Howard Frank Mosher, author of On Kingdom Mountain and Disappearances
American Creamby Catherine Tudish
When Catherine Tudish's story collection Tenney's Landing was published in 2005, Margot Livesey said Tudish "casts an irresistible spell" and David Huddle said, "Tenney's Landing conjures up a place and a people with that magical vividness we found in Porter, Welty, Cheever, and Updike." Here, in her first novel, Tudish has fashioned a masterful and/i>/i>
When Catherine Tudish's story collection Tenney's Landing was published in 2005, Margot Livesey said Tudish "casts an irresistible spell" and David Huddle said, "Tenney's Landing conjures up a place and a people with that magical vividness we found in Porter, Welty, Cheever, and Updike." Here, in her first novel, Tudish has fashioned a masterful and intimate portrait of a woman returning, midlife, to the small farming community where she grew up.
After Nathan Rownd is injured in a tractor accident, his daughter, Virginia, leaves her suburban life and returns to Tenney's Landing with her teenage son to work the family farm. She struggles with the long periods of separation from her husband and begrudgingly relearns the insistent, exhausting cadence of farm chores. But when Nathan decides to sell the farm, Virginia realizes how deep her connection to the land is and begins to question who she is and where she belongs.
Catherine Tudish's writing is a tribute to small-town America. In simple, elegant prose she captures the rhythms of everyday life and the moments of truth and transformation that are found there. American Cream is a tender and wise novel by a writer of unusual sensitivity and grace.
Howard Frank Mosher, author of On Kingdom Mountain and Disappearances
Tudish returns to the rural Pennsylvania depicted in her debut story collection, Tenney's Landing,in this restrained novel about a woman reconnecting with her past. The story follows Virginia Rownd, who is grappling with her mother's death and her father Nathan's quick remarriage. Six months after the wedding, Nathan is injured in a tractor accident, and Virginia is called upon to pitch in on the family farm for the summer. A reluctant Virginia drags her 13-year old son, Randall, along and leaves husband Rob in suburban Maryland. On the farm, she hays and milks the cows while attempting to get along with her recalcitrant new stepmother, Lydia. In addition, Virginia reconnects with the townspeople, most notably her ex-boyfriend West Moffat, and friend Hennis "Henny" Eastman, now in a wheelchair. An additional story line involves Irene, a troubled girl from a broken home whom Randall befriends and Virginia attempts to save, with mixed results. Tudish portrays a realistic world, yet Virginia's abrupt transformation, brought on when her father contemplates selling the farm, is at odds with the novel's unhurried pace. Readers who enjoyed the story collection will appreciate this return journey. (Aug.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Startled by the cold clang of the bell, Virginia nearly smiled, remembering how her mother would say that something made her "jump out of her skin" as if skin were a garment to be abandoned in case of emergency. She looked up at the steeple, where the paint was peeling away in ragged strips that fluttered in the biting December wind, and wondered who could be ringing the bell before the wedding. That was wrong. It was supposed to ring after, when the bride and groom came out together.
They used to have rules about the bell. On Sunday morning, at a quarter to ten, you rang it twelve times. If you rang it thirteen times, one of the deacons would give you the hairy eyeball and have a word with your parents during coffee hour. Hovering near the church steps alone, Virginia watched the old bell clang merrily back and forth twenty times, twenty-one, free at last.
One of the bride's relatives, she guessed, picturing a boy of ten or eleven, the one wearing combat boots who had stared at her as he walked past with his parents. She could imagine him putting all his weight on the bell rope and then letting it fly, a fine dust of rotting wood and plaster drifting down on his hair.
Virginia had made Rob and Randall go inside without her. It seemed important to observe the arriving guests as they hurried from their cars and scooted past, cheeks reddened by the arctic chill that had descended the week after Thanksgiving. The people she knew waved a quick hello and ducked their heads. The others, the ones who would take their seats on the bride's side, regarded her curiously, then glanced away, whispering, wondering who she was.
