Lives in Letters

For the last year or so, my father has been sending me obituaries through the mail. He used to send sports clippings — box scores or recaps from the Phoenix teams that have been breaking my heart reliably since girlhood — but more and more his envelopes contain the back page of The Economist: a head of state, a humanitarian or scientist, sometimes a writer. Often the person being remembered is one I’ve never heard of before: the inventor of Helvetica, the Kalashnikov. My father annotates each with a Post-it, then affixes a Forever stamp, which he buys at Costco, 9000 at a time. My father, 81 now, is no Luddite. He emails and checks flights on Flight Tracker and knows what a selfie is. He has a cell phone, though he prides himself on rarely using it. And each day, he gets his news on the internet, where all these obits can be found. But, as anyone who receives "snail-mail" knows, what can be done more easily online is beside the point. Both my parents are prolific mailers. Every year my mother sends me at least two birthday cards, which arrive on the same day. She insists she can’t pick between the messages. (Hallmark loves her.) A friend from grad school who would watch my cat when I traveled said she could tell how much my family loved me, just from the volume of mail they sent. It’s true. More days than not, an envelope addressed in my father’s neat engineer’s script is waiting when I get home. Some days, the contents are so thin, I think maybe he’s just sent me an envelope this time. I joke with friends, calling it Summer Camp Syndrome, half-embarrassed by the constancy of the post, by its hint that I am merely on an extended trip somewhere, except that the trip is my life. But the truth is: there in the mail lobby, after a long day, I have come to crave seeing their hand. The occasional square of sports news still arrives. But more and more I can count on that red-banded back page—Obituary—torn and folded neatly into sixths, and the formulaic obit sub-head: Name, notoriety, age at death. The writing, my father told me once: that's why he sends me them. Sidelong, often playful, and sometimes tender, it’s writing that makes you miss the remembered, or at least marvel at their works here on earth. (Even the recent tribute to Charles Keating, to which my father attached this note--A local villain from your early days--managed to do this.) The best ones do nothing less than bring the person (back) to life, if only for a page. When I was in college, I was the one with a subscription to The Economist. And so when I read the epigraph to Gabriel García Márquez’s 2003 autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, I thought of my father, from whom I got what he calls the “remembering gene.” I tore out the review, folded it up, and mailed it an hour up the road to my parents’ address. I couldn’t know then that Gabo’s words would become a sort of motto for my father, a new way of thinking about his own life. As a way of staying in touch, the obits don’t really give us all that much contact: I call or email him about the articles, but not every time. And I rarely mail him a letter back—me, a self-professed devotee of the epistolary, and the last human on earth still buying non-forever stamps for the pictures on them—at an actual post office. The fact that my father doesn’t send the obituaries expecting a reply—though true—seems too easy an answer. An obituary is the ultimate last word; the very form seems to pre-empt a reply. But sometimes I don’t even open the envelopes. I’m not proud of this. I could claim that they just get lost among the junk mail and manuscript pages on my desk, but it’s not that simple. I’ll put an envelope in my backpack and carry it around, planning to read it, but when I take it out I just look at the address, feel the thickness, and put it back again, unopened. There are some weeks I don’t deserve a letter. And others, I can’t deal with news of a death. But in my most honest hours, I know there’s more to my reluctance. While my father is a young 81—another man’s 61, according to everyone who meets him—and longevity runs in the family (his mother lived to 102), the fact that there’s an “8” in the age recorded in so many of the headlines he sends is still a fact, a fact that sideswipes me on certain days. When did this happen? I think. I think: So he’s preparing me. I’m ashamed, admitting this. Even the thought constitutes a kind of betrayal, since my father would never think this way. He only retired a few years ago, at 77. He still does all the yard work and cooking and house repair, still sings in the church choir, then goes to reverse happy hour (with the church choir). When a towering two-story cactus in his yard started to lean, Pisa-like, over a neighbor’s fence last summer, he insisted on felling it himself. I was visiting, and when I suggested that hiring a trained professional might be a good idea, he made a counteroffer: I could help catch falling limbs. He found me gloves. The man never thinks of his own age, and it shames me that I do—proves I didn’t inherit his sunny outlook, not entirely. My father’s philosophy is: if it’s your time to go, then a cactus is going fall on you, so what’s the use in thinking about it? And he doesn’t. This spring, I sent an obituary back to him for the first time. Two, actually. Both storytellers. Printer-friendly versions of a remembrance of Mavis Gallant, and the postscript for Peter Matthiessen written by James Salter, whose writing about flight my father, as a pilot, admires. I went through them with a pen, underlining bits: their ties to Paris, Matthiessen’s role founding the Paris Review, Gallant’s move there as a young story writer. (My dad, I knew, would picture Gil Pender, standing there with his pages and waiting for Fitzgerald.) The day