Variations on EmilySeveral years ago, at the end of October, I found myself on a business trip in Springfield MA, and realized I was close to Emily Dickinson’s ancestral home in Amherst. When I looked it up on the internet, I saw tours of the home were offered by UMASS, so I gleefully signed up for a tour. I say ‘gleefully’ because I considered myself an Emily groupie, although I’m usually slow to admit to it with all the devotion given to her by goth-afflicted young women. But so be it; along with Whitman, Dickinson is one of the two poetic pillars of 19th century American literature.

I played hooky one morning, and drove to Amherst, happily arriving on time at the Dickinson house. The door was opened by a pretty UMASS co-ed, and I shortly realized I was the sole participant on the tour, not exactly a visit to Graceland where I would have been in a crowd, but who cares? This was Emily’s home.

My tour guide quickly announced she was new at this, and really didn’t know much about Dickinson, but clearly had been instructed what artifacts to point out, and delivered little stories about each. No matter, I reverently followed her through the house, and was able to fill her in on many anecdotes I accumulated from all the scholarly books I digested about Emily over the years. It turned out to be a good time.

There was the staircase where Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican newspaper (rumored but never proven to be a lover of Emily’s) appeared one stormy night at the bottom of these very stairs, yelling upward, demanding Emily come down from her bedroom. She never did.

There was the sitting room where she received Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic, and ex-minister, who had become her informal writing mentor. Unluckily Higginson never recognized her greatness – as though Margaret Truman tried to mentor Adele – since Emily was far, far, out of the box for 19th century tastes.

We went up that staircase, my steps cautiously treading as though I possessed no right to be on such hallowed wood. Upstairs we entered her bedroom. I put a hand on one of the posts of her four poster bed, realizing how short beds were in that century, but still honored to be able to touch something she herself touched. And there in the corner I saw her little desk where she wrote the poems. I felt overwhelmed the tour contained all these artifacts. I looked out the very window where Emily lowered gingerbread treats to Amherst children playing in her backyard. Even though she was reclusive in her later years, she still found ways to interact with people.

All too soon the tour ended. Buying time, I asked my guide if she knew where the cemetery was located where Emily rested. I knew it must be nearby, as Emily instructed on her deathbed how her coffin could not be conveyed on public streets – reclusive to the end – so the pall bearers carried her coffin through backyards to the cemetery. I told the co-ed about the famous words “Called Back” Emily made certain were engraved on her tombstone. The co-ed pointed beyond the yard, and once outside I started down the sidewalks.

The cemetery appeared larger than I hoped, but I started off to the left on the main pathway, hoping to find her grave. Halfway around I noticed many of the stones were positioned with their backs to the path, but situated fine had I chosen the right-hand pathway. Up ahead I spied a small group of stones surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, and hoped I found the Dickinson family plot. I increased my gait, and sure enough I arrived at her grave.

There was the famous “Called Back” stone. I sighed. I noticed many little pebbles and trinkets on top her stone, and it put me in mind of Jim Morrison’s grave in France where his devotees left their remembrances. Although Emily clearly inspired fewer trinkets. My hand moved outward to touch the top of her stone, but I jerked it back. Was I a teenaged groupie who needed physical contact with her? Was I so afflicted by Emily admiration I must come as close to a physical touch as possible across the centuries?

I swallowed. Then decided, Yes! I would not get this opportunity again! I stretched out my hand, and the very nano-second my palm touched the top of her stone, a loud Bonggggg! rang out from a nearby church bell tower acknowledging the noon hour. Startled, I leapt backward from the stone, looked beyond it, and felt horrified to see beyond her plot, all those stones previously pointed away from me, were now positioned to display their family name: WARD. My own name!

The touch, the BONG, the startlement, and then my own name in front of my eyes: I broke into a sweat. Surreal.

I fled the cemetery, checking my wristwatch as I went through the entrance, and noticed the date in the watch’s little square box. Halloween . . . the day when the dead reach out to touch us.

Artist’s note:

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), New England poet, is one of the country’s greatest poets. Spending nearly all of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, the last half in relative seclusion, Emily came to be known as eccentric. Besides rare contacts with people outside her immediate family, she wore only white dresses and sometimes referred to herself as a wayward nun. Regarding her poems – only eleven of 1,775 poems were published during her lifetime – she advocated the “propounded word.” Her word for herself as a poet was “gnome,” and the poems themselves she called, “bulletins from Immortality.” Her last communication was written the day before her death, a short letter sent to relatives: “Little cousins, — Called back. Emily.”

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