The others. In Virginia's eyes, they might have come from a country beyond the hills, where they lived and worked and had their own customs. The women favored heavy makeup and hair dyed chestnut brown or bleached the color of bone. Heedless of the cold, they wore light, brightly colored dresses under their open coats, no gloves. The men appeared solemn, dressed mostly in black, with long sideburns and beards, as if they belonged to some religious sect. Then she remembered: It was the opening day of rifle season. Those were hunting beards.
As the last note rang from the steeple, she paused on the top step and took in the familiar street, the nearby white houses, scuffed and worn in the grim light of late afternoon. The yards and roofs of Tenney's Landing were dusted with a skiff of snow. In two or three front windows, Virginia could see the blinking lights of Christmas trees. Her mother used to say it was her favorite time of year, when the earth was still and waiting and the nights were long. Caroline would laugh a little, expecting everyone to disagree with her.
Reaching for the iron door latch, Virginia was reminded of the itchy feel of wool kneesocks, the deathly cold of the narrow passage off the vestibule where she and Henny stood to ring the bell, Henny so light the rope would lift her off her feet if Virginia let go. Every other Sunday, when it was their turn, they could read their names in the church bulletin, right under the minister and the deacons on duty. Bell Ringers: Hennis Eastman and Virginia Rownd. Henny always took a ballpoint pen from her mother's purse and crossed out their first names, wrote in "Henny" and "Ginny." They pretended not to be sorry the year they turned twelve and two younger girls took their places.
Val Kramer, the organist, turned and nodded when she noticed Virginia, relieved to see her at last. Rob walked calmly down the center aisle to meet her and put her arm through his, escorting her to the front pew on the right. He betrayed no uneasiness, but Randall's expression was worried, in case she might do something to embarrass him. The instant Virginia sat down, Val leaned hard on the organ, drawing out the opening notes of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Transfixed by the overflowing basket of flowers on the altar an improbable mixture of chrysanthemums, tiger lilies, and white roses Virginia wondered why everything was backward.
When Rob pressed her hand, her eyes flicked involuntarily to the door to the right of the altar, where she saw her father in his good gray suit behind the minister. Someone was holding his hand, too. Mrs. Will, from the school cafeteria. The bride.
As they passed in front, Virginia's father let his gaze rest on her face for a moment. His look was benevolent, as if she were the one needing forgiveness. It did nothing to calm her thumping heart, the rushing sound in her ears. The little group squared off in front of the altar, her father and Mrs. Will and the two witnesses a man and a woman she'd never seen before standing before the Reverend Gleason. At the words "Dearly beloved," Mrs. Will gave her father's hand a squeeze before letting go.
Dearly beloved. No other church service starts that way, the minister addressing the congregation as "beloved." The word is on her mother's gravestone: Caroline Rownd, Beloved Wife of Nathan, February 16, 1939-October 19, 2005. Not such a long life.
A solid-looking woman from behind, Lydia Will was wearing a navy dress and jacket. Though she had none of Caroline's willowy grace, she did, Virginia conceded, have fine posture.
Mrs. Swill they used to call her, she and Henny, whispering the name as they moved through the cafeteria line. Her face would be flushed from working in the kitchen all morning, a contrast to the snowy white of her bleached-out aprons. Her hands were rough and red, scratched. Maybe she scraped her knuckles while grating cheese for their lunches. She barely glanced at the children as they came along with their clattery silver trays. A serving spoon in each hand, she dished up watery beef stew and applesauce or chili mac and pineapple chunks. "Disgusting," Virginia and Henny would agree, probing the food with their forks.
Every other Friday, though, was sheet cake day, when Mrs. Will baked her enormous one-layer cakes with chocolate frosting, the sweet chocolate applied so thinly it barely covered the surface. The two girls couldn't get enough of that cake, the way the frosting, so stingy on the top, magically trickled down into the little hollows. They would volunteer to stay in from recess to help scrape the trays and rinse the silverware. As Mrs. Will loaded the dishwasher, the girls swabbed the tables with green, antiseptic-smelling sponges, then turned the benches upside down on top of them and swept up crumbs with two big push brooms.
