…Essie found she could not express the full sweep of her thoughts. Each memory had eight or ten more at its back – a dozen, a hundred – too many to record so that anyone would understand how quickly and powerfully they came upon her. She could write and write, letters enough to span the globe; she imagined the lines of longitude and latitude in her own handwriting, floating gently over green and blue. And still it would not be enough to record the longings of even a single moment. Everything she hoped for was connected to everything she remembered and everything she had lost – a web spreading in all directions. Words moved in single file.
Passages like this one make me want to jump up and down and yell, “YES! That’s it exactly!” I, too, try to include the entire web of associations in writing, which is why I’m always digressing.
But I digress.
I enjoyed this story of Essie, an Indian Catholic matriarch (her husband Francis has a very limited role here) whose daughter Marian, now married to an American and with children of her own, is concluding a visit. Just before they return to the States, two things happen: the children find a stray mother cat and two kittens, and Essie finds a lump in her breast. Essie does not want the cats anywhere near her house (or near the children, for that matter), but kids have a way of collecting strays. At one heartbreaking point I realized Essie is willing to have cancer to keep her daughter close to her. I understand that. I was once willing to have a routine test come back positive so I could get out of a job I hated. My boss was very hurt when I told him that. But I digress again. I told you.
This is the heart of the story: Essie’s deep wish for her daughter’s presence and concern and love, a mother who can’t let go, to the point of obsession. It seems a bit extreme to me, and I’m left wondering why, though she has a husband and two sons, though Marian has lived in the States for some time now, this separation is so difficult for her to accept. And I wonder if there’s something wrong with me that it seems so extreme. But imagine children who are desperately attached to stray kittens they’ve just found but don’t turn a hair at leaving Grandma a half a world behind; now imagine how Grandma might feel about that. This feels absolutely true: it’s exactly how kids would react. Somehow they always assume Grandma will be there, but the cats are ephemeral. But it has to sting. Motherhood has many angles in this piece.
It’s an engrossing story with a lot of wonderful details, including a charming story line about Gopi, the coconut harvester whose anticipated and delayed arrival frames the story. I have to admit I’m not crazy about the aesthetic of the prose itself, though it doesn’t get to the point where I have trouble reading. It’s just not a style I particularly like, though I find it appropriate for the story and setting.
I was a bit confused about the mention, in her One Story Q&A, of her story collection about this family set in this same Catholic enclave of Bombay. What You Call Winter was published in 2007; at first I got the impression the story was from the collection, which would not make sense (One Story would not print an already published story from four years ago), and then on rereading the interview, realized the story was left out of the collection (then resurrected and rewritten for One Story) because it was overrun with cats: ” The cats were everywhere. It was all about the cats. The editor of my story collection gently suggested that the world might not need a story in which the cats are more memorable than the people.… The cats twined through everything. It was all so discouraging that I introduced a dog into the novel to bark fiercely at any cat intruders. Then an editor at One Story made a brilliant suggestion.” I wish I knew what the suggestion was. And I’m afraid to admit this – I wish I could read the original story, too; I might like a story overrun with cats. But mostly this points out the value of One Story Q&A’s: they actually inform the reader and add to the enjoyment of the stories.
I’ve ordered the collection because I’m interested in this family, in this community, and I’d like to read more about them. My “To Be Read” shelf is sagging badly, but there’s always room for one more book, right? ADDENDUM: My comments on What You Call Winter here.