In this series, edited for style and length, we interview people about their most precious possessions. While the objects around us may seem inanimate, our connection to them and our stories about them often bring them to life.
Here, Callie Di Nello from Wimbledon in London shares her story:
The one thing I cherish is “The Song of Hiawatha” by H.W. Longfellow. It was gifted to my grandmother in 1940.
It’s a beautiful leather-bound hardback book, and it has some lovely marbling on the cover. Presumably, it would’ve had a case at some point in time, but it came to me in this guise. The top pages are trimmed beautifully, but the bottom and the sides are very rough, in the true, old-fashioned book style.
I cherish the book more because of the feelings and the memories that it evokes. When I was little, I used to go and stay with my paternal grandmother, and she absolutely adored poetry and literature of all kinds.
She came from a poor family and wanted to better herself, so she took elocution lessons of her own accord to get a better job as a teacher. She was a very great orator, and she took great pride in the fact.
I think that’s why she chose to read me “The Song of Hiawatha,” because it was a very different culture from our English culture. And she wanted to open my mind to something that back in those times was still quite mysterious, I think, to anybody outside of the United States.
When I was a little girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, I would curl up on her lap, and she used to read me a section of the book in the late afternoon before she got dinner ready and my granddad came home. So it was our sacred time.
She used to sing “The Song of Hiawatha”; the way she spoke had just such a beautiful rhythm. She really got into her stride with this, and that’s one of the things that I loved because it was very musical. I’d have my head on her chest and I’d feel her singing. I could feel the rhythm of her heart interspersed with the words, which was beautiful. It used to relax me so much. As soon as she started reading, everything that was wrong in the world, even at that age, would just dissipate. And I can remember, climbing on her when I was 8 or 9, and her shooing me off because I was far too big, as I was all legs.
I was never allowed to hold the book. I was only allowed to look at it because it had very precious pages.
Nowadays, when you go and pull a book off a bookshelf, it’s normally a paperback with very trim edges, and the paper is very thin and slippery. But this book has beautiful thick paper, with lots of aged marbling throughout, and some very dark color plates.
The plates are very limited in their color range; there’s one in the beginning of the book inscribed with “All alone stood Hiawatha,” and he’s standing in a forest, and it’s all very dull browns and, almost, like a light switching down on an orange. It’s hard to describe it, but it’s like a soft peach. It’s a very muted color scheme, and that follows all the way through the book. But you can still see the warmth coming through.
The book was a fascinating insight for me into American history, as well as into poetry, because I thought poetry was literally one short verse, or a few verses, but certainly not a book.
The book is actually about the Native Americans and is interwoven with a lot of their teachings.
It’s almost like “The Odyssey.” It has a real mighty tone, which goes on and on, and it’s really beautifully written. But it was so very obviously not about England, or about characters from England.
For many years, I thought that Hiawatha was female, and I was quite confused by the fact that Hiawatha was going to marry Minnehaha, which in my childhood, that kind of relationship wasn’t known about. I was perpetually confused, and if Hiawatha was a man, then why did he have long hair? In the early 1970s, when I was born, these things weren’t really known about in English culture.
Hiawatha’s so sure of his love for Minnehaha that he goes up against immense family and community opinion. He wanted to marry outside of his particular tribe, and that was very controversial, a little bit like in the 1970s if you wanted to marry someone from a different culture and country. That wasn’t really the done thing in those days.
He was so determined, his heart was so true, and his spirit was so true, that he needed this beautiful woman in his life, and through having this woman in his life, he believed they could actually heal so much disharmony between the two tribes that had happened historically. I thought that was absolutely amazing, that someone would do something so brave for love, because when you are little, you think of love as being wrapped up in cuddles. Nothing else beyond that kind of love exists when you are that age.
The story has really important lessons. I think it speaks about the disharmony we feel between countries and between communities.
Maybe we all need to take a step back from social media and the constant bombardment every single day and take some quiet time and just read, even a page a day, which would only take maybe five minutes at an absolute maximum, and just read, and absorb the stories. It is a very powerful tool.
Well done to H.W. Longfellow.
Do you have an old object you cherish (pre-1955) that shows fine craftsmanship and traditional values? If you’d like to share your story, please write to Lorraine Ferrier at Arts@EpochTimes.com with a short description and we’ll be in touch.