My Grandmother

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I think most people who read this blog do not follow my education blog, so you likely have not seen my post from this last Tuesday.

I will be flying to Denver early tomorrow morning. I will give a eulogy at her funeral. I wrote her obituary, which doesn’t begin to capture everything that is important and everything I will cherish about her.

I love her, and I am looking every day for that feeling that she is with me and watching over me. She said she would be. But all I feel is her absence. I will keep hoping. This poem by Emily Dickinson (Fr. 428) has been my lifeline:

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye—

 

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

 

And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

 

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

 

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin, Cambridge, Belknap, 2005.

Fall is for Leaving

autumn leaves new england photo
Photo by SGPhotography77

I have already decided I need to quit NaNoWriMo. Before anyone gives me a pep talk, I have two really good reasons:

  1. My heart isn’t in it. My grandmother, one of the most important people in my life, is gravely ill, and I think it’s just a matter of time. My head is not right for writing right now, at least not something like NaNoWriMo.
  2. I have a great idea, but it’s becoming extremely clear to me that I need to do more research on the topic before I feel confident enough to write about it. I have the materials I need to do the research, but not the time or the focus (see #1).

It bothers me to give up so soon, and I hate kicking myself for something that I need to do for my own good right now. I keep wondering what Granna would want me to do.

I went out this morning and had my hair cut. I picked up some coffee and washed and vacuumed my car. The leaves are gorgeous right now. A riot of gold, red, and orange. There just isn’t anything in the world like fall in New England, even in an old industrial factory town like Worcester. The beauty of the trees just pierces me right through the heart. I hate it that my grandmother is lying in a hospital bed, 2,000 miles away, when everything is so beautiful right now. When it’s my favorite time of year.

When I visited my grandparents in July 2014, I had an opportunity to talk with both of them about whatever they wanted. While talking with my grandparents about how they met and married, I realized that my own marriage story was similar. My grandparents were married 66 years on October 27. I made a video about our two marriage stories.

I have a great deal of interview audio. I am so lucky to have it. I also made this video about my grandmother’s work as a seamstress.

I don’t know when my grandmother is going to leave us. She nearly left us two weeks ago, but she rallied. The last few days, however, it seems as if she has had one more medical issue after another. She’s really scared. I’m really scared. I don’t really know how to be without her. I know that it’s part of life—getting used to losing people. I am really lucky I have had my grandmother for 45 years. I really am. I am also really lucky that I haven’t lost an extremely close relative like this before now. But selfishly, I wish there was a way that she could stay. I wish she didn’t have to leave me behind. I don’t know how you get ready to say goodbye. I’m not really sure it would have mattered when she left; I probably never would have been ready. I just love her very much. I am so grateful she is my grandmother because she is absolutely the best grandmother in the world. I don’t even want to imagine what my life would have been like without such a grandmother, and I don’t want to imagine how different it will be without her. But I know this: I am extraordinarily blessed to have had my beautiful grandmother in my life.

I have to give credit to my husband. I borrowed the idea in the title of my post from a poem I remember that he wrote some years ago.

Birthday Weekend

Birthday petit-fours from my husband
Birthday petit-fours from my husband

It was my birthday this weekend. I have moved into a new demographic!

I decided I wanted to go to Northampton and Amherst for my birthday. There was a Poetry Festival in Amherst, but unfortunately, most of the events I wanted to go to were on Thursday or Friday before I could get there. Bummer. On Saturday, the Emily Dickinson House was sponsoring a marathon reading of all 1789 of her poems, but I really didn’t want to just dip in and out of that, so I wound up deciding to spend Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Northampton and Amherst are college towns. Between the two of them, I count U Mass Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, Mouth Holyoke College, and Hampshire College. I may be forgetting some. At any rate, they are close together, and with all those colleges, you can imagine the college-town vibe is strong. Northampton is definitely fairly funky, at least the downtown area.

We found a wonderful used bookstore. I loved it because the books were mostly in pristine condition. So many used bookstores don’t have really nice books, and most of them certainly don’t have the kind of selection Raven Used Books has. Here is my haul from Saturday.

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We went back today before leaving for home, and I scored two more books: Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations and Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13 Rue Thérèse. The Club Dumas looks like it might be perfect for the R. I. P. Challenge, and who knew that there was a historical fiction novel about Hildegard von Bingen (Illuminations)? Byatt’s novel doesn’t have great reviews on Amazon, but I’ll give it a go. I loved Possession so much.

