Pete

8335850228_8b236239d9_c

My beloved grandfather went to be with his wife, my dear Ma-Maw, on January 2. Following is the eulogy I gave for him at his memorial service.

It is a strange thing, to suddenly be without any grandparents, but I am so grateful for the ones I had and repeatedly comforted by my memories of them.

. . .

Pete Johnson was the only person I’ve ever heard of who successfully renamed himself as a child.

Kids ask to be called different things, and some nicknames stick for a few years, but I have yet to meet another person who chose a new name for himself as a child and then never went by another one.

When he was a little boy, he got in trouble for acting up in Sunday school. The teacher said, “Little boy, what’s your name?” He said, “My name is Pistol Pete.” She shook her head and said, “No, little boy, what’s your real name?” He answered again, “My name is Pistol Pete.” This happened a third time. “Little boy, what’s your name?” “My name is Pistol Pete,” he said, resolutely. “But… when my mother is mad, she calls me Edwin Rushing Johnson.”

From then on, until he died, everyone called him Pete. I never heard a single person call him Edwin.

This little anecdote could serve as an analogy for his character: Even when he was a small boy, he had a determination and clarity of mind that set him apart from his peers. Pete Johnson was a boy who knew who he wanted to be. And he grew up to be a remarkable man, a man I am proud and honored to have known as my grandfather.

. . .

Pete was a soft-spoken man, exceedingly gentle and patient. For most of our childhood, Da-Dan—as he was so named by us grandkids—was quiet. He would sit in his armchair and read the paper or a book of history, finish a jigsaw puzzle, or tend to the dishes as needed. But he didn’t say much. Then, in late 1999, he got cancer, lymphoma. And as he went through treatment and survived and his ring of hair gradually returned, it was as if the floodgates of speech had opened. He wouldn’t stop talking, telling stories and starting conversations. Once you touched on a topic he loved, he would just keep going, breathlessly, without pause. It was as if he was making up for lost time. This loquacious tendency continued up until his passing, and I think it surprised and delighted all of us.

22781704384_066027b31e_c
Listening to me talk about a book I got for Christmas (1994).

And it was a true pleasure to hear him talk. He was a gregarious and talented conversationalist and a memorable storyteller, just like all of his siblings. I won’t even attempt to replicate his soft and lovely Alabama accent. It was the kind of genteel Southern accent that seems increasingly rare. And he was a rare man.

In all my life, I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He was endlessly fair and good-natured. He never raised his voice or lost his temper. He was never sarcastic. Never rude. Never harsh. Never cynical. Never unkind.

He once told me a story about when he worked as a bag boy at a grocery store in Charlotte. He was the soul of politeness, even as a teenager, and he followed the rules. One day, an African-American woman came through the checkout line, and Pete said, yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am to her while bagging her groceries. His boss overheard him and rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you say ‘ma’am’ to her,” and probably something much worse. But, Da-Dan said, looking down at me, “Even though my boss told me that, I knew he was wrong. And so I kept saying it anyway.”

He had an obedient and compliant nature, but he knew when it was just and right to break the rules.

. . .

Edwin Rushing Johnson was born June 30, 1932, in Samson, Alabama, to Ralph and Delia Johnson. Pete was their third child, preceded by Lib and Buck, and followed by baby Joe. He grew up in Alabama and then, after graduating from Wofford College in South Carolina, returned to Charlotte to become a banker. It was in Charlotte that he met the love of his life, a Miss Lucy Land, at a church social. She had just rejected a date for being too short when she set her eyes on the lanky, dapper Pete Johnson, who was just the right height, according to her rigorous standards. He started sitting next to her in the pew during church and was so nervous that he held the hymnal upside down.

22354008043_3cbb13d904_c
Wedding day (September 5, 1953).

On September 5, 1953, Pete and Lucy were married here at St. John’s by their beloved Dr. Claude Broach. Pete and Lucy were members of St. John’s for 42 years, and Pete served as the youth minister here. Later, they were faithful members for another several decades at First Baptist Church of Albemarle.