"It's no mystery why you're being so helpful all of a sudden," Mrs. Will would say, drying her hands on her apron and looking critically at the spotless cafeteria before giving each of them an extra piece of cake wrapped in a paper napkin. They would wolf it down in the hallway before their classmates came in from the playground.
At the words "take this woman," Virginia shifted in the pew, enough to make her father's shoulder twitch. He started to turn his head in her direction, then clasped his hands behind his back. Only a year before, he had stood there reciting a psalm at Caroline's funeral. Not her favorite, as everyone expected, not Psalm 100 with its joyful "Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise." No. Ashen, his hands trembling, he got up and said he was going to read Psalm 137. Virginia didn't know that one, but she remembered how it surprised Uncle Herman, who had come out of retirement and put on his minister's robe one last time. "Ah," her mother's uncle had said, standing aside, bowing his head to listen.
"By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion." Nathan had memorized the text, and he kept his eyes on the back of the church, his voice holding back a river of sorrow. "There on the willow trees we hung up our harps, for there those who carried us off demanded music and singing; and our captors called on us to be merry: 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" He looked down at Virginia, and at her brother, Larry, and then, gripping the sides of the podium with his two hands, he went on. "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither away; let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy." When he sat down beside Virginia again, she was afraid to touch him.
The day after the funeral, Virginia had retrieved the family Bible, its pages spotted with salt spray from the nights their ancestor Thaddeus Rownd had carried it up on deck during his crossing from Blackpool, praying for safe passage. In the light of the kitchen, the pages crisp in her hands, she discovered that her father hadn't recited the entire psalm. He'd left out the last part, about "Babylon the destroyer," the wish that the children of Babylon be dashed against the rocks. It still shocked her, the fierceness of the Old Testament, even though Uncle Herman had led them through it in his days as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Psalm 137 was a strange choice, Virginia and her brother had agreed.
"What has happened to you?" Virginia wanted to shout as her father stood at the altar in his wedding clothes.
Her brother did not come to the wedding. He lived too far away, he said, without embarrassment. When he and his wife and daughters had made the trip from Sioux Falls for Caroline's funeral, it was the first time in several years.
Larry remembered Lydia Will from the school cafeteria and her husband from the service station, but he claimed to have no objection to the marriage. "It's none of our business," he told Virginia on the phone. "He must be lonely, on the farm by himself."
Rob defended Nathan, too, repeating Larry's words. Henny understood. She had also chosen not to come though for her it would have been only a short drive.
The man standing next to Nathan grinned as he fished in his jacket pocket and handed over the gold band. To avoid watching her father put the ring on Lydia's finger, Virginia turned to Randall, brushing invisible lint from his sleeve. He ignored her, absorbed by the scene in front of him. Lydia Rownd. It was a pretty name, actually. Virginia had expected to cry during the ceremony. Instead she felt dry, hollow.
The rest went quickly, and before Virginia had steeled herself for the end, Reverend Gleason was extending his arms as if enfolding the couple before him. "Those whom God has joined together," he intoned, "let no man put asunder." And in the silence that followed, he added, "You can kiss your bride, Nathan."
Flustered for a moment, Nathan glanced at the ceiling, then bent to Lydia's waiting lips.
The organ wheezed, came to life again. Val was playing something Virginia didn't recognize, something happy. As the newlyweds proceeded down the aisle together, there was a perceptible divide on the bride's side, approving smiles, and on the groom's an awkward hesitation. Virginia noticed several people watching her to see how she was taking it, but all she could do was blink at them. Gradually, the church filled with chatter as the guests began to move toward the back to deliver their good wishes. Rooted to her spot in the front, Virginia realized that Rob was waiting for her.
"Go on," she told him. "I'm going to help out with the refreshments."
"I'll come with you," Randall said quickly, turning away from the sanctuary.
At least they had planned a simple reception. No fancy meal, no dancing, just some finger food and punch in the parish hall behind the church. Not even a wedding cake. Virginia's father had upset her the day before, wanting to know if she would bake lemon tarts.
They were a favorite of her mother's, and she couldn't believe he'd asked. She wondered if he was losing his mind.
