Monday, February 2, 2009

A Good House

This is from 2009’s book #16, A Good House by Bonnie Burnard. (Last year at this time I was reading book #26 – I guess that’s what happens when you get yourself a real job that comes with a tremendous amount of work. I finished report cards on Friday and had my first evaluation towards a continuous contract – it was a big day, a wonderful and satisfying day, but not one which lent itself to the completion of a book.)

“There were nineteen of them for dinner. Mary’s parents came over from their cottage, bringing with them her elderly grandfather. Sylvia’s mother drove out from town with Bill’s father and Joan brought her boyfriend Dennis, who had a guitar and very long dull hair. Charlotte came from Toronto, arrived just as they were dishing everything up. She had stopped at one of the fruit stands on the highway and bought a bag of mushrooms and when she appeared in the kitchen offering them, Margaret almost opened the fridge to put them away for another time and then caught herself. “Oh,” she said. “Just the thing we’re missing.” She quickly scrubbed a pan clean and melted a spoonful of butter over high heat to fry the mushrooms with a quickly chopped handful of sweet onion.

When the table was ready, after Bill had carved the roast and piled it on the platter and the potatoes were tossed with butter and a bit of mint and all the bowls were brought out from the kitchen, Bill put Patrick at one end of the table and Mary at the other, insisting. Everyone else sat wherever they wanted and when they were seated, instead of grace, Murray, who was to be Patrick’s best man, stood to offer a toast. Happiness, he said. And health. A long life. Comfort. Joy. Great, mindless, sweaty sex. Progeny. Lifelong friends. Naked ambition. Success. Blue skies. A ton of money or just enough, whichever. A split-level in the suburbs or not, whichever. A red Porsche. Holidays in the sunny south. He wished all these things for them, claimed he spoke for everyone here present.

They ate and drank and talked and lied and laughed on that sloping porch. Neil and Krissy were passed around and across the table like treasures, fed strawberries and peaks of whipped cream from their great-grandfather Chambers’ finger. Mary’s mother had brought a camera and Paul got up with Margaret’s and took two rolls of film, making sure he got shots of everyone. Sally was so happy she cried. She had been walking around and around the table lightly touching everyone as she passed behind them, and when she squeezed in to stand between Margaret and Charlotte, she could no longer hold it back. The talking gradually stopped and everyone watched as she tried to explain her tears, and when they were finally understood, Charlotte was the one who reached out to comfort her.”

I frequently want to get inside a book and sit down with the characters. Sally is six in this scene, and I want to tell her that her tears are justified, that one day soon she will be the cause of an argument that will end the closeness of this family, that people will stop speaking to each other for reasons that no one can remember, that she will wake up one day and realize she hasn’t set eyes on some of her cousins ever, and that there are others she hasn’t seen or spoken to in twenty-five years. I would warn her that this is what happens with families: you have a few golden moments like these but before long they all spin away, and everyone finds someone to love except you. Everyone goes off and makes their own families where you have no place, and all by yourself you have to find those bittersweet moments in a book and understand perfectly the tears of a fictional child, crying because she is so happy and knows that it will never last.

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