Home sweet home

What I read

You can’t go wrong with an Ann Patchet novel. Think about it. Patron Saint of Liars. Bel Canto. The Magician’s Assistant. State of Wonder. I need say no more … except, The Dutch House.

Patchett’s latest novel tells the story of the Conroy family. Patriarch, Cyril, makes good in real estate after serving in World War II and buys his wife Elna the Dutch house, a beautifully crafted (although ostentatious) home built in 1922 with marble floored foyer, a ballroom, rich wall coverings, delft-tiled mantels, and life-sized portraits of the original owners, Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, still hung in place. The young couple moves in with their four-year-old daughter Maeve and begins the aspirational life that so many sought after the war.

From the beginning, Elna hated the house, spending her time instead on serving the poor in her local parish, leaving Maeve and eventually her son Danny to their nanny, Fluffy. In many ways Elna is a mother in name only–and she finally leaves the family when Danny is four to work with Mother Theresa in India. (Or at least that was the plan.) But Maeve and Danny have each other and their beloved nanny, as well as the housekeeper Sandy and cook Jocelyn. Cyril is distant and detached in that Greatest Generation kind of way, but the reconstituted family works.

And then Andrea Smith arrives. That wicked step-mother who fills the pages of so many tales. She even brings two step-sisters, but Norma and Bright are anything but mean. It’s Andrea’s arrival that pivots the story.

Danny and Maeve are sent to private boarding schools. Mrs. Smith (as the siblings still call her) marks her territory: favorite meals are taken out of rotation, family traditions spurned, and Maeve kicked out of a fairy-tale bedroom for her younger step-sisters. The two are persona non grata in their own home.

But it is the house that holds them in its embrace. Even when Danny is sent packing after Cyril’s death at age fifteen, even after the staff is let go, even after Maeve has made a life of her own and Danny marries, they return again and again to the house. The house, was, said Danny, “the … hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.” Sitting in Maeve’s car across the street after night falls, they wait while the lights switch on one by one and watch, trying to make sense of what once was and who they had become.

What I lived

I am myself an expert on houses. By the time I was thirteen I had lived in ten of them. Warren Road. JoyAnn Court. West Main Street. Ivan Drive. Brimfield. Summit. Edgewood. Sunrise Drive. Newcastle. Maxwell.

And each house held some sort of magic. The three flights up at West Main Street and my little ‘bedroom’ in the closet under the eaves. The sledding hill on Ivan Drive and the wide open basement, just right for learning to ride a two-wheeler with training wheels. The gravel road on Brimfield and listening to my dad laugh himself silly at the Smothers Brothers every Sunday night after I was tucked in bed. Summit, with its brown-painted wood floors that left chips of paint on the soles of your feet in humid weather and gauzy white curtains that floated on the breeze most summer nights. The woods behind Edgewood where we built forts, then played house for hours, and Sunrise Drive where Eric Sisson, my first crush, rode his pony over to give me a ride down the street. Newcastle, where my little brother got lost in the fields across the street on my watch, and where I made a pan of fudge to surprise my mom after work–only to have it upend in the freezer (where, for some reason known only to a budding 12-year-old cook I had set it to cool), milk chocolate drips puddling in the bottom of the cooler drawers in the ‘frig. And Maxwell. My final childhood home, fraught with family discord and drama, but a beauty unto itself, all timbered-stucco and brick. My bedroom with a window seat. (A window seat! Just like the girls in books …) Best friend down the street and bike rides around the lake.

Each and every house settled deeply in my bones, and I mourned each and every leaving. But I realize now that those houses have become heroes in my story.

Which is to say that a novel like The Dutch House reaches out, pulls me in, and settles me comfortable-like in its lap pages to watch the story unfold, just as I’ve watched my own.

The calm before the storm

Great Pause #1

In mid-March I flew to Tucson for a long-planned visit with my son and family. Governor Whitmer had closed schools in Michigan a few days before, and Covid was starting to spread across the state in Detroit, but life carried on six feet apart for most of us. Airports, though, were quiet, and the mood was somber. My flights ran at about 30% capacity and the airlines reassigned seats so that each passenger was seated alone. But I felt no panic, only a little worry (I did a double take when I realized my age put me in the high risk category for complications), and my back up plan if flights shut down was to extend my stay or rent a car and drive home.

