Looking forward, turning back: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

What I read

I’ve been glancing over Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk for over a year now. The book’s cover showed up in New Yorker ads for a time and on my Amazon “Customers who bought this also bought” feed and on the digital galley platform to which I belong. I’ve passed it on the “We Recommend” table at the bookstore. Stopped. Read the cover blurbs about New York (I’ve never been), 1930s (not even I am not that old!), walking (on a good day, yes …) and just figured it wasn’t for me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish is everything I want in a good character: she is witty, perceptive, brutally honest, open-minded, and loyal. She’s also a bit tetchy. Yes, Lillian does traipse through New York City of an evening–New Year’s Eve, no less–but along the way she stops where she experienced some monumental shift in her eighty-four years. There’s the Back Porch, a corner bar where she stopped over the years for a cocktail and maybe a chit chat with the bartender. Delmonico’s, where she and her husband ate after the court date that finalized their divorce. Madison Square Park, where she lunched as a working gal and wrote her poetry. And Macy’s, where she took the U.S. by storm in the thirties, the much-talked-about copy writer, highest paid girl advertiser in the country with newspaper headlines to prove it. St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she arrived when life spun out-of-control.

And that’s how we learn her story. At each stop Lillian reflects on her life–and also meets someone in the present with whom she can connect. Because even though Lillian is eighty-four-years-old, she is forward thinking. We learn that her early life is by turns tragic and comic; her life now, a dance between reaching out and turning inward. As the night creeps closer to 1985, the reality of having one foot in the past, and one in the future becomes oh-so-poignant, and Lillian welcomes the time when the future is no more, when the end will arrive:

“The future and I are just about even, our quarrel all but resolved. I welcome its coming, and I resolve to be attentive to the details of its arrival. I plan to meet it at the station in my best white dress, violet corsage in hand …”


What I lived

I started Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk at home on my bed, tucked in snug, everything around me dear and familiar. I finished it on an airplane returning from a visit with my son and his family.

And there’s nothing like a visit with one’s distant children to look back over life, even if only the motherhood part. (Although, truth be told, distance provides space to think about any number of life’s conundrums.) I did some things right. And some things pretty crappy. I wanted my family to be just. so. I wanted to get it right. (And you wouldn’t be inaccurate if you read “controlling” there.) I pushed and prodded at times when I should have offered a hug and one more episode of Power Rangers. I was a hard taskmaster when I should have let the dishes wait until morning. I accepted no backtalk when I should have let my chicks puff out their feathers a bit.

Somehow we survived and somehow we are reasonably amiable.

But Lillian’s experience is now in my field of view. Yes, the future is still out there a ways before I meet it, God willing, and knowing that means I have some time. Time to reach out while turning in. Time to figure out how I’ll “meet it at the station”. Time to figure out what I’ll leave in my wake.

The child is the mother of the woman

Birds of a Feather
Jacqueline Winspear
Soho Press (2004)

If Maisie Dobbs had had a child, she would have been Flavia de Luce. Now, I know, I know–Flavia has had a perfectly good mother in Harriet. But, readers, really!

Last week I read the second in the Maisie Dobbs series, Birds of a Feather. And while I wasn’t averse to the first Maisie mystery (I don’t think I even reviewed it here) I found it a little … plodding. At least for a whodunit. But I had another reaction altogether when I read the second in the series, Birds of a Feather. It’s obvious why Jacqueline Winspear is up to fifteen novels and counting.

It’s 1930, the Great War is now over a decade behind her, yet Maisie’s world is still reeling from its effects: she continues to mourn (and pay hospital visits to) her comatose fiance Simon, and assistant Billy Beale is dealing with the pain of his injuries in a destructive way. But Maisie still has work to do. In this case, to find the daughter of grocery magnate Joseph Waite. Seems that his daughter Charlotte has disappeared (again, I might add) and it’s Maisie’s job to find her and bring her home to her overbearing father.

In the meantime, however, Charlotte’s friends start showing up dead. All killed the same way: first poisoned by morphine and then stabbed multiple times. Maisie suspects that Charlotte’s disappearance, Waite’s insistence that she return even under force, and the women’s deaths are connected–and she’s off an running.

What gives the Maisie Dobbs novels a bit of … errrrr … novelty is the mystic gift she relies on. Maisie senses–sees–hears things at the crime scene that others cannot. She also practices meditation which calms and centers her and allows her to receive insight that helps solve crimes. A bit of New Age in the Jazz Age. I’ll have no problem picking another Maisie Dobbs mystery when I need a fun read.

But I digress. Maisie Dobbs could very well be the mother of Flavia de Luce, at least in spirit. HOW HAVE I NOT READ ANYTHING ABOUT THIS ON THE INTERWEBS?! The Maisie novels are set in 1930 and the Flavias in the early fifties. Okay, so maybe grandmother instead of mother. But it’s as if the characters are genetically related: independent, out-of-the-box thinking women with unique talents. Women who don’t quite fit their time and place because of their gifts. Women who don’t have much of a filter. And the evolution from Maisie to Flavia makes sense if you think about how one generation changes from the previous. Maisie relied on the metaphysical and Flavia on the physical world of chemistry.

I searched the internet for fan fiction, thinking “Who could pass up such an opportunity?!” But, nothing. All I found was a bunch of “If you liked this, you’ll also like …” posts. I tried to find an interview of the authors–maybe on a panel at some writing conference. Nada. You’re telling me no publisher has ever thought of booking these two headliners together?!

For now, I guess, I’ll dream on my own what mischief these Girl Wonders could conjure up together. What a team they would make!

