On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Celebration and Sorrow, 1950 (An edited excerpt from SNUSVILLE)

    The Lilleys always ate dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas at Alma’s parents' farm with her brothers and sisters.  Joanie wouldn't have called her mother’s clan a particularly merry group, except for the rare times when Aunt Louise played the piano and a few voices joined in. 
    The winter holidays when Joanie was twelve were memorable.  The Lilleys arrived for Thanksgiving dinner with Alma's four pies--two coconut creams and two pumpkins.  All the women brought their specialties to the dinner.  Uncle Roy's wife, Lillith, always made the dressing, a mild concoction to suit Scandinavian tastes with a hint of the exotic in her addition of chopped black olives.  Louise, being single and somehow exempt from more rigorous cooking, brought relish trays and rolls, while Aunt Rose's husband, Helmar, furnished the giant bird which he baked with loving attention to a crisp, golden brown.
    Just as Joanie began to take her place at the kitchen table to eat with her younger cousins, Louise grabbed her arm and marched her into the dining room.  "You're too old to eat out there with the kiddies.  It's time you sat with the grown-ups."  Well!  Joanie’s face burned with pleasure though no one seemed to notice this big change.  The meal didn’t begin until her grandfather gave the blessing, ending it in some Norwegian phrase, and after her plate of food was handed to her, Joanie ate her dinner quietly listening to the adults talk.
    "Can't make a nickle with hog prices so low."  This from Roy, who always complained loudly about his farming.
    Uncle Ralph nodded his agreement to his brother's concerns but as usual didn't say anything.  Grandpa ate with quiet appreciation.  Joanie’s cousin Geraldine and her boyfriend Tony Marello sat together, while the others were segregated--the men sitting near Grandpa and the women around Grandma.  Geraldine's voice occasionally rang out, competing with Roy's.
    Joanie felt free to look around the table and observe how nice everything looked.  The good china had been taken out of the built-in china cabinet with the leaded glass panes.  Haviland, her mother said, ordered by her grandfather when he built this place in 1915.  No decorations, however.  Such things were considered frivolous by her grandmother.  After dinner the women cleared the table and washed dishes.  Grandma had left immediately following the meal to take her nap, while Grandpa sat in his rocker and dozed, his face lightly touched by the lengthening rays of the sun.
    Christmas ordinarily would have been a repeat of the Thanksgiving celebration with the added excitement of gift-giving, but this year was different.  Grandpa Ekdahl died ten days before Christmas of a massive coronary thrombosis that killed him instantly.  It happened on a Saturday night just as the Lilleys were beginning dinner.  Joanie answered the phone and heard her uncle Ralph asking for her mother in such a strange, hollow voice she felt frightened.
    She went to her grandfather's funeral, her first, with her parents the following Saturday at the Lutheran church in Bethany.  She didn't hear a word the minister said, but at one point Ralph, silent Ralph, bent his head into his hands and shook with sobs.  Nothing could have impressed her more.  But the others, as far as she could tell, were as dry in the eye as the stiff old body with the dry browned skin that had been Nels Ekdahl.
    After the funeral and the trip in the painful cold to the burial site on a windy hill, everyone hurried back to the farmhouse for refreshments and subdued conversation about matters that Joanie decided were not quite fitting.  Shouldn't they have talked about her grandfather?  She continued to think about him the following week and how he had passed out of their lives so easily, so completely, his passing hardly noticed except for the slight, tearful convulsion of Uncle Ralph the day of the funeral. 
    Christmas plans proceeded.  By the time the Lilleys arrived for the occasion at the farm, packages were clumped around the base of the tree and the table was set for dinner.  A large ham was being carefully whittled into slices by Helmar and placed on the huge platter around kumla, grated potatoes cooked in ham broth.
    After dinner, the men congregated in the living room while the women cleaned up the dishes.  Joanie wandered into the dining room and saw Geraldine, sitting in grandpa's big wicker rocker by the low window overlooking the side garden.  Joanie remembered Grandpa dozing there Thanksgiving, caught by a pale November sun as in a distant floodlight that exposed his weathered face.  No sunlight streamed in today.
    "Hi, Geraldine.  I wonder when we can open the presents."
    Her cousin turned.  No smile, but her voice was pleasant.  "You know this bunch.  They can't let themselves have any fun until all the work is done.  Heaven forbid they leave a dirty dish or do anything out of order."
    Joanie knew in some deep, hidden place what Geraldine meant.  She wanted to know more.  "Why are they like that?"
    "Mainly because of the old man.  At least, he was the worst.  Rigid as a post, no give in him that anyone could see."
    "Didn't you like Grandpa?"
    "Sure, I did, kid; you don't get it.  He was a softie inside, but these Norwegians can't let anything get out.  It has to explode from them.” She cocked her head at Joanie.  "Ever hear the word love mentioned around here?"