In the end, she had stayed up late to bake a second batch because she burned the first. It was well past midnight when she poured powdered sugar into a tea strainer, as her mother had taught her, to dust the cooled tarts. Everyone else had gone to bed, scared off by her rage when she flung the three pans of charred pastry against the wall.
She had heaved the baking pans one after the other with all her strength, watching as chunks of blackened crust and sticky filling dropped to the floor, as Rob and Randall appeared in the doorway. They had been in the living room playing gin rummy with her father, entertaining the nervous groom.
"Don't touch it," she warned Randall as he made a move to clean up. They backed out the door quietly, and in a few minutes she heard them calling good night.
Virginia had begun to scrape at the mess with a spatula when she sensed her father nearby. "I'm sorry it didn't work out, Ginny," he said, and then he, too, left her alone.
By the time she had scrubbed down the wall and the floor, washed the baking pans, she was ashamed of herself. So she started over, slicing lemons, squeezing out the juice, measuring flour and sugar and butter. It felt companionable, almost as if she and her mother were working together, preparing a treat for her father. In the day and a half she'd been back at the farm, she hadn't been able to shake the image of Lydia Will everywhere sitting in her mother's chair, fingering the collection of cream pitchers in the dining room cabinet, rearranging things.
With the new batch of lemon tarts in the oven, their citrus fragrance filling the downstairs, Virginia went around turning off lights. She stood at the kitchen window, looking at the chicken house and the barn, the dark shapes silhouetted against the hillside. Her mother had decided one spring to paint the chicken house apple green. She got Larry to show her how to use the jigsaw so she could make curlicue ornaments to hang over the door and the windows. As the final touch, she painted the decorations a dark purple. "A Painted Lady," she'd announced, flushed with pleasure. She had kept it up, changing the colors every few years, claiming her Rhode Island Reds liked the variety. Virginia couldn't guess how many times she had waited at that window, watching as her mother came toward the house with a basket of eggs.
In the parish hall Sissy Harding, her mother's best friend, rushed to embrace her, kissing her on both cheeks. "You dear thing," she said. Then she kissed Randall, who was thirteen and too old for it, on top of the head.
Sissy had skipped the wedding, choosing to tend to the percolator and the punch bowl, arrange and rearrange the plates of sandwiches and cookies. She had garnished the lemon tarts with mint sprigs and placed them in the center of the table.
"Everything looks nice," Virginia assured her as Sissy turned away to wipe her eyes with the hem of her apron.
"I never thought I'd see this day," Sissy said. "I don't understand it."
"They're starting to come in," Randall said and offered to help her with the coffee cups.
About to follow them, Virginia was stopped by a hand on her shoulder.
"The reverend left out the part about 'Speak now or forever hold your peace,' " West Moffat said in her ear. "Why do you suppose he did that?"
"I wouldn't know." She could feel her cheeks grow warm, and she looked down at the tips of his newly polished shoes.
"I thought you might have a word or two on the subject."
Facing him, Virginia was aware of his hand still on her shoulder. He had grown a beard, too, a neatly trimmed beard that, together with his dark suit, made him look settled and reliable.
"Did you get out this morning?" she asked him.
"What do you think?" He took his hand away. "I've got my eye on a ten-pointer, two hundred pounds at least. But this morning my older boys and I were trying to drive a spike horn past my youngest. It's Cody's first season. He says he never saw it, though. Your boy hunt? Kendall?"
"Randall. No, not much deer hunting in suburban Maryland." She spotted West's wife, Theresa, out of the corner of her eye, wearing a slinky dress, showing some cleavage. As Theresa moved closer, West caught her with one arm and drew her in next to him.
"Hey," Theresa said, glancing over Virginia's shoulder.
"I was telling Ginny we should take her boy out hunting. Maybe next year."
When West reached inside his jacket, Virginia noticed he was wearing striped suspenders, which, for some reason, made her want to press her palm against his white shirtfront. He handed her a business card, and the jacket fell closed again.
"Call us next time you come up," he said. "We should get our kids together."
