When the world was perfect // Memoir of a childhood on a Virginia farm has a fresh,timeless quality

Published May 27, 1990|Updated July 6, 2006

ONCE THERE WAS A FARM . . .A Country Childhood Remembered

By Virginia Bell Dabney

Random House, $17.95

From time to time, there comes along a memoir that is well nigh perfect. It is innocently sweet, evoking dreams of an age when life was young and the world, which was no more than a mile or two across, was perfect.

That is what Virginia Bell Dabney has accomplished in the memoir of her childhood in the 1920s and '30s on a Virginia farm, 25 miles northwest of Richmond.

Vallie, as she was known, was the youngest of three girls in a highly unconventional family. She lived on the farm with her mother, two sisters and their maternal grandfather. Their father lived in Chicago where he was an insurance actuary. He visited the farm during the summer and at Christmas _ she was the product of one of his visits.

She does not know why her parents adopted such an unusual living arrangement. When her father retired in 1934 (she was 15), he moved to the farm and, though not a farmer, lived there until he died in 1947.

When she was a child, Vallie wanted to be a writer and continually struggled with poetry. She wanted to go the University of Missouri School of Journalism, but her mother sent her to Virginia State Teachers College, which she abandoned after one semester.

Of that, she writes, "At that point what I'd had of college life was nothing I wanted to continue. I would go out into the world of the city, find a job of some kind and write in my free evenings in my rented room."

Now 71 and living on the land in the Allegheny Mountains, author Dabney is publishing her first work. Her prose is lyrical, her stories are delightful. Her own words say it best.

"I lived on this farm until I was 18, and returned to every weekend until I was 21. When I moved away from it permanently, I remembered stillness, the smells of corn in bloom and honeysuckle. I sometimes woke in the night thinking I heard a muffled cowbell down the street. The sight from a moving car of a path or a dirt road disappearing through fields and trees would haunt me with a longing for days."

Some of us, the lucky ones, think of "home" as the place where we lived when we were between 5 and 10 or 11 years old. That was the wonderful time when we began to understand there was a world around us and beyond _ and there was much that we did not understand but wanted to learn.

Dabney is at her best when she recalls those childhood years. When she was 10, Daphne, 22, her oldest sister, married a neighboring farmer, unbeknownst to the family. They returned from the ceremony and told Vallie, then went into the house.

"I was so full of excitement that I went galloping off, skimming bushes and leaping stumps, running through the pasture and startling the cows chewing cuds in the shade. By the time I had made the circle from machine shed and holly tree to barn to woodshed, down the road and around the mailbox and back I saw Daphne and Rob come out on the porch. I tore round to the back door overflowing with goodwill and said to my mother's back, "Mother, Rob said that now he's my brother.' I went up to her and she turned slowly, making no attempt to hide her quivering chin and flowing tears."

Childhood innocence inevitably gives way to adolescence and its numberless pullings and tuggings. Dabney reflects that; her writings also reflect growing wisdom and diminishing awe of her widening world. Nevertheless, the sweetness remains.

Once There Was a Farm . . . has a Grandma Moses quality that will keep it fresh in print for as many generations as Grandma Moses' American primitives.

- Jules Wagman, retired books editor of the old Cleveland (Ohio) Press, lives in Jacksonville.