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October 8, 2014

California Dreaming at The New Family

1000-families-project-kerry-stuart-harriet-and-iris_1000The New Family is a really neat project by writer/editor Brandie Weikle that features all the wonderful ways that modern parents are remodelling family life, a project underlined by the challenge: “I bet we can find 1000 ways to be a family.” And I’m so pleased that today, my own family is in the mix, a family whose constitution is not unusual by any means, but I’m glad to tell the story of how our family began with a decision we made in 2008 not to buy a house.

“It was almost Copernican. Because there’s an order to the universe: we hook up, we move in, become property owners of an impossibly small space equipped with a windowless den. We wait until that small space acquires enough value that we’re able to trade up for a proper home, albeit a starter one. And only then are we ready to start pondering such a thing as the future, to put down roots and maybe even have children.”

But we decided to do it another way, and I am so happy we did.

You can read all about it here. 

October 6, 2014

Bunk Beds

IMG_20141006_133857“Do you remember,” I asked Stuart on Saturday, as we were assembling the bunk beds, the whole room in disarray around us, our baby climbing in and out of the half-built bed frame, placing her life in peril as usual, Harriet making up dance moves in the doorway, “Do you remember when we painted this room?”

When we moved in, this second bedroom had been blue with brown trim, ugly industrial shelving along one wall painted grey. It was terrible, but I had a soft spot for this room, which was the computer room, and where our books would live. I really had a soft spot for this room because it was going to be our baby’s room, although the baby was still 100% hypothetical. We spoke about the baby to nobody when we painted that room later that summer, but we were thinking about her. The couple in my mind who painted that room were ridiculously, impossibly young.

Although when the baby was born, she didn’t move into her room for almost a year—it was easier to have her upstairs sleeping with us. And then once she started sleeping, we moved her down, moved the books and computer out. We put up colourful curtains and a bright carpet, and those ugly shelves—now white and less ugly—were packed with books and toys. About a year later, we put away the crib and our futon became Harriet’s bed—our futon, which was the first piece of furniture we’re ever bought, just after we got married in 2005 when we were so poor, and it was the cheapest in the store and it would become our living room couch. And it’s been her bed ever since, the perfect size bed for the whole family to assemble on at story time, and it’s been a stage for her theatrical and dance performances, as well as the one piece of furniture that Harriet is permitted to jump on when friends come over (and why is it that any time a friend comes over, they all start jumping on beds?).

We love our apartment. We made the investment of a custom-built kitchen table last winter in order to make our kitchen a more liveable space for us, a space we can use in the long-term. And the next project would be the bunk beds, because we were determined to make it work in this place as a family of four, and it’s not impossible that Iris may one day not be sleeping in a crib at the end of my bed. (In the past week, Iris has slept all night twice. So there is a modicum of hope.) We finally bought the bunk beds last weekend on our way home from an apple orchard, from a somewhat dodgy showroom that was actually a garage on a dingy post-industrial stretch of Finch Avenue. But they had low-priced bunk beds with stairs, which were the bunk beds I wanted. Because one who climbs stairs to her bed is afforded a bit more dignity that she who must make do with a ladder. And it turned out to be legit, because the bunk beds were actually delivered, except that then we had to build them ourselves, which was the entire story of Saturday.

This is one of those “we bought bunk beds to create space” stories that turns into the bunk beds taking up the entire room. Yes, I intended there to be more space between the bunk bed and the window than there actually is, but then it could have been worse—for a few minutes, we were terrified that the drawers inside the staircase would not even have room to open. I guess this is why some people measure their rooms before they buy really large pieces of furniture, but we don’t like to worry about details in our family. The bunk beds have cleared up space on the floor, however, and the drawers in the staircase have enabled us to get rid of the Ikea dresser we built really really badly before we decided not to buy things from Ikea anymore. (Preferring dodgy garage showrooms, obviously.)