Pete and Lucy had three children: Mary Elizabeth, now Betsy Almond; Teresa Lynn, now Teresa Farson, who is also my mother; and Edwin Rushing Jr., also known as Rush. From my vantage point, each of them carry on key qualities they inherited from their father: Betsy, or my Aunt B, shares his unwavering devotion to his family. My mom, Teresa, shares his deep sense of justice and clarity over right and wrong, and my Uncle Rush carries on his talent as a storyteller and his personal integrity. Pete and Lucy delighted in Betsy, Teresa, and Rush, and in the 10 grandchildren that were to follow.

. . .

After their own kids were grown, Pete and Lucy moved to sleepy little Norwood, to a beautiful Victorian house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, right on Lake Tillery. Most of our happiest childhood memories involved the summer afternoons and early evenings spent on the lake with Da-Dan, whether he was at the helm of that old tank of a pontoon boat or standing on the dock with us, patiently teaching us how to fish.

22781706404_abf61e28c8_c

I think I can speak for all 10 of us grandkids when I say that their home in Norwood held a very special place in all of our hearts. Whether it was gathering around the fire Da-Dan built at Christmas or hunting for Easter eggs in their yard in the spring or jumping off the dock at their big Fourth of July party, many of our happiest memories were at their house.

23121896175_345e9fee3c_c(1)

In March 2016, after Lucy’s, or Ma-Maw’s, memorial service in Albemarle, all 10 of us looked at each other, and said, “We have to go. We have to go back to the house one more time and say goodbye.” So, Matt, Emily, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, Hunter, Pete, Parker, Mary Elizabeth, and myself—along with spouses Ashli, Guion, and Alex—all jumped in our cars to take a final pilgrimage. And as we headed down that familiar route to 46411 Sapona Lane, my eyes filled with tears: with gratitude, for the many happy years we had spent there, and for the home away from home that our grandparents had created for us.

Someone had given us a key to their house, and we unlocked the front door and silently split up. It was this magical, hushed scene: Each of us wandered through the house, everyone taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved. It was as if we were giving the house its final rites, holding a silent farewell ceremony to a place that each of us would treasure in our hearts forever.

. . .

Da-Dan had a soothing, magical quality with children and animals. They were drawn to him. Perhaps it was his gentle and quiet nature, but he could tame the fussiest baby or the most cantankerous beast.

One of those beasts was this mean-spirited black cat, Punkin. (Note the pronunciation: It’s not “Pumpkin,” but Punkin, the Southern way—named by my cousin Matt, who found the kitten on Halloween.) Punkin was a dreadful killing machine, a primarily feral animal. I once watched him leap several feet in the air to swat a baby bluebird out of the sky in midflight and then bite off its head. He would scratch or snap at anyone who came near him. He’d upset Ma-Maw by dropping the corpses of little baby rabbits on the doorstep for her to find. But when Da-Dan was near? He transformed into the sweetest little lap kitty. No one else could come near him, but with Da-Dan? That spiteful cat would curl up peacefully in his lap and purr for hours and hours. Indeed, Punkin was Da-Dan’s constant companion as he recovered from chemo and radiation.

23327517921_96c440c22c_c(1)

As wild children, we were equally drawn to him: He was an incredibly patient grandparent. In all the years we 10 grandkids spent with him, being rowdy and whiny and dripping lakewater all over their oriental rugs or throwing his carefully cultivated gravel into the lake or shooting down the neighbor’s rafts with BB guns, he never once raised his voice at us, never lost his temper. In most of the old snapshots from our childhood, Da-Dan can be seen in a corner, holding a baby in his arms or opening a present for one of the kids with his little pocket knife. As my brother Sam wrote to him on his birthday, June 30, 2006, in a note my parents found saved in Da-Dan’s nightstand at The Pines: “You are a grandpa people dream of.”

