The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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Elizabeth Berg’s novels have presented memorable characters behaving in ways that are comforting to readers and in plots that become relatively predictable. In her latest novel, The Art of Mending, she explores abuse, and how different children may be raised and loved in separate ways. Here’s an excerpt of all of Chapter 8, pp. 59-69:
We were finally getting close to the end of the long line for cheese curds when a tall and massively overweight man wearing dirty jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black leather vest cut in front of us. He was entirely nonchalant, sliding in as though we were holding a place for him. He was balding but had a long stringy ponytail hanging halfway down his back and many gold hoops on one ear. He reeked of beer. I looked at the kids and started laughing. But Caroline tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” she said. “You just cut in front of us.”
The man turned around.
“Caroline . . .“ I said.
“No! He cut in front of us!”
The man sneered, then turned away.
“Excuse me!” Caroline said again, louder, and this time Steve said quietly, “Caroline. Let it go.”
She looked at Steve for a long moment, and I saw the tension in her jaw from clenching her teeth. Then: “Fine,” she said. “I’ll wait for you outside.” She walked away and Hannah shouted after her, “Aunt Caroline! Do you want us to get you some?”
She turned back, shook her head no, and disappeared into the crowd.
“Whoa!” Anthony muttered.
“She’s just a little nervous today,” I said.
“She’s always like that! Seems like any little thing—”
“Enough,” Pete said. “She was offended by this guy’s bad manners. She’s right—he shouldn’t have cut in front of us~”
The man turned around, belched in Pete’s face, and put his back to us again. I saw Pete waver for a moment, as did I, and then we all exploded into laughter.
When we reached the counter, I ordered cheese curds for Caroline anyway. She’d eat them. I knew her.
When we came outside, we saw her
sitting at a picnic table piled high with other people’s litter. She was on
her cell phone, frowning. She held up a hand to indicate that we should be
quiet. Busy, busy, busy, I wanted to say to her. But when she snapped
the phone shut, she said, “That was Mom. Dad’s at
The image of my mother appeared, dressed in the robe she ‘d had on that morning, waving away my concerns about my father.
“Do we have to leave?” Hannah asked.
“Yes.” I took her hand and started walking quickly. Ten minutes to get to the exit, at least. Another fifteen to walk home—that would be faster than trying to get a cab through this traffic. I’d told her it was his heart and she’d said to leave him alone. I’d known it wasn’t right. I’d known it and I’d listened to her anyway.
“Is it okay to eat my cheese curds?” Hannah whispered, and I nodded a tight yes. It would take fifteen minutes to get to the hospital, if there was no traffic.
During the quick and silent walk home, I did not think of my father. Instead, I thought of Caroline, of all the times she’d come home from school, crying. Or come in from outside, crying. The way she would moon over a book where some horse died. The way she would go to sad movies over and over. I was so tired of her theatrics, her fragility, her deliberate forays into melancholy, her complicated secrecy—not just now but always. I worked myself into a pretty nice state of anger at her, which kept me from having to think about what my father might look like right now. I had lived this long and had only seen a dead man once. He was lying on the floor of a shopping mall, right outside the entrance to Penney’s. His face had been gray-blue, his mouth slightly open. There’d been a woman kneeling beside him who was attempting CPR, in vain. Her purse and shopping bags lay scattered about her; and one of her shoes had come loose off her heel. “He’s gone,” she’d kept saying, but then she would give him another breath and pump on his chest, counting aloud in a high voice that shook a little.
I’d thought, This morning, he picked that shirt to put on. I’d thought. I wonder why he came to the mall today. And then I’d walked away. I’d told myself that it was because it was indecent for people to make a ring around the man, gawking at him. But the truth was, I’d left because I couldn’t stand looking at him and realizing people die. As soon as I turned away, I’d told myself to forget about him. And I had. I’d gone into a store three doors down and looked at bath oil, and then I’d bought some. All the way home, I’d imagined not the sudden loss of another soul on earth but rather how nice it would feel to be submerged in warm water, breathing in the scent of white gardenia. It had been so easy to erect my barricade against fear, against pain, against knowing. Now it seemed that my house had blown down. I was about to meet the wolf.