The one where I retired: Six months and counting (Part 4)

School started on a Tuesday in late August and there I was for the first time in twenty-five years–home and in my PJs at 7:30 AM. First hour was about to begin.

To quote Shakespeare (as, I suppose, any good English teacher would do) I met that day with bated breath. Would I feel unmoored? Purposeless? Would I crave the hustle and bustle of football games and spirit week and SAT testing and staff meetings? Would I miss those 700 souls I’d lived with day in and day out over the past two decades plus a few?

I woke up and the wobblies were gone. I had planned well.

That first official retirement morning I spent walking in Frederik Meijer Gardens with friend Denice, my retirement ‘midwife’. She had blazed the trail a few years before me and was firm in her advice: 1) don’t rush into anything 2) let yourself meander through your days 3) keep your commitments to a minimum. After a year, she said, I’d know better how I wanted my retirement to look. That morning we wandered the sculpture garden and for once my direction was spot-on, and I didn’t get lost. We stopped to admire the farm garden and chit-chatted with the garden volunteers. I learned what amaranth was. We swapped stories on the boardwalk about herons and loons. Lunched at Panera. In the evening, my husband and I had tickets to see Lyle Lovett, our favorite summer concert tradition. Lovett is so entertaining, warm, and personable that you’d hardly think he was playing to a crowd of nearly two thousand. The perfect end to a milestone of a day.

And then came Tuesday when I unexpectedly babysat a sick grandson and Wednesday when I spent half an hour talking to a stranger–the young mom behind a farm stand at the Farmer’s Market–about public high schools and curriculum and her son’s needs and why she was homeschooling and … and you get the picture. I had time–and energy–to stop and connect without rushing on to the next thing on my long to-do list.

I’ve had no regrets.

The esprit de corps among teachers is a powerful thing, though, and those first six months I mourned the loss of my teaching buddies nearly every day. We were in the trenches together and that’s potent stuff. We kvetched together. Laughed until we cried. Got tipsy on the occasional Friday after work. Attended each other’s weddings and parent’s funerals. But even that ache is waning. I still see those who have been fast friends, and the rest are fading into fond memories of a life I no longer live.

I read more widely than I have before. Because I have the time, and I’m not reading Marzanno’s Classroom Instruction That Works for Professional Development (!). I’ve spent time developing my writing workshops. Through an online social media platform for neighbors, I organized a neighborhood book club with women I had never met before–not something I would have ever done in my previous life. I’ve taken a few online writing and blogging courses. I volunteer one very full day a week for an incredible organization that provides healthy home-cooked meals for individuals living with chronic illness.

While I no longer live at breakneck speed, juggling thirty-seven things at once, I do have busy days, believe it or not. (Although I suppose even that is relative!) And then sometimes I don’t–but I’m okay with that. I’m not living the high life that some retirees seem to because life got in the (financial) way, but that’s okay, too. I am living happy, wild, and free–and I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin.

Life is good.

The one where I retired: A bit of the wobblies (Part 3)

Before school started last year–before my hall buddies returned to long, hot days in un-air-conditioned rooms, a new principal with all the uncertainty that brings, and meetings, meetings, meetings–I met friend Lindsey, my neighbor in the room next door, to set up a little surprise that I hoped would soften the institutional edges of my teacher friends’ days, even if only a bit. My going-away present to them.

Because teachers don’t get squat when it comes to comfortable–or nice-looking–interior decorating.

The district Central Office and high school offices had been redecorated at least once each during my tenure with the district … but my room in the original wing? Nary a lick of paint in all those years. A window that had no latch so that snow would sometimes blow through the crack. An office desk at least forty years old and file cabinets even older. For more than a few years, I’d tripped over a loose carpet seam until it was finally replaced. No working lock on anything (cupboard, desk, or cabinet) to hold my personal belongings. Staff break rooms are a mix of cast off furniture and appliances and the rest rooms are barely a step up from a highway rest stop.

But I digress.

What I was not prepared for the evening before school started–the year I wouldn’t return–was the wave that washed over me, memory so powerful it nearly knocked me over. The dusk was warm, sun sinking behind the trees as the band and color guard practiced in the parking lot–flags twirling, megaphone blaring, xylophone tinkling–just as they do every autumn. The halls were quiet as I climbed to the second floor, lights dimmed on the timer. And there was that smell, distinctive only to school buildings–some indeterminate combination of sweat and Expo marker and gym shoes and dust.

There is no other place on earth like this. None, I thought to myself.

And I remembered walking up those same stairs over Christmas break, probably to make copies or rearrange desks or change a bulletin board. How I climbed those stairs to leave lesson plans the night my dad died. I remembered leaning out of my second floor window oh so long ago to wave to my son (then 18, rebellious, bedecked in chains and JNCO jeans) when he dropped off something or other I needed from home. I remembered standing at the door of my room after state testing, passing out M&M(E) bars to the juniors I proctored. I remembered stacks of enveloped invitations and prom favors that covered every flat surface the month before prom. I remembered the personal protective order I filed against two students, the media hullabaloo that followed–and the administration that, in many ways, failed me. Reciting the pledge each morning with black, brown, white, and native kids; gay and straight; able-bodied or not; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh. I remembered the times I called for Mr. MERT–frantically–while also trying to comfort: “It will be okay. Help is coming, sweetie.” I remembered dark, dark days of my own when Room B209 was an anchor and it was my students who kept me putting one foot in front of the other.

But I didn’t take a peek in the room at the top of those stairs, my home away from home for close to twenty years. Memories or no, I couldn’t. It was no longer my room–I knew that. This was no longer my place … and I was okay with that.

Which is not to say I left dry-eyed.