A Well Loved Book by Perry Adleman Clennon
When I was 10, the experience of finding a well loved book imprinted on me as completely as a chick on its mother. Today, when I search through stacks of used books or comb through library shelves and bookstore offerings, I wait for the thrill of discovery I first felt in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania in 1966–the year my sister, my father and I came to be in a funny little junk store. My memory of how we got there is hazy. I know it was a warm summer day. And I do recall that it felt as if the three of us were on a treasure hunt. My father steered my sister and me past the broken toasters, discarded toys and Danish Modern furniture of the day to a trove of used books. My sister, who is two years older than I, and my father, began sorting with great enthusiasm through the stacks. I wasn’t sure what they were looking for, but since they seemed so sure they would find it, I joined their search. New stacks began to appear as my father and sister opened the covers of dusty volumes, read a paragraph or two, nodded knowingly, and put a select few aside. I was beginning to feel something akin to panic when my sister handed me a grey linen book not more than an inch and a half thick and said, “This one looks good.” Red cursive and block print letters beckoned from the cover:
MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY
I opened the book and under the first chapter heading, “9:15 A.M. – 11:11 A.M.”, was the engaging sentence:
“Miss Pettigrew pushed open the door of the employment agency and went in as the clock struck a quarter past nine. She had, as usual, very little hope, but to-day the Principal greeted her with a more cheerful smile.”
I leafed through the book, written in 1938, and was captivated by stylized black and white line drawings of a world and time far from Chestnut Hill and 1966. My sister was right: this one did look promising. I don’t remember anything about the rest of our day or much else about that summer. What still surprises me, is how my 12 year old sister and I became enthralled by the story of one day in the life of an aging spinster. We wanted to inhabit the universe where Miss Pettigrew went from eking out a meagre existence as an unloved, prim governess to becoming the savior of a flighty, glamorous nightclub singer named Delysia La Fosse.
Logic dictated we find other books by Winifred Watson. That we find out who Winifred Watson was. In a pre-Google world we could not. Miss Pettigrew, Delysia La Fosse, Nick the Cocaine Snorting Gangster and Joe the Maker of Corsets were our companions alone. (We have since found we were not alone. Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Daywas reissued by Persephone Classics in 2000.) To us, these characters are as familiar as relatives. They have supplied us with a verbal shorthand. As in, “Your apartment is very Miss Pettigrew” or “She looks like Delysia La Fosse” or “He is her Nick.”
This small gray book has become an unlikely touchstone in my life. When I come upon it on my shelf, I am once again that prepubescent girl wearing plaid pedal-pushers and red sneakers looking to my sister for guidance. I am standing with my book-loving father and I am grateful to Winifred Watson, who imagined one perfect day.
Perry Adleman Clennon has co-written various episodes for animated children’s television shows. She lives in Santa Monica, California with her husband and 14-year-old twins. She loves to read and write.
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