Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Homecoming" Post # 1

The only way I am going to get through this book is to break it up. I've read the first three chapters  to younger boy so far---and it has been rather depressing.

The Tillerman children--Dicey, James, Maybeth and Sammy are on an improbable, poorly financed journey. Abandoned by their mother --who has probably reached the end of her reserves--they have to make it to their great-aunt Cilla's place at "1724 Ocean Drive, Bridgeport, Connecticut."

Only problem is --their mum has abandoned them at a shopping center and they have to walk along Route 1 to get to Bridgeport.  It seems fantastical to  me that Dicey--the oldest of the lot--would even contemplate this act--but she is afraid that they will get separated and put into care -if she doesn't get them to their aunt.

I've got to start with the first page because it catches you unaware--how a character can make you hurt and I need to remember that a worn out, pallid moth of a woman can make a heart stumble in its path--just as badly as a break in the pavement.

Page 1

The woman put her sad moon-face in at the window of the car.  
"You be good," she said. "You hear me?  You little ones, mind what Dicey tells you. You hear?
     "Yes, Momma," they said.
    "That's all right then." She slung her purse over her shoulder and walked away, her stride made uneven by broken sandal thongs, thin elbows showing through holes in the oversized sweater, her jeans faded and baggy. When she had disappeared into the crowd of Saturday morning shoppers entering the side doors of the mall, the three younger children leaned forward onto the front seat. Dicey sat in front. She was thirteen and she read the maps.

The first great line--of the moon-faced woman in the window of the car looking in on the children--caught me and then the plaintive image of her ---in her worn clothes and shoes---made me feel really sad.  I've seen some women and children like this myself and I know it is poverty that distinguishes them. 

So the mom leaves.  And she puts the children in Dicey's care for Dicey was tough and able to do the job she --no longer--could do--which is be a mum for her siblings.  Dicey was the one who held it all together--this rag tag muddle of children--when their mother just ups and walks out on them. Why does she leave?  I suppose --she couldn't handle taking care of others when she wasn't even capable of looking after herself.  The poor woman. She was obviously incapable of managing any aspect of her life and she had no supports in her community.  She had been abandoned by the father of her children, she was "slow" and she was depressed and she was...I suppose.. one of the unlucky ones.. .a victim in every possible way.  Even when the police had come to her to question her about the antics of her common-law spouse--she had no idea what his illegal activities had been.

She obviously tried to do the best by her children. Even at this last stage in her illness--she tries to take them to family that would take care of them. But she isn't able to tell the children what she is doing.  However the children sensed something odd about this car ride.  The children knew something was odd about this trip--because their car wasn't driven for trips such as this one seemed to be --and their mother had organized them --with clothing and food.  It just didn't make sense that she had started driving towards Bridgeport, and somewhere along the road, simply stopped for no good reason. 

Dicey was especially concerned about her mother's state of mind since she had simply been disintegrating slowly. She had lost her "checker's job" and she had seemed childish and lost --in a way an adult should not be.

Page 6

  Momma herself was the fourth thing. Lately she'd go to the store for bread and come back with a can of tuna and just put her hands over her face, sitting at the table.  Sometimes she'd be gone for a couple of hours and then she wouldn't say where she had been, with her face blank as if she couldn't say. As if she didn't know.  Momma didn't talk to them any more, not even to scold, or sing, or make up games the way she used to. Except Sammy. She talked to Sammy, but even then they sounded like two six-year-olds talking, not one six-year-old and his mother.

It is obvious from this section and the other information about the loss of the checker's job that the poor woman was disintegrating and even retreating to a dark place. 

Dicey, from the first was worried that "Momma had wandered off. And would not come back."  She was the one who helped her mum make her way in the world--and she recognized what was happening--but kept hoping it would not happen. She decides that they would wait in the car until morning to see if their mum would come back.