For my birthday lunch, we went to a burger place called Local Burger. Back when I was in college, I could get an excellent hamburger for about a buck at the cafeteria on campus. It had a nice charbroiled flavor, and it was juicy without being pink (pink ground beef skeeves me out). I hadn’t had a burger as good as those old cheap cafeteria burgers since. Until this one. And the fries were amazing.

We drove into Amherst and stopped into Amherst Books where I found a remainder of Remembering Shakespeare by David Scott Kastan and Kathryn James and Living with Shakespeare edited by Susannah Carson with essays by so many people—F. Murray Abraham, Isabel Allende, Brian Cox, Ralph Fiennes, James Earl Jones, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others.

Last night for dinner, we had some excellent Italian food at Pasta e Basta. I was “that person” and took a picture of my pasta because it was so pretty.

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I wish I could have brought my leftovers home. There was at least another meal left on that plate. I didn’t think it would travel well, though.

After dinner we picked up some cookies at Insomnia Cookies. Had such a thing existed when I was in college, I have no idea how big I’d be by now. We got four kinds of cookies, and I can definitely recommend the Double Chocolate Mint. I also tried Peanut Butter Chip, but the Chocolate Chunk and M&M cookies were all gone too fast.

This morning, we went to Jake’s for breakfast, and I had some fantastic eggs, potatoes, and toast. We walked around and did some more shopping. I found myself this glorious Brontë sisters mug with quotes from the sisters’ works.

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Northampton and Amherst are nice places to visit, and they’re only a little over an hour away. They have a different feel from other places in Massachusetts—perhaps because they’re college towns, or perhaps because they’re in the western part of the state. We don’t really have indie bookstores in Worcester, either (that I know of)—just B&N, so it was nice to go book shopping in those places and score some deals on some great-looking new and used books. In addition, everything was pretty reasonably priced—another of the virtues of a college town, I suppose.

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Steve and Dylan at dinner
Maggie and Me
Maggie and Me

Once I was home, Steve presented with two more books: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century by Jerome Charyn and The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight. He had already given me Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. My parents sent me a gift card for more goodies from Amazon, too. I really need to do some reading!

P. S. I have no idea why the last image is upside-down on some devices. I can’t figure out how to fix it without deleting and starting over, though, so I just left it.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi

[amazon_image id=”0545477115″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft” ]The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle[/amazon_image]I realize that [amazon_link id=”0545477115″ target=”_blank” ]The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle[/amazon_link] has been around for a while, and it’s been on my list, but I didn’t actually read it until my daughter chose it for one of her summer reading books. She said she had read and excerpt of it in school and thought it sounded good.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is the story of thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle, who has been away at school in England and is returning home to Providence, Rhode Island aboard the Seahawk. Through a confluence of events, she winds up being the ship’s only passenger, a fact which makes her very uncomfortable. Both the cook, Zachariah, an older sailor from Africa, and Captain Jaggery, the ship’s master, try to befriend Charlotte, but she doesn’t know who to trust. When the crew rises up against Captain Jaggery’s cruelty, Charlotte is even more confused about her place and winds up getting herself into a heap of trouble.

I have to admit it starts slow. I really wondered if Charlotte was going to become likeable and get some sense. She eventually does become likeable, but I think sense is a hopeless case. Once the book gets going, it’s pretty good. I think Avi was attempting to create a 19th century cadence through the first-person narration of Charlotte, but some of the sentences were awkwardly constructed, and I had to read them a couple of times to get them sorted out right. There is quite a lot of naval terminology, but the book has a helpful diagram of a ship and a glossary in the appendix. My daughter gave it two thumbs up. I’m glad she liked it. We read it together, and it was really nice to hear her say she didn’t want to stop at just two chapters once we reached the end of the book. This from a girl who says she doesn’t like reading. So that has to count for something.

If my daughter hadn’t chosen it for summer reading, I might not have gone past the slow start, but I did like it more once the action started, and towards the end, it was a regular page turner. Avi’s characterization brings all the players to life, and he has a true knack for setting, though I think he over-describes a bit. I don’t need to see “everything.” Then again, he is writing for children and may feel he needs to describe a bit more. I don’t know.

It’s a solid YA story, and I’m very glad my daughter liked it.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake: A NovelHow strange it is after such a long reading dry spell, I’ve been whipping through books again. I finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake in the matter of a couple of days. I think I may have started reading it Saturday.

