Sometimes I think, what a raw deal my daughters have, with a writer for a mother. The writers I know don’t check out and take days off. Writers are likely to be trying to read your to-do list you’re holding while waiting in the grocery check-out line.
But then there’s this: Ann Patchett in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage tells how, when she dragged herself back to her mother’s house after the collapse of her marriage, her mother insisted that, yes, indeed, Ann was yet the heroine in her life’s story. Although I never use the heroine word with my daughters, I’m keenly aware I’m raising them as heroines and not as princesses. The difference is distinct.
While clearly I want to stave off the wolves of hunger and cold at our door, I’ve never intended to garner ermine cloaks or a palace for my girls. I’d prefer for the girls to know themselves neither in need of saving by prince charming, or required to save that somewhat dubious character, either.
As a teenager, I read a great deal of Joseph Campbell, and I’ve returned repeatedly to Campbell’s hero quest. I remind myself at moments of keen doubt – what am I doing as a parent, anyway? who let me lead this drama? – that doubt is a key element of any heroine’s path. Embrace, and move eagerly on to the next phase.
If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.
Nowhere in the miasma of contemporary parenting lit have I ever read my dad’s adage from when I was a child: Adversity builds character. Enough, my siblings and I used to moan; we have enough character. In the same vein, in his poetry collection Galvanized, Leland Kinsey writes about growing up on a farm in northern Vermont. While his own boy had a gentler and easier childhood, his son lacked knowing his labor was essential to the family.
Entirely unintentionally, I gave my older daughter that same sense of urgency. Pressed up against the relentlessness of agriculture, this child was in the sugarhouse from infancy, when her rosy baby cheeks shined up with a sugary patina from sap condensation.
Does anyone, ever, have enough character? Not persona, not a two-dimensional image, but a depth and richness of character? When I first became a mother, I knew I wanted my children to have what I called a rich inner life. Doubtlessly, literature and Mozart nourish that inner life, but working any variation of a farm does, too. I’m reminded of this as my daughter heads off to her first college course today, a photography class. At 17, she’s of the age now where she’s beginning to tell her own story, and while I often feel I have little enough to offer this girl as she enters her own womanhood, I’m quite sure at least a rich inner life is a deep well she’ll be able to drawn upon.
The whitewashed walls were smeared with blood
the day the bull rampaged inside the barn
after escaping from its pen.
My father gave my brother and me
each a stout stick to block exits
and hoped we didn’t have to use them….
My 11-year-old daughter woke up this morning, searched for a particular pair of shorts, and ran down our dirt road. She ran for the first time beyond the road’s well-travelled end and down the narrower section, where woods and wild blackberries flank either side.
In the afternoon, she took her sister and me on a tour of Morrisville’s rail trail where she’s sprinted this summer with a friend. With delight, she showed us a bridge over a narrow road, the brewery where we later ate dinner, a tiny house with a glass front, a cluster of ramshackle trailers.
The ride, fragrant with August’s lush goldenrod, scottish thistle, honeysuckle, was a three-dimensional map of her childhood world: a unique, dear gift.
Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.