Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Third 30th Birthday

Five (!) years ago, my grandmother turned 90.  As part of the celebration, all her grandchildren put on a little talent show.  Being neither musical nor coordinated, I chose to write and read a little essay about her.  On the occasion of her 95th year, I have reprinted it below.


I have tried to write this tribute in many ways: lyrical, comical and philosophical.  At some point, all things fall short.  I keep returning in my mind to one of my earliest memories of Grandma, and then again to one of Phil’s first memories of her.

Growing up, we always went to Grandma and Grandpa's house on
Old State Road
for Sunday breakfast after mass.  There was so much there for a child to observe: the smell of pancakes cooking on Grandpa’s perfect griddle, the slightly blurry faces of the Hummel figurines, and the tiny cups of orange juice you had to make last through the entire meal.  My most enduring and vivid memory, though, is of the blue felt silverware holder with the yellow edges.  Right before the meal, when the house smelled so full of breakfast I could hardly stand it, Grandma would take out the silverware holders, untie them, unroll them, lift up the flap and set the table.  Sometimes I even got to help.  If I was very lucky, we stayed long enough after breakfast to help put the silverware back in the pockets, fold up the flap, roll up the holder and tie it up again.  This particular shade of blue will always make me think of comfort, family, and making good things last by enjoying each tiny sip.  People call it light blue, robin’s egg blue, or even military blue.  For me, however, this shade will always be Grandma blue.

Some of you may remember that shortly after I married my husband, he decided to grow a beard.  Some of you may also remember that the results were decidedly mixed.  Grandma has always welcomed and loved him, as have you all.  When he had his beard, though, she was the only one who told him it didn’t look good and that he should shave it off.  The beard didn’t last much longer after that.  I can’t say for sure if it was because of what Grandma said, but I was glad she said it.

I linger over these two memories as we celebrate Grandma’s third 30th birthday because, for me, they show the massive power hidden in this “little” lady.  She makes the everyday tasks of life, like setting the table, comforting and enduring.  And she can speak a small, kind word that makes us want to change for the better.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

I like novels that make me cry. I enjoy that total absorption in a fictional world that opens up some fiercely protected emotional reserve and pulls it out -- all with the gentle force of words. Only words -- put together in a specific way by a human mind that has all the same organic parts as yours and mine. It feeds my fragile optimism to realize that a person, just a person, can produce a fictional world so real and powerful that it makes me cry.

I recall three contemporary novels that have this particular power: The God of Small Things by Arhundati Roy, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and now, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I believe I came to this book a little late. I put out a plea on Facebook for something good to read, and at least four people mentioned this book. I found it in the new books section of the library. Only one of the five or six copies was available for check out. Somehow, this "new" book already had the darkened pages and slanted spine of an often-read book. I had just seven days to get through 550-plus pages.

I finished it in three.

The story, if you don't know, follows twin brothers, conjoined towns separated at birth, and their lives at a hospital in Africa. This is a gross over- simplification of a complex story, but I hesitate to summarize a story so perfectly compact. Yes, despite the heft of the book, the story was compact, contained. Every possible loose piece that could have rattled off into space found a way back into the puzzle of the story. Tragically deceased mother, troubled absent father, brothers drifting apart by distance and betrayals -- it all comes back together. Despite the tragic tones of the resolution, the ending of the story was deeply satisfying. Overall, this book has the feel of a life well and fully lived -- I grieved for the end but still felt grateful for the journey.

So now I will add my recommendation to that of my four or five (or more) friends. This is a well-crafted, lovely book. It is elegant in language and precise in construction. It reflects, I believe, the best of author's other profession (Verghese is a doctor) as well.