Niece Notes

Niece Notes
by Kat Meads

West Coast
Thursday, March 14 

DeeDee,

Who makes your list of funny authors? I’ll not hazard a guess. But I have stuck a post-it on the doorknob as reminder to send you the complete works (to date) of the incomparable Nancy Lemann. Read every one, but begin where she began, Lives of the Saints. (“Oh, I forgot to tell about Percy Chumbley. Percy Chumbley was one of my suitors. Percy Chumbley was the most revolting thing known to man. That’s all I have to say about him.”) “You either get Lemann or you don’t,” I was told by a critic who didn’t. (He also didn’t hail from the South.) When I found a signed copy of Lemann’s first novel in her hometown, I walked out of the Garden District Book Shop, nose in the book and promptly fell down three granite steps. And there you have it: humorous symmetry in your aunt’s universe. But if Lives were only hilarious, I wouldn’t be using up aunt chips insisting you read it. A heartless someone auctioned off Lemann’s second book along with the personal, handwritten author’s note that accompanied it: “It might not break your heart like the other one—I mean it didn’t do as well. But I did put my heart in as much. I mean it broke my heart as much.” Given such evidence of heart and heartlessness, I wouldn’t recommend becoming a novelist. 

Love,
Aunt K 

*** 

West Coast
Friday, April 12

DeeDee,

No joke: reading any biography I first scan for canine references. Muriel Spark’s Shadow. G. Stein’s Basket I and II. (“I am because my little dog knows me.”) Arthur Miller’s Hugo. Marilyn Monroe’s Josefa. If the too busy, too depressed or too drugged-out Ms. Monroe neglected to walk Josefa, the Chihuahua relieved herself where she could, staining tony carpets. (What else was a dog to do?) In Rodmell, the Woolfs shared quarters with spaniels Pinka and the eczema-riddled Grizzle. Leonard put in the training hours; Virginia holed up in her writing lodge composing Flush’s dog’s-eye view of the world. The real Elizabeth Barrett Browning spaniel was snatched three times by dog thieves, who were three times paid off. Your parents’ Newfoundland, Mercy, was also stolen three times by the same very reckless (or idiotic) neighbor. The sheriff collected Mercy each time and brought him home, no ransom paid. 

Love,
Aunt K

P.S. Thought for the week, courtesy of Joy Williams: “No man has ever died beside a sleeping dog.”

*** 

West Coast
Monday, May 6 

DeeDee, 

Supposedly Georges Simenon called 33 houses home during his life span—which seems excessive until compared with his other numbers: 200+ novels in his own name, another 200 written under 17 pseudonyms. Where to go to tip one’s hat in the case of Simenon? Which house of the 33? The National Trust solved that dilemma for Woolf fans by taking over Monk’s House. For the price of an entry ticket, any devotee can loom over Virginia’s single bed and pillow, imagining that busy, busy brain of hers struggling to call it a night. Since Virginia herself made expeditions to the Brontës’ parsonage, Shelley’s rental in Lerici and Madame de Sevigné’s chateau in Brittany, she must have anticipated (if not welcomed) the coming swarm. Harder to make sense of (given the source of her livelihood) the unwelcoming attitude of the Monk’s House caretaker who mocked the pilgrim throngs in print, singling out, for particular abuse, two who wept at what they assumed to be Virginia’s exit gate on the way to the River Ouse. (The gate no longer exists.) I wept at no gates but found touring the green rooms Virginia’s own sis mocked for their “ubiquitous” color a profoundly moving experience. A genius had lived and worked in those spaces. How could one not be affected? “I envy houses alone in the fields,” Woolf wrote mere weeks before she drowned. As a matter of curiosity: does my middlingly busy brain retain that line because of its sentiment, date penned (your grandmother’s birthday) or those two reasons in concert? 

Love,
Aunt K

***

West Coast
Wednesday, June 19

DeeDee,

Last night I watched a documentary on Lewis Carroll, aka Reverend Charles Dodgson, Church of England deacon, mathematics whiz, inventor, photographer, migraine sufferer, life-long stammerer and famous/infamous friend of real-life Alice Liddell, the acknowledged (by all but the author) inspirational force behind Carroll’s classic. My battered copy of Alice in Wonderland seems to have been filched from a relative since it’s inscribed To Eleanor Kight – Oct. 13, 1949. “Oh dear, oh dear!” as the White Rabbit would say. In addition to assorted weigh-ins on whether or not Carroll was an active or “repressed” pedophile or neither, the documentary offered up this fascinating factoid: fitful sleeper Carroll invented a gizmo (the “nyctograph”) to take notes in the dark, loath to abandon bed and light a candle. During that reveal, my jaw went slack with envy. (You, on the other hand, are likely experiencing a surge of gratitude that your insomniac aunt owns no such device.) In the way of such things, treated to visuals of English fields and rabbit paths, I began musing on homegrown fields, this one here, that one there and finally the field between Uncle Herman and Aunt Rosa’s house and the Harringtons’ house, a house that, even in a community of seen-better-days constructions, stood out in its levels of disrepair, a house in which, during my childhood, lived a socially awkward stammering boy who, you guessed it, turned out to be mathematically gifted, escaping home and county not through a hedge or a well but by means of a full college scholarship. The world is not as large as it is small, eh? 

