Clutter

With a gift of fudge, my teenager and I stopped by the new neighbors’ house yesterday. The boys and their father had disappeared outside, while the mother was reading a slender book on feminism she had given her husband for a Christmas present. She had determined the book was required reading for her high school student, while the 10-year-old was given a temporary pass.

Owned by a large Connecticut family, the house has been vacant for years. One night this fall, another friend was sorely in need of acorns for a photo shoot (these are the kinds of friends I have), and the girls and I drove down in the dark and searched under that property’s oak trees with flashlights for what my children once called “oak nuts.”

Now, the house is literally spewing belongings: mismatched ski boots, a basketball stand on its side in the snow, Christmas lights on a hedge so haphazard my older daughter laughingly said the lights appeared to have been tossed out a bedroom window. Family life in all its raging clutter. Coincidentally reading Shirley Jackson’s phenomenally useful and entertaining essays on writing fiction and craft, I realize how interested I am in their half-opened door, the painting already hung in the entry hall, and I wonder how our own messy family appears.

 It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work of the imagination from the everyday account.

Shirley Jackson, “Garlic In Fiction”

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Gifts

My teenager has been on a fudge-making bender this week, sizing up recipes, sourcing out inexpensive tins, buying ribbon to neaten up her gifts. Last evening, while I was lying gracelessly on the floor in my end-of-long-day stupor, she busily cut peppermint-stick and walnut-studded chocolate fudge and carefully packed the pieces with tissue paper into her bright tins.

She offered up her extras as gifts for me to give away. To the new neighbors, for instance.

Mom, she said, I’m making you look good.

I closed the Shirley Jackson bio I’m reading and looked at her. It’s been a long – perhaps too long a time – since I cared all that much about looking good. Somehow, in the years’ jumble of babies and breastfeeding, sugaring and bills, basketball games and sleepovers, I shifted to “not looking all that bad” as satisfactory enough.

Truth is, the girls do make me look good. Years ago, I would have considered this ancillary boon a trivial notion, hardly worth anything at all. How the world does change. I’m going to walk down the icy road to the neighbors, knock on the door, and offer up that gaily-wrapped fudge in full disclosure of its creator – with great joy.

Here’s a few lines from my library book….

Shirley Jackson saw herself, it seems clear, as a version of a writer…. (whose role) was to draw back the curtain on the darkness within the human psyche…. thousands of unsuspecting readers who opened The New Yorker on June 26, 1948, were confronted by a story (“The Lottery”) unlike anything they had ever read before. They admired it, they raged at it, they were puzzled by it; but no matter their reaction, it illuminated their world.

– Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life

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Photo by Molly S.