Thursday, January 10, 2013

When We Were the Kennedys - Monica Wood

Stepping into this book was like walking back in time to childhood ... Monica Wood describes, with such poignant detail, snapshots of a youth spent negotiating the sidewalks and classroom aisles of small town existence. In her case, life unfolded in a small factory town in northern New England. The circumstance of her memoir revolves around the year that her father died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Her life, during this time of grieving, is distilled in written form to remembrances and reflections on her mother, her uncle, her sisters, her school teachers, and her community and the way the fabric of her life flows and changes as life without her father becomes a routine and not the initial traumatic explosion in an otherwise normal morning. All this familial change and grieving occurs around the same time that the nation loses its beloved President Kennedy.

I loved Ms. Wood's power of description. She uses her words so effectively and brings scenes to life easily, without wasting words or rambling.

The Gallant ladies linger a bit, they speak kindly, they squeeze her hands, but this is the era before 'closure', before 'letting it all out', an era of private mourning. You don't say things out loud. Mum, a shell-shocked widow trying to find her footing, intends to keep her misery to herself.
She isn't sleeping. One night I wake with a start - everything eerily calm, Cathy asleep next to me, Betty asleep in her bunk, Anne, softly breathing, asleep in hers. I slip out of bed and listen: nothing. I crack open our bedroom door and find the kitchen empty, everything in silhouette: the table and chairs, the sewing machine, the birdcage. Nothing breathes; even the cats have vanished. Then I hear something - at least I think I do, a sound nearly eroded  from memory, something that might be a voice or a motion, or a thought.
Is it Dad? In there, in the parlor? One step, then another and I'm at the parlor doorway, peering in. I see a human shadow in the darkness. Blood rushes through my ears, I can no longer place the sound I either did or did not hear, and then the figure resolves into the motionless shape of my mother.
Standing in the center of the room, she fumbles with her nightgown as if she has just put it on. What is she doing? What time is it? I do not understand the thing to which I'm bearing witness: a widow awake in her too-small house, unwilling to return to her marriage bed. Like a spirit from the ghost  stories that she and Dad loved to tell, she haunts her own house at night, and as soon as it empties out in the morning she sleeps at last, borrowing beds that smell of her children.
She hears me. Turns. Her beautiful brown eyes meet me in the dark.
"Mumma?" I whisper.
She doesn't answer. I'm not positive she can see me. I've intruded on something adult and private, and so, not knowing what else to do, I retreat gently, as if backing away from a strange but benign-looking animal, my eyes fixed on hers. By morning it feels like a dream.

This is the first book that I've read by Monica Wood. I already have an order in at the library for an earlier novel called Any Bitter Thing. Savoring every page of When We Were the Kennedys, I can tell that I have 'found' a new favorite author.

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