When I left Grand Rapids at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Arizona was business as usual, but by the time my flight landed that evening, schools and restaurants had closed. Which made for a delightful visit with this little lady! With nothing to distract us we read and explored the neighborhood and went on scavenger hunts and even ‘flew’ to Paris to “see the big clock” with one pink princess suitcase. (Grandma was alternately ticket-taker, flight attendant, and traveling companion.) We cooked dinner together and watched Harry Potter. I learned I had troll hands, “fluffy” arms that invited squeezing, and looked like a man. (Leave it to a five-year-old to keep one humble!) My daughter-in-law went out once for groceries; I went out once for Thai take-out–other than that we feathered our nest with memories.

Three days before I was due to fly home, a stay-at-home order was ordered in Michigan and businesses closed, one-by-one. My flight was cancelled and I had to settle on leaving a day early to avoid connecting flights through Detroit or Chicago, which were by that time, hot-spots.

Just six days later and life as we knew it had shifted.

Dreams die hard

What I read

Elizabeth McCracken’s novel Bowlaway is just about everything I want in a novel. The story is quirky, the characters unconventional, and the writing–oh, the writing! Think John Irving meets early Anne Tyler, then sprinkle it all with a dusting of magical realism.

It’s Massachusetts. Early twentieth century. And Bertha Truitt is found stretched out in a cemetery one frosty morning with nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold in her possession. But wait! Bertha blinks, much to the surprise of her rescuers. One of the men who found her, Dr. Leviticus Sprague takes her pulse (she’s not dead!), and a policeman bustles her off to the hospital to recover.

And recover she does.

Bertha marries that Dr. Sprague. She builds a bowling alley–she, the inventor of bowling. (Or so she says.) Bertha makes her other rescuer, Joe Wear, her Man Friday. A force to be reckoned with, Bertha allows women to bowl in her establishment without a curtain protecting “men from the spectacles of feminine sport”. Bertha also rides a bicycle around town and is a suffragette. And her husband, Dr. Sprague? He’s a black man, a transplant from the maritime provinces of Canada. To say Bertha was ahead of her time is putting it mildly.

And so the story unravels over more than fifty years. There is an octagonal house, a birth in its cupola, drowning in molasses, and death by spontaneous combustion. A swamp creature. Of course there is heartache, betrayal. All the shortcomings–and perfection!–of what it means to be human.

But the characters. My goodness. Jeptha, a hydrocephalic pinsetter. Minna, a drummer and jazz singer. LuEtta, bowler extraordinaire. Margaret, the maid who becomes lady-of-the-manor. Nahum, the long-lost son returned. (Or is he?) Archie, the gambling ne’er-do-well.

It is the life blood of the Bowlaway, though, that keeps the story pulsing. The establishment nourishes the hopes–or cuts off the dreams–of every character. There is no escaping its influence.

One of the blurbs on the back cover called Bowlaway “an oddball masterpiece.” And, indeed, it is.

What I lived

How very unexpected find myself inside the story of a family business–and how it both feeds the soul and sucks it dry–when one that was dear to my own heart–a yoga studio–was closing its doors.

From the first time I stepped foot in the studio a dozen years ago, my heart opened at the smell of nag champa, the flap of yoga mats slapping the floor, the flicker of candlelight in the evening. It was a place to connect and stretch my Self … and when we had the chance to make it our own, I hitched my wagon to its star and dreamed away.

But as in many family endeavors, we humans tend to get in the way. There is conflict and disagreement and misplaced alliances of all sorts. (Even, God forbid, estrangement.)

I wish I could have closed the door with something other than regret. I wish I had said some sort of proper goodbye–but it happened oh-so-quickly, and we left ‘proper’ behind many years ago.

It will have to be enough to sit with the understanding that the star fell, and my wagon with it.

I guess I’ll search for stardust elsewhere.

Tis the season

What I lived

Stage Coach Barn Holiday Open House

My season’s holly and jolly has been of my own making so far, and if the festivities ended here, I would declare myself satisfied. (I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the holidays, once even cancelling the whole shebang. But that’s grist for another post!)

This year I jump-started December with a trip to Stage Coach Barn Sale’s Christmas open house, and it was a barn full of shabby chic holiday. (I purchased two “doo-dad” mason jars for writing prompts and a birch log candle holder, but I could have done so much more damage. So much!) The next weekend it was off to the Christmas Lite Show’s holiday walk. Instead of driving this year, I walked with friends Mary and Elizabeth. And, yes, it was toe-numbing cold, but you can’t say no to a two-mile walk through this holiday extravaganza! I laughed and chit-chatted and had coffee and goodies … holiday cheer.