Harriet loves her new bed, which she refers to as “my cozy den”. She’ll move to the top bunk when Iris moves in, but for now the entire bed is her ship, and she is the captain, and the stairs are blocked off so Iris can’t climb them, even though the first step is too high for Iris to mount anyway, but if we leave her alone for a minute, she’ll sprout an inch and/or construct a step-stool out of her First 100 Words book. In even better news, Stuart and my marriage seems not only to have survived an entire day spent constructing bunk beds, to have grown stronger from the experience. We only said “fuck” a couple of times, and even had fun. We’ve gotten over our shock at having inadvertently bought the largest piece of furniture on the planet, and we’re pretty happy with it. We look forward to the day when the bunk beds actually do sleep the two children they’re intended for and our bedroom is our own again, though that’s looking a long way into the future, and let’s just take each day as it comes.

Mostly though, I’m just amazed, at how the years pass, and the memories accumulate, and the children grow, and how this house contains so many our stories, like layer upon layer of invisible paper on the walls, and there’s some crazy archeology at work here, scraping the surface to rediscover our ancient civilizations, right down there at the the bottom of it all that stupid happy couple with their yellow walls, and absolutely no idea of what the years would have in store.

October 5, 2014

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

dept of speculationI’ve been frustrated lately by hearing authors complain that their books about motherhood aren’t being treated as “literary,” as though any story with a tricycle and a diaper pail is by definition silly and shallow, for lactating readers only. Though I sympathize—the few times I’ve seen my book catalogued with “Essays” instead of “Parenting”, I’ve been overjoyed at the inclusion in the wider realm. It’s certainly true that stories about motherhood are ghettoized, but then almost every time I’ve read the books in question by the complaining authors, I’ve wanted to reply that the reason their books aren’t regarded as “literary” is because they’re not literary. Because these authors have gotten confused about novels, and written a catalogue for a hipster baby boutique instead whose characters are stereotypes and mannikins. (There is also a trend toward making postpartum depression the thing that explains everything else, when in fact, in a book, it should be just the beginning…)

So perhaps the real conversation should be about how it’s difficult to write literature about motherhood. Which is true. Part of it is because the early days of motherhood are a journey away from language—the words don’t work here, they don’t even apply. Rachel Cusk writes about reliving her own evolution towards language as her baby grows, “like someone visiting old haunts after an absence.” And even then, the words come together to mean something different than before, something perhaps intangible to a reader who has never lived it.

The fragmentation of a novel like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, say, is not surprising. A novel whose form and language are shaped by the character’s experience is motherhood, just as much as her life is, the plot is—here is a book demonstrating that not all stories of motherhood are relegated to the literary dustbin. That literary motherhood is possible after all.

adult-onset

And here is another, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult OnsetIf her previous novel, The Way the Crow Flies, was about post-war family, coming of age in technicolour, their parents’ valiant efforts (and failure) to to be ones who got it right—shiny cars, green lawns, and lacquered hair—then here is the story of the trauma of the aftermath. Though ostensibly, this is also a novel about a week in the life of a mother, Mary Rose MacKinnon, a writer who has taken early retirement to be home with her kids, usually alone, while her partner directs plays in a city across the country. It’s a life I recognize, very much, partly because I walk the same streets Mary-Rose walks, my kids play in the same parks, and I walk by the blue door of her kids’ Montessori School every day en-route to get my own daughter to and from kindergarten. And partly also because I know the trial of trying to wrench an unwilling two-year-old into a pair of boots, or what it is to race across town before the nap window shuts and the whole day is shot. Though even if you don’t know, MacDonald will show you.

Of course, the blue door of the Montessori School is is not exactly the same one I walk past, because the one in the book is fictional. Which sounds like an annoying author trick, but then MacDonald goes and does something so interesting with all the connections between fiction and reality, between her novel and her life. Mary-Rose MacKinnon is author of two books in a (hypothetical) trilogy about a girl who discovers a long-lost brother in a parallel universe. In Adult Onset, we are privy to sections of these novels (which are quite compelling—not something you can say about all books within books) and eventually it becomes clear that MacDonald’s own novel, with all its vivid realism, is operating with a vaguely sci-fi subtext, that indeed this novel takes place in a parallel universe (which is slightly askew—though what universe isn’t?). Geographical details are altered slightly to suggest that this is time out of time. The Balloon King on Bathurst becomes a Starbucks in the course of a day or so. But then isn’t that what happens in a city? Not just that everything turns into a Starbucks, but that the street-scape is ever-changing, a time lapse photograph in real time. Everything is neither here nor there.

