Well, I did it. The book is finished. Lilian Baker Carlisle: Vermont Historian, Burlington Treasure — A Scrapbook Memoir is, finally, gosh-darn really real!
I truly didn’t believe it was real until the moment I first held it in my hands at the book launch. It’s always just been a one-dimensional design on the computer, even the printer’s proof was digital. Now I can literally flip through the pages instead of figuratively doing it by clicking the “next” arrow. And, oh, it feels good.
The Chittenden County Historical Society, for whom I wrote the book, held a celebration this past Sunday, June 25th, at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, where Lilian Baker Carlisle worked as personal assistant to museum founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, from 1951 to 1960.
Lilian, who died 11 years ago, was well-known and well-loved in Burlington. The full audience at the book launch was evidence of that. Here’s what I said to them:
I have to admit I wasn’t sure if I would ever see this day. When Sarah and Kathleen handed over that old brown filing box almost exactly two years ago, the one filled with papers, photos, news clippings, notecards, and letters, I thought, “where on earth do I begin?!”
There was no plan to how this project might come together — I was given free rein on the structure of the book, the theme it would focus on, and how ultimately I would design it. I knew only one thing at the beginning: that it would resemble one of Lilian’s scrapbooks.
I knew nothing about Lilian before looking through that box, other than the few details I’d been told during the interview and first meeting. I looked at that file box as my introduction, an ice breaker, a getting-to-know-you exercise with Lilian. While going through it little by little, sorting and organizing into pretty binders, I quickly gathered two things about Lilian: She was a strong advocate for women, and she looked to the future while treasuring in the past. A working mother in the 1950s? A grandmother who took one of the first computer classes in the 1960s? I was impressed! This woman was cool! Ta-da! I had my theme: She was a woman ahead of her time.
Now it was time to begin to piece things together. More than once I asked Lilian to guide me to create something she would be happy with and I trusted it would happen. And indeed, slowly, organically, the design structure and an outline came together; first based on the contents of the box, then the scrapbooks. I traveled to Burlington to Lilian’s — now daughter Penny’s — home almost weekly last summer into the fall, going through every scrapbook multiple times, tagging pages and photos and copying quotes from newspaper articles. Lilian’s story began to fill out.
Then came the photo sessions with the very patient and organized Tim Clemens. Week after week, we met at the Lakeview house to carefully scan and photograph pages of scrapbooks — eight decades’ worth — the edges of some literally crumbling at our touch. But finally, I had an outline of Lilian’s life in visual form saved on my computer.
Last fall and winter was spent bent over my laptop, looking through hundreds of photos, organizing them, cropping them, and positioning them chronologically in a visually pleasing way. Next the outline, every big and little thing Lilian had achieved over her long lifetime, had to be woven into an interesting narrative. It took a
fewdozens of re-writes to get it to right.
Then came the dance of making the text and graphics vibe together on the page. I think every one of those photos have been cropped, resized, and moved dozens of times, if only by millimeters this way or that.
And then… editing! Proof-read, edit, re-write, re-position, proof-read, re-write, re-re-position. Documents, both digital and physical went back and forth between Rutland and Burlington, between me and Diana and Sarah and Kathleen, forth back and forth. For weeks! And every word changed or photo shifted potentially bumped a sentence onto another page or hid a word behind a photo. It was a complicated dance indeed.
But here we finally are, completed book in hand, one I am very proud of. And other than giving birth to my two beautiful children, and writing my graduate thesis, it was one of the most difficult — at times painful — joyful experiences of my life. In fact, as many creative enterprises do, it has felt like a birthing process itself.
And through it all, I kept in my mind the picture of Lilian, that day in 1970 when she was cradling her own “baby,” the silver book she had lovingly labored over for years. The pride and joy on her face in that photo drove me on, as I imagined myself holding this book written in her honor.
I want to thank Sarah — so on top of things, able to juggle so many things at once — and Kathleen — she knows her grammar! — and Diana — a very thorough reader — for giving me this opportunity and for being the friendliest team of editors ever. And also, thank you to Diana, for opening her beautiful home to me and going through all her mother’s letters to provide quotes and details that made Lilian come alive for me, and hopefully for you, the readers.
To my family, Brad, Hali, and Taben, thanks for putting up with me during some stressful moments over the past two years, especially when I’d come home from Burlington zombie-like with exhaustion.
But above all, I want to thank Lilian. Learning about her amazing and full life, writing about her, and sharing her with others through this book, has been an incredible honor and privilege. Lilian, who died 10 years before I even learned of her existence, but who I now feel I actually know, serves as an model to me – – as a writer, as a historian, as a woman. Her determination, her fore-thought, her caring soul, her talent, her love of life and family are an inspiration. I know I have grown as a researcher, writer, and designer through this process, but I’ve also gained understanding from Lilian herself…
Thank you, Lilian Baker Carlisle for reminding me that a woman can indeed all she dreams of doing, but that it’s perfectly acceptable — and probably advisable — to take 94 years to do it.
So, yay! All done.
Now, what shall I do next??? Hmmmm… maybe this?