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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Poetry, Music, Visual Art in My Personal Distant Past

Saved by my mother

The much-folded sheet of lined, looseleaf paper holds faint lines written in pencil. In what year? Sometime in the early 1960s, but there is no date. Here is a poem I’d forgotten I wrote:


Behold the tragic hero.
I have wronged him, so he thinks.
And yet his head is held up high
While troubled spirit sinks.

He wants no pity, no not ye,
Nor any sympathy.
It is a point of honor
That he act courageously.

His tears are locked within his heart.
He mustn’t let them show.
That I should great him thusly!
Oh, such a cruel blow!

I too have known this feeling
Of despair my little man,
And others have been knowing it
Since first the world began.

Sitting in the corner,
His back is ramrod-stiff.
Come here, my silly little lad,
And give your mom a kiss!

The twist at the end was undoubtedly influenced by short stories of the mid-twentieth century.

And then there is this --

When the sheet of paper is folded up again or turned over, a division problem appears: 675 divided by 12, yielding a solution of 56.25. I think I know the reference to the problem, and that would date to 1963 or 1964, the year my violin teacher persuaded my mother that I needed a better instrument if I were to continue to make progress. Payments of $56.25 a month for a year purchased a very nice old French violin, made by Claudot in 1899. I had the violin until the late 1980s, when I sold it to finance my first trip to Paris.

Visual art was not my strong suit. We non-artistic types had a few art classes in junior high school, but I certainly never signed up for drawing or painting or anything like that in high school, so this piece my mother held onto must have been something I did in junior high. I seem to remember that we chose pieces of colored construction paper from a box and arranged them, then painted the resulting arrangement. 

Such were my limited girlhood talents, precious in the eyes of my mother, I guess.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Book Pairings

Immigration and our southern border
[Note: EXCEPTIONAL CLOSING (as the Parisians call it): Dog Ears Books will be closed this Sunday through Wednesday, Sept. 26. After that we will be OPEN for regular 11-5 hours Tuesdays through Saturdays through the Thanksgiving weekend]

“Pairings” — it’s a familiar idea these days in certain social and professional circles. What wine best accompanies an herbed goat cheese, a rib-eye steak, or a rustic apple tart? Which craft beer is a good accompaniment to seafood gumbo or a hearty chili con carne? The aim is to pair the glass to the dish so that their contents bring out the best in each other, the better to delight the palate. 

I was groping toward the notion of book pairings back when I suggested that readers of Hillbilly Elegy would find their reading experience deepened by going from J. D. Vance’s memoir to Nancy Eisenberg’s historical survey, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. The two books represent two different genres and different degrees of complexity, one a close-up, personal view, the other an objectification through history’s long lens, each book’s content helping to shed additional light on the other. I didn’t then have the phrase “book pairings” in mind, but it helps me now to clarify what I had then and have continued to have in mind when I recommend two books together.

Geology and beach stones
An obvious pair jumped out at me this summer, Lake Michigan Rock Picker’s Guide and The Last Ice Age and the Leelanau Peninsula. The latter provides about as much geological background as most people want, while the former helps to identify stones picked up on the beach. Nothing too heavy here. Again, however, the books are complementary. Both are also small and inexpensive, just right for the car glove compartment or bicycle panier.

Sometimes it might be helpful and salutary to effect an unlikely mating. How about the Death and Life of the Great Lakes, followed by Lake Michigan Mermaid? Narrative poetry does not have to thought of as an antidote or challenge to science but can be seen as a helpful adjunct, a reminder and acknowledgement of personal values and emotional attachments. And why should we have to leave beauty or feeling behind to face facts? What a foolish notion!

Facts and stories. Sometimes two books offer both together to enrich a reader’s experience. One example for me of is that of La Frontera (a book of history and many personal stories) paired with Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers (focused on current events and stories of the experiences of two specific immigrant boys). Anyone concerned with questions of border security and/or immigration from Latin America would find these two books together providing an intense course of learning. 

A recent addition to my Books Read 2018 list, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, left me more than a little exhausted with its historical examples and survey of current disasters-in-the-making. (That is not a criticism. I heartily recommend the book.) In conclusion, Diamond gives a few reasons for cautious optimism and specific prescriptions for action, but I needed more, something inspiring at an emotional, on-the-ground level, and I’m finding it in Wendell Berry’s The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings. Any of Berry’s books — fiction, nonfiction, poetry — is a good introduction to his thinking and writing and living, and these essays are no exception. Berry and Diamond cover much of the same ground but from very different starting places and with very different perspectives. 

