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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Babysitting for a Book

One summer morning in 1958, while walking to the tennis courts, I heard a young woman in her yard call to me. She had seen my picture in the local paper and wondered, if besides playing competitive tennis, I babysat, too. Home that week after a tournament in La Jolla, I agreed to watch her baby the next afternoon while she, a new mother, ran errands.

The house had Spanish architecture like the Fullerton library: red-tile roof, white walls, interior red-tile floors, and numerous arches. In the foyer was an alcove of books. The baby was asleep, so I looked at books on the shelves. One caught my eye, with a name I recognized from freshman English with Mr. Fledderjohann. He had identified Ernest Hemingway as an author like Jack London: both men journalists and fiction writers, known for their simple, direct styles.

The book I took from a shelf that afternoon was small. On its aqua blue cover were a gold-embossed marlin and Ernest Hemingway's signature, also in gold. I am looking at the book now, a 1952 first "college" edition of Old Man and the Sea. And that afternoon long ago, I was half-way through the 127 pages when the baby cried, required a change and her bottle. I needed to be a babysitter, not a reader; and yet I felt desperate to finish the story and not wait for a library copy. When the young mother returned, I asked if I could borrow the book, which I promised to return the next day. She said I could take the book for babysitting that afternoon and enjoy a novel she had loved.

That copy is one I kept for decades, and although a confirmed bibliophile, I've gone through phases when I gave away countless books to students and friends. Old Man and the Sea was one of them. But recently I found the same 1952 hardcover at the local library's used bookstore. The price was $1.50, the amount I would have earned for babysitting that afternoon 62 years ago.

At fifteen The Old Man and the Sea deeply affected me, as it had millions of Americans when the entire story first appeared in Life Magazine, and 5,318,650 copies were sold in 48 hours. Then in January 1961, I learned of Hemingway's suicide and could not believe the man who wrote Santiago's story of courage had killed himself. William Faulkner called Hemingway's book a small masterpiece: of the old man who had to catch the fish, and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of the fish…and he (Ernest) made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. Hemingway's tale of an old man's journey and his return, intersected with my life at fifteen and had a transformative effect?

Only much later would I better understand the man behind the mythos and his effect on me. TBC

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