I planned to mail these pages, Gabriel García Márquez died. The day before Good Friday. I thought about including García Márquez’s obit, too, but hesitated: I didn’t want to tell my father. It felt too big, news of all those writers in the same envelope. Instead, I just added a Post-it: I’m sorry about García Márquez. I was on the train home when my father called. “Thanks for the obituaries you sent,” he said. “But I didn’t understand your note. What about Márquez?” Almost a week had gone by, but he hadn’t heard yet. My train was pulling into Daly City, the fog just tipping over the hills in the west, and I told him. He was quiet for a minute. “That’s too bad,” he said. When I moved recently, I found a shoebox of envelopes in my father’s hand. Perhaps this portends pre-hoarding tendencies, though I hope not. Together, the envelopes form a history of my last decade: a real zoetrope of apartments and cities, the gold return address sticker in the corner always the same. For some reason, it’s harder for me to get rid of the envelopes than the newsprint itself. They are proof, I guess, but of what? Love, yes, but something else. That I am being remembered. And a quieter mandate, too: Remember me. Remember me like this. My father called again the other day, from his flip phone. “So García Márquez made The Economist,” he said. A copy’s in the mail to you. I put the other in my Book of Crap” (a sort of scrapbook he keeps). “Actually,” he said, “it’s not crap. Anyway, I wrote a note on the back.” I asked him what it said. “Thanks to Kate, I learned of this author who explained my interest in remembering way too much stuff, but always in the context of a story.’” Way too much stuff. I found a pen and scribbled on the back of an envelope nearby, sad that I don’t know how to let a call just be a call anymore, sad or maybe lucky that everything, these days, feels like a keepsake. I asked him about that first review I’d sent him, to check my memory. “Well, it’s in his book you gave me,” he said. “I think it’s an epigraph. Let’s see.” I pictured him in his desk chair, staring at the bookshelves, thumbs at his lips, looking for the memoir. I knew exactly the afternoon light through the shutters, the wall of airplane pictures above the desk, the dogs asleep near his feet. I was standing in my own kitchen, watching the eucalyptus tree in back swerve. The day was bright and windy, the kind of day that lets you believe that the world will just go on. “Found it,” he said. “Living to Tell the Tale.” I listened as he read to me. “Title page. Then here’s a note from you.” He read my inscription back, one I’d signed, stupidly, Your tale-teller. “Then there’s a page where people say how brilliant he is.” I could hear his thumb rasping the pages. Even though we both know the quote by heart, he’s an engineer, and there’s an order to these things. “The Library of Congress page—then, okay: here it is. ‘Life is not what one has lived, but what one remembers, and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’” “That’s it,” I said. Plain words that have come to mean so much to us both: words that give purpose to my father’s funny burden of “remembering way too much stuff” and that justify, for me, setting those memories down, on tape, in fiction. One sentence that named for him a way of being—I tell stories—and advanced an hypothesis I’m worried I’ve taken up as dogma: that remembering might be life itself. “The next page is a map of Colombia,” he said. “And then, on the next page, the book starts.” The book starts. Isn’t that a thrilling thing to be told? Maybe that’s what my shoebox of obits are, at least when they leave the post office in Arizona. What my father is saying, each time he folds and sends another. Something has ended, yes, but see? Now the telling begins. Image via Mary Hutchinson/Flickr

Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name

There are certain arts which even the most seasoned practitioners swear remain a mystery to them. Motherhood is one. Arranging a short story collection is another. In her debut collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, Natalie Serber grapples with both, and the result is a clear-eyed case study of what’s necessary and unsolvable in each. The mothers and daughters in these stories are working out how to hold on to one another even as they scramble to get out of each other’s way. Most of the stories within follow two main characters: Nomadic Ruby Hargrove and her daughter, Nora, who she’s trying to raise as a “liberated” woman, and doing it solo. The stories about these two women take place in the apartment buildings and classrooms of 1970s America, Florida and New York and California, worlds we know, though at times one gets the feeling Serber knows them better. Not because of poetic flights of language or narrative tricks -- there aren’t many -- but because her prose resists elision. Serber delves into the dreamlike and the mundane with equal comfort, writing as convincingly about an LSD trip as she does about the details of post-partum pain. And she does not shy away from the unbeautiful: “His tender eye skin was gray as raw shrimp,” she writes of Aaron, a character who started the story with bedroom eyes. This commitment to the real world as one finds it (i.e. often unbeautiful) is also a source of humor. While on LSD, Nora falls out of Aaron’s van and injures her elbow. As they come down and he cleans her wound, she realizes that “his hair no longer smelled like the forest floor; it smelled like hot-dog water.” Though this is her first book, Serber is a confident storyteller, and the stories bear the mark of a writer who has mastered the form enough to have some fun with it. “Plum Tree,” in which Nora loses her virginity, begins like this: Nora cupped the pot in her hand and stepped