The suggested pairings above, I see, have neglected fiction, and fiction pairs well with nonfiction, as I learned in an undergraduate course entitled “History Through Literature.” In fact, in looking back at my own posts I see I recommended If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss, to accompany Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash. Look here to read about the novel and see my reasons for putting it together with the memoir and the history book. 

And now, here is a completely natural, intuitive pairing of two novels. Have you read both? If not, why not?

Anyone else have a suggestion for a pair — or a trio — of books to be read together? Comments and additions welcome!

We need to change our ways!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Save Your Kids the Trouble?

I stacked boxes on front porch
My mother was not a hoarder, by any stretch of the definition, but she did accumulate a lot of stuff in her home of 68 years. Three children grew up there. Also, my mother loved clothes and jewelry and knick-knacks and holiday decorations. She was a reader — books, newspapers, magazines. (No, she did not stockpile the old newspapers and magazines: those were recycled, as were many of the books that didn’t come from the library.) Photographs, clippings, old family-designed and -crafted holiday cards, and other souvenir mementos meant a lot to her, too. So when she died recently, my sisters and I had a lot of sorting to do, and we haven’t finished the job yet. Not everything that feels significant during grieving is personal, as I wrote in my last post, but a lot of it really, really is.

And there were some wonderful, heartwarming surprises awaiting us! One priceless treasure was a scrapbook our mother had put together in the middle 1940s, when she and our father were dating, then became engaged, and eventually married in Chicago and embarked on their new life together in Aberdeen, South Dakota. My sisters and I had never seen this scrapbook before. It was hidden away (why hidden? simply forgotten?) on the back of a top shelf. Along with saved slips of telephone messages and theatre programs and tickets, our mother had written notes on the pages to which the souvenirs were pasted. 

On the first page of the scrapbook is a theatre program from early 1946. My father (not yet my father) had come by train from South Dakota (where he led a survey crew for the Milwaukee Road) to Ohio to visit his father and stepmother in Columbus and stopped in Springfield on his way. In Springfield he and my mother (not yet my mother) attended a play. There is a note left at my mother’s office (she worked as a secretary after high school graduation; the college scholarship she was awarded would have paid half her tuition, but her parents could not afford the remainder) saying that “Mrs. Gilbert” had called. That would have been my father’s stepmother in Columbus. Subsequently my mother made a trip out to South Dakota to see my father, and they became engaged. We girls did know about the trip and the engagement. As my mother said, she knew she’d better come home with a ring after traveling so far to visit this man!

A letter dated August 23, 1946 (not pasted into the book), from the woman we always called Auntie Grace, our mother’s best friend and roommate before Grace and Gene were married in 1945, was signed “‘Becky,'” Gene & the girls,” her maiden name being (I think) Becker, and she and Gene were married in August of the previous year, so the twins must have come along right away. “Just a year ago today you arrived in Kazoo for my wedding. Seems like years have passed since then!” She writes in reply to Nora’s news that she and Lloyd are engaged to be married. “Believe it or not I wasn’t even surprised — just ever so happy for you. I guess I’ve sort of known all along that “this was it.” It just sounded “right” for some reason or other. I called Gene right away and when I said “Nora’s engaged!” he just said “Yes” — he’d expected it too.” Grace/'Becky' hopes Lloyd will be transferred from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Chicago so the two couples will live closer to each other. That didn’t happen, but in 1950 my father changed jobs and went to work for a smaller railroad (from the Milwaukee Road to the Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern), and he and my mother and I moved to Joliet, 45 miles southwest of Chicago, where my two sisters were born. 

newspaper wedding story and wedding corsage
On the page with the newspaper story of their wedding, with my mother (not yet my mother) looking radiant and beautiful, she had written by hand on the now-brittle page, “My lovely double white orchid corsage — many envious glances were directed at this!!” (My mother was the queen of exclamation marks all her life!) Wedding luncheon at the Blackhawk Hotel in Chicago: Grace and Gene were there in Chicago for the wedding, along with my mother’s mother and Phil Mueller, best man. Who was Phil Mueller? HIs name is unfamiliar to me. 

“On Decoration Day [this would have been 1947] we moved into Ted & Anne Streibel's while they were out of town for the summer, Ted on the Sperry Car, & Anne & children visiting. August was a terrifically hot month — and Dr. King says I’m right about being pregnant! On one of the cooler evenings we took in our first rodeo — Edna joined us (Bob in Madison now).” She was pregnant with me — barely — and so in a sense my parents’ “first rodeo” was mine, too, as I attended in utero.

