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See Now Then: A Novel

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In See Now Then, the brilliant and evocative new novel from Jamaica Kincaid—her first in ten years—a marriage is revealed in all its joys and agonies. This piercing examination of the manifold ways in which the passing of time operates on the human consciousness unfolds gracefully, and Kincaid inhabits each of her characters—a mother, a father, and their two children, living in a small village in New England—as they move, in their own minds, between the present, the past, and the future: for, as she writes, "the present will be now then and the past is now then and the future will be a now then." Her characters, constrained by the world, despair in their domestic situations. But their minds wander, trying to make linear sense of what is, in fact, nonlinear. See Now Then is Kincaid's attempt to make clear what is unclear, and to make unclear what we assumed was clear: that is, the beginning, the middle, and the end.
Since the publication of her first short-story collection, At the Bottom of the River, which was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Kincaid has demonstrated a unique talent for seeing beyond and through the surface of things. In See Now Then, she envelops the reader in a world that is both familiar and startling—creating her most emotionally and thematically daring work yet.

ISBN-13: 9780374534363

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux

Publication Date: 02-04-2014

Pages: 192

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John's, Antigua. Her books include At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, My Brother, and Mr. Potter, all published by FSG. She lives with her family in Vermont.

Read an Excerpt


See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles in the Shirley Jackson house, which was in a small village in New England. The house, the Shirley Jackson house, sat on a knoll, and from a window Mrs. Sweet could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake, a man-made lake, also named Paran; and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where sometimes she could attend a civic gathering and hear her government representative say something that might seriously affect her and the well-being of her family or see the firemen take out the fire trucks and dismantle various parts of them and put the parts back together and then polish all the trucks and then drive them around the village with a lot of commotion before putting them away again in the firehouse and they reminded Mrs. Sweet of the young Heracles, for he often did such things with his toy fire trucks; but just now when Mrs. Sweet was looking out from a window in the Shirley Jackson house, her son no longer did that. From that window again, she could see the house where the man who invented time-lapse photography lived but he was dead now; and she could see the house, the Yellow House, that Homer had restored so carefully and lovingly, polishing the floors, painting the walls, replacing the pipes, all this in the summer before that awful fall, when he went hunting and after shooting with his bow and arrow the largest deer he had ever shot, he dropped down dead while trying to load it onto the back of his truck. And Mrs. Sweet did see him lying in his coffin in the Mahar funeral home, and she thought then, why does a funeral home always seem so welcoming, so inviting from the outside, so comfortable are the chairs inside, the beautiful golden glow of the lamplight softly embracing every object in the room, the main object being the dead, why is this so, Mrs. Sweet said to herself as she saw Homer, lying all alone and snug in his coffin, and he was all dressed up in brand-new hunting clothes, a red and black plaid jacket made of boiled wool and a red knitted hat, all clothing made by Woolrich or Johnson Bros. or some outdoor clothing outfitters like that; and Mrs. Sweet wanted to speak to him, for he looked so much like himself, to ask him if he would come to paint her house, the Shirley Jackson house, or could he come and do something, anything, fix the pipes, clean the gutters of the roof, check to see if water had leaked into the basement, because he appeared to be so like himself, but his wife said to her, Homer shot the biggest deer of his life and he died while trying to put it in the back of his truck; and Mrs. Sweet was sympathetic to the worldly-ness of the dead, for she could make herself see the army of worms, parasites, who had, without malice aforethought, begun to feed on Homer and would soon reduce him to the realm of wonder and disillusion so sad, so sad all of this that Mrs. Sweet could see then, while standing at the window of the house in which Shirley Jackson had lived and across the way was the house in which old Mrs. McGovern had died and she had lived in it for many years before she became old, she had lived in her house, built in a neoclassical-something style that harkened back from another era, long ago, long before Mrs. McGovern had been born and then became a grown-up woman who married and lived with her husband in the Yellow House and made a garden of only peonies, big white ones that were streaked with a wine-dark red on the petals nearest the stamens, like an imagined night crossing an imagined day, so had been those peonies in Mrs. McGovern’s garden and she had grown other things but no one could remember what they were, only her peonies were committed to memory and when Mrs. McGovern had died and so therefore vanished from the face of the earth, Mrs. Sweet had dug up those peonies from that garden, “Festiva Maxima” was their name, and planted them in her own garden, a place Mr. Sweet and the beautiful Persephone and even the young Heracles hated. The Pembrokes, father and son, mowed the lawn, though sometimes the father went off to Montpelier, the capital, to cast votes for or against, as he felt to be in the best interest of the people who lived in that village in New England, which even now is situated on the banks of the river Paran; and the other people in that village, the Woolmingtons lived always in their house, and the Atlases too, and so also were the Elwells, the Elkinses, the Powerses; the library was full of books but no one went into it, only parents with their children, parents who wanted their children to read books, as if reading books were a mysterious form of love, a mystery that must remain so. The small village in New England held all that and much more and all that and much more was then and now, time and space intermingling, becoming one thing, all in the mind of Mrs. Sweet.
