Words in Honor of Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014)

Words in Honor of Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014)

September 8, 2014

Words in Honor of Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014)


Words in Honor of Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014)

I went to Dorothy’s home town in Sneden’s Landing for her interment and memorial. Although she had a long and rich life, it’s still very hard to know that this is the end. Among the people who spoke were Peggy Friedman, publisher of New Directions, two neighbors, and a man from a program in Harlem for which Dorothy had organized great support.

With Dorothy in 1994
With Dorothy in 1994

Some people wanted a copy of my remarks, so I include them here:

This is the first time I’ve come to this town and to this church without Dorothy, and it is hard.

I first met Dorothy Salisbury Davis in 1986, when we both were taking part in the first national conference on women in the crime fiction world. Earnest young feminist that I was, I talked about how women smile as a sign of subservience: see me grin, you don’t have to take me seriously.

Dorothy responded with a wry tweak at me, but then gave me her own incandescent smile. I fell in love and never fell out of it. Over the years, she often remembered that first meeting, that smile. She told me that when her parents came to the orphanage where she’d been placed, looking for a boy who might grow up to help on the farm, her mother looked down at Dorothy’s cot. Dorothy smiled up at her and both parents forgot about wanting a boy, although Dorothy grew up doing her share of farmwork.

Once when she’d made lobsters for dinner, I watched in awe as she carried the pot of hot water, weighing about 40 pounds, to the back door to toss it into the yard. She said, “You never lose the muscles you get from milking cows as a child.

Dorothy said her first writing came when she was about four, standing on tiptoe to write as high up on the wall over her head as she could. Her mother, who had a fierce passion for her daughter, might not have relished the wall scribbles, but she did everything else in her power to move Dorothy from life as a housemaid or tenant farmer into the world of writing and the arts.

Dorothy’s mother died while she was still at college, but her influence on Dorothy’s life was deep and abiding. Her mother was an Irish immigrant; her brogue can be heard in at least one character’s voice in almost every book. More than that, her mordant tongue—“You can get used to anything, even hanging, if you hang long enough—“ lives on in the biting words of many of Dorothy’s characters, likeDetective Bassett In Black Sheep, White Lamb, who says of a woman that “she pecked over her obsessions like a crow at a corpse.”

Our friendship deepened during long walks along the Hudson and in late night conversations over whisky—until a few years ago Dorothy could easily outdrink me so I never tried catching up. We’d stay up until one or two and vow the next morning that we wouldn’t do that again—not until the next time.

We didn’t agree on everything—for reasons I never understood, this wise, insightful woman was a Mets fan. Still, I loved her enough to give her a Mets warm-up jacket for her 80th birthday.

I could write a book on what I learned from Dorothy about life in this world, the comic and the tragic and the valuable daily in-between. She introduced me to Flannery O’Conner, a writer she prized over most others. O’Connor said “Fiction is about everything human, and we are made out of dust: if you scorn getting yourself dusty, you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

Dorothy was like O’Connor, with a tragi-comic sense of life as well as an awareness that villains and heroes are neither wholly one nor the other. Like O’Connor, Dorothy was willing to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dusty in the business of exploring and writing about human frailty and strength.

Dorothy often said that she identified more with her villains than her heroes, because she understood their motivations better. As I reread her novels, I think what she meant is that she understood what lies behind villainy.

Her novel Where the Dark Streets Go tells the story of a priest who is summoned to the side of a man dying from a knife wound. Most crime writers would have pursued the murder inquiry, but Dorothy treated that as a backdrop to the struggle by the priest to understand himself, his passions, his calling. Through Father Joseph, Dorothy laid bare her own struggles in a naked and highly courageous way—getting herself dusty with a vengeance.

Dorothy sometimes played a writing game with me that I think of as, “Whose Voice Are You?” If we were at a restaurant, for instance, observing a waiter deal with a demanding patron, she’d say, if you were writing that story, who would you be? She herself chose the waiter, vibrating between an angry diner and a furious chef.

“Whose Voice Are You” helped deepen my sense of empathy for the people around me and by extension for the characters I create in my own fiction. Dorothy saw—widely and deeply—but she didn’t judge. That’s a lesson I still haven’t mastered.

The last time I saw Dorothy, near her 98th birthday, she told me she’d decided what saint she wanted to greet her when she died. I expected her to say Francis of Assisi, since she had a special devotion for him.

“Teresa of Avila,” she told me. “If God could welcome someone of her rebellious and questioning spirit, I know he can welcome me.”

Teresa, your patron child has come home. I hope you were there to greet her and lead her across the river.

If I were going to write that story, I would do it in Teresa’s voice. I would have her see that incandescent smile, and fall in love forever.