Birth announcements, holiday letters, theatre programs, newspaper clippings — she saved everything, but there is nothing more pasted into the scrapbook after the first childless Aberdeen days. Once the first baby came along and then the move to Joliet, Illinois, and, in time, two more babies, my mother’s paper mementos remained loose, in boxes and envelopes. For example, as a senior in high school, I received a National Merit letter of commendation, along with five others in my class. Two or three were awarded scholarships, but our superintendent is quoted in a newspaper article as saying he is proud of all of us. (One of the other letter recipients, a boy from my homeroom, I learn died two years ago. How is that possible?) Ephemera, all of it.

Her daughters only saw our mother’s scrapbook after she died, when one daughter discovered it high in a bedroom cupboard. Had she forgotten she had it? What if my mother had decided to clean out those cupboards and “get rid” of all that old stuff, “to save her kids the trouble”? I shudder to think of what we would have missed!

Not all objects remaining in the family home are equally precious, but each speaks to me of my mother: 

Child scribbles -- mine? -- in an old looseleaf cookbook
Battered box heavy with coins to be donated to church ladies' circle
Souvenir Leelanau shirt from July visit
Cast iron skillet perfect for cooking a single egg
A grade school class picture, she 2nd from L in 2nd row
With her brother, stepfather, mother, and sister
Not stylish, but warm -- and she loved it!
Also, going through these things together has been and continues to be an important grieving and bonding experience for my sisters and me. Our mother’s death was unexpected. I thought she would live to be 110. She was fine only the day before she went to sleep for the last time. In one way, you might say it’s “trouble” or “a lot of work” to go through her things, and so it is, but that’s not the whole story. These tasks are valuable to her children in their mourning process.

Sister Deborah
Sister Bettie

Monday, September 17, 2018

Death and Donkeys

Donkeys outside Arizona ranch bookstore
Death, donkeys, and books, that is. Let me explain.

We can probably agree that life is a mystery, and love is strange, but nothing is stranger or more mysterious than death, and not that every death feels the same, for each brings its own universe to bear upon the bereaved. When one’s mother dies, whatever her age, a watershed comes to divide life into before and after. And, as I’ve noticed with other people in their days of mourning, the most trivial and contingent encounters can become magnified into significance within the aura of death.

My son and my mother
My mother would have been 96 years old in October. She was still living in her own home, doing her own laundry and fixing her own meals, very active socially and in her church (overlapping domains, those), enjoying meals out with friends, spending time with family, reading books and newspapers, working crossword puzzles, and caring for her two companion cats. We (daughters and sons-in-law) worried about her going up and down basement stairs to do laundry and tried to persuade her to think of selling the old family home and moving to an apartment, but she “wasn’t ready,” she said. And so one day her youngest daughter took her to the doctor (she was fine) and downtown to pay her property taxes, and later that day she talked to her middle daughter on the phone. I would have been calling or sending her a postcard from Lake Huron or both the next day but instead got a message that she had fallen asleep in her chair and not awakened. 

A good, long life. A good, peaceful death. And yet, now, for her daughters, nothing will ever be the same again. 

An old cookbook I had never seen before
The Artist and I had looked forward to a little getaway after our work-filled summer, so we were over in Alpena, after an overnight in East Tawas and breakfast with friends, when the news came to us. We had crossed the state west to east on Tuesday, recrossed it from east to west on Wednesday, and covered most of the lower peninsula from north to south on Thursday. I took with me the book I’d taken to Lake Huron, A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin. In every story that mentioned death, that event jumped out at me, but Berlin’s writing, so moving, affected me deeply on every page. Yet the sentence that engraved itself in my heart, because of the time of my reading, was a tearful exclamation from the author’s sister, dying of cancer, which Berlin made part of one story: “I’ll never see donkeys again!” 

My mother will never see Michigan again. I’ll never see my mother at Sunrise Landing again. Donkeys…. Yes, I can easily imagine shedding tears at the thought of never seeing donkeys again, although in my case it would probably be horses. My mother, though — I don’t think she had time for a thought of anything she might never see again, dying peacefully in her sleep as she did. 

She had a lot of clothes but wore this jacket a lot

My husband and I were staying in my mother’s house, the house she occupied for 68 years (I lived there for almost 16 myself), when I came to the end of Lucia Berlin’s book, and I needed something else for those dark but wide-awake 3 a.m. hours. My next choice might seem a strange one — a murder mystery, Critical Mass, by Sara Paretsky -- but circumstances made it a logical choice. Not only are Paretsky’s novels are all set in the Chicago area (my mother lived 45 miles SW of the city), but my mother and one sister and I (the other had a scheduling conflict) had gone to see and hear Sarah Paretsky in person onstage in Traverse City where she appeared as part of the National Writers Series in the fall of 2013. 
This particular volume was also a copy signed by the author and with one of my mother’s address labels on the front-facing endpaper. So whenever I picked up the book, and as I turned the pages, I was reading a book my mother had held and read, written by an author we had gone together to hear speak, and when Paretsky described farms, cornfields, and small towns south of Chicago in the novel, the terrain described (minus murdered bodies) evoked memories of my Illinois girlhood, 4-H and all, and all of us were connected by the physical book as well as the story it told. 

