On Story and Family

Spring break felt deliciously well-earned after Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department’s Story Week Festival of Writers. I was honored to be part of it; thrilled to read–for the first time anywhere–from an actual copy of my new book, The Temple of Air; humbled to be part of the line-up of the 2nd Story event with my friends Lott Hill, Eric May, and April Newman; and creatively stimulated from moderating a panel with the artists and arts related folks Philip Hartigan (artist, writer), Darrell Jones (dancer, choreographer), Audrey Niffenegger (artist, writer), Bruce Sheridan (filmmaker,) Rod Slemmons (curator, writer), and Tony Trigilio (poet.) Through images, readings, and movement, this diverse and talented crew presented on the role of the narrative, of story, in the arts.

Talking story, that’s what we were doing.

And that story talk did not stop when the festival ended. I started my spring break with two other writers, Gail Wallace Bozzano and Jana Dawson, on a mini writers’ retreat at our house (Two Cats Studio) out in Mount Carroll, IL. We ate and drank, walked and wrote, and then read to one another the projects we are working on. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.

The bulk of my break, though, was spent with family. My dear Aunt Margaret, 90-plus years old, recently lost her husband of more than 75 years. Uncle Miller, my mother’s brother, was born in Korea (as my mother was), the son of Methodist missionaries who lived more than a decade in Korea during the early years of our last century. Miller was a remarkable man, one whom I will write about at some length another time. But it is Margaret I want to talk about now.

Margaret has been an Easterner all her life, and has lived most of her married life in the same lovely home in Connecticut. She was the mother of five daughters, all of whom I got to visit with on this trip as well. We ate and told stories (“Remember the time when I…”) the bunch of us, in various combinations, and I took my first ever Tai Chi class in a cavernous room in a church on the campus of Yale with my cousin Ann. I love my cousins; they are strong, talented women who continue to explore new paths in their lives (one has become a photo artist, another recently ran for a state representative seat, and so on…) and it was by spending time with Margaret that I could see where their zest for life and curiosity for the world comes from.

I may have put this somewhere else on this blog, but when I spoke with Margaret before my visit, she asked me about my book:

“I don’t think you will like it, Aunt Margaret.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, it is full of bad language and sex and some violence.”

“I read those things,” she said with some indignation. “I”m in a book club!”

She went on to tell me some of the titles she’s read recently, and let me tell you, she does read those things.

I was surprised. Margaret is a church-going woman, one of considerable faith. I have certain preconceptions about members of organized religion, and I am slightly embarrassed to say that I applied these to my own aunt. One of these is that I assumed that church folks were censorious. Not so in Margaret’s case. In fact, Margaret, like my Uncle Miller (her recently departed husband,) is what a good Christian should be, I think. She is compassionate, understanding, helpful, open-minded, and concerned about the wellness of others and of the world. She is tolerant. She watches Rachel Maddow; she listens to NPR. She is deeply troubled by the wars and military actions we are engaged in, by the willingness of certain parties to take from others under the ruse of fiscal conservatism, by the deepening and widening fissure between the haves and have-nots of the world.

At this time in her life, Margaret has earned, I think, the right to be selfish. I mean, why not? She has lived a long and full nine-plus decades; she has raised five fine women who are productive and giving members of society; she has assisted in the rearing of many grandchildren. She has done community and church service; she has helped feed hungry, she has helped educate the masses. She has traveled many countries and seen the world, engaged in global conversations that were something other than tourist talk (“How much for this wood carving?” “Which way to the post office?” “What time is the train?”) She, at her exceptional age, is in a book club, for godssakes.

Margaret will not simply sit by herself and rest. One morning during my visit, I came downstairs to the den. And there was Margaret, on her feet and holding on to the back of a chair, doing leg curls in time with an exercise DVD on the television. She may not see as well as she used to; she may not walk quite so fast. But she does still walk, wherever and whenever she can. She reads by electronic means; she joins friends of all ages to talk about what she is reading. She speaks up and speaks out about those things that matter to her: fairness, justice, love, art, and family. She has a mischievous sense of humor and tells a good story.

My dear Aunt Margaret is someone I love, learn from, and admire. She is someone I hope someday to be.