Can you tell yet how much I am fascinated and in love with this novel? I started out unsure though, not convinced by MacDonald’s command of her structure. Each chapter a day in the life of Mary-Rose, parenting solo as per usual, going through the motions and tedium of her days, but something is stirring beneath the surface. An ache in her bones, the bones in her arm, which were operated on twice in her childhood. The novel flashes back to her childhood, to her mother’s miscarriages and stillbirths between Mary-Rose and her older sister, and the dead babies after. Before Mary Rose, there had been another Mary Rose, who’d been stillborn and not baptized, and so Mary-Rose inherited her name. These stories are their family lore, the details hard to keep straight anyway, never mind her mother’s deepening dementia. And Mary-Rose is feeling similarly troubled neurologically—there are gaps her days and in her memory, just like the holes in her bones that ailed her in childhood. It is disorienting how the narrative dips in and out of time, into Mary Rose’s childhood and her more recent past. Everything is connected to everything else, and to scratch at the surface is to dare to disturb the precarious arrangement of mental stability, of family harmony.

There are other traumas. Mary-Rose is troubled by the mellowing of her parents in old age, the disappearance of her mother’s rage, her parents’ ease and happiness with their grandchildren, considering how fraught was her own childhood, and also her parents’ reaction to her coming out as a lesbian years before. The cruelty with which they’d treated their daughter, wishing she’d had cancer instead, refusing to acknowledge her relationship, to visit her home. Not banishing her altogether, which might have been simpler, but treating her personal life with a certain coldness, taking years to come around to it. And then finally, there they are in love with the biological child of their daughter’s wife—here we are in the 21st century. It gets better. But how does one heal from that, Mary Rose is asking in Adult Onset (which MacDonald herself asked in a Globe and Mail article last summer during Pride Week in Toronto)? Can we ever forgive our parents for the ways they failed us? And are we destined to repeat their mistakes with our own children, personality as much a part of our genetic legacy as everything? Can we forgive our parents and love our parents, but still seek out lives that are different from theirs? Is it possible to choose our own destinies? Are there lessons for us in parallel worlds after all?

In its details, Adult Onset is certainly a novel about the minutiae of motherhood, the kind of thing Shirley Hughes chronicles in her picture books. Maternal ambivalence isn’t named, as it really shouldn’t be in literature, or the world for that matter, because what in life do we ever not feel two ways about? Instead, the life of a person with children is explored, her complex feelings toward her children a bit interrogated, a bit taken for granted, all of this connected to deeper things, because just as no mother is an island, neither is her maternity in relation to the rest of life. A mother is never just this one thing, even at the worst times when she imagines she is.

In a really wonderful conversation, Jenny Offill says, “If you look at literature on motherhood, there’s still some very interesting space to be filled. In Grace Paley’s stories she’s a mother, an activist, and a wife, with this amazing and relentless observing eye. She writes how it feels to be in the middle of all this. That’s what we need more of.”

In this, and in so much more, Ann-Marie MacDonald has delivered.

October 3, 2014

30 Years with Anne Shirley

anneThe last time I read Anne of Green Gables was in 2008, when I came away struck by how much it’s actually Marilla’s story, her own transformation, the softening of her heart. All the things she feels about her adopted daughter but will not say, but she feels them—the narrative articulates the complexity of her emotions. Reading it again now, I laugh at the paragraph from Rachel Lynde’s perspective about Marilla’s definite ideas about how to bring up children, and how only people who’ve never had children can ever have these. I also notice how silly Anne is; with all her big words she gets so many wrong (though whether these are actually typos is hard to tell. My edition is appallingly edited)—she’s a more realistic version of a 12 year old precocious child than I’ve ever noticed before.