In her kitchen
Years ago, someone I knew only slightly wrote a quasi-philosophical paper around the time of her father’s death, and I was perplexed by some of the books she mentioned in the paper, books that spoke to her at that time in tones of deep significance but that seemed to me tangential at best to her theme. I understand her state of mind better now. In such circumstances, everything is highlighted, foregrounded, important — but by “everything,” I don’t mean contemporary world events as much as the weather, the season, chance encounters and random remarks.  

Both of these books are well worth reading, whether or not you pick them up in a state of grief. For me, though, they will always have added depth, due to the associations that will always cling to them for me. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Review: HARD CIDER

Barbara Stark-Nemon’s new book, Hard Cider, is quite different from her debut novel, Even in Darkness. Both novels present characters based on members of the author’s family, and Hard Cider will undoubtedly hold readers’ attention, as did Even in Darkness, from start to finish, but the differences are at least as numerous as the similarities. The earlier novel was set in the 20th century. The new work, its story unfolding in the present, is much closer to home.
Most of the action in Hard Cider, except for a brief New England section, takes place in Michigan, primarily in Leelanau County around Northport. The new novel is closer to home in a figurative sense, as well, with much of the material coming from the author’s personal experience. Marriage, family, heartache, and dreams. When you get beneath the surface, none of it is as simple as it first appears.

Abbie Rose Stone, first-person narrator, retired from a dual career in teaching and speech therapy, dreams of launching a commercial hard cider business from the family vacation home outside Northport. Locals, summer people, and repeat visitors to the area will recognize many familiar village and township scenes. Knitters, quilters, and craftspeople will be especially charmed to find their favorite Northport shop, Dolls and More, prominently featured, proprietor Sally appearing under her own name. Other names have been changed, and a few characters may be imaginary. Nevertheless, the novel’s locale and cast will be presently vividly to any reader’s mind, including those readers who have never set foot in northern Michigan. As for readers who know the territory — well, if I were far from home — say, in Paris — reading Hard Cider, I would be transported to northern Michigan.

Sally at her shop, Dolls and More, with beautiful yarn
Retirement and an unexpected inheritance have given Abbie Rose Stone an enviable freedom. While her husband’s law career still keeps him tied closely to Ann Arbor, Abbie Rose spends as much time as possible in Northport — its beaches, woodsy trails, and orchards (apples, though, not cherries). Her children grown, she’s ready to make her next dream come true.
Whenever I could, I haunted Charlie Aiken’s orchard — first in May, when the young trees burst into blossom, their sweet scent drawing bees to pollinate, and then as fruit set and the schedule of spraying and fertilizing marched into June and July. I helped out frequently, especially on a day after a vicious thunderstorm damaged orchards in a swath across the whole peninsula. The youth of the trees and ou solid spring pruning kept the danger to a minimum, but Charles, James, and I spent a whole day trimming and clearing. 
But Abbie Rose loves the Leelanau peninsula in all its seasons, even savage winter.
The lake no longer pounded out rhythms to the falling snow, and the softened fields, laced tree branches, and muffled sounds combined to create a winter wonderland that never failed to thrill me. No snowbird behavior for me; I loved northern Michigan in the winter precisely for its harsh beauty and isolation. Short days and long nights brought me inward, forcing a welcome shift to indoor work with my hands....
Winter orchard
Parents' worries do not end when children grow up and leave home, however, and her sons still give Abbie Rose cause for concern, especially Alex, the boy whose growing-up years were the most difficult. Whenever she hears his voice on the phone, Abbie’s heart gives a lurch. She can’t help wishing to have this son living nearby again, pursuing his own physician assistant career, of course, but also serving as consultant to her cider business. Steven, her husband, given his already strong reservations about Abbie’s dream project, is even more dubious about his son becoming involved, i.e., “dragged into it.” This, then, is the Stone family. Close, loving, happy, and successful, but with undercurrents of tension and worry. 

The novel opens with a scene from the family past: the Stones return from vacation, the youngest child only a babe in arms, to find their Ann Arbor home burned to the ground, the work of an arsonist, everything in it lost. Other significant pieces of the past emerge gradually, in bits and pieces. Happy families are not all the same. Each family has its particular complicated history, and this is certainly true for the Stones. 