Da-Dan was a great-grandfather as well, and as an enduring credit to his memory, both of his great-grandchildren bear his name: my cousin Matt and his wife Ashli’s son, Covin Edwin Pierce Kemo, born June 24, 2016, and my husband Guion’s and my son, Moses Edwin Pratt, born May 9, 2019.

49149129532_827ddfa4e0_c
Meeting Moses (November 30, 2019).

Moses got to meet his great-grandfather just once, this past Thanksgiving. Da-Dan was brought down the hall in a wheelchair, and when he spotted Moses, his eyes lit up. He reached out his hands and held him confidently on his lap as we talked. It was a short moment, but a sweet and meaningful one.

I look forward to telling Moses all about his great-grandfather as he grows up. We pray that Moses will have his gentleness, his deep sense of honor and respect for others, his love of justice, his skill in storytelling, his quiet but abiding faith, his long-lasting devotion to his family, and his legendary patience.

. . .

But as much as Pete loved his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there was never any question about his ultimate love: Lucy.

It was always and forever Lucy. Their delight in and affection for each other lasted their entire lives. They were sweet and devoted and loyal, as was fitting, but they also had a great deal of fun; they were constantly teasing each other and joking together. Watching a marriage unfold like that, a union full of such energy and devotion and humor, makes a lasting impression on a child. Even a small child could look at them, as we all did, and know that this was a relationship built on an unshakable foundation. Pete and Lucy created a full life side by side, raising their three children, looking after their 10 grandchildren, serving at church, opening their home to others, and traveling the world.

23405280076_b85ee7d575_c

When Ma-Maw died, at the end of February 2016, a good part of his spirit died with her. It was as if he didn’t know how to be anymore. How could he be a person without Lucy? They had been married for 62 years. When I reflect on their marriage, I feel that I am able, for the first time, to begin to understand that mystical phrase from Genesis, of a husband and wife being “one flesh.” Lucy was a part of him, and he was a part of her. They were indivisible. You could not have Pete without Lucy.

22556826157_8fca81abca_c

Toward the end, when he was asked what he wanted or needed, he would only repeat two things: I want to go home. And I want to see Lucy.

And now, praise God, he has done both. We can celebrate and give thanks for that, just as we give thanks for the gift of Edwin Rushing Johnson’s good, long, and loving life.

The unchanged kernel

Kathryn gets ready for her wedding
The dress is on!

(I don’t have a good photo to illustrate this thought, so here’s a photo of Kathryn in her perfect wedding dress. Isn’t it IDEAL for her? She looked so lovely.)

This past weekend, we traveled back to our homeland of sorts for my dear friend Kathryn’s wedding. The wedding reception was like a mini-college reunion, getting to see all of these people who composed my essential community for four years. I left the wedding feeling very content and fulfilled.

I was amazed at how much everyone had changed, how different we all are from the noxious freshmen who met at InterVarsity. Jonathan is so fit and handsome and his hair is long enough for a perfect top knot. Matt seemed taller, talked about his job with authority and expectation. Catherine and I had husbands with us. Anthony is in grad school in Georgia. Sheila is going to seminary in Colorado with her husband. Nick got a job at a prestigious law firm in Manhattan. And we were all there, watching our beloved Kathryn get married. Our meek freshman selves would barely recognize us now.

And yet. I was pleased to realize that, in everyone, there remained this essential, unchanged kernel of personality, the thing that attracted us all to each other in the first place. Matt still dances the same way. Jonathan is still the person you go to for a deep conversation–or to get your bowtie properly tied. Catherine is still quietly observant and yet full of a surprising, absurd humor.

We’ve all transformed drastically; we live in different states; some of us barely speak to one another anymore. But we were all there, for a few hours, happy and content, as if nothing had ever really changed.

Babies and old men

Nettles at The Southern.
Happy Phinehas and his dear mother.
Baby buns! Phin is clearly appalled to be embarrassed in this way.

Oh, this schizophrenic half-winter of ours: Snowstorm this morning and now, at noon, it has ceased and the sun is coming out.