This time, I am rereading Anne of Green Gables (the book I’ve been reading and rereading for 30 years now) as I never have before—aloud. It’s our current chapter book for bed time, joining a canon that includes the Little House books, Ramona, The Willoughbys, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Through the Looking Glass, and so many more. When we started reading it, I was surprised to discover I wasn’t sure it would work—there is so much description, so many words, in particular huge ones that no five year old has ever heard of. As we read through the first couple of chapters, it dawned on me that I’d come to the book at age 6 or so (first reading an abridged version) after being familiar with the Kevin Sullivan film—all the characters in my mind are precisely as cast therein. Would the story “take” the same without the cinematic precedence, I wondered? But it was the evening that we opened the book and Harriet had remembered the exact title of the chapter we’d left off at that I knew the story was resonating just as I’d hoped it would.

Reading Anne of Green Gables aloud is such a pleasure. So many words, as I said, but I get to say them. I’ve never had such a feel for the strength of Montgomery’s prose, and how effectively she communicates Anne’s incessant chatter. Reading aloud too, I get to convey the humour, of which there is so much, and it thrills me when the best jokes are met by Stuart’s laughter. Because he’s listening too, this being his first time “reading” Anne of Green Gables, as well as Harriet’s. He grew up in England, where Anne would be even more foreign to boyhood than usual. So I love that he’s enjoying this very Canadian experience, and Harriet too. (Iris spends story time entering and leaving the room, scattering chaos in her wake.) There are so many wonderful parts of the book that I’ve forgotten about, and when I glimpse an episode to come, I tell them, “Oh, this is going to be a good one.” When Anne turned her hair green, and jumping on Aunt Josephine’s bed, getting Diana drunk and saving Minnie May Berry, the mouse in the pudding and the lineament cake. The puffed sleeves. She’s just about to reconcile with Gilbert, and I absolutely cannot wait. We are enjoying this book so very much.

There is something to this book, which is far more than childhood nostalgia or attraction to a cultural touchstone. Anne of Green Gables is so familiar to us all that it gets written off more often than not, but that’s such a mistake. It’s a good-enough kids’ book, but there is so much going on in the text that a reader doesn’t notice when she’s young, and even when she’s not young. It’s a book that’s worth a reread every decade or so, at least.

October 1, 2014

Neat Things

The-Miniaturist-by-Jessie-Burton-Canada-book-coverBlogging is all about immediacy, and I love that, though it’s hard when plans are brewing in other less-immedate media that I can’t tell you about for months and months. But I have couple of neat things now. The first is that I reviewed The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton in Chatelaine, which is one of  “9 Hot Books to Read in October“. The review is also in the print issue of the magazine, in which you can also read this story about a woman who climbs trees for a living. I enjoyed the book a lot, and it’s receiving some excellent buzz (not just mine).

badgeThe second thing is that I helped to make this list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime for 49th Shelf and amazon.ca, which is a very good answer to the question, “Does Kerry have the best job ever?” So pleased to have come up with a list with favourites and curiosities, which will no doubt irritate people, but we all know that it’s THE definitive list, so no matter. You can also add your own picks to the mix, which is fun. And I do so appreciate anything that gets readers excited about books.

September 29, 2014

May Friedman on Mommyblogs and uncertainty as a valuable critical end

mommyblogs“In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge. After the initial discomfort and frustration that this inconclusive conclusion elicits, however, I have found that there is much to gained, as a researcher in general and as a motherhood researcher in particular, in looking instead at uncertainty as a valuable critical lens.” –May Friedman, Introduction, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked.” –Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable” 

It pains me to link to this smug and stupid post I wrote in May 2009, just 11 days before my first child was born. When I purported to understand anything in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, because I really didn’t. And when I tried to pin down mommybloggers, detailing my discomfort with the form, and my discomfort with that discomfort. I thought I had it all sewed up, because I was surer of things then, and I had no idea of the seas of uncertainty I’d be wading into when it came to mothering, motherhood, and issues around motherhood. Five years later, The M Word was to be partly my means of coming to terms with the beauty of the mess of it all—when in doubt, make an anthology.

When, three months after that embarrassing 2009 blog post, I reviewed the book Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the Mommy Blog by May Friedman and Shana Calixte, my thinking had evolved somewhat, but I was still pretty stupid. (This is the curse of any blogger: you are forever presented with undeniable evidence that you were pretty stupid. And that mostly likely you still are.) But I was getting a sense of things—that motherhood and any ideas surrounding motherhood refused to stay put in my tidy pat conclusions, and that there were many women who didn’t want even them to.

