Friday, November 16, 2012

Returning to the old home place

I mentioned over the summer that one of the transformations on the road from childhood to adult life for me has been the elevation of Thanksgiving over Christmas. As a child, Thanksgiving was dull, whereas Christmas was a whole month of cheer capped by a day of absurd bounty.

Then, in 1996 when I was twenty-two, I was living in London in November, working in a bookstore, and I had to work on Thanksgiving. In the store, it was simply one more day along the march to Christmas--a march that for retail clerks at times feels just slightly less horrible than Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. And while my girlfriend and I had a pleasant dinner with fellow ex-pats, it was nothing like a real Thanksgiving. Can you have Thanksgiving properly with no one under 80 at the table? It seemed wrong then, and it would still seem wrong now.

So as Thanksgiving week slips up on us, bringing in its train the carnival of pell-mell nonsense that is the holiday shopping season in America, you could do far worse than to steal away and spend some quiet time with new books from Richard Russo and Wendell Berry.

Russo's Elsewhere is a memoir, primarily about his difficult, charismatic, problematic, possibly mentally ill mother--and the difficulty of figuring out, managing, and, eventually coming to terms with our earliest, most unguarded relationships. Russo is a man who left his hometown physically, but has never been able to shake it in his writing. (The one book in which he tried hardest to do so, Bridge of Sighs, is easily his weakest, its portrait of an American painter in Venice largely unconvincing.) Elsewhere could easily read like a final betrayal, a laying bare of secrets, doubts, and failures that his mother would never have acknowledged, much less wanted publicly aired. But it doesn't. Instead it is suffused with love, the sort of real love that enables us to overcome frustration, irritation, even the occasional twinge of instantly denied hate. And it reveals a real awareness of and sympathy for his mother's difficult position as a single parent in 1950s America. Take this analysis of her much-bruited independence, for example:
Except she wasn't, not really, and sometimes that terrible truth would punch through the defenses she'd erected and fortified at such a high personal cost. To her credit, she almost never shared her doubts, her temporary losses of faith, with me, her principal audience. She kept the narrative of our lives consistent and intact. We, the two of us, were all we needed. As long as we had each other, we'd be fine. For my part I never let on that I suspected the truth: that, yes, she had a good job, but that as a woman she was still paid less than men with the same duties. They had families to support, she was told, as if she didn't. By the time she paid for her ride to and from work and the clothes she needed to look the part there, she could have done almost as well working in Gloversville. Yes, she paid her rent faithfully, but at Gloversville, not Schenectady, prices, and my grandparents, though they never said so, could have charged anybody else more. And what would it have cost if she'd had to pay someone to look after me while she worked, a job my grandmother did, lovingly, for free?
In that passage, which comes early in the book, we begin to get hints of the layers upon layers of experience, interpretation, and emotion that Russo will unpeel in the book. As I read, I kept thinking of a lyric from a Tracey Thorn song, "This is just my heart laid bare." Russo, one of our greatest novelists, has bared his heart, and the result is compulsive, moving reading.

I alternated reading Elsewhere, chapter by chapter, with reading stories in Wendell Berry's new collection, A Place in Time. Berry has been writing about the same small patch of ground in northern Kentucky--a town and its people that he calls the Port William membership--for more than fifty years now, and every time he adds chapters our long-lensed image of his characters grows richer. Most of my reading of Berry occurred in a binge right before I started this blog, so I've not written much about him, but he's a writer I treasure like few others, funny and serious at the same time, and always, always deeply humane. Berry writes about people and the land, and the way that farming--and, by necessary extension--rural small-town life, changed inexorably with the rapid growth of mechanization after World War II. So he is writing about loss, fundamentally, but also about memory, and stories, and what makes a place and a people. One reason I find Berry's work so compelling is that growing up in a small town in rural Illinois, just north of the Kentucky border, through the tail end of the transformation (and, fundamentally, losses) that he describes: when I was a kid, Main Street in our town had a toy store, two men's clothing stores, a women's clothing store, a jeweler, a card shop, and more. But a K-Mart had recently opened, a Wal-Mart was on the way, and the last vestiges of a small-town, farm-town life that stretched back more than a century were fading. By the time I left in 1992, it was all gone.

Berry, who as a young man left and then returned to his rural Kentucky birthplace, can occasionally be didactic in his evangelizing for the local, the small, the sustainable. But those moments are overwhelmed by the beauty of the larger web he weaves, a tapestry of interlocking families, friends, and rivals stretching from before the Civil War to the present. Every story he writes--and, remarkably, every story he's written since his first book, when he was only twenty-six--is shot through with an awareness of time and loss, and of the importance, to ourselves if to no one else, of remembering the stories of those who've gone before. Thinking about Thanksgiving brought to mind this passage, from the story "At Home", which simply follows the thoughts and memories of Art Rowanberry, an aging World War II veteran, as he walks across country he's walked countless times:
The river valley was out of sight behind him now, the creek valley lying fully open ahead of him. Though the light had weakened, he could still see the house, the barns and outbuildings, the swinging bridge over the creek, at the end of nowhere the center of everything, and the day coming to rest upon it.

He knew he would walk on the earth a while yet, and then he would yield back his body to be with the old ones who had come and gone before him, and of this he made no complaint.
This, it seems to me, is what Thanksgiving, properly taken, asks of us. Next weekend, as I walk near my parents' house, and look out over vistas revealed by the autumnal stripping of the trees and fields, I'll be thinking of Art Rowanberry, and Wendell Berry, and my grandparents and great-grandparents, and my nephews and nieces and the centuries that stretch behind and before that assemblage.

Lest I leave you for a week--next week seeming unlikely to yield time for writing--on too somber a note, I'll close with a couple of lines from a column that Charles Portis wrote for the Arkansas Gazette in 1959, collected in Escape Velocity: A Charle Portis Miscellany:
There were Presbyterians, Methodists, and a sprinkling of Baptists at these get-togethers we attended, and when it came time to eat the honor of returning thanks usually fell to the windiest old man there.

He would send a long, thunderous blessing rambling up to the skies, and you would have thought that we had all just been delivered from the fiery furnace, instead of sitting down to eat some sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top.
Happy Thanksgiving, y'all. And for those of you outside God's U.S. of A., who perhaps have never had a chance to enjoy sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, drop me an e-mail and I'll gladly send a recipe. That shit is divine.

No comments:

Post a Comment