People think that crazy is achieved when one day the gale-force wind makes a final, violent tear, and your little craft slips its mooring. Oh,no. It is achieved by you, who, one knot at a time, untie the tethers, whimsically at first, then with some – or sometimes no known – purpose. You write a shameless letter to a friend who has blown you off once and for all and say, with no shame, “Why don’t you like me? Did you ever?” You offer up tidbits that will be the stuff of ridicule for certain, and you pass them out to members of your family on a tray like peculiar, worrisome hors d’oeuvres.
Hello, I am Zin! I have never reviewed a Pushcart story before – I have not reviewed any stories lately at all – but I wanted to do this one because a writing friend of mine, Dwayne (hello, Dwayne!) is taking a class at The Writer’s Studio in New York and this is on the syllabus! So I am nervous – I do not know much about technical analysis – but I want to compare notes! I am very interested to find out what I missed! He may not be along for a while though, since his class will not get to this story until some time in January.
The story is available online so you can follow along too! It is part of a collection of stories, “This Road Will Take Us Closer To The Moon” (pictured above) that trace oldest sister Margaret, our first person narrator, through her life. In this story, she and sister Eileen are heading in the direction of older (Eileen has a grandson who is no longer a little child) and Margaret has some problems, physical and mental. Her siblings have “disposition meetings” to figure out what to do with her. I am not sure if Margaret is actually mentally ill. Alzheimer’s is mentioned, but so is hip replacement, so I am not sure if that is her problem. She seems to have hallucinations (though perhaps they are just imaginings) which would mean she is definitely mentally ill, but mostly she just seems odd and sometimes mean.
For instance, she takes Eileen to a book signing by the first wife of her current husband, and that seems like a mean thing to do! She does not tell her until they are driving home (she talks about God in the back seat, but is that a hallucination, or a metaphorical imagining?) at which point we learn their parents were abusive. Margaret credits Eileen with having saved their brother, he has the best life of anyone she knows. They talk about forgiveness, and Eileen says she forgave their parents but will never forgive Margaret.
That night Margaret has a visit from her imaginary priest, who has been there in her kitchen before:
“Sin’s the best hope we’ve got. If it’s mental, all we’ve got is pills, and they stop working the day you stop taking them. Ah, but sin…” his voice softens. “Sin can be named and napalmed. You got to love a God who’s up to that. Your problem is, you always want to save yourself.”
,,,. I don’t know what the priest in your kitchen is like. Mine is a slave to carbohydrates.
Of course, the hallucinated priest is from her own mind, so it is her own thoughts he voices! We can romanticize dreams and hallucinations all we want as messages, but they come from our own brains! The thing is, I still do not know if these are real hallucinations or if they are imaginings! But the point is, she did something mean to her sister but they spent time together, her sister seems exasperated but not hostile, and then Margaret thinks about their shared experiences and forgiveness. That is an interesting path!
Then Margaret has some kind of stroke alone in her home, and has fallen and can not get up! Yes, just like that! And because Margaret has displayed such a sense of humor that does not feel inappropriate! She is on the floor for a long time: “Cold, I’m mostly cold. And I am sad and clutch the sadness like a ragged baby blanket…If I am sad, if sad is something I can still be, then it will be all right.” I love that line! Because sad means connected to the world, I think. It means the brain still works. What a sad thought! The same could of course be said for love or happiness, but those are not the emotions Margaret experiences.
She finds herself in a hospital after a day and night on the floor, and Eileen is with her; her heart stopped and she died and people ask what she saw and she tells them what they want to hear. But she still has her truth:
I have seen what does await us. The whole thing. There is good reason that we are not told. There is good reason why we cannot tell what we have seen and why the white light is so popular in stories resurrected people tell. White, the color of no story. Blinding light, the opposite of truth.
Everybody asks what it is like, everybody but Eileen. Her, I would tell.
Is that meanness, or is it intimacy? I am not sure! Maybe the two are the same?
She spends some time in a hospital where she will not give Eileen power of attorney. She seems to have more physical disability – clawed hands, drooping mouth, signs of a stroke. She wishes Eileen had some of her spit and fire back:
We had a King James childhood, with verbs that could rear up on their hind legs and scare tall men. I want Eileen to be as powerful as she seemed then. As mean.
….[We] both know that we will not be friends until we find ourselves on the Last Day, discovered and forgiven.
Again the forgiveness! I love how religion is interwoven throughout the story. It is such a powerful thing, religion, even for those of us who gave up on it long ago, it sticks with us when it is part of our childhood, and usually not in a good way!
Then comes the surprising part. The hospital wants to move Margaret to the “Sunshine Unit.” Margaret sees this for what it is: “Good grief, we’re back to second grade, when everyobody knew that “Bluebirds” was a euphemism for the kids who’d probably never learn to read. Sunshine Unit. Even the name is scary.” Yes, it is! And that is the illness, or gift, Margaret has, I think, to strip away the silly names and tell the truth, about the friend who has blown her off, about the first wife, about forgiveness, about abusive parents. Maybe that is why she is seen as crazy. She is honest. Maybe that is the path I as the reader am to take while reading this story!
But that is not the surprising part! The surprising part is that Eileen says no to the Sunshine Unit, and takes Margaret home! Somewhere in there, Eileen has become an ally, has gone from wanting to put Margaret in a home, to taking her home! When did that happen? When Margaret seemed dead? Is that the point at which Eileen says, wow, this is my sister and I almost lost her and begins to cherish her, after the reminiscence about their parents, how they were kids together, how Margaret wishes she would go back to being a spitfire? Somehow Eileen does this turnaround, and it is very surprising!
The nurse tries to talk her out of it, calling her “dear” and reminding her that Margaret is incontinent. Margaret did not want her to know: this is repeated three times, she really REALLY did not want her to know. But Eileen again surprises us all, and says someone she works with is incontinent.
Eileen’s voice is matter-of-fact. I had forgotten she looks at life with a less impassioned eye than her incontinent sister.
No matter. I hate to have her know, to have her thinking of that every time she looks at me. She pees herself, our mother would have said, whispering derision.
“Dear, we have to accept tthat there will be more changes.”
“My name is Mrs. Ferguson,” Eileen says.
You go, girl!
Aha, so here at last is the spitfire Margaret wanted! Maybe she has saved Eileen, just as Eileen saved their little brother! It is a magnificent turning point! As I said, hovering around sentiment, but there is so much humor, it works!
Eileen takes Margaret home, and Margaret squeezes her hand! A sign of affection! Then there is teasing about calling her “Mrs. Ferguson.” Cars seem to be important places for Margaret:
When Eileen’s grandson was very young, I took him to the movies, and the only movie not sold out that afternoon was The Madness of King George. Driving home that day, I asked the little boy if he had understood the movie. “Sure,” he said. “The people said, ‘God save the king,’ and at the end of the movie, God did.”
“Mrs. Ferguson,” I say as Eileen climbs into the driver’s seat and buckles in, “I like the way this ends. I like what this ending does to the whole story.”
Yes, it is a bit sentimental, it practically screams “warm fuzzies! Old people! Epiphany! Family love!” and it is one of those “here I explain the story” moments editors claim to hate so much (though sometimes not, obviously, since they gave this one a prestigious prize) but it works for me because of Margaret and the honesty, the bitterness that is not omitted. Oh, and the title, their final dispositions are friendly! And it is final because, well, this is where the story ends, where it is happy! Yes, sentimental. But I like her character so much, I think I may get the collection just to see more of her, to learn more about her life!