This weekend: Nettles, the Hill and Wood, and Luke Wilson played at The Southern; Matt Kleberg had a really wonderful opening at McGuffey; I began to re-read and fall in love with Absalom, Absalom! and retract every bad thing I ever said about it; and we got to watch UNC gloriously shame Duke at the McDermott’s on brew day. A very good weekend, by my estimation.

On Friday, I transcribed a painstaking, largely unsuccessful interview with a 106-year-old man, a legend in the industry. These were the important takeaways to me: If you are 106, you have the right to say things like, “Are you here just because you failed in the movie business?” to the unctuous young videographer coaxing you for an answer you thought you already gave. If you are 106, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t feel like it. If you are 106, your brain will start to winnow out all of the unimportant things, so that when the interviewer asks you to talk about your big career highlights, you will instead talk about your sons and how they graduated at the top of their class and how they tried to avoid going to war and how you named them after your best friends.

Lenten aspirations

Click for source.

After tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, Lent begins. It is a season I look forward to, even though it is one of somberness and reflection. I look forward to it for several reasons: Learning the beauty of the liturgical calendar as a recovering non-denominational, cultivating a spirit of anticipation alongside nature, and recognizing our daily need for God, even in the most mundane things.

For Lent last year, I resolved to not eat any synthetic sugar, to pray and meditate daily, and to memorize a poem and a psalm with Guion. The last two didn’t really happen and the first one should just be a life resolution, but I did focus more on that one.

This year, these are my Lenten aspirations:

  1. Per my previously announced desire to commune more with nature, I am going to spend at least 20 minutes a day outside. That sounds like a pitifully small amount, but I believe that it will actually be hard on weeknights. That’s my goal, though. I feel closest to God when I am outside and yet I don’t spend a lot of time outdoors. This is something I seriously want to change and Lent is the ideal season in which to start. I’ll be watching and waiting along with the earth.
  2. Memorize Psalm 16. For REAL this time.
  3. Stop my bad conversational habits: Gossiping and interrupting people. These ought to be year-round aspirations, but I like the boundaries of Lent for its focus on these specific surrenders.
  4. Stop reading snarky/mean-spirited blogs.
  5. We are establishing a mutual goal of not being online when we’re home together. I’m also very excited about this.

These aren’t ambitious goals; in fact, they are things that I should be doing constantly. As Liz E. reminded me, though, we’re not seeking Lent surrenders to brag or to highlight how spiritually ambitious we are. Rather, we observe Lent to say: Here I am, waiting. Make me more like you.

Fragments

Click for source.

For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when are are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Off to Chapel Hill for a long weekend to see sisters, old friends, and Nettles and The Hill and Wood play! Very excited. Be back on Monday with photos and various thoughts.

Memory is like a shotgun kicking you near the heart

Memory Is Like a Shotgun Kicking You Near the Heart
By Frank Stanford

I get up, walk around the weeds
By the side of the road with a flashlight
Looking for the run-over cat
I hear crying.

I think of the hair growing on the dead,
Any motion without sound,
The stars, the seed ticks
Already past my knees,
The moon beating its dark bush.

I take the deer path
Down the side of the hill to the lake,
Wade the cold water.
My light draws the minnows,
Shines through them, goes dead.

Following the shore
I choose the long way home
Past the government camping grounds,
And see where the weeds have been
Beaten down,
Hear the generator on the Winnebago purring.

The children of the tourists
Are under the wheels
Like a covered wagon.
They scratch in their sleep
Until they bleed.

When I get home
I drink a glass of milk in the dark.
She gets up, comes into the room naked
With her split pillow,
Says what’s wrong,
I say an eyelash.

. . . . . . . . .

OK, so it’s kind of a rough poem to leave you with for the weekend, but WHOA. Isn’t it awesome? Stanford is Guion’s general muse. We’re off for the weekend to see Daniel and Lauren get married and, boy, are we pumped for them! See you Monday!

Top 10 nonfiction books of 2011

While I’m preparing my more in-depth reviews of the top 10 fiction books I read in 2011, I thought I’d give you my list of the top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2011. One of my reading goals this year was to read more nonfiction, and I think I more or less accomplished that aim. Here are some brief thoughts on the 10 best of them.