Big smooch,
Aunt K

***

West Coast
Monday, July 29

DeeDee, 

I sent last week—not to you—a postcard of Elvis’s 845 West Chino Canyon Road abode in Palm Springs. The house is a sprawler though not, in the sum of its parts, all that impressive. Standard-issue stucco walls, red tile roof and, unlike at Graceland, no musical notes embellishing the gate. If he’d been a golfer-slash-insurance salesman, Elvis would have fit into the neighborhood just swell. While driving past and rubbernecking the actual compound, I flashed on my pal Shirley and I performing “G. I. Blues” at a church social. Preparing, we’d had enormous trouble deciphering some of the lyrics. (And we, Southern gals!) Never having heard of the “Rhine,” but well-acquainted with amusement parks, we assumed Elvis viewed a “beautiful ride.” That’s funny, right? (Or would be if you knew what in God’s name I was referencing.) Before it became the norm to include song lyrics on record albums, I regularly misheard/rewrote lyrics. Until very recently I thought Joni Mitchell sang that hell was a hippie’s way to go out—which, post-’68, seemed as true a prediction as any. 

Hup two three four,
Aunt K

*** 

West Coast
Friday, Sept. 20

DeeDee,

If I keep to my no-more-Woolf pledge, will you permit some rhapsodizing over Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald, a Canadian transplant who thrived in California? In Santa Barbara, at various times, he lived on Cliff Drive, Bay Road, Via Esperanza, Chelham Way, Camino de la Luz and Bath Street. The Bath Street house (purchased for a mere $7,000 in the 1940s) currently overlooks a parking lot, a neighborhood downgrade that hasn’t affected the property value as much as a non-Californian might suppose. Macdonald was into Freud. He and penultimate Southern gal Eudora Welty were devoted pals. The producer of “American Family” approached him for recommendations of real-life Santa Barbara families that matched his creations in The Underground Man. A “hard-boiled” crime novelist lauded for plot, but what about those ravishing descriptions? One example from zillions: returning to L.A., the ever-roaming Detective Lew Archer observes “an unbroken stream of headlights pour(ing) toward us, as if the city was leaking light through a hole in its side.” Understood: you’ll need to get a little longer in the tooth to fully appreciate the content of this next Macdonald sentence, but for the time being enjoy the music of its rollout: “I lapsed for a while into my freeway daydream: I was mobile and unencumbered, young enough to go where I had never been and clever enough to do new things when I got there…” Did Macdonald’s California novels play a part in your aunt’s migration patterns? I expect so. I expect so. 

Love,
Aunt K

***

West Coast
Saturday, Nov. 16

DeeDee,

Have you run across the explanation of what separates a novel of detection from a novel of suspense, the “pure” detective story gazing/spiraling backward, fixated on the past and what happened therein, the suspense narrative another can of worms altogether: imperiled characters propelled toward an unknowable, more threatening future? It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, how—even as readers—we’re able to stomach the suspense formula, criminals seldom apprehended, justice in short supply, control an illusion, any escape from chaos and danger a temporary blip for ever/always around the next corner and curve: more chaos, more danger for hapless humans, the comforts of salvation and conclusion denied. What set me off on genre distinctions during an otherwise starry evening, lolling al fresco in my Adirondack chair, was fate and how difficult it seems for Southerners to relinquish investment in the controlling idea of. In a community as tiny as the one your dad and I grew up in, generational patterns and their damage were all but impossible to disregard. Complicating that complication: the fatalistically inclined’s tendency to assign blame elsewhere, be it bad luck or iffy heritage. What I’ve come to understand, niece, is how easily the fate card operates as excuse, as rationale for shucking off responsibility and abiding the continuance of harm, as stand-in for a hardwired resistance to change. Since sobering wasn’t my aim, not the best of topics to contemplate, drink in hand. 

Love,
Aunt K

*** 

West Coast
Wednesday, Dec. 4

DeeDee, 

I mentioned Alice’s author. He’s cropped up again in my reading. Granted, it would be in my best interest to pass on a content share here, but I’m not in a very withholding mood. At key moments during my workday I had to “check my tongue” to ensure I’d have (paid) work to take up tomorrow. To keep to a policy of clam-up during off-hours as well? In that way lies madness! So: turns out Carroll also penned a letter writing how-to, full title: Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter Writing. I’m pleased (and a smidgen proud) that I haven’t, in our correspondence, committed every faux pas on Carroll’s list. For instance, I haven’t filled  “more than a page and a half with apologies for not having written sooner” or used a postscript to “contain the real gist of the letter.” But there my blamelessness fizzles. I’ve definitely done these don’ts: “don’t repeat yourself”; “don’t try to have the last word.” And I wouldn’t want to swear that I always “make jesting obvious” to avoid said jest being “taken as earnest” and calling down “very serious consequences.” As verification, I could compile a date-and-line index of past offenses but, again, plead exemption because of the day I’ve endured. Self-criticism added to boss knocks is a recipe for nightmare. Of course you could have a go at tallying your aunt’s epistolary mistakes. But until otherwise corrected, I’ll assume you have infinitely better ways of passing the evening hours. 

Hugs,
Aunt K 

*** 

Kat Meads is the author, most recently, of Miss Jane: The Lost Years (Livingston Press, 2018). She teaches in Oklahoma City University's Red Earth MFA program.