February 8, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
SEEING THROUGH PLACES
Simon & Shuster, $20.00.
Mary Gordon's exploration of her life through the places that shaped her and her work as a writer of fiction and non-fiction and a student and teacher of literature attempts to use geography, architecture and emotional atmosphere as an explanation of how she came to be who she is. She argues her case well, beginning with her grandmother's house, where she spent time as a child and ending with her present home, an apartment "provided by Barnard College and Columbia University," where she teaches.
Gordon's grandmother's house was mysterious to her, antiquated, complicated, with a vocabulary all its own: "'commode' for toilet, 'box' for the area of the floor where the dog was made to lie, 'pantry' for a series of shelves on one of the kitchen walls. My mother used these words easily, but she didn't use them to describe anything in our house." Words in her Irish grandmother's house were also Old World, also mysterious, foreign to the child Mary. The grandmother worked constantly, perhaps a habit left over from her youth spent as a domestic servant. She was not an indulgent grandmother who stopped and entertained or even enjoyed her grandchildren. She was not mean or even unpleasant, just busy and silent. There was a frightening aunt who was cruel, her cruelty and coldness attributed to her exile as a polio patient during her childhood.
When Mary's father had a heart attack from which he never recovered, she and her mother moved to the grandmother's house. After the grandmother's death, the aunt and the mother fought over the house, with Mary's mother winning the legal battle. The house suffered from their ownership, for Mary's mother was also a survivor of polio and could not maintain it. Mary herself was no help: "I grudged every minute that took me away from reading, dreaming, writing poetry..." The neglect of the house took its toll: "My mother and I destroyed the house." Mary and her mother could have taken out their resentment of the grandmother's love for her house and its upkeep and her lack of affection for the people in it on the house. They might have behaved as they did in some indirect revenge for the aunt's selfishness. Two men Mary brought into the house tried to undo the damage, but neither her first well-meaning boyfriend or her first husband, "a fanatical house cleaner," could convert her or her mother to domesticity.
The second house Gordon remembers is a house where she was kept while her mother was at work; her mother supported the family by her job as a legal secretary. Here she seems to have been more impressed by the people in the house than by the house itself. Both seemed all wrong; they were German, the father was not Catholic, the daughters were products of movie magazines, "adult as movie stars, American," and Mary "wanted to be one of them." She was fascinated by their female rituals, their cosmetics: "I wanted to be of the party that dressed and undressed not merely for comfort..." The maternal grandfather taught her that she "was not a child" by ignoring her efforts to be a cute, affectionate little girl with him. What she was, already, was an observer, a spy, a collector of material for this book.
The third essay describes her parents' apartment where she played alone or with her father, a failed writer. Her play was imaginary, involving dolls and paper dolls and fantasy. Here too she is beginning to write fiction, making her paper dolls act out the dramas she created. Sent to a boys' camp run by her aunts and uncles the summer after her father's death, she failed at all the outdoor activities and spent her time reading lives of saints, fairy tales and old copies of GOOD HOUSEKEEPING.
The following two essays deal with two contrasting influences in Gordon's development. "The Country Next Door" describes a neighbor who takes a lover, causing her husband to move out. The lover rents a room from Mary's mother, and Lina and Mary form a bond that Mary could not form with her devout, widowed mother. When Mary divorces her first husband, she knows that Lina understands what her mother cannot: "But Lina understood. I didn't have to tell her I had left my husband for another man.” The second influence is her contact with Catholic priests. Mary's mother had a "habit of worshipping a princely caste, the sickish feeling of delight when you were singled out by a priest, the shutting down of the iron door on bleeding fingers when you were unnoticed, or (unthinkable) castigated." She taught her daughter to revere priests in the same way. Mary breaks the habit when she has a fight with one priest who orders her to leave his house when she defends Father Berrigan's anti-war protests: "Father D. said he was a traitor; I said he was a hero." At the end of the book, however, she has gone back to her church, to the church of a priest who is a friend.
Gordon's years at Barnard College offered her a chance to find her home in the world: New York City. She has a brief encounter with disaster in the form of a wonderful house on Cape Cod where she spends summer vacations for eight years. When the house is offered for sale, the owners call her, knowing that she wants the house, loves the house. She considers risking her financial security for this house, but her accountant cautions against it. She then experiences a period of self-pity, envying those friends who have inherited houses like the charming one she covets. The accountant reminds her that she will have to write to make the payments, give up her freedom as a writer, to maintain and own this house. She finally concludes that her identity is tied to the books she has written, not to any house.
At the end of this book, Gordon is happily living in her apartment owned by the institution that offered her escape from the places that formed her but that she had to leave. The book is about places, but the places are not as important as the people who inhabit them in shaping Gordon's life, the people she determined that she would not follow. Instead, through her writing she found her life, her identity. A place is defined by who inhabits it, who gives it life, or who makes it lifeless. Gordon also presents a description of many different American lives in this memoir, parading through nearly fifty years of history. This book is full of the concrete details of this history, particularly of the details of the lives of women who are never stereotyped, as different from each other as the places they inhabit.