Sigh. It’s so easy to be a perfect parent…until you have children.
Before I stepped onto the Mommie Track I walked a ways on the Sixth Grade Homeroom/Middle School Language Arts Teacher Track. I tsk-ed over the kids who brought cans of pop in their lunch, who came in and told me they had leftover birthday cake for breakfast, or who stayed up until 11 at night. Parents would come in for conferences and bewail their underachievers’ mediocre grades, and I would think smugly to myself, “C’mon. It’s not that hard, people; read the book! You just need to be consistent!”
And then Mommiehood tracked me down. I went quickly from espousing an Organic, Non-Electronic, Earth Mama parenting style to screeching “Where the @#$@! is that Barney video cassette?” as I ripped open another box of cheap mac and cheese mix.
Ah, motherhood. What other experience offers so many chances to fail?
I’ve declared Failed Motherhood to be the theme of Beth Gutcheon’s Leeway Cottage.
I picked out Leeway Cottage because I love summer cottage stories–stories in the tradition of Anne Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Frank, or even Madeleine L’Engle… The easy impermanence of summer, where rules are relaxed and sand tracks in the house and the porch faces the crashing surf. There are the town people, there are the summer folks; there is sometimes a nice story line where the two intersect. Usually there’s a romance; sometimes there’s a secret; there’s always a reliable little boat in the harbor.
Escape literature, that’s what summer cottage books are.
So when I came across Leeway Cottage at a sale, I snapped it up. “I’ll save this for a relaxing treat,” I thought, and after a great bout of reading Scots, a rollick with Gary Shteyngart’s Russian Debutante, and some required reading for work, I thought, last week, that I was due for a treat.
Gutcheon’s book wasn’t at all what I expected. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a fluffy beach novel.
If I had to categorize the book, I’d almost say it’s a fictional sociology of a family, framed by their life in and out of Leeway Cottage. It starts in the early 1900’s, when James Brant marries Candace. She is not his first choice; his true love and first wife, Berthe, died in childbirth. Candace, who is a beauty, is not talented, imaginative, or compassionate. She doesn’t appreciate the history behind The Elms, the summer home of the Brant family; Candace wants to get rid of the chintz and replace it with hard-edged, modern furniture. The marriage is not happy.
One child–Annabee–results, and Candace cannot give her the love she needs. She is an absent, neglectful mother, concerned with social hierarchy and keeping current with the trends. Annabee is a Daddy’s girl. But Daddy, older by the time he’d wed Candace, doesn’t take care of himself. He drinks; he smokes; he’s overweight. He dies when Annabee is a teen, and then Candace rules single-handedly over Annabee’s life.
Candace makes her daughter miserable, and seems to quite enjoy the process.
So Annabee, who is truly musically gifted, escapes. She goes to the city and takes voice lessons. She changes her name to Sydney. She merges into a bohemian, musical crowd, and she discovers talents and strengths she never dreamed she had. And she meets Laurus, a gifted Danish pianist. He is her accompanist; then he becomes her lover; and then they are married. It’s easy to like the Sydney-Annabee of this era, but she changes after the wedding.
Laurus spends the World War II years in England, working with the government; Sydney is pregnant when he leaves, and she spends the same years as an enterprising young mother. She has wealth from her father; she has friends, both from her city and her summer lives; she has lots of people to help with the baby. She buys Leeway Cottage, a site of remembered fun, a place that housed a loving family. She circles around a true reconciliation with her mother, and that moment just never quite arrives.
Sydney’s journey is a little hazy, a little bizarre–she has unexplained prejudices and unexplained moments of heroism. There’s an overt suggestion during the war years that she’s having a dalliance with a socially accepted Lesbian, but the one compromising scene fades, and that story line drifts away. Laurus is a loyal family man–loyal both to his Danish family and to the family he and Sydney create. They have three children in all; those children come to call Sydney ‘Syd Vicious’ and to seize their chances to rebel against her. And Sydney definitely has an affair with her dearest friend’s husband; she leaves behind some incriminating correspondence, which the children find after her death. It’s all very sad.
Oh, shoot: motherhood is hard. My niece tells a funny story about losing her son in the Disney Store, and how the perky staff member, when reuniting them, chirped, “Good job, MOM! Your little prince knew just what to do when he was lost! He came to the desk and got help!”
“I never told him to do that,” my niece muttered to her husband, who replied, “There goes YOUR Mother of the Year Award.”
It ain’t easy to be a mother, and society has impossibly high ideals for the role. Most of us blunder and yell and throw easy, non-nutritious food on the table–at least sometimes. But, underneath the exhaustion and the never-ending round of stuff to do, lucky kids always have this knowledge: I am loved by my mother.
I think what Gutcheon was saying is that Annabee-Sydney never had that knowledge. And I think she was saying of Laurus and Sydney’s children that they weren’t always sure.
One of the most poignant threads in the Leeway Cottage story is the story of “Faster Nina,” Laurus’s sister. She was a member of the Danish resistance, and she was caught and interred. For a while, she remained in a Danish prison, but then she and the other resistance members were moved to Ravensbruck concentration camp. In the narrative, there’s no detailed explanation of Nina’s imprisonment. But after the war, she is (of course) changed. She doesn’t pick up the loving relationship she’d just begun with Per Bennike before she was shipped away. She is thin, tense, prickly. She has a successful teaching career but a lonely life with few friends.
An odd quirk of the book is that Nina’s wartime narrative is told just before the end, kind of a flashback: it’s a story no one in the family ever heard. It is a difficult and brutal story to read.
There’s an interview with Beth Gutcheon at the end of my copy of Leeway Cottage. In it, she says, “I wanted to examine a certain kind of twentieth-century American marriage, in which the husband and wife, as they have grown and life has changed them, appear by midlife so different as people that outsiders (or insiders—their own children) can’t understand how they chose each other in the first place.”
She succeeds in her examination, I think. Although I kept waiting for a revelation, or an explosion, some kind of climactic moment after which the wayward seek redemption, that never came. It almost felt like a documentary, this story of a family, this tale of the far-flung consequences of the lack of a mother’s love.
It’s ironic that the book I’m currently reading, Enrique’s Journey, by journalist Sonia Nazario, also overtly addresses the subject of mother-lack. Enrique is a central American child whose mother emigrated to the United States so she could send money home to her children. Enrique, like thousands of children from his world, misses his mothers so much, he will risk his safety and his live to find her. This is a grim and gripping story; it’s a reminder to me of how privileged my life has been, and of the many things I take for granted. I’m hoping, here, for some kind of happy–or redemptive–ending.