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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Letter to My Sister About a Book

Dear Deborah,

Good morning! It isn’t even 7 o’clock yet, I haven’t been outdoors to water the garden, but I just finished reading The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Story of Surprising Second Chances. Thank you so much for getting and sending me three signed copies of the book that arrived in yesterday’s mail (I’ll keep the one inscribed “For Dog Ears Books”), and if you’re still in touch with the author, please tell her how thoroughly I enjoyed her story. You told me she is a very down-to-earth person, and that quality shines through her writing.

So Amy Dickinson replaced Ann Landers, eh? Now I’m curious to read her column and see what kind of advice she dispenses within the confines of “Ask Amy.” She is very forthright in the book about how often advice to her as a single mother, on finding an appropriate man, fell short of the mark.
...I have spent years looking, not looking, expecting, not expecting, being proactive, making phone calls, admitting to crushes, denying attraction, and leaving it all up to the Universe. None of this works.

Then her next sentence says: “But it all works.” And throughout the book, during all those years (17) that she was raising her daughter without a mate of her own, it’s clear that Amy was never alone. She had the “mighty queens,” as her daughter named them—her mother, sisters, aunts and cousins, with only one uncle and a couple of male cousins in the lot, and she had the comfort and security and familiarity of her small town, in addition to big city life, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Chicago. Her family was a constant, and her small town was a constant.

Deborah, you are so right! Freeville, New York, is a lot like Northport, Michigan! The winter population of Northport isn’t much more than Freeville’s 400-some. (I’m too lazy to look back for the exact number she gives.) You and I didn’t grow up in that kind of place, but you’ve heard enough from me in recent years about Northport. Freeville’s one church is next door to its school; Northport’s school is across the street from two of the four church buildings (five congregations) in town.

The creek? You know we have a creek, too! Outside our village, cherry orchards rather than dairy herds are the rule. And no “private” family event is too small for neighbors to share:

In small towns, everybody knows where the bodies are buried—literally. Our town cemetery contains headstones bearing the names of local families, and I know the intimate details and familial backstories of many of them. Of course the downside to knowing your neighbors’ stories is that they know yours too.

Late in the book this theme recurs:
I’m surrounded by people who are not impressed with me. They don’t care that my syndicated column has twenty-two million readers, that I’ve been on the Today show—that I’ve locked horns with Bill O’Reilly, or that my name was once used as a clue on Jeopardy! They remember what a doofus I was in high school.

It’s true, there is no place to hide in a small town, where people see you both all dressed up—for weddings and funerals, graduation and concerts—and in your old dirty work clothes much of the rest of the time, Northport has its share of single mothers and of kids who grow up but can't tear themselves away or can't stay away permanently. It's a good thing that young people want to be here, isn't it? Not long ago a new resident of Northport told me how much she loved the town and how great it could be if this and that were done. Now I’m thinking that people in a small town are a lot like the town itself: we have plenty of room for improvement, but the point of love, it seems, is not to lose sight of the good all around you. Though she couldn’t wait to “get away” and actually got as far as “London, England” (the way her mother always said it), Amy Dickinson came home again, and she describes her little hometown lovingly. The way she wrote about Halloween, for instance...

Her father—what a trip! Don’t want to give that away, though, since I have those couple of signed copies to sell today at Dog Ears Books. And I haven't touched in this letter on the mother-daughter relationship, which is really the core of the book. I’m happy the story ended where it did and in the way it did. Did you have tears in your eyes at the end? I’ll bet you did, sister! We are related, after all! Thank you again so much!

Today is Cars in the Park and, at 11 a.m., the Blessing of the Pets. It's a beautiful day in Northport. Wish you were here!

Love always,


Deborah said...

Thank you Pamela! I think Amy would love Northport just the way you do, understanding the community and life there and loving it. One of the things I love about your blog is getting to know the people who live and visit Northport. I can't live there - now, anyway - but I visit daily through your blogs.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi again, Deborah. I'm glad you didn't mind my "letter" to you being public! It seemed appropriate for this book and author, family and small towns so important to her and to her story. I want you to know, also, that every time I drive by Krikat Farm I think of you there! xxxooo,

Karen Casebeer said...

Pamela...Although I'm one of those who reads your blog every day, but seldom comments, this was a great post. I'm not sure if Deborah is your real sister or not, which can be defined lots of ways among women, I loved your book review within your letter. Thanks for the work you put into your blog. I always enjoy your thoughtful posts. While I haven't visited your picture blog yet today, I'm looking forward to another picture. kc

P. J. Grath said...

Karen, Deborah and Bettie and I all have the same mother and same father. I am the oldest. My parents brought Deborah home from the hospital when I was a couple months shy of three years. They had me sit in the big upholstered “Daddy” chair, put a pillow in my lap, and placed my baby sister on the pillow. Years later, when I held Deborah’s first child on my lap and looked down into his face, I was instantly carried back to that long-ago moment. He looked just like my sister! But when I looked at a picture of Matt’s father’s family when his dad and siblings were young, I saw that Matt looked just like his father, too! It was a revelation. Up until then, I had never understood when people said a baby “looked like” someone else. Even when people told me that my own son, the cutest baby ever born, looked like me, I was skeptical. So yes, Deborah and I are sisters in the biological sense as well as in all other ways.

Thank you for being a regular reader, Karen. You know I’m looking forward to your book and your blog, both of them promised for the future!

Anonymous said...

That really is a lovely post, and it had two good results. I'm going to write a real letter to my sister who loves real letters and hates email, and I'm going to email the Mighty Queens of Grandmont who made so much difference in my life!

It's very good to have sisters--and brothers--of all kinds as we stumble through the more confusing parts of life.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, I'm proud to have inspired you to write to your sister. Yesterday's mail brought me a real letter from a friend with whom I have never exchanged e-mail at all. It's something we agreed on years ago. With my mother and sisters and stepdaughters and other friends, there are letters and e-mails both, plus surprise books in the mail from time to time. It's all good. People in our lives...holding onto the connections...staying in the conversation. Yes.

Anonymous said...

This is very inspiring, Pamela. I like the format of writing a letter to your sister.

This line stands out strikingly: Now I’m thinking that people in a small town are a lot like the town itself: we have plenty of room for improvement, but the point of love, it seems, is not to lose sight of the good all around you.

Thank you for this!

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for visiting, Kathy. I just had an idea! You know the practice of "exchange students" in high schools? How about "exchange bloggers"? You could come to Leelanau, and I could go to the Keewanaw! They even RHYME!!! What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Pamela, I laughed when reading your comment yesterday evening. (Thanks also for sending an email...)

The reason for the laughter is that--just about the time you must have commented--Barry and I took out an atlas and looked up your exact location. Then I spent the next twenty minutes trying to decide about actually going downstate for Dad's birthday and driving over to see you & some other fine bloggers.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like it's going to work now. Too many work obligations and other obstacles. Plus I've been on too many trips recently!

But I truly like your exchange program idea. At least sharing a visit...

Just have to put it on hold for a while longer.

P. J. Grath said...

The "exchange blogger" concept seemed brilliant when it first flashed through my mind, but putting the concept into practice would be way more complicated. Would you have to run my bookstore? Would I have to do your township job? And what about our husbands? Ah, yes, you belong there and I belong here, and somewhere, somehow our paths will cross but not in the very near future. Lucky we can meet this way for now, eh?

Anonymous said...

Lucky indeed... We shall meet some day!