Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.
These are the words of sixteen-year-old protagonist Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell's book Winter's Bone, giving her younger brother a lesson in conduct. Their father has not been home in days and they are hungry. A family across the way, to whom they are related, has freshly killed carcasses hanging in the trees; he is wondering about requesting some of the meat.
Ree's father cooks crank and the story picks up after he is missing and in danger of skipping a court date; if he does, the family will lose the house and land--their only security, pledged to a bail bond. Ree's mother, mentally ill and a vacant shell of her former self, is a burden Ree carries without question, along with her two younger brothers. They are family, and family is all.
This novel is atmospheric, darkly lyrical and devastating. While the gritty portrayal of hardscrabble Ozark life is striking, even more compelling is the seeming resignation and acceptance of the status quo by adults, children and the law. The questioning Ree is a lone and exposed nail waiting for the hammer of the system to come down. She is clear-eyed about the risk she is taking but she also knows that without that risk she will sacrifice her life and the futures of her small brothers to the ravenous and self-perpetuating cycle of drugs and poverty.
She knows that searching for her father will take her deeper into darkness than she wants to go, but she also knows it is her only chance of finding the light.
Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.
After a day of work, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to sit on the sofa and have obedient and loving children welcome me with my slippers and a cup of tea while a well-trained dog fetches the newspaper (which has not been torn asunder and scattered to the winds in the required-by-law daily comics raid.) This imagined scene gives me a hopeless little chuckle as I enter what I affectionately call "The Battle Zone of Wars Eternally Lost", also known as "My House." For the sake of brevity (the soul of witless parenting) my dear husband and I call this place, simply, "The Zone."
My homecoming assessment of "The Zone" begins on the street as I monitor the noise level from outside the front gate. Silence does not guarantee détente, but screaming, yelling, and whining do almost certainly guarantee impending misery. The sound of a child practicing piano is a good sign, but the sound of, say, deafeningly determined Rachmaninoff means that my co-parent is waving the white flag of surrender and is completely ignoring the children in a last-ditch attempt to save any scraps of sanity he might have left after a day of endless screeching demands. There is no sitting on the sofa (unless my spouse has gone beyond Rachmaninoff and is huddled in the far corner of the couch with a blanket over his head.) There is no tea if I do not prepare it, and instead of a dog we have a cat with a personality disorder who bites only me, routinely and somewhat enigmatically, with no provocation or warning. Whatever The Zone holds, the objective is always the same: survive through Bedtime. If I live to tell the tale, my reward is a little television. I am sorry to say there are only three existing seasons of my latest favorite BBC show, Clatterford. On British soil it goes by the title Jam and Jerusalem, but they changed it for the American audience. Don't ask me why--trading reference to a familiar food and a known geographical place for the name of an obscure English town is the sort of sensible exchange that goes through my cat's brain just before she sinks her fangs into my flesh.
The show is a kinder, gentler comedy from the brilliant mind of Jennifer Saunders, creator and star of the searingly hilarious Absolutely Fabulous. The show centers around the life of Sal Vine (Sue Johnston), a nurse and recent widow in the small town of Clatterford St. Mary. Sal's efforts to reorder her life after her husband's death orbit around her grown children and the town Women's Guild, which is populated with fascinating minor characters. Outrageous comedic bits--Rosie (Dawn French) nursing a lamb in the pub; accidental vacuuming of church displays of the Nativity/Palm Sunday/Resurrection in which the primary players have been carefully crafted using stalky roadside weeds with googly eyes; Caroline's (Jennifer Saunders) constant misuse of pornographic sexual terms--are balanced with sincere drama. Loneliness washes in and out of lives as the characters struggle with relationships lost and found. Clatterford is complicated and messy. It's funny and familiar and at the end of the day you can't wait to go there. Just like home. Without the cat bites.
