I wrote this on the day that Seamus Heaney died…
Seamus Heaney came to Richard Hugo House on February 4, 1999. He was in town for readings at Open Books, Elliott Bay and at the University. He was on a big tour after winning the Nobel Prize and I think he was also celebrating OPENED GROUND, his selected poems from 1966-96. Suddenly, there he was, the Nobel Laureate, the greatest English language poet since Yeats, standing in our fledgling place, a nonprofit with more imagination than actual institution, more plans than functional space. Stuff was hanging out of the walls; the upstairs bathrooms were being put in and we were trying to get it all going. I think we had five or six classes that year and the place smelled of caulking and dry wall mud.
Why did I think he would actually come over? What made me insist that he did? I remember that my pleas involved someone at the university. I called and cajoled them, please, could they invite Seamus to Hugo House? I knew he would be really busy. Yes, I knew that his schedule was already full. Yes, I imagined that it would be tough to squeeze us into his visit.
So I asked him to come for breakfast.
I got word that Seamus had agreed. Any dream I’d ever had was starting to come true. I ran out and got some Costco tables, some tablecloths and I think we ordered some rudimentary catering. I called about twelve or fifteen literary activists, people who really cared about Hugo House and who had worked hard to get it started. I remember that Rebecca Brown was there and Linda Johnson and Linda Breneman too.
On that February morning, Seamus came to the front door. He was wearing a blazer and looked a little rumpled and bleary at the early hour. I was letting him in and, at the same time, telling him, about 1000 words per minute, what Hugo House was and what we hoped it would be and thank you for coming and we are so glad you are free for breakfast and sorry for the trouble and how long have I been reading your work, since I was nineteen and ever since and what about Yeats anyway?
My little girl, then three and a half, ran through the lobby. We lived upstairs and she had escaped, as she often did. Then, she saw me and I picked her up and introduced her to Seamus. He must have had some of the old Irish going, the link with Yeats’ “stolen child” because she was completely riveted by him. Like a foundling who was following the fairies, she trotted along behind us as we walked through the house.
We took Seamus around, showing him the place and telling him what it was going to be.
Along the way, he said, “I like it very much. It’s not one of those faintly Soviet, oppressive, overly helpful places.” I loved that and repeated it for years.
By the time we got upstairs, into the room where we were going to have breakfast, I was telling him the story of the adoption announcement that my husband Gary and I had made for the little girl who was tagging along with us. We’d written a brief statement about springing Maddy from a Romanian orphanage, and then we put this Seamus Heaney quote:
To welcome a bewildered homing daughter
Before she even knocks. “What’s this? What’s this?”
And they sit down in the shining room together.
—Seamus Heaney, from “Clearances”
It turned out that we were living in that poem, I explained. Seamus paused and looked at Maddy and then he smiled, sort of a private smile. He said something startling and sweet.
So then, after all that, we’re suddenly “in the shining room together” and we are about to sit down for breakfast. That’s when Maddy leans over to Seamus with her arms out and he takes her right onto his lap, as if she’d sat there a million times. I reach over to take her, and she narrows her brow. She turns and looks to Seamus.
“She’s fine,” he says. “Just leave her be.” He says that in an Irish sort of way—friendly. And he means it. I’m to leave her be.
And that’s how Maddy ends up sitting on the lap of the Nobel Laureate and glancing admiringly over her shoulder to watch him as he speaks.
In the meantime, I need to stand up and formally welcome him. I know all of the people in the room. I look at Seamus with Maddy on his lap. I take in my friends and the room we are in, the room of a house that is on its way to becoming a place. Right when I stand up, I am in some kind of ether. It is really something.
“I just can’t bring these two ideas together,” I say. I am starting to cry. “Seamus Heaney and here. Those two things.”
It had been two and a half years of round-the-clock work, two and a half years of convincing and imagining and asking and organizing and writing and building and inviting. I was trying so hard to make Hugo House into something.
And, then, in that room, I am standing up and introducing Seamus Heaney. It was more than I could take in.
I remember Seamus’s look of bewilderment and then a little twinkle. I remember Maddy holding his chin when he started to talk. And then, he stood up. He put Maddy down into his chair, and she didn’t budge. He thanked me and sort of took over, in that Irish sort of way again. Warm. Certain. And he recited a poem. Maybe two poems. After that, we all ate breakfast and Seamus fed Maddy from his plate.
When he was leaving, Maddy waved to him as he headed out the front door. “The man with the big voice,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
Seamus Heaney had come to visit us out of kindness. He came because he was interested in what a place devoted to writers might be like. That day, he wrote in my copy of OPENED GROUND, “To Frances ‘writing our names there’ in Hugo House. With Admiration, Seamus Heaney.” Taken from the poem “Alphabet,” the lines that surround the one he quotes are: “All agog at the plasterer on his ladder/skimming our gable and writing our name there/with his trowel point, letter by strange letter.” That’s what it must have been like, visiting our place then, a house under construction—cheerful, homespun, made to order for writers.
Seamus’ visit to the house is not really the end of the story. The rest of the tale involves a tea napkin.
Back in the early days, I had a fundraising scheme to engage donors and writers in supporting the house. Except that I didn’t want it to cost the writers anything and I wanted the donors to be super happy. I wanted things, always, to be fun and sort of mischievous too. I had read Lewis Hyde’s THE GIFT over and over and believed in the idea of creating value where none had seemed apparent.
So, I used to ask writers to give us “useless relics or personal items” that they didn’t mind parting with, and if they didn’t mind, maybe they’d include a signed draft page from a manuscript. Then, I’d get those framed and auction them off to support the house.
When Seamus came to Hugo House, we kept his used breakfast napkin. (Did I mention that we were a crafty, pushy bunch back then?) I put it in my drawer. A few months later, I wrote a letter to Seamus, asking him if it was okay to use the napkin as an item to sell in our auction.
Except that when I looked in my drawer, it wasn’t there. The napkin had disappeared and Seamus was back in Ireland.
“Now there’s an ethical dilemma,” my assistant Kirsten said.
“Wow, no kidding.” I looked at her. “Well, we can’t just ball up any old napkin—”
“Nope,” she said. She looked at me long and hard. “No we can’t,” she said.
“We’ll have to send one to Ireland and hope he sends it back.”
“Good idea,” she said.
Kirsten set up the return envelope and I revised the letter. It said something like: “Dear Seamus, if you please, if you wouldn’t mind, could you have tea with this napkin and maybe wipe your whiskers and then send it back in this fed ex envelope?”
He did. He sent the used napkin and a beautiful, signed draft page of a poem.
We created a framed piece and sold it at the auction that next spring. Linda and Ted Johnson, godparents to Hugo House, paid $3500 for it. Then, they donated it back to the house. It’s still on the wall, in the upstairs hallway.
Ah, Seamus. May he stay with us, and may we sit down in our shining rooms together.