Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
– William Butler Yeats
Which is worse, guilt or humiliation? It depends on whether you’re the enabler or the enabled.
Sasha, 50-ish, divorced, attends her brother’s wedding, accompanied by her father. Mom, who took off 35 years ago, will also be there, and Sasha’s worried about how the parents will conduct themselves. The story is a glacially slow and excruciatingly close examination of the family dynamics between all four players, but primarily between Sasha and her father. In fact, the plot of the wedding is more or less an excuse for stringing together descriptions of the interactions of the principals over the years.
Dad (it should be noted Sasha refers to both parents by their first names, Dan and Joanie, in an interesting manifestation of the lack of parenting that has gone on) is the textbook definition of narcissistic personality disorder: superior, dramatic, attention-seeking, manipulative.
Other people throw parties; my father throws emergencies. It’s been like this forever. When I was a kid I thought the difference between my father and other parents was that my father was more fun. It took me years to see it clearly. My father was a rabble-rouser. He was fun like a cyclone.
Sasha is not without insight about the effect he had on her:
Beginning when I was very young, he conferred specialness on me and then required that I earn it, and I was only too happy to comply, dividing my efforts between precocity (memorizing at age seven the prologue to The Canterbury Tales) and fussiness (insisting on two thick foam rubber pillows for sleep every night; refusing ever to wear green). We lived in tacit agreement that I could be anything but ordinary. Like him, I was to breathe only the rarefied air of the never-quite-satisfied, and the more difficult I was, the more entranced he became. Which is not, it turns out, the best preparation for life. Or marriage, as my ex-husband would certainly attest.
Mom’s departure left its mark on Dad, and, because she too was left behind, on Sasha as well:
It’s been thirty-five years since she left him, but I remember it vividly: his heartsick weeping, his enervation, his despair….he’d sit behind the desk and ask if I thought she’d ever come back, or even, incredibly, why she’d left, as if he’d been away for the bulk of their marriage and needed me to tell him what had happened. … I joked to friends that if only my father had been more absent, things might have worked out between him and my mother.
And she also sees the effects of the family on brother Peter as he prepares to wed Cressida:
Last night, staring across the picnic table at Peter, I caught a glimpse of the boy he was at thirteen, when his family fell apart, and I thought it made sense, how late he was marrying: he’d waited till he was older than our father was at the time his marriage ended. What this means, though, is that he’s old enough to be Cressida’s father, and I worry about the strains of gratitude in his voice when he talks about her.
These insights are interesting and well-phrased, but a little much after a while. Still, the story is well-constructed, with a built-in structure of the wedding allowing for the various scenes to unfold, allowing for more revelations about Sasha’s life with Father. It occurred to me when the lines from Passover seder were brought in that this is the kind of story that frequently is played for humor with the Jewish mother as the histrionic hypochondriac and the dutiful son alternating between anger and guilt.
We all know families like this, someone who must at all times be the center of attention, someone who complains about the burden placed on him but does nothing to rid himself of it, someone who has given up and just walled himself off. But for all this analysis of character and interpersonal relationships, a couple of important details remain unaddressed: when Mom left, why did Sasha not go with her? Just how much rage does she carry about being abandoned with her needy father? Did brother Peter also stay behind, or was he warped by leaving?
The story goes on this way, painting an intricate picture of these four disasters and how they skim past each other. The above poem comes into play late in the game and cements the theme of action and equal and opposite reaction. The climax comes when Mom, whom Sasha admires for having taken detachment to its most elegant level, reveals she thought about leaving three years before she actually did – “It took me three years to figure out that if I wasn’t doing it to you, then I could do it” – though I’m not sure why this is such an earth-shaking revelation.
This is the second of two linked novellas, as Packer calls them, about this family that open and close her collection Swim Back To Me. The first shows Sasha at age 13 when she was involved with a boy. In this later closing chapter, her father mentions him, and while she remembers the chaos of that time, she does not remember the boy. People who read both stories found this odd. I don’t, actually, since it’s often the case that something that seems central is only a means to a far more important end. But I haven’t read the earlier story. I suspect I would have enjoyed this continuation more if I had.