My mother hated cleaning, so from a very early age our agreement was that if I took responsibility of housekeeper, she would read to me. For about ten years, our arrangement exposed me to many classics. The size of our apartment meant that I could work anywhere and still hear her read. Many a day I spent washing the laundry, cleaning the dishes, and moping the floor to Pickwick Papers, Wuthering Heights or Anne of Green Gables (to name just a few).
Through the stories I was transformed. I could be the main character, their landscape seemed almost palpable. For ten years, I felt as though I had lived many lives and travelled through history.
One book that was of particular note I have never forgotten. It is a story about a building in Suffolk England, and the lives lived for almost two millennia within and around this place. It is about how time changes a lotion, and about how our lives are part of a bigger story than our own brief existence can comprehend. I think this book was the first book that solidified my love of history; written by Norah Lofts, the book is called, A Wayside Tavern.
It starts with Roman soldiers and the exodus of Rome from Britain. They find one building that might have been a tavern in which to rest for the night on their trek to a port town. Their leader Marius, is forced to stay behind after a wound that renders him lame. What results is the discovery of a girl left behind through sickness, by the people desperate to avoid the chaos within the country that the Roman withdrawal creates. Marius’ and Gilda are the progenitors of a line within this tavern that will witness the growth of Christianity, Reformation, Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World War. It is a tale about time, place and our identity in the world; also delving into the creation of myth and legend.
Like a pleasant memory of a childhood playground, I always dreamed one day I would re visit the book to see if it had that same allure it held so many years ago. I am visiting England for the summer- the homeland of my father, as well as the focus so much of my family’s history. It is the canvas for many of the stories and history I learned as both an adult and a child. It is the country of Norah Lofts novel.
I was overjoyed when I found, The Wayside Tavern, Online for sale (no less joyful to have found that my memory didn’t fail me in remembering the title); doubly overjoyed when it arrived in the mail. A used copy, it was with a large sense of irony that I opened the cover page to find that it was sent from England. It was my intent to take it back to its homeland and read it while on holiday; enamored with the idea of reading this much loved book in the country in which it was based.
I am now finished this five hundred plus page book. The story still held me in thrall, and enforces my love of history. Being in England allows me to see what Lofts used as a central piece for her story; the character-rich buildings that make this beautiful land and the people who call it home.
The book had a deeper richness with the memory of that familiar voice, now long gone, so many years ago that first read it to me. Perhaps one day, if my daughter will allow, I will share it with her.