Last week I was laughing at Flannery O'Connor's brilliant portrayal of an annoying grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." I have taught this short story before, always noting O'Connor's fine use of detail, dialogue and specific qualities of characterization. This time through, I recognized some of granny's personality in a new way. When she dresses too properly for the road trip, when she claims she knows everything, down to the location of an old mansion with hidden stores of gold, and when she keeps chit-chatting in spite of no one listening or caring, she seems eerily like someone I know: the person sitting here now, writing. I can't stand it, but sometimes I may be that cantankerous old lady.
My last column was positively cranky, as I worried in public about the meanness prevalent in Internet exchanges and in the callous ways we treat each other. For my own health, I am glad that those upsetting thoughts can't remain long in my mind. Since that column, I have witnessed the fine work of applicants for a scholarship given by MAD (Make a Difference), an organization founded by our local Theresa Grant; we support an orphanage in Tanzania and now have reached out to schools in Haiti and India. These outstanding students were competing for a trip to and training in Mysore, India. Their writing samples and interviews were more than one could wish; it made the final choice even more difficult.
Then I sat in on The Community School's senior presentations. I may have been biased because I have known many of the students since kindergarten, but I was overwhelmed by their poise, altruism and dedication to a work ethic evident in the accounts of time creatively spent in passionate pursuit of knowledge. Hurray to them and hurray to all the other kids in the valley and elsewhere who defy stereotypes of misguided and selfish teens.
In my preparation for another summer-school teaching assignment, I just reread "The Catcher in the Rye." I wanted to see how my perceptions of J.D. Salinger's provocative portrait of a troubled teen would look to me later in life and to see if it would be appropriate for this generation. The granny in me found his view of adults really, really funny; but again I had to rather bitterly place myself in that group of old fogies.
I decided against teaching it this term, but that doesn't mean that I didn't thoroughly enjoy a romp with old J.D.'s (as Holden might say) whimsy and brilliance. I did, and now I am about to reread all his other works (unfortunately not a huge canon.). I am a die-hard Salinger fan. I had hoped that with the announcement of his death we would also hear about reams of writing, hidden all these years and ready to be published. Alas, I don't believe that is so. Nonetheless, I will forever think that "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esme, With Love and Squalor" are two of the finest contemporary American stories ever written.
My new reality is that I am now part of the group that I have often found as sources of mockery—old folks. I still must admit my dismay at being "older." I wrote a poem on a beach in Thailand many years ago about the changes that I had started to notice (even then!) Here it is:
The company I'm keeping nowadays is unwelcome.
I didn't send her an engraved invitation.
I didn't even phone.
I didn't weave the mat by my door for her.
I didn't ask her in.
She came unbidden.
Who is this woman, skin slackening under arms,
Thin legs walking too carefully
On a beach which begs running?
Whose chatty voice drones on with gossip?
That voice once spoke low words of love.
Whose mouth is this?
Those lips caressed soft spots beneath his ear.
Whose breasts are these?
Ghosts of fine firm womanhood.
Whose wrinkled hands are these?
Smooth hands stroked backs, pulsed with babies,
Sewed banners of love.
This guest's a stranger one must accommodate, endure.
Though I don't like the self who visits me,
I don't hate her either:
I may, as hostess, coax a bit of life from her.
Solitude may show me yet
This stranger has some worth, some hope, some love to give.
Perhaps she won't wear out her welcome.