* * *
All that was visible to Mrs. Sweet as she stood in the window, at the window, but so much was not visible to her then, it lay before her, all clear and still, as if trapped on a canvas, enclosed in a rectangle made up of dead branches of Betula nigra, and she could not see it and could not understand it even if she could see it: her husband, the dear Mr. Sweet, hated her very much. He so often wished her dead: once then, a night when he had returned home after performing a piano concerto by Shostakovich to an audience of people who lived in the nearby villages and so felt that they wanted to get out of their homes from time to time, but as soon as they left their homes they wanted to return immediately, for nothing was nearby and nothing was as nice as their own homes and hearing Mr. Sweet play the piano made them sleepy, their heads sometimes suddenly falling forward, and they struggled to keep their chins from landing on their chests and that happened anyway and there would be lurching and balancing and gulping and coughing and though Mr. Sweet’s back was turned away from his rural audience he could sense all this and he could feel every twitch, every shudder, as it registered in each individual. He loved Shostakovich and as he played the music written by this man—“The Oath to the People’s Commissar,” “Song of the Forests,” “Eight Preludes for Piano”—the grave sorrows and injustices visited on him flowed over Mr. Sweet and he was very moved by the man and the music that the man made and he wept as he played, pouring all of his feelings of despair into that music, imagining that his life, his precious life was being spent with that dreadful woman, his wife, the dear Mrs. Sweet, who loved making three courses of French food for her small children and loved their company and she loved gardens and loved him and he was least worthy of her love, for he was such a small man, sometimes people mistook him for a rodent, he scurried around so. And he was not a rodent at all, he was a man capable of understanding Wittgenstein and Einstein and any other name that ended in stein, Gertrude included, the intricacies of the universe itself, the intricacies of human existence itself, the seeing of Now being Then and how Then becomes Now; how well he knew everything but he could not express himself, he could not show the world, at least as the world turned up in the form of the population of some small villages in New England, what a remarkable person he was then and had been and in time to come, these people who wore the same socks days in a row and didn’t dye their hair after it lost the natural color and the luster it had when they were young and they liked to eat foods that were imperfect, food made limp by natural pathogens or insects for instance, people who worried about the pilot light going out of the boiler and the pipes freezing because the house was cold and then the plumber would have to be called and that plumber would complain about the work of the plumber who came before him because plumbers always found each other’s work imperfect; and his audience worried about all sorts of things Mr. Sweet had never heard of because he grew up in a city and lived in a large building that had many apartments in it and when things went wrong, someone named the Super was called to make it right: the Super could change a lightbulb, get the elevator to work again after it had ceased to do so, make the garbage disappear, scrub the floor of the lobby, call the utility company if the utility company had to be called, the super could do many things and in Mr. Sweet’s life, when he was a child, the super did them and Mr. Sweet had never heard of them until he came to live with that dreadful woman whom he had married and was now the mother of his children, the mother of his beautiful daughter in particular. The piano concerto came to an end and Mr. Sweet shook himself out of the deep sympathy he felt for the composer of the music and the audience shook themselves into their duck-feather-filled coats, which had trapped the smell of wood smoke from the fires built in fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, that was a winter smell, that was a smell Mr. Sweet hated, the super would have taken care of that smell, this was not a smell of Mr. Sweet’s childhood; a dining room in the Plaza Hotel, his mother wearing French perfume, those were the smells of Mr. Sweet’s childhood and that then: the mother’s perfume, the Plaza Hotel. And he said a good night to those people who smelled as if they lived in rooms where wood was always burning in the wood-stove, and immediately no longer thought of them as they drove home in their Subarus and secondhand Saabs, and he put on his coat, a coat made from the hair of camels, a very nice coat, double-breasted, that the beastly wife of his, Mrs. Sweet, had bought for him from Paul Stuart, a fine haberdasher in the city where Mr. Sweet was born and he hated the coat because his benighted wife had given it to him and