May was a terror of a month, but near the end of it, we flew off to the Amalfi Coast and then to an island near Naples, and we have returned, restored and refreshed (and filled to the brim with amazing food and wine). Our yard is a swamp meadow, because it apparently poured every day we were gone, and the German shepherds smell like a fish market, but we are glad to be home and glad for all of the adventures we shared with family and with each other, concluding with commemorating our eighth anniversary on the gorgeous island of Ischia.
Buckle up for a photo dump, sans context.
Arrivederci, Italia! What a pleasure to have encountered you.
Inspired by the horrors and paradoxes of our current cultural moment (and a Paris Review article by Claire Dederer), I wrote a short piece for Mockingbird: “Love the Art, Hate the Artist?”
When a politician misbehaves, it’s easy (in theory) to wave our hands and say, “Politicians! They’re all filthy.” But when our favorite novelist or comedian or musician misbehaves, we feel conflicted. We feel like we’ve been implicated ourselves. This is how I felt when I learned that Virginia Woolf, one of my all-time favorites, dressed in blackface to a party and was famously cruel and anti-Semitic. We want our artists to be as blameless as we think we are. Our beloved artists made something so good, so beautiful; shouldn’t the end product match the content of their souls?
This is the tricky thing about art: Great art can be created by terrible people.
A pair of colorful beach towels, folded so that they resemble books on a shelf, reside in my coat closet. I have left them there, undisturbed, for almost a year now. They belonged to my grandmother. She died a year ago today.
Oddly enough, I have strong memories of these towels. Ma-Maw would wrap us kids up in them when we’d dash into their house from the lake. We’d be shivering in the freezing house, dripping all over her floors in our Disney one-pieces, and she’d have a stack of these big beach towels by the door to fold us in.
The towels came into my possession when my mother gave me three framed prints from Japan that lived in my grandparents’ house.
I had always loved these prints, as a child, because of my study of Japanese, and I was honored to receive them. To protect the frames in the car, Mom had wrapped them in these two towels.
When I unwrapped the prints, shortly after her funeral, I burst into tears in my dining room. Not because of the art but because of the towels. The towels smelled exactly like her. It was as if she was suddenly in the room next to me. My eyes still swim with tears when I remember this, which is strange, that the mere memory of a scent could produce such a strong reaction.
The towels don’t really smell like her anymore. Over the past year, they’ve absorbed our scent, whatever it is (probably a mix of old books and German shepherd dander), and lost hers. But if I bury my face in them, nose deep into the well-worn fibers, I can pick up the faintest hint of her.
I am not sentimental about objects. I throw everything away with gleeful fervor. But these towels, weird as they may be, may always live in my closet, untouched, unused.
The last time we saw my grandparents’ house was the day of my grandmother’s funeral. All 10 of us grandkids went together, as a final pilgrimage to the house that we so adored.
We silently split up and wandered through the house, each of us taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved: And I remember how sad and somber it felt, because she was not there. The house itself seemed to wilt. There were mildewy patterns on the gingerbread trim. Even the shadows seemed gloomy. The things that were once cute—a concrete owl on the front porch, her numerous rabbit figurines—now were strange and sad.
“It was as if the house knew they weren’t living there anymore,” I told my mother, and she agreed. The house took on a grief of its own.
The house is sold now, and I am glad of it. Not only because of the needed income for my grandfather but because it would be horrible to keep thinking of it empty, without the two of them. The house needs a new life, just as we do.
I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of her. I don’t expect to. But it is comforting to remember her, in all of the ways that she resurfaces in my life.
Buy nice hand soap. Make your home a warm and welcoming place for guests. Be a kickass business owner who isn’t afraid to negotiate, with everyone, for everything. Never settle for uncomfortable jeans, even if they’re on sale. Take care of your nails (stop painting them). Sit down and eat a good meal, mostly derived from the earth, and don’t worry so much about hard-core exercise. Tend a garden. Take walks.
Take care of your face. Invest in expensive face creams. Be proud of your family; tell them how proud of them you are whenever you see them. Create and cherish family traditions. Find your signature scent and do not deviate. Write and send cards to people on every conceivable occasion.* (*At Ma-Maw’s funeral, a woman came up to me and told me that Ma-Maw sent her dog a birthday card.)
Be direct with people about what you want; don’t hedge. Laugh a lot: loudly and daily. Tell stories and crack jokes in every social interaction. Making fun of people is a nice way to show that you care. Consider the needs of dogs, first and foremost. Take risks and do not give any weight to cultural opinions. Show off your legs.