May Friedman’s new book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, occurs at a pivotal intersection in my writing life. Outside of my blog, it is my writing about motherhood and my mothering life that has found most resonance with readers, so much so that when a recent published story contained nary a reference to mothers anywhere, I was a bit relieved. And I’ve also been blogging for 14 years this October, which has led to the opportunity to teach the course, The Art of Blogging, at the University of Toronto (whose latest session starts a week from tonight!). In my blog teaching, I embrace and celebrate the messy chaos of the blog form, as unpindownable as mothers are. (You can read my posts with thoughts on blogging here.) I welcomed the reflections, revelations and insights of Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood not just for what they had to say about mothers and mommyblogs, but for the perspective the book provided on the history and implications of the blogosphere with a lens on women (who, as in any history, are so often left out of the story).

True confession: I have an allergy to Foucault, and once they start referencing Bahktin, they’ve already lost me. As an academic text, Friedman’s book stands apart from others that I’ve encountered in that her critical framework serves to transform the familiar into something altogether new, rather than rendering it intelligible. In Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, she examines mommyblogs in the frameworks of hybridity (as a form, of the identities of blog authors, of the experiences of readers), cyborgs (of the author and her text via technology, and also of the complex and nuanced networks created through blogging communities, how mothering is reworked away from being an individuated task) and Queer theory (a movement away from the patriarchal institution of motherhood toward an otherness) to show that mommyblogging is indeed a radical act that has already changed the way motherhood is regarded in the public sphere, and whose further implications are still before us, rich with possibility.

It is as applicable to that mythic blogosphere as a whole what Friedman has to say about “the mamasphere”: “It is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.” That lack of generalization doesn’t freak me out anymore, and I appreciate Friedman’s excellent book for reminding me why certainty is anathema to everything I like best about the world, both online and off.

See also: “Mary Pratt, On Blogging, and Preserving Light and Time”

September 28, 2014

New Books by The M Word Authors

m-word-coverIn many ways, it seems impossible to believe that the wondrous reception of The M Word last spring could have ever happened. I still can’t fathom the generosity of both the readers and the writers involved with this project, and I’m so proud of the book itself and the further conversations it has generated since it was published. But a particularly cool experience for me has been seeing elements of the essays at play in their writers’ latest works. If you enjoyed The M Word, I urge you to check out these new books by four writers from the anthology.

status-updateStatus Update, by Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang:

The “book of secrets” referred to in Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s essay, “Mommy Wrote a Book of All My Secrets” was actually this book, Tsiang’s latest book of poetry, which was nominated for the Pat Lowther Award in the spring. It’s a collection of poetry inspired by Facebook status updates, which is only the beginning of what is interesting about this funny, beautiful book and I loved so much when I read it in June.

 

 

between-gods

Between Gods, by Alison Pick:

I’ve not read Between Gods yet—I am hoping to stop by the launch this week and pick up a copy there. But the book has been receiving goods reviews and was a bestseller the week it was released. And I know that Pick’s essay from The M Word, “Robin”, appears in a reworked form in the memoir. I am looking forward to find out how it fits into a larger context.

 

 

girl-runnerGirl Runner, by Carrie Snyder:

The connections between Snyder’s essay in The M Word, “How to Fall”, and her new novel, Girl Runner, are more oblique, but when I read the book, I couldn’t help but notice Aganetha Smart’s insistence on never falling (which is pretty much gravitationally impossible) in the novel. Girl Runner has been receiving great reviews, and will be published in countries all over the world in 2015.

 

 

stowawaysStowaways, by Ariel Gordon:

Gordon’s essay in The M Word, “Primapara”, contains a poem called “Primapara”, which appears also in her new collection, Stowaways. This would be the poem with the immortal line, “If I had had twins, I would have eaten one.” The entire collection is just as mordant and intriguing, the familiar rendered from a whole new point of view.

