Apr. 18, 2010
The Red Coat
It's sleeting when we walk from the white church,
the ground frozen, the brown grass brittle.
I am somewhat back in the long black line of mourners,
behind my sisters, their husbands and children. I see it
all as it's happening as though it's not happening.
The roses on the polished oak of my father's coffin
are sheeting with ice and I know the red coat
is too thin to keep my mother warm. She's not shivering.
She walks across the breaking grass behind the coffin
slowly and with great dignity—without her oxygen tank,
her mouth open, a rose filled with snow.
She's walking toward something silver and mechanical,
like a fence around the grave. There's a canopy imprinted
with the logo of the funeral home, Herndon and Sons,
and four rows of white plastic chairs and the artificial grass.
A blue tarp covers a red clay pile of earth. We aren't supposed
to notice these things. Bits of color in wool hats and scarves
and the red coat. My mother was determined to wear the red coat
which I'd bought for myself but gave to her because she loved it,
because it is the color that he loved on her,
because I could not bear her not having anything she loved.
On this day in 1906 an earthquake struck San Francisco. The earthquake began at 5:12 a.m. and lasted for a little over a minute. The world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso had performed at San Francisco's Grand Opera House the night before, and he woke up in his bed as the Palace Hotel was falling down around him. He stumbled out into the street, and because he was terrified that that shock might have ruined his voice, he began singing. Nearly 3,000 people died.
It was on this day in 1924 that the first crossword puzzle book was published, setting off a craze that has continued to be popular to this day.
On this day in 1775, Paul Revere made the famous ride that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about in the poem that begins, "Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere / On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; / Hardly a man is now alive / Who remembers that famous day and year."
It's the birthday of the man who gave his name to CliffsNotes: Clifton Keith Hillegass, (books by this author) born in the small town of Rising City, Nebraska (1918). He got a job with a textbook company. He left briefly to serve in the Air Corps during WWII, and he came back to his old job, but with new job duties, including traveling around the country buying and selling used textbooks. He was in Toronto for work when he met Jack Cole, a publisher and bookstore owner who published condensed versions of 16 Shakespeare plays, which he called "Cole's Notes." Cole suggested that Hillegass publish his outlines in America. So Hillegass agreed to pay Cole a royalty, and he changed the name to Cliff's Notes (the company eventually dropped the apostrophe in "Cliff's"). He borrowed $4,000 and convinced a friend at a printing house in Lincoln to print 33,000 copies. He designed the black and yellow cover, and he distributed that first batch out of his basement — his wife wrote letters to all their contacts in bookstores, and his daughter stuffed envelopes. That was in August of 1958. By the end of the year, he had sold 58,000 copies.
Hillegass didn't write the summaries himself, but he loved literature, from classics to science fiction to mysteries. He wanted his books to make literature more accessible to students. He did not intend for CliffsNotes to replace reading the book in the first place, and was upset that they had gained a reputation as cheat sheets. He put a signed note in each pamphlet that read: "A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts."
For years, CliffsNotes have frustrated high school (and sometimes college) teachers whose students don't bother to read the books, knowing they can answer quiz questions and write essays based on the pamphlets' extensive plot summaries, character descriptions, and discussions of theme, motif, historical context, etc. Some contemporary authors aren't too impressed, either. Arthur Miller said about the abbreviated versions of Death of a Salesman: "It takes more time to read the notes than to just read the play. What is the point of it all? Notes are notes, the play's the play, never the twain shall meet. I would suggest everyone take a deep breath and read the works these notes are talking about. There's so much comment about everything and so little experience of the thing itself."
CliffsNotes has evolved with changing technology. These days, if you log on to its Web site and look up Pride and Prejudice,you are encouraged to download a CliffsNotes summary of Jane Austen's novel to your iPhone or iPod touch.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®