I keep having to become somebody new, no matter how old I get. Publishing my first book at the age of 70 has felt alternately thrilling and terrifying. I don’t know who I am in this new role. To mix metaphors, I don’t know the ropes, but the train has left the station and I’m on it.
I wonder if the subject of my book, my seven greats grandfather John Dixwell, one of the 59 men who served as judges of Charles the First, was thrilled and terrified each of the many times he became somebody new. First, he became a regicide of a king, then he became a fugitive from justice, then he became a person living under an assumed name in the New Haven Colony, then, at the age of 66, he became a father for the first time.
When I was five, I had my first taste of the strangeness of a person becoming someone else. My oldest sister Marian, an unimaginably grownup seventh grader, reported during dinner that two young women, Lee Cross and Ellen Gross, had been chosen to be president of the student body and chair of the social service committee.
I didn’t know what those jobs meant, but I could tell Lee and Ellen were suddenly important in a new way. As we ate our dessert my mother deepened her voice and intoned:
“Is Lee Cross the big boss?
Or does Gross Ellen do all the yellin’?”
Sixty-five years later her clever doggerel remains in my brain. Lee and Ellen, if they are still with us, must be in their eighties. But aside from learning early to be awed by instantaneous great poetry, what I took away from that moment was that people could, overnight, become power houses. Yesterday those girls were just Lee and Ellen. Today they were running the show.
Charles the First became the king of England at the age of 25. Did he have to adjust to having all that power? Perhaps it took no time at all. In his era, when monarchs believed they had divine rights, he probably thought his tyrannical behavior was God-sanctioned.
In 1980, in the British Museum in London, I took notes in a new red notebook about a man I’d never heard of before, a man sharing my name who’d sentenced a king to death more than 300 years ago. I did not know that pursuing John Dixwell’s story for decades would lead to my writing an entire, complicated book about my quest and his life.
Yes. It’s 2022 now, and those notes written in a state of frightened excitement by whoever I was at 28, have become a book. The book is forcing me to become someone I don’t yet know in a play on an unfamiliar stage. I don’t know the lines.
It’s instructive and comforting, when I go hiking in the woods, to be reminded that I need not understand how these changes occur. Better, is slowing down to take them in. On this May morning, in western Massachusetts, I came across a plant that is particularly good, each fall, at becoming something new.
Its common name is Indian Cucumber-root. You can eat the crisp rhizome from which it rises anew each year. Its botanical name is Medeola Virginia, irrefutable evidence of the hold of the British Empire on the North American continent.
But here’s the shocker. In September, overnight, it undergoes a transformation.
The first time I saw that splash of red I stopped in my tracks. What? It wasn’t a flower, it was a bloody background for three black berries. “Eat me,” they seemed to be saying.
The splash of red put me in mind of Charles’s blood spilling onto the scaffold after the single chop that beheaded him. He immediately became, despite all the havoc, starvation and deaths he’d caused during his 25-year reign, a Christian martyr in the Anglican church, a position he holds to this day.
And John Dixwell, who did he become after his death, and who am I becoming, a brand new book author at the advanced age of 70? May the annual transformation of the Indian Cucumber-root remind me that I cannot know. Nor do I need to.
Posted On: May 24, 2022