If Emily Dickinson had had a sense of humor, she might have written “A Girl Named Zippy.”
And if she’d been born in 1965 in Indiana.
That’s when and where Haven Kimmel arrived on the planet and spent her childhood in the small (population: 300) town of Mooreland — the subject of her fun and funny and subtly poetic memoir.
Her father, she explains, nicknamed her Zippy after a roller-skating chimp he saw on TV because she zipped around the family home like the monkey.
Of course, the book might just as easily been called “A Girl Named Haven.” What sort of name is Haven? Kimmel doesn’t explain, and it’s one of many questions, large and small, that she declines to address.
Why, for instance, did her father wear a .38 in a shoulder holster? (Not addressed.) Why did her mother sit seemingly rooted in a corner of the couch, day in and day out, reading books, mainly science fiction? (Not addressed.)
There is a light tone throughout this memoir. It is an evocative entertainment, and Kimmel clearly loves her parents, her sister and her brother and enjoyed growing up in their presence. But there are darker elements of her story that get into the book only on the edges, such as her father’s “wicked, wicked bad temper” or her mother’s inertia on the couch.
Kimmel finds delight — and communicates it well — in the odd ways her mind worked as a child. And, definitely, she was an odd child:
— There’s that baby photo of her on the book jacket in which she has hardly any hair and the hair she has is slicked up in a sort of proto-mohawk, looking, really, like a girl called Zippy.
— There’s her contemplation of her future: “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up. There were just so many things I was good at. For instance, I could run across the living room and dive into a headstand on the couch, with my legs slapping the wall behind it. Sometimes I would make my parents sit and watch me do this fifteen times in a row.”
— There’s her request one Christmas to Santa Claus for “a doll with two buttons — one that made it a real baby and one that turned it back into a doll.”
— And, then, there’s her description of the time she ate a bag of carrots for lunch, didn’t feel well and walked down the street to the diner where, for a short time, her mother worked as a waitress: ” ‘Mom! I need some water!’ The man at the counter, perturbed, pushed his water my direction. I saw up straight enough to take a drink, raised the glass to my lips, and vomited, right into the water….After I finished making that one last little heave that concludes a throwing up, I found myself quite interested in the contents of the glass, and turned it toward the window to hold it up to the light.”
An odd child, without question. But, then, if you think about it, we all were odd children.
Childhood is a time of being at loose ends and of experimentally testing life. We all, as children, lived inside our heads in a constant flow of ideas, images and impressions — surely very much like the river of experience that Kimmel describes.
So her story isn’t just a delightful read with many laugh-out-loud moments. It resonates with the reader’s early life.
I don’t think I ever vomited into a glass of water and then lifted it to the light to examine the orange throw-up. But I did other quirky things. You probably did, too. And so, I’m sure, did Emily Dickinson.
Dickinson knew about dark shadows on the edges of existence, but, if, like Kimmel, she’d wanted to tell a playful tale of her early life, she might have written about one girl who “had her beautiful black hair tied back in a pony-tail and her grey eyes…so wide and bright she looked like somebody had just made her up out of an idea.”
“Made her up out of an idea” — that’s not the sort of resonant phrase one expects in memoirs of childhood.
Or Kimmel’s description of a sunrise Easter service: “There is a kind of wildness that grows up among people who have gathered in the dark, and we all felt a little giddy.”
Typically, Kimmel doesn’t address where her poetic sensibilities come from, but there’s a hint of it toward the end of the book.
Walking home after the sunrise service, she writes, “Mom stopped me just as we reached Reed and Mary Ball’s house.
” ‘Look! Do you see those flowers? Those are called crocus. Aren’t they beautiful?’
“I couldn’t think what to say. I’d see the crocus every year of my life, and they always just looked like fierce little weeds to me. ‘They sure are purple,’ I managed, which caused Mom to nod her head as if that were the whole point of them.”