Friday, February 1, 2008

"Without a Map"

Meredith Hall has won the $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award from A Room of Her Own Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and notable essay recognition in Best American Essays. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, The Southern Review, Five Points, Prairie Schooner, and several anthologies. She teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire.

She applied the Page 69 Test to Without a Map, her first book, and reported the following:
Page 69 of my memoir, Without a Map, sets up a disturbing scene in which my father, recently divorced from my mother, chooses not to face his own adoring mother and grandmother with the fact that he has left his family:

(My father’s) speech is always impatient and critical. He is still, two decades after leaving home, lord of the place. His mother and grandmother prepare his favorite meals for him--meat gravy over potatoes, chicken pie, pot roast — although he never seems grateful. “Mother! Are you still using that old pot? I thought I told you to throw that thing out. Christ! You’ll save anything.” This is accompanied by a small snort, a sort of snicker of disbelieving contempt at the end of the scolding.

After my parents divorce and my father remarries, he does not want to upset his mother and grandmother. For two years, for each holiday and birthday, my mother, sister, brother and I meet him on the highway and drive together as a family to Lawrence. No one needs to tell us the rules of this game: we are a happy family, a special and wonderful family. My father jokes and teases us. My mother, astonishingly, plays her role of contented wife perfectly.

We gather up the food from the car and the mending my mother has done for Grammy and file behind my father up the walkway, through the little gate, and along the unpainted wall of the tenement house, waving with big smiles to Grammy Melling in the window. We don’t knock. Grammy Hall is cooking already at the huge old range. The kitchen is big and empty except for an old wooden day bed along the back wall and a round table by the big window. It is dark -- dark wood, dark floors, a gas light converted to electric hanging from the high gray ceiling. My father says hello and immediately seems restless, bored, pacing around, jabbing at Grammy. “Mother, that’s going to take hours to cook. I told you I can’t stay all day.” His mother placates him: “Leslie, dear, it won’t take long. I can hurry it up.” She has blue hair and wears a lot of perfume. She takes great pride in dressing up the dining room table with depression glass and china. Grammy Melling bobs her head from her chair at all of the hubbub, and my mother helps cook and set the table. She stands next to my father, sits next to him, shares our news from the past few weeks. She smiles. My father sits at the head of the table with his children and ex-wife and mother and grandmother all attending (him).

I got pregnant at sixteen in a small New Hampshire town in 1965. I gave the baby up for adoption. Kicked out by my mother, expelled from school, shunned by my church and community, and finally exiled from my father’s life forever, Without a Map is a story of the ways in which love both harms and redeems, the ways in which a life shunted into a careening and desperate effort comes finally to calm and understanding. Page 69 reveals my flawed and weak father in a scene attentive to detail and character. In that way, it is representative of this book, which is rich in description, scene and dialogue as I work to convey these characters and the tumultuous process of reconciling with my own abandoned child. But this scene does not convey my deep love and longing for my gifted, brilliant, charismatic father who was also self-absorbed and destructive, a man who decided to comply with his new wife’s outcasting of me, a man who loved his daughter and suffered from his own failure of character. Without a Map presents my flawed mother and father with great love, and a sharp and honest eye for the ways in which they failed to love well. Ultimately, my book suggests that we are required to learn from grief how to love in larger and more compassionate ways, required to understand the imperfect nature of even our own hearts, no matter our intentions.
Read an excerpt from Without a Map, and learn more about the book and author at Meredith Hall's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue