I’ve got a whole lot of books at home, maybe too many. I have difficulty shedding them. I still have hundreds of storybooks I had when I was a kid. But I haven’t owned any of them longer than one particular hardback that’s been on my shelf since before I knew how to talk. It fascinated me long before I could read. On the cover is a faded color painting of an appalling scene: an evil-looking crocodile with his teeth clamped on a terrified elephant’s trunk. It’s a 1912 copy of Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling.
When I was little, my parents read me stories from it. When I went to my grandparents’ house to spend the night, I carried it with me, and they would read me stories from it, too. I loved “The Elephant’s Child,” and asked to be read it repeatedly, and “The Crab That Played With the Sea.” But my favorite story in it was “The Cat That Walked by Himself.”
Later I read the stories myself, intrigued by the odd cadence, “O My Best Beloved,” and by the eccentric illustrations. Later still, I read the stories to my own kids, and they liked them, too.
In the front of the book, below a drawing of a turbaned rajah riding on a cloud, is an inscription to me, in blue fountain pen. “From Signe Chamberlin/May, 1959.”
It was rare proof that I was alive back then. In my memory, everything before the mid-1960s is a blur. The signature itself, youthful and cheerful and smart, fascinated me. She didn’t sign it “Mrs. Chamberlin,” as most adults of that era would when they were dealing with a baby or a little kid. She signed it “Signe,” as if she knew me.
I have no certain memories of Signe Chamberlin herself. When I think of her, I think of a lamp on a small table in a dark room. I don’t know why.
Her first name is Scandinavian, rare hereabouts. I always imagined her as an exotic, well-traveled woman who maybe knew Kipling himself. I imagined her with flashing brown eyes and moderne jewelry and interesting secrets. Goggles propped on her bobbed hair. A diplomat-artist-aviatrix.
All I’ve known for sure was that she was a lady who lived next door to my grandparents. I’m told she and my grandmother were good friends. I was one of very few resident babies in that neighborhood, and naturally attracted attention. She didn’t have any kids of her own, and the tubby little kid in the old coach house next door was the handiest one.
My earliest memories of being alive are of living in that little coach house back behind my grandparents’ house. From my nursery window I could see Mrs. Chamberlin’s house. There was something sinister on its roof: a steel statue of a decapitated football player. It puzzled me, and I wondered if that crocodile had gotten the head. But it wasn’t included in Just So Stories. I asked the adults about the statue, but the question seemed to confuse everybody. I later figured out, with some disappointment, that it was just an exhaust vent.
A visit to the library didn’t turn up much. The Chamberlins, often spelled, more conventionally, Chamberlain, first appear in Knoxville City Directories in 1953. Dr. Donald T. Chamberlin was a surgeon of gastroenterology who worked out of the Acuff Clinic on Church Avenue. In 1954, they’re living next door to my grandparents. In 1955, Signe Chamberlin is listed as a widow.
My Uncle Loch was just a kid then, but recalls that the Chamberlins built their house on Sherwood, and had hardly moved into it before Dr. Chamberlin died. Thereafter Signe Chamberlin lived there by herself. My grandmother worried about her, and sometimes sent my uncle over to keep her company. He recalls that she worked in the fur department at Miller’s department store. No one in the family today has a very clear fix on how old she was.
She’s last listed in 1960, after which she vanishes. Neither Chamberlin is mentioned in the McClung Collection’s almost comprehensive biographical files. No obituary for Dr. Chamberlin, no forwarding address for Signe.
Family members recall, vaguely, that she moved to Florida. Very few houses in Westmoreland have ever been torn down, but the one the Chamberlins built is gone.
Google offers a few clues. Donald T. Chamberlin seems to have been a surgeon of some note, an expert on peptic ulcers whose research at the Lahey Clinic in Boston was described in the 1930s. He worked with soldiers during the war and gave speeches and published articles in medical journals in the 1940s.
I learned the Chamberlins are remembered in at least one place in America. Augustana College is the only college in Rock Island, Ill., on the Mississippi River. Augustana is a small liberal-arts school on a pastoral campus. They offer a memorial scholarship in the name of Dr. Donald T. and Signe Nelson Chamberlin. It’s reserved for students planning careers in medical research. I called Augustana, and found no one who remembered her personally. But they were able to confirm that Signe was a student there in the early 1920s.
For the last half-century she’s been the friend I didn’t know. I always imagined I’d meet her someday, maybe at a grand ball in Vienna, or over a game of pachisi in Bombay, and that when I would, I’d thank her for the book. I’d tell her I’d read the stories to my own kids, and they liked them, too. And Signe would tell me her favorites. For a long time I didn’t know how old the book was; when I did I realized it might have been hers when she was a little girl.
But 50 years have passed. I figured contacting her might be a long shot.
I tracked her down, though. According to Social Security records, Signe Nelson Chamberlin died in March, 1999, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
She was then 93. Time flies.