I'll start with this: I don't hate to cook. I just hate to cook for my current captive demographic, which includes a child who begs for sushi in his wretched school lunch every day and a child who maintains a firm company policy of automatically rejecting anything that is not a fruit. Which kids in America scorn spaghetti and
The 2007 Masterpiece Theatre production of Jane Eyre is my favorite screen version to date. The casting is near-perfect and even minor characters (notably Adèle and Mrs. Fairfax) have warmth and depth they are not usually allowed. The chemistry between Jane and Mr. Rochester is undeniable and plays out against a visually lush landscape in an astonishingly sensual manner. (Fluttering red scarves in windows! Flocks of birds exploding from trees! Jane and Edward getting horizontal--in a completely clothed and Victorian way, of course!) The ending is satisfyingly triumphant in all its "Reader, I married him" glory. If you gravitate to underdog stories and have a need to spend 240 minutes with your television and a pan of brownies, this is for you.
I sat down to dinner recently and noticed something amiss. My otherwise-perfect and untouched plate of food sported an ear of corn with a shaggy crop circle in the middle of the cob about the size of a preschooler's mouth. I looked to Child the Younger, sitting to my right, and asked him if he knew what had happened. He smiled jubilantly, his baby teeth clotted with yellow kernels.
I have learned from parenting that there is birthed, along with the child, a never-ending list of things-- both done and undone-- for which to be sorry on both sides. This parenting thing is a project without blueprints, continually under construction, using tools that are as frequently inadequate, shoddy, missing or downright dangerous as they are right for the job. If a day on the parenting jobsite is particularly heinous, I may think of the list I have posted at my desk just to remind myself to laugh:
The Six Phases of a Project:
1. Wild Enthusiasm
4. Search for the Guilty
5. Punishment of the Innocent
6. Praise and Honors for the Non-Participants
One project I managed to complete on my recent vacation was reading Brady Udall's magnificent novel The Lonely Polygamist. This is a Big Book, in both a physical and an existential sense; it is the American family writ large. Golden Richards is a big man (known to some as "Sasquatch") with three houses, four wives and twenty-eight children. He has problems. Big problems. While his lifestyle creates and magnifies difficulties, his internal struggles could belong to anyone. He attempts to keep his contracting business and his family finances afloat with a morally questionable project: his wives think the brothel he's building in Nevada is a senior center. His wives don't understand him and his children don't really know him. The story builds upon the alternating points of view of Golden, Trish (his fourth and newest wife), and Rusty (the eleven-year-old son of his third wife.) Trish is at a crossroads in her marriage while Rusty hatches a revenge plot for the bungling of his "special" birthday. At the center for each of these characters is a smoldering sun of grief blinding them in various ways to the complicated landscape. Golden grieves a lost daughter, Trish grieves a lost son, and Rusty is a ticking time bomb of grief waiting to happen. In all of this Udall manages to find the inherent humor in each situation, much of it laugh-out-loud funny. Within the mundane Udall raises Big questions, but the one that percolates through and ultimately lifts the book far above anything else I have read recently is this:
How big is love?
This is a question echoed by the deservedly popular HBO television series Big Love which I also highly recommend. Bill Henrickson is a modern-day polygamist living in suburban Salt Lake City with his three sister-wives, their numerous children and houses, and all of the complications and frustrations of his chosen lifestyle. His ties with a fundamentalist compound bring trouble, as do his business arrangements. Can one man find a way to keep it all together when forces both internal and external threaten constantly to tear it apart? Faith and love are big, but are they big enough?
In her memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance Elna Baker discusses the issues that come with Big Faith. By turns utterly hilarious and painfully embarrassing, this described "Mormon Tina Fey" tells tales of what it's like to be an abstinent and religious single young woman in a city that's pretty much...not. Along the way she loses eighty pounds and takes a series of fascinating jobs ( I was entranced by her description of life as an "adoption specialist" for ridiculously expensive baby dolls at FAO Schwarz.) The heartbreak that ensues is predictable, but Baker finds the humor in each situation and manages introspection along with stories such as showing up to a Halloween dance dressed in a failed costume that makes her look, quite accidentally, like a giant part of the female anatomy.
The holds lists may be lengthy for some of these, but believe me: the love is Big. And worth the wait