The Thrifty Fictionista Feels Nostalgic…

“Out on the islands that poke their rocky shores above the waters of Penobscot Bay, you can watch the time of the world go by, from minute to minute, hour to hour, from day to day . . .”

These are the opening lines of the Thrifty Fictionista’s favourite picture book, one I have loved since I was a child: Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder. Telling the story of a girl and her younger sister spending their summer holidays on an island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, it follows them as they explore the natural world around them. They swim, they sail, they laze in the sun — they even survive a hurricane that blows in one night.

I still love everything about that book: the beauty of the painted illustrations, the cadence of the sentences, every last carefully chosen word. I often wished, when I was little, that I could go on holidays just like the girls in the book, even though I lived on the other side of the world from Maine.

Like the girls in the book, I spent a lot of time on boats when I was a kid. My grandfather, who had served in the navy, was never one to be without some kind of seafaring craft, so my brother and I enjoyed time on a succession of yachts, one of which had sailed the Sydney to Hobart race multiple times, and later on an old Halvorsen cruiser. The sights, sounds and smells of moorings and marinas still make me happy.

What reminded me of Time of Wonder most recently, however, was something equally nostalgic, but completely unexpected. I was watching M*A*S*H with my kids (having got them hooked on that golden oldie after they had watched so many episodes of Brooklyn 99 I thought I was going to scream), and we came to the part of Series 5 when Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan gets engaged to Lt Colonel Donald Penobscott — and at the first mention of his name, there I was: right back in the middle of Penobscot Bay, exploring the Time of Wonder island and all its natural wonders.

At the moment, all I would like to do is dive between the pages of my old, battered copy of Time of Wonder and relive it all once again. Or even the shiny new copy I got for my own kids when they were old enough to read it.

But, since we’re in the process of building our house, that dear old book is somewhere in storage, along with many other treasured possessions of the paged variety. It has been hard not having my book “friends” around for the past nine or ten months, but now that build is drawing to close up stage I am itching to get my fingers on volumes I have wished for while living here in our tiny rental.

The Thrifty Fictionista could not do with out ALL her books, however — so old favourites and new have found there way up the 49 steps to our front door. Anna Karenina is here, rubbing shoulders with Lolita and Dorian Gray, and even The Once and Future King. There are books by authors whose writing I can’t live without: Helen Garner, Trent Dalton, Ed Ayres, Ursula Le Guin, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, Anne Lamott. And there are cookbooks, of course, too, thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigella Lawson, Poh Ling Yeow and Annabel Crabb.

Before too long, however, it will be time for us to pack these few books that did wend their way up all those stairs into boxes and take them to our new house. In Time of Wonder the girl is a little bit sad about the place she’s leaving, a little bit glad about the place she’s going to. The Thrifty Fictionista, on the other hand, is a little bit impatient to get out of the place I’m leaving, and tremendously excited about the place I’m going to — not least because it will have a library.

There will be space for books, space to watch endless re-runs of M*A*S*H, space to cook and space to dream, and even space to wonder where hummingbirds go in a hurricane.

And I can’t wait.

Tempus Fugit

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Time flies, as any wag will tell you, when you’re having fun.

But here in Sydney, as our glorious summer holidays are drawing all too swiftly to a close, my mind has turned to Virgil’s original words, written in his Georgics centuries ago.

Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.

Fast flies meanwhile the irreparable hour, as point to point our charmed round we trace.

VIRGIL trans. Rhoades

We have had a fortunate summer, sun-filled and surf-drenched, with barefoot days and balmy nights.

And while the clocks sometimes seemed to slow during the past six weeks, time — inescapable, irretrievable time — has slipped steadily, stealthily by.

tempus 1I mean it’s there, if I look for it.  I know I could find snippets of it between the pages of the dozen novels I’ve read since Christmas, or catch a glimpse or two between beach towels flapping in the breeze on the washing line. There’s probably a drop or two left in a wineglass on a windowsill somewhere, and a few morsels thrown in with the leftover salads in the fridge. I will no doubt discover a few more bits in with the various brightly coloured cards and plastic pieces of board games we’ve played during the heat of the day, or find some slipped into the pocket of one of my kids’ shorts with a couple of movie ticket stubs.

But now, at the end of my favourite month of the year, there is only a day or two left before school resumes for my girls — a new start for one, a familar return for the other — and I will admit feeling slightly nostalgic and a little bereft. The irreparable hour has well and truly flown, and I am reminded of my favourite childhood picture book, Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, about another summer, spent by another family comprising, as ours does, of a mother, father and two sisters, far away in Maine.

I know this feeling is universal and, ironically, timeless: Virgil wrote about it in the first century and McCloskey was still picking up the theme in the twentieth.

But I also know that there will be a certain heaviness in my heart and a lag in my step when we wend our way from point to point on our own charmed round this evening…down to the beach for one last swim as a family, and back home again for a BBQ and a quiet glass of wine.

That charmed round isn’t going anywhere — and I am well aware we are beyond lucky to live where we do — but it’s never quite the same once school has started again, and the long summer days have lost their laziness, and a perhaps a little of their loveliness.

Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder — for wondering, for instance, where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

ROBERT McCLOSKEY

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