Tuesday, October 7, 2008
It’s 1964. In the middle of a snowstorm, Dr. David Henry drives his wife Norah to his office and delivers his own child. The baby Paul is perfect. But then, unexpectedly his wife bears down and a second child is born. After one look at his daughter Phoebe, he recognizes the tell-tale signs of Downs Syndrome and makes the fateful decision to spare his wife the agony of raising a child that’s doomed to die young and will never be fully functional. So, he tells his wife that the twin girl has died. But he secretly gives the baby to his nurse Caroline who promises to bring her to an institution in another state. Caroline, who adores Dr. Henry, is startled by his request, but does what he asks. But when she gets to the institution, she’s horrified by the conditions there and decides, in another fateful moment, to keep the child and raise her.
It’s easy to forget the public attitudes towards Downs Syndrome at that time, but Kim Edwards does a good job reminding us that these children were treated like shameful secrets and were hidden away in institutions, until the social revolution in the 1970’s when advocates for the mentally handicapped fought for educational rights in mainstream environments instead of the horrors of institutionalization.
In The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the plot is revealed in alternating points of view—Dr. David Henry who never reveals his secret and is tormented by it; his wife Norah who tries to fashion a life after Phoebe’s supposed death but is haunted by memories of her; their son Paul, who lives in a house full of silence and secrets and tries to crack them open; and Caroline, the nurse, who establishes a life for herself and Phoebe in a distant town.
There will always be a special place in my heart for Sticklebacks and Snowglobes, which I read in manuscript form a few years ago. B.A. (Bunny) Goodjohn, a British writer I “met” a few years ago on Zoetrope, has written a delightful story about 8-year-old Tot, who is growing up in the Stanley Close housing project in the UK in the 1970’s and is funny and wise beyond her years. She adores her collection of snow globes and fishing for sticklebacks. And of course, her dad—a sweet but irresponsible dreamer who wants to be a jazz musician in New Orleans. When her dad takes off, Tot is forced to grow up fast—even though she has more than enough to deal with—epileptic seizures which grip her unexpectedly, a mother who cries in secret and her teenage sister who becomes pregnant. Bunny Goodjohn will have you cheering for Tot and marveling over her resourcefulness.
Monday, October 6, 2008
I'm still a little shaky this week. It got me in the knees even though I had prepared myself to see her in the ICU, hooked up to IVs and on a respirator. My mother's face was battered from the car crash, her neck swollen, her throat punctured with a tracheotomy tube. I spent mornings with her, standing by her bed, cheering her on. And when she was awake, I told her over and over again what had happened--the crash in the parking lot, the operations in the hospital over the last 2 weeks, the pneumonia, her brave fight.
When I could eat, I went to a Thai restaurant, not far from my parents' house. The young Thai waiter brought me Tom Yom soup and a pot of jasmine tea. Its warmth soothed me. I drank it all. And when I was finished, he talked to me, asking me why I was in Florida and I told him about my mother. He listened, nodding, his dark eyes fixed on me. And later, when he brought me the bill, he told me my meal was for free because of my troubles. Tears filled my eyes. When I protested, he smiled and said, "You'll come back." And I did. We talked again. He told me about his sorrow, that he couldn't afford to go back to Thailand for a visit, about his life here in the USA, and how he had to hide the fact that he was gay from his family. "And I can do nothing about it," he said with a shrug. I touched his shoulder, moved by his sadness. I too understood his pain of not fitting in, and withholding thoughts, feelings, and pieces of myself from family as a way of protecting myself.
On the last day, he gave me a meditation site on the web and told me it would help bring me peace. I thanked him and promised to come back in 2 weeks on my next visit. As I left the restaurant and for days afterward, I've thought about how these chance meetings, these gestures of kindness from strangers are so sweet and such a gift. They reinforce my belief of the inherent goodness of people.
It’s with great pleasure that I pick up my cyber pen and continue the dialog we began over 2 years ago. I promise to serve up satisfying and thought-provoking morsels for your entertainment and pleasure: Intriguing photographs that will catch your eye. Quirky observations about culture and society. Recipes that will make your mouth water. Tidbits about writing and the writing life. And snapshots of people and places that have captured my imagination and stirred my emotions for I believe that powerful writing must grip us in both the head and the heart. So, I extend a warm welcome to my readers and invite you to linger a while at my literary table while I pour you a glass of wine or brew you a cup of coffee while we chat.