how could she know what a fine garment it was, she who had just not long ago gotten off the banana boat, or some other benighted form of transport, everything about her being so benighted, even the vessel on which she arrived, and he loved the coat for it suited him, he was a prince, a prince should wear such a coat, an elegant coat; and so glad he was to be rid of this audience, he slipped behind the wheel of his own used Saab, a better one than most of the others, and he turned into a lane and then turned left onto another lane and after one quarter of a mile he could see his home, the Shirley Jackson house, the structure that held within it his doom, that prison and the guard inside, in bed already, most likely, surrounded by catalogs of flowers and their seeds, or just lying there reading The Iliad or The Library of Greek Mythology by Apollodorus, his wife that horrible bitch who’d arrived on a banana boat, it was Mrs. Sweet. But what if a surprise awaited him just inside the door, for even a poor unfortunate man as he, for so Mr. Sweet thought of himself, unfortunate to be married to that bitch of woman born of beast; the surprise being the head of his wife just lying on the counter, her body never to be found, but her head severed from it, evidence that she could no longer block his progress in the world, for it was her presence in his life that kept him from being who he really was, who he really was, who he really was, and who might that really be, for he was a man small in stature and he really felt his small stature so keenly, especially when standing beside the young Heracles, whose deeds were known and they were great and he was famous for them, even before he was born.
* * *
Ah, no, no! Mrs. Sweet, looking out at the mountains named Green and Anthony, and the river Paran—its man-made lake interrupting its smooth flow—in the valley, all that remained of a great geologic upheaval, a Then that she was seeing Now and her present will be buried deep in it, so deep that it will never, would never be recognized by anyone who resembled her in any shape or form: not race, not gender, not animal, not vegetable nor any of the other kingdoms, for nothing yet known can or will benefit from her suffering, and all of her existence was suffering: love, love, and love in all its forms and configurations, hatred being one of them, and yes, Mr. Sweet did love her, his hatred being a form of his love for her: see the way he admired the way her long neck would emerge from her crooked spine and bent shoulders; her legs were too long, her torso too short; her nostrils flared out like a deflated tent and came to rest on her wide fat cheeks; her ears appeared just where ears should be but then disappeared unexpectedly and if an account of them had to be made for evidence of any kind, memory of ears known in one way or another would have to be brought forth; her lips were like a child’s drawing of the earth before creation, a symbol of chaos, the thing not yet knowing its true form: and that was just her physical entity, as if imagining her as something assembled in a vase decorating a table set for lunch or dinner to be eaten by people who wrote articles for magazines, or who wrote books on the fate of the very earth itself, or who wrote about the way we live now, whoever we may be, just our tiny selves nothing more nor less. But no matter, hate being a variant of love, for love is the standard and all other forms of emotion are only forms that refer to love, hatred being the direct opposite and so being its most like form: Mr. Sweet hated his wife, Mrs. Sweet, and as she looked out on this natural formation of landscape: mountain, valley, lake, and river, the remains of the violence of the earth’s natural evolution: she did not know it. “Sweetie, would you like me to…,” was the beginning of many sentences that were expressions of love for the dear Mrs. Sweet, for she was so dear to him, and Mr. Sweet would replenish her depleted glasses of ginger ale and many segments of oranges piled on a saucer for her as she lay in the bathtub filled with hot water trying to fortify herself against the horrid something called Winter, a season really, but it was not a thing that Mrs. Sweet had ever heard of in her life preceding the banana boat, ah the banana boat, the seat of her diminishment, ah! and so did Mr. Sweet present to her the fruit, the orange, native to the earth’s heated belt as she lay in hot water in a bathtub in the Shirley Jackson house. Aaaahhhh, a sweet sigh, and that would be a sound escaping through the thick, chaotic lips of Mrs. Sweet, though sound itself never escapes, for it has no place to go but out into the thin nothingness that is beyond human existence, into something Mrs. Sweet cannot now or then see. But Mr. Sweet loved her and she loved him, her love for him goes without saying now or then, it was implied, it was taken for granted, like the mountains Green and Anthony, like the man-made lake called Paran and like the river so named.