Lowell Historical Museum Victorian dollhouse

This week I met friend Denice for brunch at Sweet Seasons, a cafe and bakery in downtown Lowell, followed by a visit to the Victorian dollhouse recently donated to the Lowell Historical Museum. The nine-room dollhouse is an Eye-Spy wonder. No detail is spared, right down to the portraits on the walls which are actual family photos. The couple who created the house collected pieces from their travels over decades, and, as they say, viewing this exhibit is worth the price of admission. After the museum we got our steps in at the Grand River Riverfront park which features one of the longest timber-framed bridges in the country–it’s majestic to walk along, to say the least. (You can read about the afternoon from Denice’s point-of-view over at her blog Denice’s Day.)

Can you even?

Friends, you don’t know homemade candy until you’ve tasted one of Denice’s homemade peppermint patties. She only makes them at Christmas and I am the proud recipient of a gift bag of these goodies which I am hoarding for my own pleasure in a very Grinch-like manner.

And, really? What more do we need this Christmas season than a bracing walk in the cold, the conversation of sweet friends, and the hope of twinkle lights?

What I’ve read

It’s been a little bit of this and a little bit of that, I’m afraid. I find myself a bit impatient with any title that doesn’t catch me within the first few pages–I’ve even added a folder to my Kindle labeled “Slush”. Maybe it has something to do with getting older, but I keep thinking of all the luscious books I could be reading and think, “Ain’t nobody got time for this!”

I did read a provoking novel titled Southernmost by Silas House. It wasn’t a light read, but it spoke to me in a new way about the power that doubt has to transform our lives. Asher Sharp is a Pentecostal preacher with a wife and young son. His life has been lived on the solid rock of his beliefs–until a flood devastates the Tennesee countryside he calls home and at the same time shakes the foundation of his well-ordered life. A gay couple ask for shelter in the flood’s aftermath and Asher turns them away, just as his beliefs would have him do. But he is floundering to justify his actions–and the doubts emerge. Although it sounds bleak, and although Asher ends up losing nearly everything, Southernmost is a story of hope.

But now it’s a week until Christmas and my reading will be jingle all the way. I’ve got two winter titles–The Mistletoe Promise (“a love story for Christmas” states the blurb!) and A Week in Winter (Can you say, “Maeve Binchy”?) that are as fluffy as whipped cream on cocoa–and just what I want to wrap up the holidays.

To read–or not to read

What I read

Imagine you dance three waltzes with a man twice your age at your step-sister’s wedding–and the next morning he asks for your hand in marriage. Imagine you marry him twenty-four hours later. Imagine spending two nights as his wife before he leaves to lead his regiment in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Imagine not seeing that husband again for two years.

You’ve just met Placidia Hockaday. (And because she is the second Mrs. H, Placidia is now step-mother to one-year-old baby Charles.) A whirlwind of a romance, to be sure, but it’s war time, after all. Major Gryff Hockaday lost his first wife to typhoid and felt he must “gamble his heart on winning something worth coming home to.” It’s my guess the scenario happened more times than we might think.

But what we also know from the beginning of The Second Mrs. Hockaday is that Placidia is in jail, charged with the murder of an infant son born while Major Hockaday was away, and the novel turns on the circumstances of that pregnancy and the baby’s death–a Sophie’s choice if there ever was one. Author Susan Rivers unravels Mrs. Hockaday’s story in a series of letters to her cousin Millie, inquest testimony, and diary entries discovered by Mrs. Hockaday’s son Achilles after the death of his parents.

I’ll be careful here because to say much more would be a certain spoiler. Let’s just say that Achilles Hockaday and his aunt Mildred face their own devastating choice. It was Major Hockaday’s wish that the diaries be destroyed so that no one would know the couple’s secret. Will Achilles honor that wish? Or will he read his mother’s diary and–perhaps–have his world destroyed by what he learns? When is it best to leave well enough alone?

It’s a powerful tale, Reader.

What I lived

I was as captivated by the story of Achilles’ Hockaday’s dilemma as I was his mother’s. To read or not to read, that is the question. What makes that dilemma even more intriguing is that fact that after I die my children (and grandchildren, for I’ve gifted my personal writing to one of them when they come of age) will read–or not–my journals and stories.

We parents spend years sifting through our children’s lives. We listen to their dreams and fears when they are young. Stand by them when they stumble. Pray that they turn to us when life gets difficult, hoping we can offer even a bit of direction. But what do those children know of their parents? Probably something of our childhood and family, our pastimes and jobs. But I’m guessing very little about our inner demons or what of life has made us heartsick. We parents are masters of the stiff upper lip, believing, perhaps, it is not the natural order of things to reveal the dark night of our soul to our children.

But my family will have the same opportunity as Achilles. They’ll become privy to what was sublime in my life. And what was hellish. If they read my writing, I hope they come to understand me in a deeper way.

And maybe–as did Achilles–allow the writing to soften their hearts.