Out of Africa

10. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

What a life! This classic memoir is crazy and makes you wish you had been around to hang out with Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, on her coffee farm in Kenya. Her stories from her pioneering life there are so outlandish that they are occasionally unbelievable. Who keeps young lions as pets? Who hosts a dance-off between warring tribes in their backyard? Who starts a romance with a dashing Brit who later dies in a tragic accident? Isak Dinesen does. And she is well worth your time. She also wrote the book in her second language, which is incredible, because she is damn good with the pen. (I still haven’t seen the movie. It’s definitely on my list now!)

Nothing to Envy

9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick

North Korea holds our fascination like 1984 or Blade Runner did. I don’t have the energy to plumb why we are forever compelled by stories about dystopian societies run by Big Brothers, but we are, and that’s a fact. North Korea is doubly mesmerizing to us because it is real. This isn’t just a story. And yet Barbara Demick, former Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, brings us North Korea through stories. She writes about the intimate lives and experiences of six North Korean citizens, all of whom later escape to South Korea (which is how she was able to tell their stories). I knew a little about North Korea, but this book absolutely floored me. There is so much I didn’t know and there is probably so much that we still don’t know about this dark, deeply sad country.

We Wish to Inform You...

8. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch

Scott, a young philosopher, gave me this book when he moved to go to graduate school. It’s been sitting on my shelf since then, for about five years now. I think I put it off because, really, when are you ever in the mood to read about the Rwandan genocide? But I’m glad that I finally read it. This is a powerful and well-narrated account of the Hutu atrocities in Rwanda and its stories will stick with you long after you’ve finished it. Gourevitch is simultaneously objective and sincere, presenting the facts with a journalist’s attention to accuracy and detail and yet pausing to consider the trajectory of humanity, ethical responsibility, and the darkness of the human heart.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

7. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not A Novel, Alain de Botton

Having now read four volumes of In Search of Lost Time, I was already convinced of de Botton’s title by the time I picked this little book up. This is a delightful journey through the life, work, and idiosyncrasies of Marcel Proust, one of the world’s greatest writers and students of human nature. De Botton is funny and genuine and actually helpful in this book, part biography, part self-help manual. Even if you haven’t read part of Proust’s monolithic novel, this is a book that will be a steady guide to Proust’s life and invaluable contributions to the human experience.

Animals Make Us Human

6. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

If there was one book I read this year that said everything I’ve wanted to say, it was this one. My general personality can be summed up in one line, borrowed from Isabella Rossellini–Animals distract me. This book, by the famed animal researcher and scientist Temple Grandin and her assistant, Catherine Johnson, captured my deeply held feelings about animals and our considerable responsibility to them as humans. People sometimes make you feel ashamed for caring so deeply about animals. I’ve experienced a lot of guilt myself for volunteering my time at the SPCA. But this book instead highlighted the charge we have as “higher” beings to care for the “lower” ones. Grandin’s thorough and engaging research emphasizes that at the end of the day, creating the best life for animals means listening to and watching them and adapting ourselves to meet their needs. Above all else, gentleness is called for. All animals are far more sensitive than we think, and this is an idea that you won’t be able to get out of your head if you read this book.

Eating Animals

5. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

I dare you to read this book and continue to eat chicken afterward. Or any meat, for that matter. While Foer isn’t my favorite novelist, he is a skilled writer and this is a skillful account of his journey into vegetarianism, spurred by the birth of his son. Compounding years of research, Foer covers every major meat source for the American public–and will make you never want to eat factory-farmed meat again. The topic of food is rife with emotion, horror, and ethical balance, and Foer carefully plays on all of these topics in Eating Animals. Regardless of what you think about vegetarianism, this is a book that I think everyone should read, if only to think a little more carefully about the powerful decisions we make whenever we put something into our mouths.