What is the essence of Love? But that was a question for Mr. Sweet, for he grew up in the atmosphere of questions of life and death: the murder of millions of people in a short period of time who lived continents away from each other; on the other hand hovering over Mrs. Sweet, though she had been made to understand it as if it were a style of a skirt, or the style of the shape of a blouse, a collar, a sleeve, was a monstrosity, a distortion of human relationships: The Atlantic Slave Trade. What is the Atlantic? What is the slave trade? So asked Mr. Sweet, and he watched Mrs. Sweet, for she was at the window that looked out at the mountains named after Green and Anthony and the river named Paran and he was returning from an auditorium that was built to seat three hundred people and only ten or twenty people had been in those seats when he was sitting at the piano playing the music written by a man who was a citizen of Russia who wrote this music that so captivated the very soul, whatever that may be, of Mr. Sweet was in distress, knowing and yet not knowing death itself in all its not-knownness. What is the essence of Love?
But Mrs. Sweet was looking out at her life: from the Shirley Jackson house, across the way lay the mountains Green and Anthony and laying beneath them were the rivers: Paran and Battenkill and Branch, bodies of water, full of trout hungry for a midafternoon hatch of invertebrates, and all these rivers flow into the Hudson River, a body of water, one of many tributaries to that larger body of water, the Atlantic Ocean, all of them flowing there except for the Mettowee which flows into Lake Champlain; and she was thinking of her now, knowing that it would most certainly become a Then even as it was a Now, for the present will be now then and the past is now then and the future will be a now then, and that the past and the present and the future has no permanent present tense, has no certainty in regard to right now, and she gathered up her children, the young Heracles who would always be so, no matter what befell him, and the beautiful Persephone, who would always be so, beautiful and perfect and just.
* * *
But her head was not lying on the yellow kitchen counter, severed from her body, with the rest of her scattered into time: her torso preserved in mud near the Delaware Water Gap, her legs in a granite outcrop in the Ahaggar massif, her hands in the shifting sands of the Imperial Sand Dunes, and an exquisite sight are all these presentations to be found in that thing called Nature but Mr. Sweet could never see this, for it frightened him to leave his familiar surroundings, the Shirley Jackson house and all the nice furnishings in it: the sofa and chairs that were covered in cloth that Mrs. Sweet had purchased at the Waverley factory outlet in Adams, Massachusetts, and the upholstery itself, which had been done by a man who lived in White Creek, New York. He made a nestlike space for himself in the room above the garage, a studio in which he wrote many things, and it looked like a replica of the welcome area of a funeral home, so thought Mrs. Sweet and that thought almost killed her; but he loved that room, for it was dark and full of all sorts of things that he loved, his memories of Paris, France, deviled eggs, his many collections of the Claudine books, the picture of the little girl he asked to undress when they were both six years old, the picture of his student he was in love with when she was seventeen and he was twenty-seven, the puppets he made when he was a child, the delicious puddings he ate when he was a little child, the old stubs of tickets from the city ballet, the old stubs of tickets from the theater, all little mementos from a time so precious to him: his childhood; but she was such a beast, such a bitch and a beast and she must not be allowed anywhere near this room and he kept it locked and she was never allowed in it and he kept the key with him all the time, except when he got into bed with her, he placed it in a secret place, a place so secret that he never thought of it, for fear she might read his thoughts. Who knew what she was capable of? People who come on banana boats are not people you can really know and she did come on a banana boat. All the same her head was not lying on the kitchen counter and the kitchen counter was covered in yellow Formica, an idea very revolting to Mr. Sweet, for a kitchen counter should be white or marble or just plain wood but Mrs. Sweet would go out of her way to find such an abomination, yellow Formica, to cover the counter and then she would paint the wall in the kitchen those Caribbean colors: mango, pineapple, not peaches and nectarine: “My house looks like the house of someone my dear mother, who warned me not to marry this horrible bitch, my dear mother who could see right away that we were not compatible, my dear, dear mother, who warned me against taking up with this woman of no proper upbringing but I loved her legs, they were so long, she could wrap them around me twice and still they did not touch the ground, those legs that are now buried in an outcropping of