Aunt Fran was sitting in the waiting room of the ICU when we arrived. She was wearing light-colored pants with circles of dirt stains at the knee—clearly, she ‘d been working in her garden when she was called. She shared a love of gardening with my mother, but there the similarities ended. Where my mother was stunning, Aunt Fran looked. . . friendly. The same could have been said of Steve and me; it was only Caroline who inherited my mother’s great beauty. I was “pleasant looking”—I’d heard that all my life—with widely spaced brown eyes and even features. I used to have a good body, but now I suffered the usual humiliations of getting older. Steve looked like an All-American boy, even at his age.
There was another and more important difference between my mother and my aunt. Where my mother was uptight, Aunt Fran was unfailingly relaxed and open. I had loved visiting her as a child. I used to ask her why she couldn’t be my mother. I’d concocted a fantasy whereby she in fact was my real mother; she just gave me to her sister because she had too many other children. But I preferred being around Aunt Fran. She let you crawl onto her lap, she read to you with clear enthusiasm, she told jokes, she let you eat cookies between meals, she sang loudly along with the radio, she helped you build sheet tents and cardboard forts, she asked you about your life because she really wanted to know the answers.
Once, she’d been lying out in her lawn chair on a hot summer night, and her fourteen-year-old son and I were sitting in the grass either side of her. We were drinking lemonade from aluminum tumblers with little terry-cloth wraps that kept your hand from getting too cold. We’d just finished brownies that Aunt Fran had whipped up on the spur of the moment: just like that, no problem, made from scratch, no recipe. “Tell me about the stars, Eric,” Aunt Fran had said. And he had, and she’d listened to him in wonder, her eyes wide and staring upward into the darkness above her.
He had begun by saying, “Well, our sun is a star,” and Aunt Fran had gotten all excited and said, “Really? Really?” I’d listened to the
rest of what Eric said, and the whole time I’d had a thought flitting around my brain like a moth repeatedly bumping into the light: This is what a family really is. This. This. This.
Mostly, when you were around Aunt Fran, you enjoyed a buoyancy of spirit: There was nothing wrong. There had been a thickness in the atmosphere at our house, a vague and ongoing sense of something amiss. It was the kind of thing you didn’t particularly notice until you were away from it. But once, when I’d asked Aunt Fran yet again if I could live with her, she sat me down for a serious talk. I was seven, but she treated me as though I were an adult. She told me my mother loved me very much, even if it did not seem obvious to me. She told me my mother had had a difficult time with their mother. “It was like Mom was jealous of Barbara,” Aunt Fran had said. “And as far as she was concerned, Barbara couldn’t do anything right, not one thing. My mother was all right to me, but it was very bad, the way she treated Barbara. It broke her spirit. Your mother does the best she can. You have to realize that people have reasons for the way they behave. All I can say is it’s lucky your mother met your father. I don’t know what she would have done without him. I love her with all my heart, but I couldn’t save her like your father did.”
It had been easy to believe my grandmother had been cruel to my mother; my memories of that grandmother were not good ones either. There had been about her a sense of constant disapproval. You could not touch her white porcelain poodle with the little puppies chained to it. You had to take your shoes off before you came into the house. If you drank from anything but a glass, you were a heathen. Once, in her bathroom, I’d seen a douche bag hanging from the shower rod. When I’d asked my grandmother what it was, she’d whisked it away angrily, saying, “What is the matter with you? What kind of person would ask about such things?”
When I was around five, I’d been alone with her one day; I don’t remember why. But I’d come upon her when she was staring at herself in the mirror, and I was startled by the look of relaxed pleasure on her face. When she’d seen me, she turned around and regarded me with her usual expression, a half smile that was not really a smile. It was the forced pleasantry of the overburdened saleswoman who asks how she can help when what she really wants is just to go home. “What is it, Laura?” she’d asked. “It” wasn’t anything; I’d just been wandering around the house. I’d simply wanted to be by her. But with my grandmother, there had to be an agenda. If you were doing nothing, you were up to no good.
The only time she touched us kids was when we were leaving-then we got a quick hug, her face directed away from us. It was like being pressed to a wall. I’d known she was warmer to Aunt Fran’s children, and for a while it had bothered me. But soon enough I gave up on her altogether; we all did, and Steve and I always made vicious fun of her in the backseat every time we drove home from her house. Caroline laughed at what we said, but she wouldn’t join in. Neither of our parents ever reprimanded us for our behavior at those times; rather, their relaxed posture seemed to suggest they condoned it.