    "No."  It was true!  Geraldine had said something marvelous and true.  She knew about emotions exploding, too.  Sometimes her feelings ran so strongly in her she would have to cry or give her mother a hug.  Alma would chide her.  "Get control of yourself.  Do you want to end up like poor Paul, raving?"  Her father’s brother had had a “breakdown.”
    "Oh, yeah, I know about these Norwegians," Geraldine nodded sagely.   “They used to have prayer meetings here, and I witnessed one of them.  My God, did they ever howl then!  They'd fall all over themselves confessing their sins."
    "Grandpa did all that, too?"  Impossible to imagine the man in the throes of such fervor.
    "He was the most emotional of them all.  Didn't you ever see him cry sometimes?"
    "I've heard Mom say that Grandpa was tender-hearted and cried, but I never saw him do that."  Her own eyes filled with tears that overflowed as she thought of her grandfather, his whole life bound into uncomfortable silence by something.  What?   
    Christmas proved to be exciting, even this year.  Aunt Rose had drawn Joanie’s name and gave her a bottle of Tigris perfume, a grown-up scent that thrilled her.  Grandpa, though not mentioned by anyone, seemed to be present in spirit, quietly approving the sedate celebration that marked all their big occasions.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Love Affair with Old Things

A couple of old things, Jeanne and Max
    I read many years ago that Cary Grant had a thirty-year-old top coat he wore regularly because it was perfectly good, and he liked it.  His view about something old echoed my own feelings.  As children we used to sing a ditty about making new friends but keeping the old; “one is silver, the other gold.”  Do children sing this anymore?  Do people treasure old companions, old clothes, old furniture, and other old things?  I do.
    I live in a part of the country (the South) which is known for its appreciation of the past.  Yet for all the Daughters of the Confederacy, the treasured heirlooms, the frequent viewings of Gone with the Wind, this culture is also succumbing to a tendency that runs rampant through our society.  Since the 1920s, when "modern" became a revered word, Americans have come to value whatever is the latest anything.  Perhaps this is because of our inventiveness, our “go get'em” philosophy which has propelled this nation into the forefront of virtually every technological and scientific advancement.  Commercials touting detergents or cosmetics or vacuum cleaners insist we buy their "new, improved" product.  We don’t question the validity of these spiels; yet I understand ad people in Britain seldom use the term "new" in their ads.  They know that their potential customers would ask, “What's wrong with the product, then, if it keeps needing improvement?”  In most places around the world people are allowed the natural phenomenon of getting attached to old things.  They recognize that old things are appealing and important in a way very different from the novelty and shine of the new, that old things can become as valued as old friends.
    For some mysterious reason, I have seldom been lured by new things.  I like old furniture, jewelry, and clothes, and when we moved a few years ago to another state, we had our thirty-five-year old washer hauled off for practical reasons.  It was ugly and noisy but still working.   I also have a predilection for old cars as long as they’re reliable.  That along with my love for other old things probably stems from a two-fold influence–my appreciation for classic design with the integrity from a more substantial age coupled with my parents' attitude about possessions.
    My mother as a homemaker considered herself a “good manager,” carefully husbanding my father's modest income.  Because of her energy and ingenuity, we were able to live in a nice house amid comfortable, well-kept furnishings. Other than his family, my father took care of only one thing in his life: he gave fanatic attention to his cars.  For Dad, the automobile was a wondrous thing which he never took for granted.  To his dying day, his car was his horse, groomed and petted like a champion of its class.  He spoiled them–no car deserves to have its engine wiped off after a trip to the store.
    If I recited a list of all the aged things which surround me, it would sound like a not-very-particular museum inventory.  I live among furniture and accessories that may be anywhere from twenty to three hundred years old.  Since moving to Tennessee many years ago, my husband and I have scouted antique malls, thrift shops, and garage sales to find treasures.  I admit I do appreciate the electronic age and many of its products.  In fact, I have a useful supply of those new-fangled devices, so I don’t consider myself a Luddite, but I also put those inventions that are constantly becoming obsolete in the proper perspective.
    This brings me to the relationships which we nurture throughout our lives with care, love, and tolerance–those of our friends and family, and even our animals.  (We’ve had only two dogs in our married life, a poodle that lived to be seventeen and currently, Louie, a peppy fourteen-year-old papillon.)  But longevity in relationships applies most especially to our partners in life.  The fact that my husband and I have lived happily together for so long make us something of an admired novelty for our grandchildren, who seem amazed at anything quite that long-term.
     Unlike the Europeans, the Orientals, the Africans, for example, most Americans have not understood the value of old things.  As a people we tend to abandon anything that begins to get troublesome--whether it's a couch, a house, or a spouse.  But old things reflect our personal values as well as our collective memory, which in turn informs our attitudes about the future.  The past doesn’t become real through text books.  Instead, we can best remember another age by the artifacts of that age and by tales from elders; those memories combine to make up our identity. Old things represent more than their physical being or even their usefulness.  They have a history, and as far as I’m concerned, they will have a future.