rocks in a place I can never visit; and I loved the way she could exaggerate, so that if she saw ten tulips in a vase, she would say she saw ten thousand daffodils at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance; she would sometimes put a rainbow in the sky, just because it was a beautiful day but she thought it should be more so and a rainbow would be just the thing, it was so amusing and so different, she went everywhere and then she would come back and tell me about everywhere and I knew she embellished, not really lied, it’s just that nothing was ever the way she said: the woods in Connecticut were not beautiful at all, they were full of bloodsucking flies that left huge welts where they had bit you; and I didn’t want to live in this godforsaken village, where at least three women have left their husbands for other women and I am sure eventually she’ll be one of them, though I don’t wish her on anybody; I didn’t want to live in a village where a man left his wife to become a woman so he could marry another woman, someone entirely different from his wife; I didn’t want to live in a place where everyone is so fat and everyone is related to everyone else and the women are not beautiful at all and I am so grateful for my lovely young female students, whom I fall in love with, I am not ashamed to say, though I would never say it out loud, I never speak very loud, and another thing to hate about her, she is very loud, loud, loud! I don’t want to come home to Aretha Franklin all the time, I didn’t want to live in a place where the day ended at five in the afternoon in January and eight in the evening in July and teach at a school where the singing teacher cannot sing and the other teachers are stupid; I hate this place, this village, I never wanted to live here, I have always lived in a city, a place where people are civilized and where it is frowned upon to have a child with your sister or your brother, a place where people go to the theater, they go to movies made by François Truffaut, The 400 Blows makes them laugh to themselves, distracting them from the fact that there is not a taxi to be found on upper Fifth Avenue when you want one; she dragged me here that stupid bitch who arrived on a banana boat and my mother warned me against marrying her, we had then nothing in common and we have now nothing in common. She dragged me here, she said the children would be better off: the air is fresh, the air is fresh but I hate fresh air and all those trees, all those trees, losing their leaves, gaining their leaves again just when I thought they were dead, for I love dead trees, I love tall buildings made to look as if they were made from granite or something indestructible, something eternal, something that will always be there, a city never sleeps, there is always someone who is doing something and can never sleep and there they will be keeping alive to me the idea that to be alive is to be forever in touch with something that never ceases to be itself, that never takes a pause, that while I am asleep the business of living persists; but not her, she loves the life cycle, or so she says, though it is such an ugly way of presenting a beautiful idea: the life cycle but she is an ugly person, a bitch and an ugly person, her existence makes me sick, her name is not Lulu, her name is Mrs. Sweet and she is not that; and the children would love the fresh air and these children, I had no idea of them, I could want them or not want them, one day she said the children would like the fresh air: the children would like the fresh air. I hate fresh air, the idea of it, fresh air does not have Duke Ellington and I love Duke Ellington and often as a child, sitting in my bedroom alone, I imagined myself to be Duke Ellington, domineering and dominating my orchestra filled with brilliant musicians on the various horns and drums and then composing grand pieces of music that would never be received with respect and recognized as the works of genius that they are, then and now, the equal of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and this fills me with despair, for I see myself as Duke Ellington and I see myself as Alban, Anton, Arnold. And in this Shirley Jackson house, nestled in the crotch of the prison of a village in New England, I now live with that passenger, questionable passenger, on a banana boat, for is she a passenger or is she a banana? If she was a banana was she inspected? If she was a passenger, how did she get here? My mother was right: someone who arrives on a banana boat is suspect; to eat bananas in January is strange and a luxury. In any case, in winter, as a boy I ate Rice Krispies with sliced bananas for breakfast while sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed and the bananas had no taste that I can remember, they were bananas, a constant and an inevitability like the elevator arriving when I pushed a button that summoned it or like the maid being condescended to by my mother; in any case, life is a series of inevitabilities; in any case, one day my mother died and before that, my father died and I was all alone.”
