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.

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

What I read

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine working on a novel for five years and then *voila*–publicity tour cancelled–death threats–hateful reviews. (I guess if anything else, the blowback has spoken to the power of the written word … but I’m sure that’s little consolation and hardly how you thought this would turn out.)

Let me start out by saying that I raced through the first half of the book. You had me from the first page. I was riveted as Lydia and Luca raced to escape Los Jardineros. Held my breath as they hid in the missionary van and jumped onto La Bestia. The action was movie-like in its suspense; the characters just like me. Very John Grisham-ish, I thought.

And that was my first hint that something was not-quite-right. You see, Lydia seemed so … white. I get the whole we-are-all-the-same-on-the-inside thing, but Lydia’s story–a migrant’s story–was one about which I knew nothing. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, not my own. I wanted insight into the immigrant experience, but what I got was fiction that recycled features from the evening news. And this was probably my biggest disappointment: you wrote in tropes, cliche. Exciting ones, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted more.

I should probably mention I read nothing about the American Dirt controversy until after I finished the novel. My bookish friend Denice lent me her copy with an urgent, “I need to know what you think about this” and I didn’t want others to sway my opinion. Even the two of us spoke only briefly about the controversy.

And after reading several articles, I feel as though some of the criticism was well-founded. But even though the reviews might have some merit, I don’t think the entire burden should be laid at your feet. Flat Iron Books did you wrong–they were looking to make publishing waves and a whole lotta money and you got caught in the cultural cross-fire. Flat Iron heralded your book as literary fiction when in reality it was an exciting thriller, and you took most of the flack.

But, Jeanine, some of those reviewers were just. plain. nasty. I’m so sorry. Sadly, in our Trumpian universe people–even those who are woke–even those who have been on the receiving end of invective themselves–feel justified in name calling and taking broad swipes at those with whom they differ. Even *gasp* liberals and progressives. Whatever happened to respectful discourse?

Would I recommend American Dirt? Yes. With maybe a side note to read one of the articles below to put the novel into perspective. Was I sorry I took the time to read it? Not at all. As I said, it was an exciting thriller. It might even make a good movie.

But most importantly? It made me think. And that’s what compelling stories are all about.

What I lived

Following the American Dirt threads through the interwebs and reading link after link was fascinating. My takeaway? Listen. Just listen when you know little about a culture or experience that is not your own. Don’t stand on your liberal (or conservative!) soapbox and preach. Just. shut. up.

Here are some threads for you to follow, Dear Reader . Listen carefully.

Washington Post: Publisher cancels ‘American Dirt’ book tour: ‘Serious mistakes’ and ‘concerns about safety’ This article has a video excerpt of Cummins speaking at Politics and Prose Bookstore which is worth watching; just listening to the strain in her voice, it’s easy to recognize the toll this has taken on the author.

AP: Author tour for controversial ‘American Dirt’ is canceled Oprah chose the novel for her book club read and has faced some backlash from the Latinx community; concise read.

Slate: Will the American Dirt Fiasco Change American Publishing? Great discussion of how publishers might avoid a debacle like this in the future.

Texas Monthly: The Real Problem With ‘American Dirt’ Regional perspective with tons of links for additional reading, including this link to titles about the migrant experience written by Latinx.

1A (NPR): What The Controversy Over ‘American Dirt’ Tells Us About Publishing And Authorship A panel discussion focusing on “who has the right to tell what stories?” One quibble–one of the panelists scoffed at the fact that Cummins had Lydia ride La Bestia when a middle class woman in Mexico would have gone to the airport and taken the first flight to Canada. Except that Lydia did think of that and didn’t want her name showing up on the flight manifest. That made me wonder just how closely some of the critics read the novel.

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.

Blue skies

If I was to choose a soundtrack for my visit to Tucson last month, it would surely be Willy Nelson’s “Blue Skies”. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I’d never seen the skies shining so bright–nor noticed the days hurrying by so quickly.

Now mind you, I missed August’s 100 degrees plus. Temps were between 85* and 90* every day and that was fine by me. While it rained buckets back home, I soaked up every bit of sun I could and felt good deep in my bones. (Morning coffee looking out over the Catalina foothills didn’t hurt, either.) I came to the conclusion that if I lived in the Southwest, I’d be one of those leathery old ladies with wrinkles galore, anti-aging skincare be damned.

I took a day to indulge myself at Canyon Ranch again. I’ve got something of the ascetic in me, so spending the money on this kind of luxury is not in my nature. But I don’t know how long I’ll have this opportunity–so indulge I did. The grounds were every bit as beautiful as I remembered them, the food (salmon tacos, herb iced tea, lemon sorbet) was delicious, and the service I booked–the detoxifying ritual–exquisite. Just imagine putting yourself in the hands of someone whose sole purpose was to make you feel cared for and nurtured–I was scrubbed and buffed and soaked and massaged into bliss.

This Little Miss was the main attraction, though. Mom and Dad took some long-needed time away, and Grandma and L got to hang out for five days. Just the two of us! Being a grandparent from afar is tough–but I try to stockpile as many memories as I can when we are together. We mini-golfed. Lunched on Japanese bento. Walked at Sabino Canyon. Picnicked in the shadow of the Santa Catalinas. Treated ourselves to gelato. I hope I left more happy memories than sad, but when you’re only four and your People leave (even for a few days), all the feels come crashing in. Grandma did the best she could to reassure, but often felt helpless.

And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that I also miss spending time with my son and his partner. They are warm, creative, and thoughtful souls I’d love to see more often.

The first day L went to preschool, I ran to the store, came home to wash dishes and straighten the house, and plan our meals. (It’s easy to forget how many tasks parents must cram into the spare hour or two with which they sometimes find themselves!) The next day I ventured out into Tucson. First stop: the De Grazia Gallery in the Sun. It’s a quirky mix of gallery, garden, museum, and working studio. Although Ettore De Grazia died in 1982, his property keeps his memory alive. More than once, I’d turn a corner to find an outdoor workbench or a metal sculpture of found objects and it was as if De Grazia had just stepped away. He was an eccentric and what I learned about the man himself was just as fascinating as his gallery. That’s the biggest take-away I’ve found on my travels so far–it’s not necessarily what’s on the itinerary, but the people (dare I say the characters?!) who make the journey worthwhile.

My second stop was Tohono Chul, a botanical garden and nature preserve. Only a third the size of the botanical garden in My Town, it was a manageable visit in one or two hours. The garden featured displays of the many ecosystems that exist in the Sonoran Desert–and since I tagged along with a docent, I learned as I walked. (See that tortoise’s red-stained face? This little guy had been feasting on prickly pear fruit!)

See L ride. See L scoot. See Grandma sit. We were racing, you see. And by racing, I mean that L tried out all her vehicles: trike, scooter, and balance bike. And I timed her on each, lap after lap, to see which vehicle “won”. This is racing even I can get behind!

Cut me some slack, friends. It was day 4 of 5 … and Grandma was tired.