Mrs. Spykman by
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Particularly as I get older, and possibly more maudlin, I see the risk of idealizing earlier life experiences.  Not only does memory fade a bit, but who would not want to embrace a warm recollection of youth?  That said, this is one of the warmest for me, and I’d like to think it was just as nice then as I remember it to be now.

As previously mentioned, I grew up in a small town in Connecticut called Bethany.  It was very near New Haven, but truly rural at the time.  One stop light, two general stores and plenty of farms and cows and horses.  It was populated almost exclusively by old Yankees and newer Yale families.   Up the road from our home was a lovely old shingled house on a beautiful piece of land owned by Mrs. Spykman (pronounced “Speakman”).  Mrs.Spykman was the widow of a prominent Yale professor and she herself came from an old Boston family.  (Her full name was Elizabeth C. Spykman and the C stood for Choate, her maiden name. Even Cabots and Lodges spoke to Choates.)  So, yes, she had a very patrician mien that could initially terrify small children.  But she did not talk down to children; rather, she talked directly to and with them and with a wickedly sly sense of humor that you either got or you didn’t get.  After a period of intimidation, a kid like me, who always felt pretty comfortable talking to adults, realized what a gem she was — which was what my parents had kept telling me.

And Mrs Spykman was a particular gem to the children of Bethany and to all children.  As to the former, and (finally) coming to this week’s prompt, Mrs. Spykman threw an Easter Egg hunt for the neighborhood every year.  And what a hunt it was!  (And religion be damned.  We (few) Jews in Bethany were equally and warmly invited.) First of all, none of this crummy, mass-produced Easter candy crap. Large, beautifully hand-made chocolate eggs and other such confectionery masterpieces; I can only imagine the cost and effort to make and obtain them.  And second, true to Mrs. Spykman’s view that children should not be underestimated, she made finding the eggs a real challenge.  Absolutely nothing was left in plain sight. When the weather permitted an outside hunt, this meant that the eggs were hidden over the many acres of her property. (She admitted that she had her “help” assist her in hiding them, particularly the ones up in trees.)  And even when the hunt had to be held inside, every inch of her home was used. I recall finding one chocolate beauty behind some books I pulled out from her paneled library shelves.

Incidentally, Mrs. Spykman was equally generous to the parents at these hunts.  She laid out a beautiful spread for them in the dining and living rooms while we were hunting for the eggs.  She also proclaimed that cocktail hour started early on Easter and made sure that drinks were served even though it was only about 11:00 a.m. — scandalous, no?

As to Mrs. Spykman being a gem to all children, after her husband died (she was in her mid-fifties), she decided to become a children’s author, writing semi-autobiographical books about her own childhood in Massachusetts.  And, very much in the manner of the Narnia and Harry
Potter books — and exactly as you would expect from her — she didn’t talk down to children, nor did she paint them all as perfect angels. Not much happened — unlike in Narnia and Hogwarts,  there was no literal magic — but I recall them being wonderful and suffused with her own delightful voice.

Mrs. Spykman’s first book was called “A Lemon and a Star,” and it is the featured image.  One of her sequels was “Terrible, Horrible Edie.” and the title alone tells you that she understood the imperfections of children.  In retrospect, I’m betting that she was the model for Edie. Here is its book cover:

Somewhere out there are my copies of these two books which she has written in.  I can’t remember what she said, but I do remember that this was no mere dashed-off autograph; she had a lot to say. I would nearly kill to find those copies again.

Happily, Mrs. Spykman’s books, though no longer in print, are available on-line and probably in used book shops.  I may have just inspired myself to get new copies and see if my memories ring true, or if, as I noted above, I am embellishing my memories in my current isolated dotage.  In any event, I would urge everyone to get these books for their grandchildren.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. John, thanx for the story and the book recommendations – will share with my children’s librarian friends.

    Trust your childhood memory, I bet Mrs Spykman and her Easter egg hunt were as wonderful as you remember!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    She does sound wonderful, John. We’ve been watching a lot of old movies on the Turner Classic Movie channel. I think she’d be played by Katherine Hepburn in the movies. Not too prim, with a twinkle in her eye, but patrician.

    I have some old childhood books, probably out of print now, that look like they are in the same vein as your Mrs. Spykman’s. Mine are part of the Betsy/Tacy series. The first was given to me by my next door neighbor (much older than me), then I bought a few for myself. Though they are “girl’s” stories, I read them to my boys when they were young and they enjoyed them too. Good luck in your hunt and thanks for telling us about your fantastic Easter egg hunts.

  3. Suzy says:

    John, I love these lavish and inclusive Easter egg hunts you describe! I have never been to an egg hunt as a child OR a parent, but I can imagine that hers would have been a lot of fun. And as much, if not more so, for the parents! I also love that Mrs. Spykman wrote children’s books after her husband died – just from the covers and the titles, I can tell they must be books that any kid (or the adult reading them aloud) would like. Hope you find the books!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Of course, we were lucky that Mrs. Spykman was so, er, “ecumenical” in her invitations. And I was able to locate a used copy of “A Lemon and A Star” via Amazon and it is scheduled to arrive some time next week. I’m excited.

  4. Marian says:

    I’m so glad you located the book, John, what a treasure it and Mrs. Spykman are. Never having participated in an Easter egg hunt, I really enjoyed your description of this lavish event.

  5. Such a beautifully written story, John…you brought Mrs. Spykman to life for us. What a character, and worthy of a movie based on her life, I’d say. I like to think how thrilled she would be to know she made such lasting impression on you, and that you shared that impression with us.

    A friend of mine held an annual Easter Egg Hunt & Garden Party in the Hollywood Hills when our children were very small. Good times.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a beautiful telling of special memories of Mrs. Spykman. I always wished Easter egg hunts were part of my tradition. Occasionally, my kids were invited to participate in some in our neighborhood. I had not heard of her books before, but as a lover of children’s literature, I will check them out for my grandkids.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Laurie. As mentioned, I ordered A Lemon and A Star last week and it should arrive this week. I am anxious to see if I react as positively as when I read it before — or at least if the child in me still does.

  7. John, I love the idea of these treasured, nuanced or not, memories carrying us forward by remaining alive in our hearts, so open in childhood. Especially the child’s way of intuiting when a grown up is treating the child with respect or talking down to them.
    That Mrs. Spykman’s generous spirit still moves in you is an inspiration to all of us who hope our impact in the world is sending loving rings outward. Thanks for sharing!

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