 

September 27, 2014

Best Book of the Library Haul: I Like Old Clothes

i-like-old-clothesHere is a secret to living well in the city on a salary and a half—we buy all our children’s clothes at Value Village. Which is cheaper than even Wal-Mart, and this way we don’t have to go to Wal-Mart, plus my children get to wear clothes first purchased by people who valued quality, long-lasting, stylish children’s clothing (not Wal-Mart) as much as I do. Everybody wins, but us in particular (and with the money we saved, we go out and buy books).

So I was quite excited to encounter the picture book I Like Old Clothes by the wonderful Mary-Ann Hoberman, an reissued edition with gorgeous new illustrations by Patrice Barton. It’s a story about the delights of second-hand clothing and hand-me-downs, the treasures discovered and, most importantly, the stories these clothes carry in their threads about all the people who’ve ever worn them and all the places they’ve been.

“‘You lived in East Bend, / Blue Sweater,’ I say. / ‘Just think, you are living / in my town today.’”

It’s an empowering thrifter’s manifesto, a story that gets kids excited about the economical and ecologically sound practice of buying second-hand. A brilliant antidote to rampant messages of consumerism found elsewhere, and the just the thing to make parents and kids feel good about the choices their family makes.

Check out a video of Mary-Ann Hoberman reading I Like Old Clothes here at the Poetry Foundation website.

September 25, 2014

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

moranCaitlin Moran was such a revelation when I first encountered her two and half years ago (precisely here, if you’re wondering), and I adored How to Be a Woman, have reread it since, as well as her anthology of columns, Moranthology, and I even tracked down a copy of The Chronicles of Narmo, the novel she published when she was 14, just because I wanted to read everything she’d ever written. So I wasn’t actually sure I needed to read her new book, the novel, How to Build a Girl, which takes on a similar trajectory to her memoir and long-ago first novel (which doesn’t count, asserts the bio in her new book, which purports to be her “debut” novel). It’s the shape of her own life story—working class girl becomes a rock journalist at tender age, catapulted into awesomeness from an upbringing spent eating blocks of cheese and being a social outcast. So by this, the third time, I sort of thought Moran might have that area covered. I approached the novel warily—but I loved it. To read anything Caitlin Moran writes is to laugh a lot and get everybody in your presence wondering just what is so hilarious. Oh, it’s ribald, brutal, gorgeous and profound. Um, packed with references to Annie. And I guess I’ve read enough Caitlin Moran to know that How to Build a Girl actually departs from her autobiography in a  lot of ways, and I didn’t conflate her heroine with the author. I adored her straightforward depictions of a young woman’s sexuality (she calls herself a “sex pirate”, a “swashfuckler”), the pitch perfect pop culture references, the Caitlin Moran-ish tirades that popped up throughout the narrative, which were familiar—on living in poverty, the power of music, and the power of books to build you a whole other other world. And oh, the parts where young Johanna is so desperately trying to be “legendary”, drunk out of her tree, talking about all the sex she’s ever had because she’s going to be the person who’s had all the sex and who’s to know if she doesn’t talk about it? Saints preserve us all.

My feelings about Caitlin Moran’s work are always connected to myself, the ways in which I’m so inspired by her ideas and her point of view. They’re also tangentially connected to the vitriol she inspires in her critics (for reasons worth considering and otherwise). The personality looms large, but obscures an essential and pivotal point: Caitlin Moran is an amazing writer. Presenting her own story like an every woman’s tale, you too can make it from a Wolverhampton Council House to the Times of London and columnist of the year. Except you can’t. She is so incredibly smart and her work is so rich and funny. The novel is structurally messy in places (tenses are confused, perspective moving in an out of time), but the prose is taut, even the tangents perfectly primed. Her Johanna Morrigan is such a vivid voice, bringing the whole world around her to life. And for once, I disagree with Laura Miller (shocking, I know) that How to Build a Girl “is just not fiction”, has “diluted charms.” Because they overwhelmed me, those charms. I was totally sold. This book bowled me over with greatness.