Page 9

   Momma must have gone away on purpose. (But she loved them, loved them all.) Why else the addresses on the bags?  Why else tell them to mind Dicey?  (Mothers didn't do things like going off. It was crazy.  Was Momma crazy?)  How did she expect Dicey to take care of them? What did she expect Dicey to do?  Take them to Bridgeport, of course.

Dicey does what her mother expects.  They can't go back to their rental place as their mother hadn't paid the rent there, going to the police was out of the question and Dicey was in possession of a map that she knew how to read.

But before they start their journey --they stall --and visit the mall --like normal children--albeit without a great deal of disposable income.  There is a rather terrible scene in the mall--seen from the eyes of children who do not have the money to experience any of the materialistic goodies that most of us take for granted and it made me realize --how much money I really have --compared to the less fortunate--who can't do anything more than look at what I can buy.

Page 11
Inside was a miniature city where endless diversions from the work-day world offered everything delightful. If you had money, of course.  And even without money, you could still stare and be amazed.
    They spent a long time wandering through stores, looking at toys and records and pianos and birthday cards.  They were drawn to restaurants that exuded the smell of spaghetti and pizza or fried chicken, bakeries with trays of golden doughnuts lined up behind glass windows, candy stores, where the countertop was crowded with large jars of jelly beans and sourballs and little foil-covered chocolates and peppermints dipped in crunchy white frosting; cheese shops (they each had two free samples), where the rich smell of aged cheese mingled with fresh-ground coffee, and hot dog stands, where they stood back in a silent row.
You forget you are one of the lucky ones--with money in the fish bank on the top of the microwave and the ability to go get a job if bills are due and you don't have enough money--you forget -you can buy your kids anything they want---candy, clothes, shoes, and trips---you forget all your happiness---because you are so used to having it and comparing yourself to others monetarily richer than yourself.

You forget what it is to be poor--when you are no longer poor---until you read books like this. 

How much money did the kids have? 

Page 11

Altogether, they had eleven dollars and fifty cents, more than any one of them had at one time before, even Dicey, who contributed all of her baby-sitting money, seven dollars.
This reminds me of meeting the paralyzed young man at the extended care the other day who asked me how I was doing. I told him my long list of problems and things I had to do and the running around and then stopped. Heck, I stopped with my foot in my mouth (my usual state of existence in the world). Here I was--an able bodied woman whining about running around in the world to a man who couldn't mobilize himself except in a wheelchair. Stupid, stupid, stupid --me.

And so here is the same situation. I think I am so poor. And here is poor Dicey --given the incredible challenge to get her family to Bridgeport with pocket change. 

Of course this is an improbable situation --but I go with it.  I go with it--because Dicey is sweet and tenacious and dammit --I wish I had half her determination and guts. I wish I were brave like Dicey.

In chapter two, she realizes their momma isn't coming back. They all realize it.

Page 24

    At last James stirred, and his eyes opened. All four of them had the same hazel eyes, although Dicey and James had their father's dark hair, not the yellow hair their mother had passed on to Maybeth and Sammy.
    James' hazel eyes looked at Dicey for a minute before he spoke.  "It's still true."  His voice was hollow and sad. Their momma was really gone.
Heck, this makes me feel tearful and these are just made up kids.  Younger boy says I take these stories way too seriously --and I do. These kids feel sad and real to me. I'm a mush-heart. 

They get going. Dicey finds Route 1 to go along.  She thinks they could do the trip by foot.  But first she has to convince Sammy--who is stubborn and won't leave his momma without a fight. Only Maybeth can convince him to go--the "slow" Maybeth who has been kept back in school and is considered to be strange by others. Maybeth isn't dumb---she is merely afraid.  Afraid of what?  Strangers. Living the isolated life they have lived--where no one visits them--with their mother becoming more and more silent--how could she not be afraid? 

It is mind-boggling to me how this writer can convince me that these children can live on such few dollars and so little food and travel as they do.  But she does it.  Maybe food --was this cheap --at one time.  They used free facilities where they could.