"You think?" Theresa asked, leaning closer to him. "I don't know our boys are pretty wild. Like their father."
"Speaking of which, they're home alone. We should get a bite to eat and head back soon." He paused. "Go ahead, Tess. I'll be right along."
"I haven't seen you since your mother's funeral," he said as his wife moved away. "How are you?"
"It's hard. Every day I think of something I want to tell her." Virginia noticed Sissy watching them from the far side of the room and felt another wave of heat creeping up her neck. "You look good," she told West. "Even with the beard," she added, as if she were joking.
His hand darted out, but he pulled it back at the last second and scratched his neck. "Well, take care of yourself." And then as he started to go, "Hey, how's your sidekick? I thought she might be here."
"Henny? I'm going to stop by and see her after this."
"Tell her hi from me."
The card he'd given Virginia had a rainbow trout in the center, with "Weston Moffat and Sons" printed at the top, and under that, "Trout Farm." Beneath the fish were the address and phone number, also a web address. Another new venture. She vaguely remembered some story about a fallow deer farm that was going well until...what? She would have to ask Henny.
Jere Harding, Sissy's husband, walked up to her, extending his hand. "Let me take your coat," he said. "You look like you're about to run away."
When she finally saw Rob, he was walking between her father and Lydia. Traitor, she thought, trying to assume a neutral expression as the three of them approached. There was only one thing to do, she decided. Nothing had ever felt so peculiar as hugging Lydia Will, though Virginia's arms scarcely touched her and it was over in a second. Lydia no longer smelled of bleach but had some new, flowery scent. Nathan squeezed his daughter hard, then held her at arm's length, looking at her the way he once did when she learned to swim, when she won her first 4-H ribbon. She wanted to tell him not to make too much of it.
"Sissy made her planter's punch," she said instead. "I'll go get you some."
She was filling the little glass cups when she noticed her cousin Carrie standing close by, arm in arm with her new husband, the two of them watching Virginia uncertainly.
"This must be dreadful for you," Carrie whispered and then, in a normal voice, "You remember Gerald, I'm sure."
"I certainly do." Their wedding had created something of a sensation. Not only was Gerald a car salesman but he was a Dibbs to boot a combination that horrified the MacKemson clan and the Rownds, too. Now here they were a year later, trying to suppress their high spirits for Virginia's sake. "Is it my imagination, or are you two up to something?"
"We are," Carrie agreed, placing her hands flat on her stomach so Virginia would notice the swelling beneath them. "And in another three months and twenty-four days, or thereabouts, there will be a new Dibbs in the world. A boy. I saw it on the ultrasound."
Gerald was taller than Virginia remembered, with a friendly, youthful face. "We're trying to find a name we both like," he told her. "One of my cousins has been called Baby her whole life because her parents couldn't decide between Lillian and Joyce. 'Baby Dibbs' it says on her birth certificate."
"I've never been crazy about being named after a state myself."
"Oh, but Virginia is so beautiful," Carrie said. "Wasn't it your great-grandmother's name?"
"Yes, and her mother's and her great-aunt's. Quite a few Virginia Rownds."
"But none like you," Carrie insisted. "How long are you staying?"
"Just until tomorrow afternoon."
"Stop by and see us," Gerald said. "We're still out on Blaze Hollow Road."
They moved down the table, filling one plate between them. Though Carrie was a close relative, she had grown up in Philadelphia, and Virginia never got to know her well. She did meet the first husband a couple of times, a good-looking but sour fellow in whose company Carrie seemed to fade. It was brave of her to marry Gerald, Virginia considered, with the family so dead set against him. The irony of that sentiment didn't escape her. But her father's situation was completely different.
As Virginia set off, balancing two cups of punch in each hand, the sight of Reverend Gleason clapping her father on the back stopped her. The wedding was his fault. It would never have happened, Virginia was certain, if he hadn't started meddling. She could imagine his idiotic delight when the idea first occurred to him. A widow and a widower in his congregation, about the same age. Let's invite them over for dinner, honey. So what if it's not a match made in heaven? It's the next best thing.