September 24, 2014

Marvelling at The Mitfords

Mitford_sisters

I am sad that today we live in a world without a Mitford sister, not a single one, as The Duchess of Devonshire has died at the age of 94. Debo was close to my heart as it was to her Chatsworth House that I visited in 2004 whilst experiencing a throat infection, and fell down in a faint among the sheep droppings, and it was still worth the trip. This was at the height of my Mitford-mania, after I read Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Girls and became utterly fascinated. They were connected to everything! Debo’s husband’s late brother’s wife’s was John F. Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen. The commonplace variety of banana is called Cavendish was named in the 15th century for her family line. Plus she was a Duchess. Sister Nancy was the comic novelist; Diana divorced a Guinness to marry Oswald Mosley, which led to a falling out with Decca, who became a communist and ran away to fight in the Spanish Civil War (before immigrating to America to become a journalist); Pamela was a lesbian, and otherwise (comparatively) dull, except she had an Aga that matched her eyes; and yes, Unity, Hitlers girlfriend, who shot herself in the head at the advent of World War Two. Has non-fiction ever been so fascinating? They were like the Spice Girls, but smarter, longer lived, and with fascism. Such amazing, compelling lives. (I love that they were fictionalized in Jo Walton’s excellent Small Change trilogy).

I have a whole shelf packed with Mitford books—the Lovell biography, theirs and Decca’s collected letters, Decca’s non-fiction and autobiographies, Nancy’s novels, and even Debo’s collection of columns, Counting My Chickens. I cherish every one of these and always will, even more so now that the sisters are all gone. Stranger than fiction—they’re proof of that. The best and worst of Englishness—they’re a reminder of the spectrum of human experience.

I even wrote a poem about them, back in the time in which I did such things as write poems.

Extremism was so fashionable that first season

“Why must all my daughters fall for dictators?”
~ Lady Redesdale (Sydney Mitford)

Extremism was so fashionable
that first season.

At the races my daughter won herself a diplomat
and my husband and I my husband and I
concerned with crashing stocks had our veritable sigh
and we folded our hands and nodded then,
as he stood on a box and took up his pen
because she looked on so loving
I couldn’t help but be pleased,
in spite of his wife, in spite of their life
and his radical politics leaning far right.

There was the matter of war in Spain
which (she said) was just a prelude.

This was the littlest daughter, always contrary,
“I will run away, you’ll all be sorry.”
When she finally fled, it was to throes of war
and she didn’t bring a stitch to wear,
to fight for the reds or marry for love
just to be where the action was happening.
She had to deny her former life
to prove her worth as working-class wife,
they came back to fight for the cause from their home
on the slummier side of South London.

The man of the year was a small man
seeking room to grow.

My middle daughter found him on her travels
my sullen, silly girl, by his words became so serious
when she sang them in her own voice
we consented, it was her choice
but he was such a charming gentleman
when he had us all to tea.
(But this is when the trouble starts, as you will see)

Solidarity was demanded on the homefront
but for us, this was impossible.

My golden older daughter and her lover- now her husband-
the coincidence of their ideological proximity
translated to sympathy for the enemy
and this daughter of mine, fond of long days and wine,
spent war years charming the Holloway Prison for Women.

The littlest one fled to America, still wedded to her cause,
kept her affiliations testifiable, and sincerity undeniable-
she had rallies and babies and books to write and
for seventeen years she refused to cross the line,
she fought the fascist front known as The Family

My husband and I- my husband and,
as his opinion of the Germans was established years before
when he’d lost a lung fighting in the First World War
and he could not abide by the company
of the leader with whom I’d had the pleasure of tea.

Especially not while the world was coming apart
at its bursting Versaillesian seams.

And my silly daughter could not abide by bursting seams
to choose between England and the man of her dreams
on September first, nineteen thirty-nine
she put a gun to her temple in an attempt to stop time.

My outspoken daughters had been drawn to men
who could outspeak them.

They dared to defy us with dictators- an original act of rebellion-
typical; no middle men, they loved instead
their moustaches and regalia their marching men with unbending knees
Prussian fortitude, Yugoslavian ingenuity
and all those ideals that had the trains run on time.
I could not raise a shallow woman; my daughters
my twentieth-century casualties, there was a time
behind every powerful man was a good woman
and I had birthed nearly all of them.

 

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"If Life Gave Me Lemons" (short story) at Joyland
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"Helter Skelter" (short story) in TNQ 130
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"Rereading Fear of Flying" (personal essay) in The Toronto Review of Books
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