Monday, March 24, 2014

Stoner

On Christmas my daughter gave me a copy of Stoner by John Williams.  She told me that it had been published years ago, but was undergoing a renaissance of sorts.  I put it on my reading pile, but since it was an actual book and I had a brand new Kindle Fire, it was pushed to the back of the pile and almost forgotten about it until she asked me if I had it read yet.  I put the Kindle aside, picked up Stoner and couldn't put it down.

Published in 1965, it tells the story of a rather ordinary young man who, around 1915, leaves his childhood home, a subsistence farm in Missouri, and attends university to study agriculture. While there, he is seduced by literature and eventually earns his doctorate and becomes a professor at the same school. He teaches, he marries, he becomes a father and he dies. Rather an ordinary life, but a perfect novel about an imperfect life.

William Stoner falls in love and marries a rather shy and withdrawn woman by the name of Edith.  They are an unlikely and very unhappy match, but her parents wanted her married off while the bloom was still on the rose.  I realized at this point that Edith could have been my own maternal grandmother.

My grandmother, Ethel Enlow Young, was the daughter of a doctor, very pretty with black curls and and a petite form, but at twenty-seven she was an old maid by the standards of her time and place. She met and married a young railroad engineer-the son of a failed silver miner-who had recently arrived in town.

She had a baby daughter with almost indecent speed.  Like her mother, this child was blessed with black curly hair, dimples and a general air of daintiness. Four years later, Ethel birthed another baby, a twelve pound blonde baby who was a disappointment in terms of gender and coloring.  That baby would grow up to be among other things, my mother.

The railroad engineer fell in love with a woman who ran a cafe in Winslow Arizona, a nasty backwater at the time, where he'd moved his family.  Ethel's marriage ended and she returned to her parents home where she spiraled into mental illness and alcoholism.

I was around four when I realized that I had a second grandmother. My mother didn't drive when I was small, so every few weeks my parents would pile their daughters and themselves into the Ford and my father drive us over to the next town where he would  park in front of a big white house My mother would disappear for something less than an hour, then come out looking grim.  My father would pat her on the hand and then we would go back home.

After one of these visits to the big white house, I heard something about an illness and my thoughts and questions immediately went to my arthritic grandmother, my Swedish grandmother, who was famous for her roses and oversaw a pantry that smelled of sugar and cardamon.  I was assured that Victoria, my Swedish grandmother, was fine, but it was the other one who was too sick to leave the white house.  Of course I wanted to meet this woman since by this time, I had decided that grandmothers were fine people.  Either my father or my mother explained that this grandmother was too sick to ever see us.

Around Christmas that year, I walked into my parents bedroom to find my mother in plaid pajamas and holding what I would later learn was a telegram.  The white house was only a few miles from our home, but she had been sent a telegram to notify her of her mother's death.

When I was grown I was finally told the whole sad story.  My mother could finally talk about her mother, but the grief and regret for a beloved mother never left her.  She was never able to stop imagining what her mother could have been in a different time, a time when she would have had options and a voice.

I urge you to read Stoner, but try to be open-minded about Edith. She didn't have many options either.