There is so much going on all over the world that I doubt many people will want to read fiction. But, you know, I’ve always thought literature is what we need when the world is coming at us with massive hurricane-like distractions on a daily basis. If we are privileged enough to be able to make the time to read (or write), it can help to slow down the thought process, focus our cognitive energies on something meaningful, and go deeper into issues we might normally only skim or scroll through in a news feed.
The best fiction will, of course, go beyond entertainment to give intellectual and emotional nourishment. And the best short story, for me, can and should be a shock to the reader’s system, though not in the way of an earthquake or tsunami necessarily. Rather, it ought to be a sort of quickening or awakening that never really goes away.
This month’s selection of stories is to do with the theme of getting older. The Oxford English Dictionary and the US Census define the midlife period as between the ages of 45 and 65 years and I am beginning this phase of my life this month. So I went looking for stories specifically about what I call “Middlescence.” Here are some of them by Yiyun Li, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Karen Shepard, Jon Hickey, Anushka Jasraj, and one of my flash stories from earlier this year. As usual, they are all free to read online by clicking on the titles below. Enjoy.
[NOTE: For regular readers: You may have noticed that I tend to share stories by Alice Munro and Grace Paley quite frequently. Both of them have, of course, written many terrific works on this theme. I tried to mix it up a bit this time.]
This story was first published in The New Yorker and here’s Li’s interview about how she came to write it. It went on to win this whopping £30,000 award.
The protagonist is a middle-aged Chinese nanny, Auntie Mei, who takes care of newborns and their mothers in the Bay Area. She is an emotionally distant woman with a rather difficult past though she does not care to look back and introspect too much. She’s far too practical for that. Her current job suits her well, moving from house to house, never staying more than a month, never getting involved emotionally with the babies or their mothers. Then, she comes to her current baby-mother duo and things begin to unravel a bit.
It is not a cheerful story exactly but it does not end entirely in despair. Yet, Li manages to give us a character with this stoic, deadpan sort of humor that balances the dark and the light. What I like most about the story is that all the characters, major and minor, are presented in non-stereotypical ways. And how, in reading about Auntie Mei’s life and how it has run a certain course, we are left to quietly ponder the course of our own.
Alone? Auntie Mei squinted at Baby’s eyebrows, knitted so tight that the skin in between took on a tinge of yellow. Your pa is working hard so your ma can stay home and call me nobody. The Year of the Snake, an inauspicious one to give birth in, had been slow for Auntie Mei; otherwise, she would’ve had better options. She had not liked the couple when she met them; unlike most expectant parents, they had both looked distracted, and asked few questions before offering her the position. They were about to entrust their baby to a stranger, Auntie Mei had wanted to remind them, but neither seemed worried. Perhaps they had gathered enough references? Auntie Mei did have a reputation as a gold-medal nanny. Her employers were the lucky ones, to have had a good education in China and, later, America, and to have become professionals in the Bay Area: lawyers, doctors, V.C.s, engineers—no matter, they still needed an experienced Chinese nanny for their American-born babies. Many families lined her up months before their babies were born.
This is a classic and has been anthologized enough times that most short story readers have probably come across it or know of it. It can be found in his collection, ‘Twice-told Tales’.
A doctor gives four of his old friends an elixir from the Fountain of Youth and watches their behaviors as they grow young again. It is rather funny too because the group of four friends consists of three men who, in their younger days, fancied the woman. Naturally, when they become “young” again, they indulge in youthful shenanigans that do their older selves no credit at all.
It is another one of Hawthorne’s morality tales, yes, but he wrote them so well. His premise here is that, if we were given the chance to be young again, we would probably make the same mistakes all over again. And he is so masterful with his descriptions of the supernatural effects and the study in which all the ensuing action happens that we are right there next to Doctor Heidegger, watching every bit unfold both comically and tragically.
Again he filled their glasses with the liquor of youth, enough of which still remained in the vase to turn half the old people in the city to the age of their own grandchildren. While the bubbles were yet sparkling on the brim, the doctor’s four guests snatched their glasses from the table, and swallowed the contents at a single gulp. Was it delusion? Even while the draught was passing down their throats it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. Their eyes grew clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks; they sat round the table, three gentlemen of middle age, and a woman hardly beyond her buxom prime.