The Namesake is the story of Gogol Ganguli, named for his father’s favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol. His father, saved when his copy of Gogol’s short stories is noticed in the rubble following a train wreck, must give his son a name before he will be released from the hospital. Since his wife’s grandmother has been given the honor of choosing his “good name,” the family settles on Gogol, thinking later they can change it.

Each chapter is a vignette in the lives of Gogol and his family, from his parents’ arranged marriage to Gogol’s rediscovery, at the age of 32, of a copy of Gogol’s short stories that his father gave him when he was a teenager who hated his name. Gogol, born in America, straddles two cultures all of his life, never seeming to feel completely comfortable in one or the other. In one poignant passage, his father finally tells Gogol the true story of how he got his name, and Gogol is moved:

And suddenly, the sound of his pet name, uttered by his father as he has been accustomed to hearing it all his life, means something completely new, bound up with a catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years. “Is that what you think of when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night?”

“Not at all,” his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. “You remind me of everything that followed.”

The one thread that runs through this novel is the importance of looking forward instead of looking back. One of the interesting things about this book is that it is not a grand adventure. It’s the story of an ordinary life. In part, it is a coming of age story. It’s engaging, nevertheless, and Gogol becomes a sympathetic character that I rooted for and hated to see disappointed. He became very real, and by the end of the book, I felt I knew him. I wondered what happened to him on 9/11. I wondered if he found happiness. If he had children. If he went to visit his mother in India.

The lush descriptions of food were one of my favorite parts of the novel. Whether it is home-cooked Indian food or dinner at a restaurant, meals are central to this novel—they bring the characters together. They are the agents of assimilation (Thanksgiving turkey), and they are the vestiges of a home left behind.

My own family has lived in America for hundreds of years. I don’t have any idea what the immigrant experience is like. Sure, I have moved to new places, but the culture in each place I have lived is more or less the same, and if I have to do without restaurants that have become favorites, it’s no small price to pay when I find new favorites and quickly assimilate to the new place. I can’t imagine what it must be like to move thousands of miles away to a completely different culture, where I am unsure of the language and customs. However, I feel like I caught a glimpse of what such an undertaking must be like after reading this book, and it made me admire immigrants for what they are willing to do in order to build a life for themselves. More Americans should read this book. I was moved by a passage near the end, as Gogol reflects on the fact that his mother is selling the house he grew up in so that she can go to India:

And then the house will be occupied by strangers, and there will be no trace that they were ever there, no house to enter, no name in the telephone directory. Nothing to signify the years his family has lived here, no evidence of the effort, the achievement it had been.

On a lark, I searched through census records to see who had lived in my current house. The names changed each decade. In 1910, the Anderson family, Swedish immigrants whose children had been born here in Massachusetts, lived in my house. Arthur Anderson was a carpenter. I wonder if any of his work survives. My husband often says this house was built like a ship. In 1920, the French Canadian Cartier family lived in my house. Frederick Cartier owned a shop, but the census doesn’t say what kind. His three children, all teenagers between 14 and 18 years old, worked—the two girls in a corset factory and the boy in a cotton mill. In 1930, Albert Dupont, a carpenter who had been born in Massachusetts to French Canadian parents, lived here with his family. In 1940, the O’Briens lived in my house. John O’Brien was a salesman. The names change every ten years, and but for a whim, they would have been completely forgotten. I was fascinated to discover a few scant facts about each family. Worcester is a city with a strong immigrant population, even up to the present. It’s one of the things that makes this city interesting. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes Massachusetts interesting. It makes a great deal of sense to me that Jhumpa Lahiri brought the Ganguli family from Calcutta to Boston. Something about this state has attracted people who have set off thousands of miles away from home to build a new life, from 1620 when the Pilgrims sailed The Mayflower and landed at Plymouth to the present day.

Rating: ★★★★★

Overdue Updates

Worcester Academy on Flickr

It has been some time since I updated this blog, and as I have explained before, a job search was taking up quite a bit of my time. Not only was I not blogging much, but frankly, I wasn’t reading much, either. I’m pleased to announce that particular search is over. I accepted an offer and signed a contract for the position of Technology Integration Specialist at Worcester Academy in Worcester, MA. We currently live in the Atlanta-area, so needless to say, this is a substantial move. I haven’t moved this far away from a current residence in over 20 years, and I haven’t even moved to a different state since 1996—and that was moving from North Carolina back to Georgia. We have no family in Massachusetts, nor do we have that many friends, but even though it’s a bit of a scary prospect, we are excited about the adventure, too.