Page 33

Dicey headed for the produce aisle, not even bothering to take a cart.  If she could spend just fifty cents for lunch, they'd have a dollar fifty for dinner. She picked out four apples, then searched for the kind of rack they have in every supermarket, a place where they offered items that were damaged or old. She found it back by the meat department.  She stood before it a minute, selecting a box of doughnuts at half price. That would be three doughnuts and an apple apiece.
   It cost eight-eight cents.


Heck, there were times when my husband and I were graduate students where --I would count up the bills as minutely as this child had to ---and I'd end up with nothing left and feel awful.  I can't imagine how Dicey felt seeing their money dwindle down to nothing and have no way to restore the funds--since she's just a kid--and how do kids get money? From their parents.  Or from a job. And they are on the road.

They keep on walking and pass Stonington. I've no idea where they are --younger boy has a map printed out to trace their route and yet, I don't go look at it. I'm in the zone of fantasy here--and I'm immersed in matters of survival--like what will they eat next after the doughnuts and apples are gone?

They buy hotdogs and start a fire --surround the cooked hotdogs with bread and eat.  I'm not sure that I could be as resourceful as these little ones. I feel tender about their progress, their grit and their lack of self pity. I want them to make it. I'm invested in this story.

I'm especially invested in Sammy. There is something awry in the story of Sammy that echoes the story of my own baby son.  How can a child start out happy and turn out ----in school---less happy?

Here is how Sammy started out as a baby:

Page 44

 Sammy had been such a cheerful baby.  He had been able to bring laughter even to Momma's face. They would watch him move around and explore, the way other people watched television.  When had Sammy changed?
   His first words were "hot" (he would grab out for anything) and "no" ("Doe," he would cry, waving his arms, his face dreadfully earnest).  He emptied cupboards and drawers, he unmade his bed, he grabbed homework papers and ran way, laughing.  He was naughty, but not mean. Not selfish. And he was stubborn, even then when he was a baby.  Dicey had watched him learn to turn around in a circle, patiently practicing, tumbling over his own feet, falling in a heap, sitting down in surprise. It took him days to do it, but he learned.

So here is a kid who was full of laughter at the beginning --with "merry eyes" and "his mouth with only ten teeth, opened wide in the kind of laughter that took over his whole body and made him stumble and fall down laughing" --and reading this --I remember younger boy being this same way--how Buddha-like he would sit on the sofa in my parent's living room--his fat face split by a smile as large as one cut out on a pumpkin and his pudgy body about to topple him over to the floor --but laughter everywhere dancing on him and when he went to school--oh--what a change!

Now he is serious, there is no laughter--and only now in grade 8 --is he finally getting out of the tense, school-induced state of sadness.  In Sammy's case--part of the problem was how the other kids ragged him about his mother and the fact that they were "bastards"  --but part of the damage was of course--coming home to a mother--who has psychiatric problems.

Page 64-65

    "Would they say things to Sammy?" she asked.
    "Yeah. Especially after Maybeth. I think Sammy really got it at school."
    Dicey fell asleep before the fire that evening, thinking of Sammy and how he must have hated to go to school every morning and then come home, and if Momma was there she would talk to him ---but less and less like a mother, and if she wasn't there he would wonder.  That could change a person.

Yeah, a mother and a school can sure change a child.  I look around at the adults I meet  and I know how I must help my sons. I must try---to make them as human and as humane ----as I can make them.

I must try to make them --strong enough to not break into pieces when the world---in its random inflictions of damage--does what it does to all of us. The only way out of such disintegration--I think--is to understand that we cannot do anything without love.  

Even though it may be difficult to love ----the seemingly unlovable people among us---and heck--it is even sometimes hard enough to love --the mostly lovable folks we prefer to love----its really the only way to do life.

I've learned I've got to love--even through hate ----for to love---as many people you can---as much as you can---is sort of an invincible position.  It makes you weak--and yet ---you are stronger than anyone else.  The hard part is to keep doing this matter.

I managed to read up to chapter four and I think I will post on this book every three or four chapters as this will push me to read to younger boy daily----a habit that has been weakened over the last few weeks.

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