My grandmother died when I was twelve, just nine months after her husband, who was really nothing more than a shadowy presence. At her funeral, I’d played hangman with Steve. As far as I was concerned, my only grandparents were my father’s parents. My mother had wept for days after her mother’s death, and when I’d asked her why she’d said, “Now there’s no chance of anything changing. Do you understand? I’m not sorry to lose her, as she was. I’m grieving for what can never be. I’m grieving for me.”
Now, before anyone could ask how my father was, Aunt Fran put down her magazine and said, “He’s absolutely fine. The tests don’t show a thing. They’re going to keep him overnight just as a precaution. He can go home tomorrow.”
I slumped onto an orange plastic sofa. “Oh, good. Good.” Again, the image of my mother in her robe. I told you.
“I’m going to go talk to the nurses,” Caroline said, and Steve told her to wait, he’d go with her.
“I was sure something really terrible had happened,” I told Aunt Fran. “I was really sure.”
“Not at all. Your mother said he ate some hot peppers last night. He can’t really do that anymore, but he just won’t quit.”
“Mom shouldn’t buy them then.”
“She didn’t. He did!”
I smiled and moved over a bit so Pete could fit beside me.
“I think I’m going to run home for a while,” Aunt Fran said. “Want me to take the kids back to your mom’s house?”
I looked over at Anthony, who hated hospitals and had ventured no farther than the entryway to the lounge, and at Hannah, sitting nervously at the edge of a chair, her empty cheese curd container still in her hand. “What do you think, guys?” I said. “You want to go back to Grandma’s?”
“We’ll stay if you want us to,” Anthony said, and I could hear the plea in the back of his brain: Say no.
“I guess they don’t really need to be here,” I told Pete. “Why don’t you go too? You might as well take them back to the fair.”
“Can we?” Hannah asked.
“I think maybe we should stay for just a while,” Pete said.
“Well, go in and see him if you want,” Aunt Fran said. “But really, he’s fine. He’s mostly embarrassed. Sitting there in that silly gown.”
“I’ll be here,” I told Pete. “Caroline and Steve will, too. You go ahead. There’s no point in all of us hanging around.”
He stood, his hands in his pockets, deliberating. Then, “All right.” He kissed the top of my head. “I’ll see you later. I’m going to go back to the fair and eat some more of the stuff that will put me in here next.”
As soon as they left, Caroline and Steve came back into the waiting room. “Only one visitor at a time,” Caroline said. “Mom’s in there with him, but she said she’d be out in a minute.”
“I’ll go in next,” I said.
“How come you get to go first?” Steve asked.
“Because I’m the oldest.”
He flopped down onto a chair. “Right. I knew you were going to say that.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“I just wanted to hear you say it again. Warms my heart. Brings back a lot of happy memories.”
My mother came into the room and nodded to us. She looked exhausted: face wan, lines pronounced. Her hair had not been combed; it was in the same messy twist that it was this morning. I stared at her in some removed kind of fascination: I was trying to remember if I’d ever seen her go outside the house this way. As though she was aware of my thoughts, she reached up to push back the sides of her hair, to tighten her pearl studs. “I must look a fright. I left the house without doing anything.”
“I doubt they’ll take points off for your appearance, Mom,” Caroline said.
“My appearance matters to me.”
“Well, I guess we all know that.”
“Stop, Caroline!” I exploded.
“Never mind,” my mother said. “We’re all a little edgy, that’s all.”
“I’m going in to see him.” I walked down the short hall to the intensive care unit. Inside, the lights were low. Two nurses sat at the desk, working at computers. One looked up and smiled at me, and I said I was there to see my father.
“Oh,” I said. “Right. Stan Meyer.”
“Mr. Meyer is right here,” the nurse said, and opened the door to one of the small rooms. My father was dozing, snoring lightly. I sat quietly in the chair beside his bed and looked around at all the equipment, most of which I’d only seen on television. Three moving lines of glowing green ran across a small monitor screen. There was an IV dripping into my father’s arm, a bruised area around the place where the needle was inserted. I could see one of the electrodes on his chest; they’d shaved the hair off around it. On his thick wrist was a plastic name band, and for some reason the sight of this really bothered me. He could be anyone in a hospital. Therefore, anything could happen to him. I thought of a friend who’d lost her father recently, how she sat in the chair beside his unconscious form and told him she forgave him everything and that she hoped he forgave her too. How, moments after that, she’d watched him die.