Now that a decision has been made and I can refocus my free time, I am hoping that you’ll see more frequent updates here and that I will also have more time to read. I’ve missed that.

If you are familiar with the area around Worcester, please feel free to offer information or advice. I’m all ears. The only time I have been there was when I visited the school in March. I have only been to Massachusetts twice before. Once on a school trip with my students the first year I taught at Weber, and once on a trip to Salem with the family. Both times I thoroughly enjoyed myself. My daughter Maggie is a real history buff, so I think she will like the historical aspect of living in Massachusetts. A part of me has always been interested in the state, but I never dreamed I’d have an opportunity to live there.

The Decatur Book Festival

Decatur Book FestivalWe all had a good time today at the Decatur Book Festival. I had to grab a nap when we got home so I could recover. I am a little sad—one of my main reasons for going, seeing Diana Gabaldon and possibly getting a book signed, didn’t turn out to be feasible when I saw the line. If I had been alone or with like-minded friends, I would have waited, but I was with family, none of whom shared my interest in seeing Ms. Gabaldon, so I filed that away for another time. I have seen her once before, after all.

We roamed all over the place, seeing all the different tents. We didn’t actually buy that much. The atmosphere was great, and as an English teacher, I was ecstatic that so many folks were gathered to celebrate books and reading. We mostly looked, walked around, and had fun. I think everyone except Steve found a book in the Little Shop of Stories. Sarah got Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson. Dylan got a copy of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. (it’s different from the one he already has because it has a CD). Maggie got some Junie B. Jones books and a replacement for the lost (and admittedly battered) copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I got a copy of Finn by John Clinch. It’s a book I’ve been curious about for some time.

You can look at my pictures here, if you have a Facebook. I don’t think you have to be my friend to see them, but if you want to be my friend, just send a request. I’m not sure if you can see them if you don’t have a Facebook.

In Progress: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

I am about halfway through The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and what a delightful read it has been so far. Not since I first picked up Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander have I read a book that contains a confluence of so many things that interest me or that I can relate to. First of all, I was taken aback when the protagonist, Connie, referred to her grandmother as “Granna.” That’s what I call my grandmother, and I have always believed I invented it. I had to do a Google search to assure myself that other women have indeed been called Granna. You can learn more about my own Granna at my genealogy blog.

Second, Connie studies Colonial American history, a time period I have always found fascinating. She finds a mysterious key with a piece of parchment tucked inside its pipe or barrel or whatever you want to call the hollow part of an old key. The parchment has the name Deliverance Dane written on it. Connie sets out on a quest to find out more about Deliverance, whom she discovers was part of the Salem Witch Trials furor in 1692. I have been fascinated with this aspect of American history since about fourth grade. I just couldn’t believe that people in my own country, which prides itself now on freedom, had acted in such a bizarre fashion. I still don’t understand it.

Finally, in the last chapter I read, Connie is reading the diary of Prudence Lamson Bartlett. I was struck by how similar the diary entries were to my own great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s own diary—so devoid of comment on emotions (although Stella occasionally discusses being irritated at someone), so repetitive in their description of the seemingly menial tasks of life. But as Connie says, “In some respects, Prudence’s daily work was her inner life” (158). In the last entry that Connie recounts, this is the entire text:

Febr. 24, 1763. Too cauld to write. Mother dies. (163)

I felt tears well into my eyes, despite the seemingly lack of emotion on the part of Prudence. Connie ascribes it to Prudence’s “cold practicality, her obstinate refusal to reveal her feelings, no matter how culturally proscribed” (163). My own Grandma Stella’s diary was so similar in the respects of recounting the weather, the daily work, where she went, what she bought and how much it cost. I could feel her relief when she wrote the following entry for April 4, 1894:

I paid Mrs. Bragg $7.50 for board & am now even. Owe no man anything (i.e. in $ and cts.)

On the day when her own grandmother died, she wrote:

9-3-’94

Homer & I went to town early.
Grandma died at 6 P.M.
Mr. Amos came & we came home.
Bought a buggy from John Houston $20.00.
Papa was at Aunt Panthea’s.

It couldn’t be more like Prudence Bartlett’s diary in the way it recounts so much pain alongside the mundane. It’s so spooky that if I didn’t know better, I’d swear Katherine Howe must have cribbed my genealogy blog! If you like, you can read my Grandma Stella’s journal (PDF). I transcribed it from a photocopy of the original.

Staying up at night reading this book under the low light of a book lamp over the last few nights has been a pleasure indeed, and I can hardly wait to see what happens next in Connie’s research.