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According to Patricia Nell Warren "Every writer's work is a layered archeological site of personal anguish and growth." After reading Leslie Garis's account of her upbringing I do believe that can be said of her writing as well. In her memoir Garis writes about her grandparents Howard and Lilian Garis who were the authors of the children's series The Bobbsey Twins, Judy Jordon, Uncle Wiggley and several others.
Leslie, her parents and two brothers lived in a large house that was called The Dell in Amherst, MA. In 1948 her father, Rodger, left his job at The New York Times Magazine in the hope of writing full time and getting the recognition for his work his own father had achieved. But that never happened. What happened was his parents became too feeble to take care of themselves and they moved in to live with Rodger and his family. They had also been helping Rodger support his family and his mother seemed to have a strained relationship to her son. One aspect of that strain was her being very critical of him and during his childhood she had difficulty encouraging him to pursue his interests.
Leslie and her father had a meeting of the minds early on and favored one another in the household. Her mom seemed to enjoy motherhood and taking care of the family. For a while Rodger was living a wonderful life but gradually he became painfully self-conscious, even morose, and while he managed to work through his distress he remained hopeful that the ultimate remedy for his condition would be commercial success but that success never came. Ultimately he was treated with medication for depression which, in turn, led to his becoming addicted to barbiturates and he experienced a rapid and deadly demise.
Garis's prose is beautiful. Her story is written from a child's perspective with a recurring intensity and curiosity about the adult world around her, and although she matures within the story we do not get the impression that she is fully engaged. It is as if she is writing from the outside in rather than the inside out. There is no harm in that of course. But one might wonder if the lives that were out of her hands to begin with helped shape her own distance from her family? How deeply did the children's stories influence Garis's involvement with family members? She was not exceptionally close to her younger brothers, although she did care about them. And her relationship to her mother seemed pleasantly uneventful, except of course when one considered the work involved in caring for a depressed member of the family that she and her mother did share.
There can be a cunning departure from reality when one writes in retrospect, and it may be intentional that Garis leaves out the messier aspects of her own life in this memoir. Although toward the end we occasionally do get a clearer glimpse into the insecurities that accompany the life of a child into adulthood whose father's descent can ultimately not be prevented, despite many an intervention and carefully thought out considerations of all family members about Rodger's well-being.
Still her sympathies towards her father are so touching; the kindnesses of her grandfather and brothers are also worth reading about. These are sweet people who were destined to form a bond together that no family would choose to go through. Garis had even suggested that some of her passivity may have been selfish or due to the fantasy world her grandparents wrote about, implying that one does not let go of certain childhood fantasies even though tragedy often demands that of us. Or perhaps she was part of her father's unfulfilled dreams and was trying to find her place within that unnerving expectation? Children do that when a parent is in distress. They try to find a safety-net in which their value may be heroic and the life-saver the parent might eventually hold on to. It is inconceivable to loose a parent to depression, addiction or suicide, no matter the generation they are born in to. When it doesn't work one becomes displaced and searches for their value in a myriad of other ways. We see that in Garis's situation, especially when she is in college and hoping for a zone of comfort she can rely upon, that she has gone through serious contemplation about her fair share of insecurities regarding her worth and role within the family.
Through her writing we also get a vivid sense of Garis's fragility and yet her voice is strong, her gifts as a writer match (and quite possibly transcend) the gifts of her grandparents and she accomplishes what her father could not. Where Rodger is concerned we wait for him to become his own hero, to show us that he is less obsessed with himself and more present for his family in the many ways they still need him to be. Your heart will go out to her brothers who obviously grew up deeply wounded by their dad's illness. But one who is ill cannot be well simply to match the needs of the family who rely upon him and Rodger became more estranged, and even nasty to his family before he died.
So now Leslie looks over his lifetime of work wondering how he managed to write so much while depressed, and we are left with a clear reminder that where clinical depression is concerned we are still students. In A House of Happy Endings we are reminded that family members of the mentally ill are called upon to exhibit a certain strength and unity that takes time to develop while the family unit undergoes a reconstruction. In that reconstruction we rely upon childhood memories - the good ones which do contain the beginning of hope and the influence of happiness upon us. Perhaps this was Rodger Garis' intention that his daughter re-visits the beginning of their lives together through this memoir. In this regard she may have fulfilled one of his many dreams.
In an interview in the New York Times, 1990 with Jamaica Kincaid (At the Bottom of the River, Annie John) Garis wrote, "Kincaid has never gotten over the betrayal she felt when she began to suffer from her mother's emotional remoteness". In A House of Happy Endings one might say that of Garis in relation to her father as well. But in my opinion she saves the best for last in this deeply moving memoir and you will need to read the epilogue in order to find out exactly what that might be.
© 2009 Kaolin
Kaolin is the author of a forthcoming book from Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books, Inc. titled Let's Talk About Race. Log on to http://www.spiritjourney.biz to find out more about her and link to her other writings.