out to her backyard. Her best friend, Zellie, was waiting, digging through her backpack. “I don’t have any papers,” Zellie said. Instead she held up a Tampax and ran her tongue along the edge of the wrapper. “We’ll have to use this.” She ejected the tampon onto the struggling lawn, where it lay like a white firecracker. In other places, such writerly awareness comes off as too on-point. Can a salad plate covered with a napkin really look like a “cat-size corpse”? In a story about a missing cat, a reader may get to this and hear the familiar warning of the GPS lady-robot: Approaching Symbol in 2 miles. Moreso than a traditional novel, linked stories like the ones in Serber’s collection must contend with -- and build from -- the slats between the stories. Of course all scenes are chosen things, but in a collection of eight or 11 stories, those spaces become nearly as significant as what’s on the page. In those between-spots, Ruby and Nora swap apartments, then swap coasts; they change jobs, change schools, change boyfriends. (It’s no accident that no man other than Marco appears in more than one story.) With all these full set changes, Serber creates continuity by using details as little relay batons: Ruby’s mother’s Green Stamps resurface as she furnishes her Manhattan apartment, and the suitcase Marco leaves for Ruby in the hospital turns up stories later on the baggage carousel when Nora goes to meet him in Chicago. There’s a bigger relay move at work here. Eight of the stories center on Ruby and Nora, and the first three of those are told from Ruby’s point of view. Home for a summer during college, Ruby and her father stop at his local bar on their way home, and she begins to understand that she’s inherited his storytelling, but also his drinking and ability to disappoint her mother. In the next story, Ruby finds out she’s pregnant while her lover Marco is gallivanting around Europe, and she’s struck by a very believable failure of imagination: “She could imagine herself neither in Europe nor pregnant.” Though Marco urges Ruby to give the baby up for adoption, she chooses to keep it, and he exits stage right, leaving Ruby a new suitcase and a security deposit. From here, the narrative baton passes to Ruby’s daughter, and we see the rest of the linked stories looking over Nora’s shoulder. It’s an interesting meta-fictional tactic for a book interested in what’s passed from mother to daughter: make point-of-view itself one of those inheritances. Yet this choice comes at a cost. As Nora assumes the narrative gaze, Ruby relinquishes it, and flattens out into a series of habits and tics: the woman in the other room, flirtatious and drinking and starved for attention. To be fair, this may be an accurate portrayal of the unsympathetic indictment of mother by daughter: “Nora couldn’t stand when her mother was earnest and dumb. She wanted to make her own new and unique mistakes.” And by the halfway point, no reader will mistake Ruby for a model mother: she forgets to buy bread, so a babysitter serves Nora Ritz crackers with her eggs in the morning. But because of where Serber starts the story -- at Ruby’s elbow when she meets her father at the station, when she meets her daughter in the hospital -- I was disappointed that the book didn’t step back into her shoes. After all, this is the woman who swore that “paying attention would set her free.” Then there’s the matter of the other three stories, and what they’re doing here. The first and title story is a second-person instruction manual in the style of Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help that navigates a mother through her daughter’s struggle with anorexia. It’s a strong, open-eyed story. In the second unrelated piece (and the weakest), a new mother contends with a fussy baby and a blue-jeaned bully on a flight to meet her in-laws in Idaho. But the final story, "Developmental Blah Blah,” more than makes up for it. Cassie, mother of two teenagers, is throwing her husband Ben a surprise 50th birthday party. Her 14-year-old Edith has toilet blue hair and has begun sneaking vodka from the freezer, 17-year-old Ethan is engrossed in a serious relationship Cassie fears she’s jealous of, and she finds she’s suddenly the “center of absolutely no one’s life.” At the party, Cassie stepped forward with two beers for her men. She was both in the moment and not. She knew that this was what she should be doing, stepping into her family, looking too-too in her black dress, adoring smile, only her smile was slightly ironic. But since Serber has given us such memorable women in Nora and Ruby, and spent so much time with them, it’s hard to close the book without asking why the collection, finally, leaves these women behind. (In fact, the opening of “Developmental Blah Blah” may play with that question. The prior story leaves off with Nora working as a baker, considering an offer to join her boss at a new bakery in Seattle. On the next page, we meet Cassie in a bakery, where she is contemplating cupcakes. For a moment I thought, Oh good -- this is Nora’s bakery! But if it is, the story doesn’t let on.) In a subtle rhyme with the title story’s final image, the last story closes with Cassie and Edith making a similarly precarious approach: Her daughter caught her eye and for a moment the tightrope appeared, the two women stepping onto it, knowing everything about each other. Cassie’s swelling heart split wide and Edith mouthed something: I love you or fuck you, or both. That both is Serber’s sweet-spot, and these stories are at their finest when she doesn’t tell us which it is: When we find ourselves there alongside Cassie, being claimed by these beautiful struggling people on stage, and even if we can’t quite make out the meaning from here, it’s enough to know that they’re speaking to us.