Dog Years

4. Dog Years, Mark Doty

Yes, I know, it’s got “dog” in the title and dogs on the cover, but this is the best memoir I’ve read all year. Mark Doty is a celebrated American poet and this is his beautiful and sad story about navigating grief. Doty writes about the years between the loss of his partner, Wally, who died of AIDS, and the subsequent gain and loss of a dog, Beau. The memoir is about all of the difficult, dark issues of grief and comfort, of solitude and community–and about the more complicated issue of how dogs can offer us something that no humans can. Doty writes with heartbreaking honesty and skill. He is not sappy. He is not self-indulgent. He is humble and honest and every line of his prose speaks with sincerity and strength. It is a book for the brokenhearted and for those who will one day be brokenhearted, because, as Doty gently reminds us, no one escapes.

New Seeds of Contemplation

3. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

Ah, Merton, it is good to return to you, the mystical forefather of modern Christian contemplative thought. I read Merton when I was a teenager, but my father-in-law reintroduced him to me via Merton’s edited collection, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, which is the most profoundly affecting volume on the humility of the spiritual life I’ve ever read. This book, which is actually one of Merton’s older books, is a journey into the life of a contemplative. Merton strips away all of the pride and self-importance from the increasingly rare Christian discipline and makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you can enter in to such peace and fluid communication with the divine, too. But you won’t get there by trying. Merton constantly reminds us that it is by grace alone that we are able to do anything, even contemplation itself.

Moonwalking with Einstein

2. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer

I couldn’t stop talking about this book after I read it and I think it’s the book that I’ve recommended to the most people this year. Joshua Foer, younger brother to Jonathan Safran Foer (mentioned above), got an assignment from Slate to cover the U.S. Memory Championships. (This is a real thing that happens.) People gather to exhibit feats of memory, like repeating back two stacks of shuffled cards in order or citing the 600th digit of pi or memorizing a poem in five minutes. Foer assumed this event was for savants, but then he met a competitor who told him, “Train with me for a year, and in one year, you will be the next U.S. memory champion.” Foer laughed at him, saying he couldn’t remember a shopping list or his girlfriend’s birthday. But he took him up on the challenge and began training. Then, a year later, Joshua Foer is crowned the U.S. memory champion. This is that story, but even more broadly, it is a story about the history of the human relationship with memory and an encouraging polemic that our brains are much more powerful than we can even begin to know.

Half the Sky

1. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This book simultaneously ripped my heart out and made me passionate to ACT. I have not read a book all year that made me sob like this book did; I had to put it down in numerous places and then proceed to totally lose it for 10 minutes. How could I sit here and read this in the safety of my home? A college-educated woman with a job who did not live in daily threat of rape and violence? Of social injustice and inequality? How was it fair? It’s not. It’s not fair at all. But by the end of this book, I felt that there was hope, that the plight of women and girls around the world could actually improve. Unlike many books about the world’s grave injustices, Half the Sky does not unnecessarily dwell on the hopelessness of the situation and the towering challenges that face women around the world today. Rather, this book explains the extent of the problems women face worldwide, and then shows hopeful examples of local women changing their communities for the better. It doesn’t talk about what rich Americans can do to swoop in, presumptuously thinking they can fix another country’s problems. Rather, the book focuses on what we can do to empower women in their own communities to change the way that women are treated. Small steps, but they’re on a path of greater justice and equality for the countless marginalized women and girls worldwide.

Honorable Mentions

For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls
The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton

On my grandfather and grapefruit

A grapefruit I ate back in 2008, I think.

In my universe, there is nothing quite like a perfect grapefruit. I had one yesterday at lunch and was rushed to a very specific–and yet seemingly random–prayer for a person: my paternal grandfather.

I have only seen him a few times in my life. Papa John now lives in Indianapolis with his third wife. He suffers from rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s. Despite only having seen him a dozen or so times, the recollection of his voice is very clear to me. Recalling the mischievous twinkle in his eyes is not difficult, because I see it so often in my own father’s eyes.