I changed my position in my chair, cleared my throat. Then, “Dad?” I whispered.
His eyelids fluttered, then opened. He stared at me, blinked. “Oh, hi, Laura. I was dreaming. I was home, outside, painting the fence.” He smiled. “Isn’t this is a kicker? That’s the last time I’ll have those jalepeños.”
“What happened, Dad?”
“Well, it’s the damnedest thing. I ate a few last night, and then a few hours later I woke up and I was so dizzy. Then this morning, my arm went numb—your mother says I was lying on it. But I got all dizzy again too, and kind of scared, I must admit, so I called nine-oneone and they sent an ambulance. Anyway, the doc told me the good news, which is that it doesn’t look like it’s my heart. Might be what they call a TIA, a ministroke, but I can come back next week and get checked out for that.”
His speech was a bit slurred, his mouth dry. I felt sorry for him, lying there with a half-full urinal hanging off the bedside rail—he was normally a very fastidious man. Then it came to me how lucky I was, to be feeling sorry for him because he was in a hospital bed and not walking the fairgrounds with us. He was fine; he’d go home tomorrow. So many others had been faced with so much tragedy—our family had been remarkably lucky.
“You know,” I said, “you’re messing up our amazing track record.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nobody’s ever been hospitalized in our family except for childbirth.”
He nodded slowly, then said, “Well, that’s not exactly true.”
“It was.. . something happened a long time ago that I never told you kids about. I wasn’t sure I should. But I was lying here after 1 first came in, and I thought, My God, this could be it. I could never make it out of here. And all of a sudden . . . well, I just wanted to say so much to all of you. I wanted to apologize to you kids for keeping some things from you. 1 wish I hadn’t done that. It took coming in here for me to realize that. And yet now there’s nothing wrong, I don’t know if it’s a good idea to tell you after all, to dig up such old bones.” He smiled. “You know what I mean? Maybe it’s better just to let things be.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?” Medication? I thought. Is he confused? Should I tell the nurse?
But then he smiled, his old self, and reached out to touch my hand. “I don’t know. I just don’t know if it’s right. And yet if something comes to you so strongly when you think you might be dying, shouldn’t you go ahead and take care of it when you’re alive?”
“Take care of what?”
“of. . . apologizing, I guess.”
“But for what?”
He hesitated for a moment, then smiled. “You know what, honey? It was a long time ago. I don’t know. Forget it.” He sat up straighter in his bed. “Is your mother still out there?”
For a moment I thought about pressing him to tell me what he was going to say, then decided against it. i’d talk to him about it later, when he came home. It couldn’t be that important, if he ‘d never mentioned it before now.
“Yeah, Mom’s out there. Aunt Fran left, and I sent Pete and the kids back to the fair.”
“Good. I’m coming home tomorrow, I’ll go with you then. But maybe I’ll lay off the fried food.”
“Okay.” I stood up to move beside him, kissed his forehead. “I love you,” I said, and he answered, “You’re my girl,” which was what he always said when I told him I loved him.
“Want me to send Mom in?”
He nodded, closed his eyes. “Tell her not to be offended if I’m sleeping. I’m so sleepy.”
When I got back to the lounge, Caroline and Steve were sitting together on one of the sofas.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked, and Steve said, “Gone out with Aunt Fran. She’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“Well, he looks fine,” I said. “He’s sleeping now.”
Caroline closed the magazine she’d been reading. “Let’s go to the cafeteria. I need coffee.”
Steve said, “I’m too full.”
Caroline said, “Just come, okay?”
He looked quickly at me, shoved his hands in his pockets, and we all headed for the elevator as though it were a gangplank.
While reading this book, I was reminded often of a friend whose relationship with her mother was an abusive one, and who has said that she wants to want to forgive her mother. Such readers will find some familiarity on the pages of The Art of Mending. Those readers will also find that Berg’s touch to the subject borders on the simplistic, and the personal complexity of such relationships has dimensions untapped on these pages. Despite this, The Art of Mending presents a view of domestic life with many layers that will ring true for most readers. Lurking beneath the surface of everyday life, there can be repressed memories or unresolved issues that can transform the bucolic into the depressed.
Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2004
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2004 issue of Executive Times
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