When I was 13 years old, in 1977, my then 25-year-old sister Eileen took me on a weekend trip to New Hampshire. She thought I would enjoy meeting her friend Jerry Salinger. She met him several years previously, having shown up on his doorstep unannounced, declaring, "Hi, I'm Eileen Shea." He'd invited her in and they had become fast friends, maintaining this friendship for several years by correspondence. We took the bus down together from Montreal and Jerry picked us up at the bus stop.
He was a tall, slim, older man who suggested that I call him Uncle Jerry, so I did. I remember his three dogs, Rosie, Boots and Amy. He ran a one-mile loop on his property three times each morning, and I said that I wanted to join him but didn't think I could run that far. So what we worked out was that he would knock on our door before setting out, and by the time I got dressed and outside, he'd be coming around for the third loop with the dogs and I would run that last mile with him. I found the mile hard. He was a good runner.
I remember his movie collection. He had shelves filled with those large metal canisters containing reels of 8-mm film. I remember watching at least two movies, The Party with Peter Sellers and The Red Shoes with Moira Shearer. I remember him being vaguely annoyed because everyone always wanted to watch The Red Shoes.
We wrote to each other from time to time over the next 14 years. I wrote when I felt like I had something to tell him, and I always got a response within a few days. In 1991, my then boyfriend (and now husband) Peter Kertes and I were driving to a wedding and decided to pop in to Cornish, N.H., and say hi to my friend Jerry. I thought that as my sister had done years before, I could ask local residents where his house was but, over the years, the residents of Cornish had become fiercely protective of his privacy and, in the end, we had to phone him from a phone booth. He drove out right away to meet us and we agreed that we would follow him to his house, but, like an absent-minded professor, by the time we got into our car and turned around, he had disappeared. He came back some minutes later, rolled down his window, and asked, "Car trouble?"
We ended up meeting his new wife Colleen, sharing martinis, going out for dinner, and spending the night. This was a dream come true for Peter. The Catcher in the Rye and, to a lesser extent, Salinger's three other books had had a profound influence on him and had defined his adolescence. I remember him lying in bed in Jerry's house, tingling with excitement, unable to sleep and wishing he could share this other-worldly experience with his writer-brother Joe, who had first turned him on to Salinger's books.
Jerry was reluctant to talk about his work but did tell us that he wrote every day, from early morning until lunch, and he showed us where he wrote, in a room overlooking his wooded property. We saw the typewriter that he worked on, the one that made the holes for periods in the letters that he sent me, as well as the two closet-sized fireproof safes that stored his writing. When I asked, "How is the writing going?" he said, "Oh, Evie! You don't ever ask a writer how the writing is going."
Peter asked if he ever re-read his books. He told us that occasionally he pulled them off the shelf to make sure that everyone was all right.
We wondered sometimes if Salinger felt trapped by the reclusive life and privacy that he had chosen and so vehemently protected. But Jerry told us how he sometimes enjoyed travelling to New York, anonymously putting his nickel in the bus, and not having anyone recognize or bother him.
When I wrote asking if it would be all right if Peter's brother Joe wrote to him, knowing what his answer was likely to be, he wrote back, "I'll pass up, if you don't mind, any personal exchanges with the young writer you mentioned. No loss for him. I can't think of anything good that ever comes of serious writers - that is, writers not just out for the usual big splash - knowing each other personally, and almost invariably harm, subtle or otherwise, comes of it. If this young guy matters to you, and if you sense that he wants to do some real work, on his own terms, not necessarily or even likely the world's, tell him to stay clear of everybody in the profession or on the fringes of it. My sentiments, anyway. Not, I'm aware, not altogether widely approved or thought salutary." Not that that stopped Joe from writing him. But, much to his chagrin, Joe didn't get a response from his hero.
When we invited him to our wedding, he wrote to us saying, "I'm cheerless at weddings, but almost entirely, wholly, and I'm convinced it's not a bad idea at all to spare people I like the sight of me standing around, mostly mute, with a drink I don't want in my hand."
I feel tremendous gratitude for the books, and curiosity and hope regarding those safes. Goodbye, Uncle Jerry.
Eve Shea is a retired physician who, with husband Peter, has two children and two dogs.
Special to The Globe and Mail