Since I was young, I have always reflected upon what a strange thing it is to be a stranger to your own grandfather. He knows my name, but I imagine he does not even know that anymore. He is the man of mystery, the significant relative cloaked in shadow. He never called, never wrote. We had to trek out to the bleak and yet beautiful landscape of Indiana countryside if we wanted to see him at all.

Most of what I know about Papa John is wrapped up in late-night fables from Dad about his mythical childhood in the Midwest. I know that he owned a small airport in a great big field. I know that he was a bodybuilder, a used car salesman with a weakness for younger women. I know that he was probably a difficult father to have, and yet I have never doubted the love my father had for him when he spoke about Papa John. And I know that he loved grapefruit.

I have loved grapefruit since I was a child and I will always remember the morning that Dad told me one simple fact: “Your Papa John loved grapefruit, too. He ate it all the time.” I was young and I clung to this one fact about my distant grandfather. It was the only connection I had with him: We both loved grapefruit.

Since then, I think of him whenever I eat it. I don’t ever put sugar on it, just like him. I eat it with an impatient eagerness. (Mrs. Whitman knew of my love for grapefruit and she gave me a beautiful set of silver grapefruit spoons when I was only 16. She told me to save them for when I got married, but I used them anyway). So, I keep eating grapefruit and thinking of him. I wonder how he is and I say a short prayer right before a jet of grapefruit juice shoots me in the eye.

The landscape of my father's childhood: Ladoga, Indiana

Top 10 Books of 2010: #3

The Guermantes Way

#3: THE GUERMANTES WAY, by Marcel Proust

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be dreamily recalling #3, the third volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, English title: The Guermantes Way.

For the past three summers, I’ve committed to reading a volume of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (English translations call it either In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). This past summer, I read number 3: The Guermantes Way. I find that a year is the ideal amount of time to take a breather from Proust. By the time the summer rolled around, I was very eager to embark on this 900-page volume of lavish detail, seemingly inane social niceties, and a lush bouquet of memories.

By volume three, our nameless narrator–whom most critics call “Marcel,” because of the intended similarities to an autobiographical monster–has become a young man. He has continued his delicate, self-conscious obsession with Albertine, a girl he met at the beach in the second volume. But Marcel is growing up. And he is beginning to realize that finding his place in upper-class French society may be more important than anything right now.

This volume is perhaps a more complete “coming of age” book than the previous two. Here we find the narrator finally breaking into the tightly guarded upper ring of society and we share his victory. But we also come to share his disillusionment as he realizes that the Duchesse de Guermantes, Madame de Villeparisis, Monsieur Charlus, and the other exalted characters of this long-desired, elite universe are simply, well, human.

For me, a great deal of the brilliance of The Guermantes Way was wrapped up in a narrative phenomenon that I am going to call simultaneous acquisition. Instead of gaining insight before the narrator, we gain vision along with him. We make realizations at the same moment and, therefore, the power of those realizations is far more powerful to us than if we had been omniscient readers. But the narrator’s vision is not perfect, and this is something Proust will not let us forget. Even a recently lucid young man still moves in society with a film over his eyes:

At any rate I realized the impossibility of obtaining any direct and certain knowledge of whether Francoise loved or hated me. And thus it was she who first gave me the idea that a person does not, as I had imagined, stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves (like a garden at which we gaze through a railing with all its borders spread out before us), but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge, with respect to which we form countless beliefs, based upon words and sometimes actions, neither of which can give us anything but inadequate and as it proves contradictory information—a shadow behind which we can alternately imagine, with equal justification, that there burns the flame of hatred and love.

Despite 900 pages of fabulous detail and elegantly constructed conversations, Proust wants us to remember that we can never truly have “direct knowledge” about other people. It is a necessary realization for our dreamy narrator and yet we worry about him. When you reach the final page and exhale deeply, you cannot help but maintain a sense of fear for what circumstances will befall the young protagonist. For once your dreams have crumbled, to whom do you turn? I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out this summer, when I take on the ominously titled volume four, Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have to be honest. I recall this vague plot outline with great difficulty (and a little Googling for the character names). After 900 pages of Proust’s gloriously elaborate and exhausting prose, one’s brain is awash in sensation but incapable of maintaining any concrete detail or action. At least, that seems to be consistently true for me when I read Proust. So, why do I keep coming back, year after year?