My sister Kelsey
Be confident about yourself and your appearance. Marie Kondo your entire home; if you bring home one new thing, throw out one old thing. Reserve time for kissing and cuddling. Take care of everyone around you; be uncannily prescient about predicting others’ needs. Prioritize your own needs on a long road trip (e.g., chicken nuggets and a milkshake).
My sister Grace
See the whole damn world. Do what you want with your life and ignore conventions. Hoard creative material and ideas and make no apologies for the rats’ nest that is your childhood room/closet. Dress like you just went on a trip to Japan and found out that your life calling is to be a potter (who also owns a motorcycle and two pit bulls). You can never have too many notebooks.
My great aunt Lib
Read everything and write long letters full of great sentences. Tell stories in every conversation. Invent your own catchphrases and use them liberally. Preserve an irreverent sense of humor in all circumstances. Be a lady who gets things done and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way.
In times of general nationwide gloom, there will always be Fatniss Turkeydeen. (We were delighted to host Kelsey and Alex this past weekend for our Third Annual Fatniss, to celebrate Kelsey’s birthday, cram our gullets with good food, and watch an apocalyptic film.)
It is good to spend time together, as much as we can spare, even if it is loose and unstructured and mostly just punctuated by food and drink. Talking about people we once knew well. Sitting by the fire and having overly spicy shakshuka for breakfast. Walking the dogs on narrow sidewalks and musing about domestic architecture. (I’m thinking about this great little essay from the New York Times about the myth of quality time: There is no “quality” time. You just need time. Don’t put that kind of emotional pressure on time; we resist it.)
And now, for more feasting and more family time, we head into the Thanksgiving weekend.
Having met my reading goal for the year, I am going to take December slowly and start my second read of War and Peace (translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky). I am going to force myself to savor it. And allow myself the time to take as long as it takes. Read the dialogue in French before looking at the translation in the footnote. Re-read a whole page if I didn’t catch the gist the first time. Don’t worry about the fact that I still have 1,100 pages to go.
I want to read fewer books next year. I am so competitive with myself that I find it hard to slow down and dive into the long, complex things. I just want to tear through as many books of essays and short novels as I can. But this is a bad orientation to literature. I am trying to fix it.
Here is a photo of Pyrrha, taking herself seriously:
I recently found my 100-page diary (titled Night and Day), which I maintained in a password-protected Word doc from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2009. It’s solid-gold humiliation material. So much moony behavior; so deadly serious most of the time, too. I was very dramatic about boys, of course, and there was a lot of hyper-piety in there, too, along with some vapid musings about what I was reading and thinking about. It’s tremendously entertaining and it wants to make me bite all my nails off.
Ten years hence, it is nice to be older, to be relatively self-aware. I no longer look at myself as this grandstanding literary heroine. I feel very subdued and normal and problematic. But I still wonder if I will feel a similar sense of shame when I am 38 and I stumble on this blog.
My life is so good right now, and I wouldn’t change anything about its domestic arrangement, but I was thinking about how fun and lively it was when it was just the nuclear family: the four siblings and Mom and Dad, at home together all the time. We had a really good time together, the Original 6. We were noisy and all-consuming and imaginative. We spent a lot of time outdoors, and if we were indoors, we were dressing up in costumes and building sofa forts and Lego universes. Mom and Dad gave us this childhood that I recall as this unbroken reel of happiness. I shared a big bedroom (the Harem) with Kelsey and Grace during my last years at home, and it was the most fun and the most annoying all at once. We were always in each other’s business.
(I’ve been digitally archiving piles of family photos, and it’s making me feel nostalgic.)
This rush of nostalgia helps me understand, for the first time, how sad my family was when I went to college. Being the eldest, I was the first to go; I was elated and I couldn’t even fathom why they were so gloomy. But I understand a bit of it now. They weren’t going to miss me (I was a skinny tyrant) — they were mourning the loss of wholeness of the family.
It is necessary and good that children grow up and want to leave home. Can you imagine the hellishness if we all still lived with our parents and tried to replicate our childhood relationships with them and our siblings, forever? I recognize this fully. But I still like to indulge in that sweet sadness of remembering what was. It is good to remember and to be happy for what you shared together.
We were delighted to host Win and Tracy for the weekend in London. We had a full (and fortunately quite sunny) weekend with them, including a marvelous dinner at Dishoom (thanks, Granddad! We love you!), an afternoon at the Tate Modern (including the newly added wing), and a day exploring the gorgeous Hampstead area. Photos ensue.
We had a gorgeous, relaxing weekend in Berlin with my sister and her boyfi, Jack, during which we commemorated our sixth wedding anniversary. Grace and Jack were such generous and fun hosts, and we can’t wait to see them again soon in London. Phone pictures follow; haven’t had time since returning to grab photos from my real camera.