Neither do all complications lie in the past. Like so many downstaters who come to know Leelanau as their vacation “happy place,” Abbie Rose comes to Northport for peace and quiet, for a chance to unleash her creativity but also to “get away from it all.” While Steven is in Ann Arbor and the boys off leading their own lives, she cherishes her winter lakeshore solitude. Who, then, is this young woman appearing one day on the road? Where did she come from, and what is she doing here? Abbie is curious but can’t help feeling a bit irritated, too, by the stranger’s presence.

Antique apples at John and Phyllis Kilcherman's farm
Hard Cider steers clear of murder but provides plenty of mystery. Moreover, since this is not a formula genre novel, “solving” the mystery does not end the questions to be faced by the book’s sympathetic cast of characters. Instead, as life throws them curve balls, old decisions have a long reach, as new knowledge makes new demands on Abbie and her family, challenges we realize will continue long after the novel’s final page.

If you’re like me, you read a variety of books for a variety of reasons: to learn about the world or to escape it; to find characters like yourself and/or  unlike yourself; to stimulate your mind, calm your soul, challenge your preconceptions, and/or calm your fears; to immerse yourself in a place or to take you far from where you are. Barbara Stark-Nemon’s new novel will satisfy booklovers’ needs and desires in these and other directions, I’m sure, depending on individual starting points. 

Besides, don’t you love being Up North? Or wish you were? Or wonder what it’s like? There’s that delight, too.

Looking toward Lake Michigan

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Contradiction, Ambivalence, and Time

Open Doors
To believe both A and not-A, the truth and non truth of any statement, is to believe in an impossible state of affairs, says logic. If “I am standing in the rain” is true, “I am not standing in the rain” cannot at the same time be true. Logic takes a binary approach to reality and separates the realm of fact from that of non-fact, with no wishy-washy grey areas. Is it possible to believe a contradiction? What would it take to do that?

Someone I know personally though not intimately distinguishes his life’s acquaintances as either “wonderful” or “terrible” human beings. These judgments continually astonish me me. I have been unable to determine what broad, general categories of sins or characteristics decide him to banish any particular individual into the “terrible” group, but I’ve heard enough specific examples of those to be astonished that anyone manages “wonderful” status. His is a world of angels and demons — or, we might say, the worthy and the not-worthy. I have no trouble seeing more or less goodness and badness in people, but can anyone be purely good or evil, without flaw or without some spark of goodness? 

Often I think of the story (and I know I’ve written about it before, sometime in the 11 years this blog has been in existence) within Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, of St. Peter and the stingy, selfish old woman. When she dies and arrives at the pearly gates, the old woman is asked by St. Peter if she has ever, in her entire life, done a single thing for another human being. She answers that she once gave a peasant an onion. After that story is told within the novel, a character thanked for a kindness demurs, saying something like, “It was only a little onion, such a little onion.” 

Such a little onion!
In certain situations, though, a little onion might make all the difference, no?

True, not true. Worthy, not worthy. What about desirable and undesirable? As Labor Day approaches, I think a lot about ambivalence. Is ambivalence a kind of contradiction existing in the realm of emotion rather than belief? To want more and at the same time not-want? To be relieved and simultaneously disappointed? 

Summer’s end calls up conflicting emotions in many of us, but an emotion is not true or false. It just is. There’s no arguing with it. Sometimes we can talk ourselves out of an emotion or be talked out of one, but that only means we stop feeling a certain way, not that we never felt that way. It was, and now it isn’t. As, when the rain stops, I don’t doubt the rain of the past hour.

But can we feel satisfaction and dissatisfaction at the same time? Or does our spirit alternate, tugged first one way and then the other, between two opposing and contradictory feelings? Psychology identifies what it calls double approach-avoidance conflicts — wow! — in which two choices are presented, each with both attractive and repellent features, such that the closer we approach one decision, Choice A, the worse it looks, while the one we are tempted to reject looks better and better — until we change course, turn and approach Choice B, only to see its negative aspects more and more clearly as we get closer, while Choice A’s appeal increases with distance. An example might be moving to an exciting new place vs. staying in a familiar, comfortable home. Talk about ambivalence!

Time, however, offers us no choice. We don’t get to choose whether or not we will traverse the days and years of our lives. 

Do we want summer to end? Wish it would go on forever? Well, feel one way, feel another, feel both ways at once or in turn — it doesn’t matter. The nights turn cool, the leaves turn color. That word: turn. Turn, turn — “To every thing there is a season.” In time, there will be return. Until there isn’t.

Good night, Aretha. Good night, John. We’d have kept you with us longer if we’d had a choice.