Monday, August 16, 2010

For Hilary, With Love and Squalor

Last night, driving home from our friends' house, it became obvious to me again that my daughters (ages 6 and 9) seem to share my fascination with the macabre. (Actually the last thing our friend told us as we left his house was a story about a guy he knew whose nail gun accidentally shot a nail directly into his stomach. It was the kind of story that I love hearing and then kind of wish I hadn't.)

Anyway, at one point during the car ride my older daughter asked if you could ever lose the ability to speak, and I explained about brain injuries that might make this possible. And then my younger daughter said, in this very serious way she has, Or like that story you told us. About that guy who got totally different after something went through his head. And I immediately remembered having one night at dinner brought up the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker, who, as a result of an explosion in 1848, ended up having an iron pole shoot straight through his brain and how, afterward, his entire personality changed. This story is interesting for two reasons because first, doctors studied him to learn how different parts of the brain correspond to different parts of human behavior, and second, a couple of years ago a man in a very old photograph was identified as Phineas Gage, ridiculously handsome, even with only one eye, holding the pole that had shot through his brain. But what kind of impressed me most was how vividly my girls remembered this story and how much time we have spent talking about it.

Which reminds me of these books my friend Hilary and I read obsessively the summer between seventh and eighth grade, on long bus rides to and from our Teen Travel day camp. I think the books were called Strange Unsolved Mysteries and More Strange Unsolved Mysteries, but I could be wrong about that. No doubt they are long out of print. These weren't so much mysteries as completely off-the-wall stories disguised as real mysteries. There were stories about small mysterious creatures that lived in people's walls and talked to them ("It Called Itself 'Gef'") or about dead people who came to life for a brief time in order to get things done. (I can't recall the title of this one, but basically a very pale boy goes to work on this woman's farm to earn money for his family, and each time he shows up for work he seems sicker and thinner until the woman finally feeds him a big meal, which causes him never to return. Soon after the woman is visited by the boy's mother who tells her that the boy died last year, but she called him back to earn some money for the family. The farm woman had fed him a salty meal, which as we all know causes you to remember where you came from, which in his case was a grave. We always buy unsalted butter as a result of this knowledge.)

So Hilary and I read these books over and over, passing them back and forth, exactly the same way my girls currently read Little Lulu comic books (more on this another time). The thing about these books is that they were really really creepy. But you simply couldn't put them down. I know that most girls our age were reading books like Forever, which we read too, but these unsolved mystery books spoke more to our sensibilities at this age, I think. Because when you are between seventh and eighth grade, really, what books can you relate to more than those about people who don't exactly fit in, like the, er, undead.

And I am certain that somewhere in Hilary's mother's apartment in Riverdale those books are still there, waiting. Just simply waiting for our own daughters to be old enough to read them.


Hope said...

I think I read those books, or similar. I remember reading about about people who fell out of airplanes and survived, things like that.

Hilary said...

I was just doing an internet search to try to find Strange Unsolved Mysteries for one of Anya's Hanukkah gifts so I tried "It called itself Gef" and "Strange Unsolved Mysteries" to try to get the author (you would be surprised how many books with that title are on Amazon) and I came across this! Very cool. I wonder if those books still are in mom's apartment. They probably are, given that we never throw anything out. I will have to search for them next time I am there.