* * *
Now and Then, Mrs. Sweet said to herself, though this was done only in her mind’s eye, as she stood at the window, unmindful of the rage and hatred and utter disdain that her beloved Mr. Sweet nurtured in his small breast for her, now and then, seeing it as it presented itself, a series of tableaux. The mountains Green and Anthony, the lake, the river, the valley that lay spread out before her, all serene in their seeming permanence, all created by forces that answered to no known existence, were a refuge from that tormented landscape that made up Mrs. Sweet’s fifty-two-year-old inner life. No morning arrived in all its freshness, its newness, bearing no trace of all the billions of mornings that had come before, that Mrs. Sweet didn’t think, first thing, of the turbulent waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. She thought of that landscape before she opened her eyes and the thoughts surrounding that landscape made her open her eyes. Her eyes, dark, impenetrable Mr. Sweet would say, as he looked into them, at first he said the word impenetrable with delight, for he thought of discovering something not yet known to him, something that lay in Mrs. Sweet’s eyes and that would make him free, free, free from all that bound him, and then he cursed her dark eyes, for they offered him nothing; in any case his own eyes were blue and Mrs. Sweet was indifferent to that particular feature of his. But Mrs. Sweet’s eyes were not impenetrable at all to anyone else and everyone she met wished that they were so; for behind her eyes lay scenes of turbulence, upheavals, murders, betrayals, on foot, on land, and on the seas where horde upon horde of people were transported to places on the earth’s surface that they had never heard of or even imagined, and murderer and murdered, betrayer and betrayed, the source of the turbulence, the instigator of the upheavals, were all mixed up, and the sorting out of the true, true truth and the rendering of judgments, or the acceptance of wrongs, and to accept that, to accept and lay still with being wronged will wear you down to nothing so that eventually you are not more than the substance that makes up the Imperial Sand Dunes in the Imperial Valley in California, or the pink beaches surrounding the rising shelf of landmass that is now, just now, the island of Barbuda, or the lawn of a house in Montclair, New Jersey. But those eyes of hers were not a veil to her soul, someone so substantial, so vivid, so full of the thing called life did not need a veil for she was her soul and her soul was herself; and her childhood and her youth and middle age, all of her was intact and complete; all of her, all of her, was not exempt from Imperial Sand Dunes or beaches on emerging landmasses or lawns in New Jersey, not so, not so, but all the same when she opened her eyes each morning that seemed not to know of the mornings that had come before, her now and her then was seen in the human light and she saw herself with tenderness and sympathy and even love, yes love, and turning her body, she saw next to her, Mr. Sweet: his hair vanishing, each strand forever lost one day at a time, a thin layer of dandruff covering his scalp and trapped in the thread-straight locks of the remaining hair, his breath perfumed by a properly digested dinner he had enjoyed the night before, but she did not see his disappointments: The Albany Symphony, The Four Quartets, The Music Teacher. Mrs. Sweet’s eyes could see Mrs. Sweet very well in the little room off to the side of the kitchen and in that place she came alive in all her tenses, then, now, then again and she was in the little room off the kitchen and she sat at the desk that Donald had made for her and placed her hands on a tablet of writing paper.
* * *
And getting a mere glimpse of her in that pose, sitting humbly as if she were at the Moravian school in Points and before her was a copy of the Nelson West Indian Reader and at the desk that Donald had made for her, her hands on a tablet of writing paper, made Mr. Sweet sigh in despair, for in truth, everyone, anyone, in the whole world knew that he was the true heir of the position of sitting at the desk and contemplating the blank mound of sheets of paper, and in a state of rage he walked up to his studio, situated above the garage of the Shirley Jackson house, and he sat down at his piano, and this was not made by Donald who had taken up carpentry as a hobby and so it was in that spirit, the spirit of love and free of worldly worth, he had made Mrs.