I fear the Sunday Salon is running a bit late today. I’ve been in a rather domestic mood all morning (something that happens only rarely these days), busy pottering in the kitchen making brunch for us. When the Mushroom-Asparagus quiche comes out of the oven, perhaps your first bite with make up for my late entrance. It is beginning to smell delightful!
Perhaps this flurry of domesticity has been inspired by my reading this week. I’m in the midst of re-reading one of my favorite novels – Men and Angels, by Mary Gordon. When I first read this novel (which was published in 1985) I was a young, stay at home mother. I think reading it again has reminded me of those days, when my life was much more domestic in orientation.
The novel centers around the story of a young mother, Anne Foster, an art historian, who has just taken on the most challenging job of her career – writing the catalog for a major exhibition of Caroline Watson, a (fictional) American painter of the early 20th century. Anne’s husband, a college professor, is spending a year in France, and she has chosen to remain behind with their two children in order to pursue this opportunity.
Enter Laura, a young woman Anne hires as a mother’s helper. Laura unsettles Anne from the first moment they meet, and a curious relationship develops between the two women as Anne relies on Laura to care for her children, while struggling with her feelings of animosity toward the girl. What Anne senses, but doesn’t quite comprehend, is that Laura is a deeply distrurbed young woman, a religious fanatic who has undertaken to “save Anne” as her life’s mission.
So much of this novel is about motherhood, its power and potential. When mother love fails the results can be disastrous. As a young mother reading this novel for the first time, I was at once amazed and terrified of the possibilities resulting from too little -or too much love.
“It was such an odd thing, motherhood,” Anne thinks. “It wasn’t a skill: there was no past practice to be consulted and perfected by strict application and attention to detail; there was no wisdom you could turn to; every history was inadequate for each new case was fresh – each new case was a person born with a nature more fixed than modern thought led people to believe. She loved that, that her children were not tabulae rasae, but had been born themselves.”
Anne is perhaps, the only “good” mother we meet in this book – her own mother favored Anne’s sister in an obvious and compelling way; Caroline Watson, “could not love” her son, her rejection ultimately destroying him; and Laura’s mother constantly pushed the child away, figuratively and literally, admonishing her “not to hang on me,” to “go outside and blow the stink off yourself.”
Anne puts her children first at all times, and is preoccupied with keeping them safe. And though she’s engulfed in this new work of hers, she equally cherishes her domestic life, that “other life, beautiful and heavy scented as the dark fruit that grew up in shadow, the life of the family.”
I’ve been drawn to re-read this book several times, perhaps because I feel a great affinity for Anne, perhaps because of Gordon’s rich, image laden prose, her painterly way of describing the most mundane domestic moments to the deepest emotions of the maternal heart. Reading it as a young mother, Anne was someone to admire, too look to for inspiration. Reading it again some years later, when I was actually Anne’s age, I could identify with her experice on a much deeper level.
Of course Anne never ages, but I’m now 15 years older than her character in the book, my child is grown up, independent, and happily functioning in his own life. My most important duties as a mother have, for the most part, been successfully fulfilled. So I read Anne’s story once again with a gentle smile of knowing and understanding, wishing I could reassure her with a friendly hug that “all will be well.”
Oh, there goes the oven timer… I believe our quiche is done! I’m always a bit anxious when trying a new recipe, but this appears to have turned out marvelously. (yum)
What could be better on a Sunday afternoon, than a delicious slice of domestic life?