, convey the shocking speed of her abduction and her abject fear. (Bernini worked on it between 1621 and 1622 and was 23 when it was finished. Christ on a bike, that’s precocious! From there he went right to work, possibly with help, on Apollo and Daphne.)
Here (and throughout this post) are some images I looked at almost every day as a kid.
I can’t sit still and keep leaping up to re-check my shelves, my eye continually snagging on The Heart Has its Reasons, by the Duchess of Windsor, because it’s old, and it’s orange. This is desperation talking. I’ve run my hand behind books, checking for slippagae. I’ve been up on a ladder checking the high shelves where I know it would never be (I keep it accessible). I’ve been on hands and knees looking under furniture. I’ve snuck up on my shelves, exclaimed, “Ah ha!” — to no avail. I’ve asked myself, “Who’s been in this flat and out of the many hundreds to choose from, why would they ‘borrow’ that?” I know just where it should be but not where it is. I’m dying to suddenly see it after looking right at it for two days, dying to call myself names, say, “For fuck’s sake, you asshole, it was there all along.” I mean, how could it have vanished?
As much as it entertained me, Classical Myths that Live Today also informed me. Whenever I joke about my annoying inability to settle into childhood and my stupid rush to grow up, I say it’s because I sprang fully grown from my father’s forehead. (Note to self: Honey, it was a headache.)
I always remember — thank you Eos — that wishes must be worded to account for contingencies: when asking for the gift of eternal life, bolt on eternal youth because otherwise you’ll end up a desiccated cricket, like poor Tithonus. The story of Niobe warned of the dangers of bragging — anger the gods and they’ll kill what you love. In her case, eleven of her twelve children.
I learned to carry a mirror (or other reflective surface) when out on a mission, because you never know when you’ll encounter a Medusa.
And I always move my hands around when I’m washing something so I don’t miss a bit, as Thetis did.
I google my book, find the cost of replacing my precise edition prohibitive given my current straits. Wonder how long I’ll resist adding it to my credit card debt anyway. I’m jonesing for my security blanket.
Though I understood this was a nonfiction book about fictions, that its stories weren’t reportage, I can’t shake the feeling, even now, that the Olympians were real. Well, real to me, and to generations of Greeks and Romans. If anyone wants a list of the books that made me, Classical Myths That Live Today is up near the top. It filled me with stories and infused me with an affinity for art. The potency of these stories and the way they continue living inside me — I’ve just realised how perfect the title is — makes it easier to understand those who believe in the Bible and the reality of those lives and that God. Would I believe if I’d found a bible on my parents’ shelves, instead of Sabin’s book? I doubt it. Certainly they’d have discouraged me. Anyway, back then, bibles didn’t come with lavish illustrations of the art and architecture that myth system engendered. For me that would all come later. Did I ever tell you I “collect” annunciations? Some other time, perhaps.
Damn. I came to capture a memory, not write a eulogy. I’ll continue tearing the flat apart. In the meantime, I might erect a shrine to Hermes. Unless he’s the one who stole it.