This story is from a new collection of short stories called ‘Kiss Me Someone: Stories’. I had not come across Shepard’s previous work before I read this story. And I am definitely going to be looking into this story as well as her earlier novels.
This story is also about mothers and sons — both growing up and learning about getting older in their own ways. The mothers are learning how motherhood changes as your children become young men and women. And the sons, to hear the mothers tell it, are also learning how the rest of the world does not necessarily see them as special people like their mothers.
I am not a mother but, of course, I loved mine and still miss her daily. And there is something so immediate and intimate in reading about how these mothers are dealing with the raising of their sons. The sports analogies make the women sound both fierce and vulnerable and I particularly enjoyed reading those bits. And the ending is lovely in how it leaves us with an image and a question.
We are the mothers. Our names are Kim, or Linda, or Janice, or Sue. Sometimes Kristine, or Emilie, who grew up in Canada, but not Brittney or Ashlee with two e’s. We live in small New England towns known for their picturesque beauty, named after Native American tribes or founding fathers, ending in ville or field. Our houses are raised ranches or Capes or converted barns or former farmhouses. They’re in neighborhoods with bike-friendly roads, walking distance to the elementary school and playground. Or at the end of modest dirt driveways in an open meadow with partial views. We drive minivans or SUVs with bike racks on the back and Thules on the roof. Sometimes a pickup, if we’re Republican and borrowed our husbands’ cars. (We’re mostly Democrats, but avoid talking politics if we can. And religion, which most of us never had or have left behind, though some of us are still, shall we say, in the front pews.) Almost all of us are white.
Robin and Mimi are forty-six-year-old cousins meeting for the first time when Robin comes out to NYC to spend a weekend with Mimi and her husband. The women are also both Ojibwe Indian and sort of trying to find themselves through exploring and understanding their Native American roots. Although, it appears they have rather different ways of doing so. And both have other real-time, personal issues they are trying to deal with. Then there is a small tragedy that nearly unhinges Mimi. And Robin has to then stand firm beside her and be of comfort, be like the tribe elder.
This is a story that shows how, when two people meet, whether they have a lot in common or nothing at all, each changes the other in some way or another. These are usually not seismic changes and, probably, not even as apparent as in the ending of this story. But such changes happen throughout our lives with both ordinary and extraordinary interactions. And, perhaps, it is only after a certain age that we come to value them as we ought to. As Robin does here. The ending is worth every minute invested reading this story.
Any of the faces waiting in the St. George Ferry Terminal could have been Mimi; Robin had no photos for reference. They’d discovered each other’s existence only months before and had only corresponded by e-mail. She could narrow it down to what she knew about her cousin, which was basically that they were both forty-six, Ojibwe, had careers where they sat in front of computers all day long and children off at college. Robin was looking for a familiar face—round, a squat nose, dark or silver hair—but she hadn’t quite expected to see her honest-to-god doppelgänger waving with both hands, accompanied by her 300-pound husband, both wearing satin Jets jackets and sweatpants. Vic, the husband, had a shaved head and a pencil-thin goatee encircling a jolly smile. He enveloped Robin in a bear hug, and when he let go he grabbed her roller bag and said, “What’d I say, Mimi? It’s your freakin’ twin!”
I have read this story twice now and it is one of those origami-like works: unfolding and beautifully to reveal more interesting creases.
Moira, a married, almost middle-aged woman, is trying to deal with a husband who has drifted apart. She starts taking drawing lessons some afternoons from a somewhat older woman. As the marriage continues to unravel, Moira is drawn to her instructor in ways she cannot make sense of. All of it leaves her feeling very unresolved and undecided about her marriage and life.
She does have an epiphany of sorts in the end: that, sometimes, we must continue to muddle on through the middle years too. Not everything can be neatly resolved and dealt with right away but life can still carry on with simple, everyday pleasures like garden walks and books and art and simple, undemanding companionship.
We move our chairs so we are facing each other, and she looks at me with a mixture of encouragement and acceptance. She is offering herself up to the brutality of my inexperienced hand. I start with the mouth: her lips are thin. There are wrinkles deepening around her eyes. I pause, and she asks to see the drawing.
You’ve made me look young, she laughs, and touches my cheek. Don’t be afraid to draw my old age. Try shading. Move the pencil in the same direction, but apply more pressure to express darkness.
And here is one of my own flash (<1000 words) stories about a middle-aged woman taking a backward glance at her own past life while on a train journey.
Till next month, then.