MAINE By J. Courtney Sullivan
Last week, my sister and I attended the funeral of one of my grandmother’s closest friends—and basically her last friend still living. The service was held at Forest Lawn—a little cemetery tucked away on the west side of Los Angeles—and home to such notables as Marilyn Monroe, Merv Griffin, Rodney Dangerfield and Farrah Fawcett. My grandfather is buried there too—sort-of my step-grandpa…my grandmother’s second husband. We visited his grave; I hadn’t been there since 1978 when he died. He had the prettiest flowers—potted azaleas that my grandmother had planted a couple weeks before and had her handy man bring over.
The service was short and not too terribly depressing. The woman was 90 and had lived a pretty fabulous life, plus last Summer her children had thrown a 90th birthday party for her and so everyone had felt that at least they had done that—and many people had seen her then and felt in a sense that they had said their goodbyes.
Her granddaughter spoke about their shared love of art and cooking. She even cried a little bit when she started recalling how her grandmother always smelled like flowers. Then her son spoke with less sentimentality and a little more humor. He too spoke of her many talents but also of her great beauty and her inability to suffer fools or slovenliness of any kind. “God help you if you walked in the kitchen with your shoulders slumped,” he said. She was always impeccably thin and perfectly manicured and coiffed. She never ever had dessert—even well into her 80’s. I noticed her surviving daughter did not speak at all. One of her daughters had died of drug addiction in the late 70’s and one of her granddaughters had died of cancer quite recently. Things hadn’t always been wine and roses.
While the son spoke, I glanced over at his wife and wondered what it had been like to be this woman’s daughter in law for the last 50 some odd years. God only knows. It can’t have been easy. But then I remembered that some of us save our best jabs for those closest to us and shower praise and love on everyone else. Sometimes “outsiders” can get a pretty skewed perspective on how things really are.
My grandmother didn’t want to speak though they asked her to. Later I asked her why not, and she said, “I loved Jane, but she was a tough broad. She could never be alone—always put a man before her friends. We had very different styles in dressing and houses and painting and those things are important. And plus she was too goddamn thin. I couldn’t stand up there and say all that, could I?”
Made sense to me. Funny thing was my sister and I had had such a different impression of this woman we were memorializing. I thought she was the cat’s meow; probably because she thought we were the cat’s pajamas; probably because we weren’t related to her so if we looked like crap or dropped out of school it wouldn’t ever reflect badly on her.
After the service, everyone went for drinks at the country club, and I spoke for a long time to the art teacher. In the last 10 years of her life, Jane had spent 3-6 hours every week with this woman trying to learn to paint like the masters. And I will tell you something, I’ve seen her paintings, and she was really good—very exacting style which was what my own grandmother took issue with–but still, she had an amazing eye. She would take 10 weeks to paint 20 flowers in a vase, and every flower was different and totally realistic and perfect. I think her eyes were fairly good until the end which is obviously helpful when you’re painting. My grandmother can’t drive anymore and has to be led around because she has macular degeneration in both eyes so maybe that was a sticking point with them as well.
Anyway, the crux of the matter is: why did this woman slave over her easel and never show her art? Or try to get an agent? Or a gallery? Or whatever you do in that world? And I think because of WHEN she was born—the early part of last century, “you just didn’t do that.” So truly her destiny was to some extent based on timing.
And of course, later, as we all do—in our classically self absorbed but oh so human way…I wondered what people would say at MY funeral. What would my daughters say? What would I say at my mother’s funeral? Should we think about that as we go through our lives, as we navigate our relationships—especially with those closest to us—what sort of memory will we be leaving? What sort of mark are we leaving on people?
The granddaughter cried…the daughter did not. That tells you something I think. Sometimes one generation removed is a good thing.
This is something J. Courtney Sullivan must have first hand experience with because she gets it. Maine is not just a great Summer read, but a great read whenever you get to it in your stack. And maybe I loved it because sometimes it’s nice to read about other people’s problems and not dwell on your own dysfunctions.
Basically, Sullivan’s story is of three generations of Kellehers—a family who has summered in Maine since 1945. The patriarch (or so this matriarchal family thinks) has died and so the women feel that the glue is gone. But really, it’s the women who have been running the show…isn’t it always? And as judgemental as Alice (the grandmother) can be, Sullivan humanizes her as well—with rich memories…painful flashbacks. She’s the artist that never was. She grew up with dreams of being a painter in Paris and wound up with three children she brought up not far from the city where she was raised—a product of her generation—just like my grandmother’s friend, and my grandmother for that matter.
In this complicated story, when the women get together—with their histories, stories, secrets, and needs—Sullivan really shines as a writer. There are comical and utterly brutal scenes of love and loss; anger and redemption.
Though Sullivan tells only the story of the extended Kelleher clan: she truly is telling the story of every woman who married and started having babies before the feminist movement and the sexual revolution; for every woman who married for the wrong reasons, for every woman who can’t talk to her mother but can talk to her mother-in-law, for every daughter who is afraid of disappointing her mother.
I have 3 sisters, a mother, a mother-in-law, 2 daughters, and 5 nieces. I love men. Go figure. The women are the ones who tell the stories, who save the stories, who care about the stories. Sullivan has a story to tell. And it’s a good one. Suddenly the California coast seems to pale in comparison to the maybe cloudier and more tumultuous coast of Maine. Time-share, anyone?