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Good Letters

This is the first post that I’ve written—the first real writing I’ve done, actually—since my mother passed away at the beginning of February. She had been sick with cancer for over a decade.

I will never forget where I was when I found out she had cancer. I was in the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh, finishing up research on a conference paper I was writing about Andre Dubus. I was to deliver it that coming weekend in New Orleans on a panel dedicated to the life and work of Dubus.

The way I came to be on this panel at all was this: the previous year I had given a paper at the same conference on something to do with John Gardener’s On Moral Fiction and afterwards a woman came up to me and said, “do you know the work of Andre Dubus?” When I said yes, lying, she said, “you would be perfect for a panel I’m putting together for next year.”

As it turned out, I was the only one on the panel who didn’t know Dubus personally. Everyone else had either studied with him, lived near him in Massachusetts, or had been following his career for years. All I knew about him was based on his reputation as a drinker, a lover of women, and a bad Catholic. I had read only three or four of his stories in anthologies in undergrad workshops, and though I liked them, I didn’t—couldn’t—fully appreciate their moral complexity.

His characters were interesting and compelling to me, but they were so adult (having affairs, losing children, feeling and noticing the effects of aging) that I didn’t—couldn’t yet—have much of an opinion about whether his stories were great or not.

So, though I’d had a whole year to write the damn thing, here I was, last-minute as usual, furiously writing yet another essay that, if I was honest with myself, would be read aloud to a crowd of sleepy, hung-over writers in a stuffy yellow room, and then would be immediately folded in half, and crammed in the breast pocket of my blazer, where it would stay for months and months, only to be discovered and revisited after too many free glasses of wine at a reception for a famous writer.

The essay was on the domestic stories of Dubus read through the lens of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I wish I could conjure the thesis up, because sitting here with Dubus’ fiction in front of me, I can’t figure out what the hell I was thinking.

We knew that something wasn’t right with my mom because she was going to the doctor—she never went to the doctor. I told my dad I would call him to check in, so I went down to the bank of phones in the lobby of the library and called. It was only the second time I’d ever heard my dad cry—the first being when his father had cancer.

When I finally spoke with my mom, she, as usual, deflected my concern. She told me not to change my plans; that the conference was too important to miss, and because I didn’t really want to have to face the fact that she was sick, I listened to her and flew to New Orleans.

Tonight have I gone to the college library to track down some of the Dubus’ stories that I wrote about. Just looking at the books’ covers, I am able to call up faint images, and brief passages. I can even partly recall the feeling of reading the essay at the conference—most of which was written on a ream of yellow Post-it notes stuck in the margins of a paperback of Dubus’ stories, lost in one of my many moves.

And I can now recall having drinks afterwards with my fellow panelists, these people who knew Dubus well, and how they praised my essay, and said I should send it out to journals and magazines to be published immediately. But I didn’t have an essay, really, just a book bristling with Post-it notes.

So I’ve got nothing to show anyone; it’s all up here, in my head—the attic of the body, Bachelard might say—the space where memories are housed. Yes, now I’m remembering something about the essay: something about the phenomenology of the domestic space in Dubus’ stories; something about the house as a sacred space, a space where children are conceived, where meals are eaten, where meals are cooked, dishes cleared, and floors swept, but also where fights erupt and angry silences reign.

It was also something about the way the houses are places that, though we may drift far from them, we can return to them to be recharged, renewed, redeemed.

My mother was what they used to call a homemaker. She was constantly cooking and planting, cleaning and crafting. Bachelard likens the house to a shell, a nest, a womb, a self-sustaining world unto itself. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched, then, to call my mother a world-maker.

My mother died peacefully in the home that she made, surrounded by her family. In those last hours, she kept saying that she “wanted to go home.” And we knew what she meant (I can’t bring myself to say “where.” Is it a “where”?)

So, I am grateful to Andre Dubus. Despite the fact that his characters are often selfish, adrift, and struggling to find peace, their experiences have helped me say what I did not think could be said:

We told my mom again and again that it was okay to go, that she had taken such good care of us, now it was her turn to be cared for, to be renewed, reunited.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: David Griffith

Dave Griffith is the author of Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in Image, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The LA Review of Books, Killing the Buddha, Offline, and the Paris Review Daily, among others. He lives in Michigan with his wife, the writer Jessica Mesman Griffith, where he directs the creative writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts. He recently finished a book manuscript titled Pyramid Scheme: Making Art and Being Broke in America.

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