Rob appeared in front of Virginia, reaching for the punch. "What is it? You look as if you're about to faint."
"It's that man, Gleason. I won't speak to him."
She started looking for Sissy and Randall, nodding absently at the guests who greeted her before she found them in the kitchen. They had begun washing up already, Sissy wearing an oversize pair of rubber gloves. Randall had slipped out of his sport coat and tied a dish towel around his waist.
"I'm here to help," she announced.
"There aren't that many dishes yet," Sissy said, swirling a cup in the soapy water. "Really, I wish I still smoked."
Randall looked at her. "You used to smoke?"
"Not that much," she assured him. "Now and then, with Henny."
"Everyone smoked," Sissy said. "We weren't as smart as your generation."
"I wouldn't mind going outside and having a few puffs right now," Virginia admitted.
"Maybe Theresa Moffat has a pack in her purse," Sissy said. "Why don't you go ask her?"
"Very funny." Virginia leaned against the counter, stifling a sigh. "Randall, have you said anything to your grandfather yet?"
"Not since breakfast."
"Do this, will you? Shake hands with them and say 'congratulations.' Otherwise, you're going to feel sorry later on."
"She's right," Sissy agreed. "You don't need to say you're happy for them."
"Why did you say 'funny' about Theresa Moffat and the cigarettes?" he asked his mother, stalling.
"I don't know." She untied the towel from his waist. "It's just that I used to go out with West. When we were in high school."
"Really?" Randall stood in the doorway to get a better look at him.
West was talking with four other men, one arm draped around Theresa's neck. Virginia knew they were discussing deer where they were bedding down, what browse they preferred, whether they were moving north or south. West looked up and smiled.
"Huh," Randall said. "I wouldn't have picked him."
"He's learned a lot about you in the last five minutes," Sissy remarked as Randall crossed the room toward his grandfather.
Randall looked especially spruce that day, his hair trimmed short, his shirt and tie still crisp. At the last minute, he turned to look back at them and squared his shoulders.
"He's more like Rob every time I see him," Sissy said.
"He certainly tries." Virginia was touched by Randall's narrow waist, the way his pants hung on his hips because he had forgotten to bring a belt. "But he's got a sweetness all his own."
"Your father's that way. Gentle for a man." She watched Randall offering his hand to Lydia. "I expect that's what got him into this."
"There must be eighty people here," Virginia said to Sissy. She didn't know why she mentioned it, except that she was thinking it looked like a normal reception, the older women sitting together in one corner on metal folding chairs, drinking their coffee black, the children starting to get rambunctious. She saw the boy in combat boots toss a piece of cookie in the air and catch it in his mouth, and two or three younger children trying to imitate him. Here and there, the bride's guests and the groom's guests were striking up conversations. The parish hall a long, narrow room with the kitchen at one end looked the way it had for forty years, the worn linoleum floor, the brown veins in the acoustic ceiling tiles where the roof used to leak, the folding tables covered with embossed white paper cloths. Those tables pinched your fingers if you weren't careful when you put them away.
"Would you be mad at me if I slipped out?" she asked Sissy, drying the few cups in the dish drainer and setting them on the counter. "I don't want to abandon you here, but I have a powerful urge to see Henny."
"When did you see her last?" Sissy peeled off the big yellow gloves and draped them over the edge of the sink, looked at her fingernails. Henny was her sister's only daughter.
"Not since August, when we came up for Dad's birthday."
"Henny's not doing too well." Sissy lowered her voice, although no one else was nearby. "You'll notice a difference."
Copyright © 2007 by Catherine Tudish
Meet the Author
Catherine Tudish is the author of the acclaimed short story collection Tenney's Landing. Tudish taught writing and literature at Harvard for eight years before moving to Vermont to work as a journalist and fiction writer. She now teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and Dartmouth College.
- Strafford, Vermont
- Date of Birth:
- August 3, 1952
- Place of Birth:
- Waynesburg, Pennsylvania
- B.A., Southern Illinois University, 1973; Ph.D., St. Louis University, 1979
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