A book cover caught my eye. I struck up a conversation with the author, Margaret Verble. Her book, Maud's Line, is historical fiction. "Oh," I thought, "we have something common." I questioned her, thinking about my own piece of historical fiction set between the midwest and Utah, a story about land, drawing comparisons to her work. The connection bolstered my confidence.
As lunch time approached the crowds around Mr. Berry's table thinned. I approached just as he finished signing a book and handing it to a woman. I picked up Harlan Hubbard Life and Work, The Unsettling of America, and The Farm, anxious to talk with this man I admire.
He glanced at me, taking in the three books of his that I held in the crook of my arm. I hesitated and he signaled with his eyes to approach, when a white haired man with 2 young people moved in and took over. The man just began talking to Mr. Berry without any acknowledgement of my presence. Mr. Berry glanced my way with what seemed to be sad eyes.
The man filled the space between myself and Mr. Berry with accolades for his children and they seemed to be in unabashed awe of the author, as I was, like starry eyed children. Then the man's wife approached.
I disappeared into waiting.
As writers are wont to do, I realized my opportunity to take notice. The family of four became overpowered by the older woman's need to promote her children. She had short, blond hair tucked behind her ears, revealing a book of wrinkles cut into her face. She wore a white summer shift with a design of green chains that reminds me of Kentucky horse country hierarchy. Over this she wore a burnt orange, down vest. It seemed unnatural in such a setting of book fair folks in jeans and sweatshirts.
She launched into a description of the connection between Mr. Berry and an absent daughter. She described the girl as "sitting at your knee" as she reached out in a psuedo-familiar way to touch the back of Mr. Berry's hand while he autographed a book that she pulled from a stack without even looking at the cover.
Mr. Berry glanced my way as I remained invisible to this family. His eyes seemed to convey some compassion. Having read That Distant Land, Hannah Coulter, The Country of Marriage, Leavings and Imagination in Place, I hoped to convey a similar compassion toward Mr. Berry. Would that the woman expounding in melodramatic form over her own children had actually read his work. I am only suppose that she hasn't by her apparent disregard. She might not have approached him with such brazeness as to assume she knew him better than she really did. After all, he went back to signing her book and said, "What was your name?" and "How do you spell that?"
My compassion reached beyond Mr. Berry at that point as I listened to the woman because I know her. I once was her, making every effort to stage my children's success at any given venue and in any form possible. I remained unperturbed while Mr. Berry finished writing and handed the book to the woman barely acknowledging her or her family.
He looked at me, his hands going out in an open invitation and an apology, exhaustive in tone and compassionate in style. I told him I loved his essays about the land. I told him I worked with a little organic farm. He said, "The land is all we have." As he signed my copy of Harlan Hubbard I told him about a conservancy project to save and restore Mr. Hubbard's studio. He said,"They found paintings that were just strewn about in there," his voice sounding incredulous at the valuable works found in a falling down building.
As he closed the last of my book purchases I said thank you
and only then became aware of other people around me. One man looking as if he were seeing some foreign animal in a zoo from some far off place instead of just a farmer who writes about his farm.