Hubby and I were privileged (That sounds a little like Sarah Palin talking, doesn’t it?) to be in the audience last Saturday evening at the SLC Library 2008 Dewey Lecture Season at which the featured speaker was Ann Patchett, whose fourth novel, BEL CANTO, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in 2002, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. This is one of several Dewey Lectures we’ve attended in the last couple of years, and we’ve never been disappointed and remain forever grateful to those friends who share their tickets with us.
Although I have not yet read any of Ms. Patchett’s work, If her storytelling even approximates the skill with which she held the audience spellbound the 75 or 80 minutes she was onstage, I have a lot of good reading ahead of me with what she’s already published. Plus, she gave a small glimpse of a new novel she’s now working on. So, even if the country sinks into depression and there’s nothing but doom and gloom ahead of us, I may not have much else but I’ll have a lot to read while things get worked out. (One can hope!)
One remark of hers really resonated with me, how we tend to quit talking about the dead people in our lives after awhile. I thought about that, and it’s true, after awhile we stop asking our friends about their dead people. Wonder what would happen for instance, if I said to my friend, Mary, whose mother I know to be many years dead, “Wow, Mary, this presidential election is pretty exciting. Not only do we have the first African American running for president, there’s a possibility that a woman may become our first vice-president. What do you think your mother would say about that?”
At 66, I have a long list of dead people, but I’ll start my reflection with my grandmothers born in the nineteenth century. Both were widowed when they were in their fifties. Afterward, one rarely left the farm and is so much an indelible memory of that place that I cannot imagine her in any other setting. After the two grandsons she raised to adulthood left home to begin new families, she seemed content to be free at last to set her own pace–or more specifically–to sit in the rocker on her front porch and read.
And it didn’t take the other one long to finally liberate herself enough to cut her hair short after being committed for many many years to 100 burdensome brushstrokes daily to her long, silky hair. I wish I’d had the gumption to ask her if she liked her hair long like that, or was only following the dictates of her husband. I suspect the latter since I observed for myself that he was always served first at the dinner table, got the choicest cuts of meat, etc. and I can’t think of a single time he ever got up from the table to get something for himself. There was always a female, either wife, aged mother-in-law, daughter or female grandchild to fetch it for him.
When I was a child I often heard people say that so and so would turn over in his grave if he knew such and such had happened. After Ms. Patchett’s lecture, when my thoughts turned in this dead people direction I imagined that if we could somehow peer into all the graves of our dead, we’d probably have to search to figure out which way they were lying, there would have been so much spinning going on! Furthermore, I had to wonder how I would explain things, say current events, to my two grandmothers if– let’s say–someone established a weblink or email link or some other John Edward (the psychic)-like communication directly to their graves.
How would I explain to the grandmother who chided me when I suggested we let the Negro help sit at the same long, food-laden dinnertable with the rest of the family and farmhands who helped harvest tobacco, instead of the small table in the kitchen with mason jars to drink their tea from. (I’ll never sit at the same table with n*****s!) that less than 30 days from now we may have elected one to be our president? Even more unimaginable, how would I ever explain Sarah Palin to the other–stay at home–one?
Such a scenario does open my eyes to a lot of creative possibilities! Now if only I can get relief from some of my lethargy as it pertains to writing blog posts . . . ! I’ll have to think on it for awhile. In the meantime I hope someone chances by and reads this who’ll be willing to share their dead people with me. That’ll get me started for sure!
Postscript: Ann Patchett’s other novels include The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, and her latest, Run, published in 2007.