I don’t have a simple answer for you. All I can say is that, every summer, Proust gives me a new pair of eyes.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #10

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I start with number 10: Vladimir Nabokov’s epic, Ada, or Ardor.

Ada, or Ardor

#10: ADA, OR ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE, Vladimir Nabokov

One of the best things my mother did when I was young was set me free in the library. Unlike most of the homeschooling parents in our community, my parents never censored my reading; they never told me, “You have to read these types of novels; you can’t read these types.” When confronted by other parents about this liberated policy, my mother’s response was always, “She reads way faster than I do. It would be impossible for me to read everything she’s reading and screen it first. If I had to do that, she would never get to read anything at all.” And so I read everything. By early middle school, I had positively devoured the entire young adult section of the local library, to the point that the librarians were on a first-name basis with me and I was responsible for writing 75 percent of the YA book reviews on the library website. This literary freedom allowed me to discover good and bad authors and a large range of genres. My independence also introduced me to messages and themes—e.g., sex, crime, obscene language— that I’m sure my parents would have objected to if they had known what I was reading. But they didn’t. So I kept reading, good and bad.

I relate this episode to try to explain why this novel by Vladimir Nabokov is on my top 10 list for 2010. Because, frankly, if I told a stranger on the street the plot of this novel—a fantasy-tinged family epic about a brother and sister from a fake planet who are involved with each other in a passionate love affair—I’d get more than just a few raised eyebrows. I’d probably get a strong, “You LIKED it? What is WRONG with you?”

Probably a few things, but yes, I did like it. Here’s why. This book thwarts expectations of the novel and does so in a sprawling, complicated, thoroughly messy way—and yet it’s beautifully done. Ever since reading Lolita (which, coincidentally, made my Top 10 list for 2009), I have been fixed on reading as much Nabokov as possible. I am mesmerized by Nabokov as a person—for his genius, for his disturbing and repetitive themes, for his ability to make all of his twisted characters somehow transparent and compassionate.

I ended up taking Ada, or Ardor on our honeymoon. It was certainly not a thematically appropriate book for the occasion: this 900-page monolith of a novel is about, more or less, a brother and sister who fall in love with each other and continue their all-consuming, destructive love affair even after the discovery that they are blood siblings. It is Nabokov, after all. From what little I know about his body of work, I know that you are going to find incest and pedophilia featured. Ada, or Ardor features the life story of Van Veen, a young man who grows up in the imaginary Russo-American world of Antiterra, and his romance with his sister, Ada. The novel takes the form of Van’s memoirs, which he is supposedly writing when he is about 90. His love for Ada has not dimmed, even though their lives have now grown apart. But the plot is not what matters about this book. And the characters’ actions are not the primary vehicles for the movement of the novel. It’s why you can read this book without endorsing pedophilic/incestual relationships—in the same vein of why you can read Harry Potter without becoming Wiccan or why you can read The Bell Jar without descending into madness yourself. Ada is about a love affair between siblings, but it is less about them and more about the pattern of their lives, the way daily events intersect to form a fabric of memory. As a whole, therefore, this book carries a distinct whiff of Proust; something perhaps Nabokov was aware of; I really don’t know.

Joining the theme of complicated memory and the retelling of the past, accurate or not, Nabokov’s diction is compelling. His language is so complex that it’s almost unbelievable. His sentences are rigged with Anglo-Russian neologisms, various puns, and allusions so dense that almost every line requires annotation (as demonstrated by this now-abandoned website). The language itself is part of the journey of Ada and one of the main reasons why I enjoyed myself throughout it. If you approach it with an open mind—as Nabokov flatly demands of all of his readers, of this book or any other—I think you would have a similar experience.