Mother’s Day

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What a crazy weekend. Thursday afternoon I flew to Ohio, rented a van, and drove to Tiny College Town to help M pack up and send her on her way.

I arrived at about midnight and checked in to the Super 8. M was still awake. We decided to meet in the morning to work out a plan.

I picked her up around 9:30, and we went to the Finer Diner for breakfast. It’s a good place to eat, and conveniently close to the store that sells boxes. M looked good — I’d been texting her as she prepared for finals, and she went from abject terror to a feeling that they were not nearly as horrible as she’d been expecting, and now that they were over she seemed cheery. She explained to me, over breakfast, why she thought that dark energy does not exist and that there’s probably a flaw in the theory of general relativity. (On Thursday she had taken the final in the physics for non-majors class that she has really enjoyed.) I think this is why we send our children to college, so that they will come back and tell us, with great authority, things we do not know. I remember similar lectures about economics from N.

We went back to her dorm. We boxed, we packed, we broke for lunch. We got one load of stuff to the storage place minutes before it closed and went over to Ron and Jeanne’s for pizza.(I can report that the newly refurbished basement is really nice.) We went back to her room and boxed up more stuff to drop off the next morning before I took her to the airport. I got back to Jeanne’s around midnight, then left after coffee the following morning to get M, drop the rest of the stuff at the storage place, and bring a very large painting back to the G’s (they’re keeping it for the summer because they are saints). We left Tiny Town by 9:12 and had no trouble at all getting M to the airport on time. I sent her off to Maine to see N, which makes me really happy. She was happy, too — it was that real end of school/beginning of summer feeling because she’ll go to my mom’s, too, and that’s where they’ve always gone in the summer. With my mind full of logistics, I hadn’t even thought that of course, for M this is the beginning of summer.

I spent the rest of the day tooling around Columbus with the G’s (their son was in town for chess-related things) while I waited for my flight. We had lunch in the Cardinal’s room and then headed over to the Barnes and Noble where we ran into M’s physics teacher and his family (they are friends of the G’s, and their daughters go to M’s school) who were similarly hanging around after dropping another classmate at the airport. I envy Jeanne living in the same town with her college roommate. Their kids have grown up together and are friends, and I think the four of them have stayed close their entire lives.

It was a quick trip, but I got a lot of reading done — I think there’s no better place to read than on an airplane. You’re trapped in your seat and there’s nothing else you can do. I read Sense of an Ending and The Tiger’s Wife, both of which I liked. Sense of an Ending is odd, though — I don’t think I quite get it. I loved the Tiger’s Wife. I’d bought the new Jonathan Franzen book, Farther Away, at the bookstore with the Griggses, and I am glad I did.

I’m still thinking about it, but two things seem relevant to the two novels I just read — one was an article about Alice Munro in which Franzen talks about how to summarize a particular story of hers was really just to reread the story, and I think that’s actually true of Sense of an Ending. You realize this, and then you realize that and then it gets weirder still and you realize this! And then, he differentiates between fiction that is useful — that teaches you something about the Tudors, or Rembrandt, or in the case of the Tiger’s Wife, Yugoslavia — and fiction that’s just about human life. But I think that the Tiger’s Wife feels interesting precisely because it is Obreht’s life — you can tell that she knows what she’s talking about, that she knows that culture like she knows her own skin. I think that’s what makes it so powerful. So, although it is about an exotic time and place, it still falls into the category of fiction about life.

I love reading Franzen. I know people don’t like him, but I always find him interesting. I absolutely love the Corrections and Freedom because they do seem to be about life — as he says somewhere, here are some things you might have thought about if you hadn’t been so busy. They’re novels in the old sense of novels, big and baggy, and I love that kind of novel best of all. But you see, in reading his essays, how difficult it must be to write them. I’m not sure I have that in me.

I was thinking about what I might have in me when I had a half an hour to kill before I met the Griggses for lunch. I went down a road (two cardinals flew in front of me! a sign!) to a little river, the Olentangy, not too far from the restaurant. It was hidden behind some honeysuckle and some kind of wild phlox growing along its banks, and as I was looking from the parking lot for the trail I saw two kayakers slip by. I think I might have it in me to write something about places like that — semi-wild places hidden away in plain sight along the highway. I might have it in me to write something about that.

There was one other thing — he was talking to his mother, shortly before she died, about how he would be okay. She hadn’t really wanted him to do this writing thing, but he was assuring her he’d be okay and something he said made him realize that she was actually, at the moment, more concerned with her own life rather than his, and that made him realize that his life was his own, which was freeing. And I think that’s the thing you wish for your kids. N is graduating, and I think part of her difficulty in figuring out what she wants to do is reconciling what she thinks we expect her to do (and honestly, of course we have expectations) with what she wants to do and she doesn’t know what that is yet. Reading that gave me an insight into a difficulty I hadn’t really thoought about.

Okay. So I’m home, and fully caffeinated, and have received texts from my children and called my own mother, and now I think I’m going to go do something — garden, or maybe head down to the library. Assuming I can get off this couch, which is no small assumption. Cheers!

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10 thoughts on “Mother’s Day

  1. It was so fun to have you here! And to have the painting. It is no coincidence, of course, that Ron and I both live in the same tiny town as our college roommates.

    • Especially his nonfiction feels less than satisfactory to me. I don’t have that problem with his fiction, I think. But yes, I’ve been thinking about that book all day.

  2. I think one of the reasons I find Franzen a little dissatisfying while reading but still like his books so much is that he tends to dive into really messy things. It’s not that he’s disorderly so much as that he writes about disorderly things. It’s both what I love about his work and also what makes me feel prickly about his books while I’m actually reading them. But I don’t want to be maligned as a Franzen-hater. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    • It puzzles me a little that people (Ted Heller) have such strong reactions to Franzen. I like his fiction and his non-fiction when I read it and don’t think about it that much after I finish. I was telling ReadersGuide how charming he is in person, though. He quite won me over during one local campus talk where he would pause to think and then deliver a perfectly phrased answer to each student’s question. The questions weren’t always kind, but the answers were.

  3. I’ve never discussed Franzen with Ted, but I suspect that it’s not so much that he feels strongly about Franzen as that he feels like the publishing business anoints a chosen few in a way that makes it hard to crack through and that Franzen is emblematic of that process. And I think he’s right about that.

  4. I will always love him for the description in the Corrections of the daughter coming home to the parents house and finding the cupboard downstairs full of florists’ foam. That is my mother’s cupboard. And even though the section in that book where the hapless son — the one who steals the salmon — goes to Estonia and gets involved with gangsters is patently absurd, I still liked it. I guess it’s a little bit like the scene where Walter goes insane about the bird and gives the crazy speech. I don’t know — for some reason I really empathize with that form of craziness. When the tightly wound lose it. But I also really like his matter of fact and practical prose. And I know nothing about the publishing industry.

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