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A compassionate and engaging writer, O'Brien uses the biographer's methods to understand her family history, weaving the scattered pieces of the past—her mother's memo books, her father's reading journal, family photographs, tombstones, dance cards, hospital records, the family silver—into a compelling narrative. In the lives of her Irish-American relatives she finds that the American values of upward mobility, progress, and the pressure to achieve sparked both desire and depression, following her family through generations, across the sea, from the Irish famine of the 1840s to Harvard Yard in the late 1960s.
"Many people who write stories of depression or other chronic illnesses tell tales of recovery in the upward-mobility sense, the 'once I was ill, but now I am well' formula that we may find appealing, but doesn't match the messiness of our lives," she writes. "Mine is not such a tale. But it is a recovery tale in another sense—a story of salvage, of rescuing stories from silence." Told with humor and honesty, O'Brien's story will captivate all readers who want to know how they, and their families, have been shaped by the past.
I have grown up in the shadow of Harvard Yard. -my letter of application to Radcliffe College
A few days after arriving in Cambridge I set out to walk to Harvard Square to get my Harvard identification card, which will allow me to use the libraries. A helpful colleague in Harvard's English department has secured my appointment as a "Visiting Scholar," a status I will share with a woman from Poland researching metaphysical poetry and a shy man from Japan who is working on Mark Twain. I am grateful for my connection to the university, tenuous as it is. I hope it will give me more than a library card-perhaps some scrap of belonging.
I walk slowly down Saville Street to Concord Avenue, trying to control my anxiety through breathing, and go past the Radcliffe Institute, a combination of retreat and think tank for women scholars. It's a hot, sunny July day, and three women in bright sleeveless summer dresses are eating lunch at a picnic table, right near the fence, talking animatedly. I watch them longingly. I want to be on their side of the fence. These women belong to a community, and they also have a status identifier at Harvard. I'm jealous of both. "Oh, I'm at the Radcliffe Institute this year," they can say when they meet people at receptions and cocktail parties, which I imagine them attending with casual regularity. I'd applied to the Institute to write my book and was rejected.
I'm having an attack of the poor me's. ("Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink," my sister and her AA buddies say.) I continue my walk.
I arrive at Holyoke Center, the glass-and-steel office building that houses the Health Center and the Infirmary-where I spent a day and a night after I skidded on wet leaves and crashed my motorcycle my senior year at Radcliffe-as well as the Financial and Business Offices and, I hope, my ID card.
"You're not in the system yet," the man in the Business Office says. Tell me about it, I think.
"Do you know when I'll be in the system?"
"Check back in a few days."
I walk back to Saville Street, too agitated to stay around the Square. I hurry past the Radcliffe Institute and then I'm out of Harvard's reach, into Huron Village, and my walk becomes more part of Cambridge. I go past St. Joseph's Catholic Church, a corner grocery, a branch of the Cambridge library, a stained-glass studio, dry cleaners, and my corner store, a Japanese lunch place specializing in sushi and ice cream. Then I round the corner onto Saville Street, walking past the kids on their skateboards, and go home, waiting to be in the system.
My father's Harvard diploma hung on the wall in my parents' bedroom, right over the bureau. Whenever I was snooping around their room as a kid, I'd always stop and look at it.
Right below Universitas Harvardiana, Cantabrigiae in republica Massachusettensium was my father's name, elevated and strange in Latin and Gothic script.
I remember noticing that "O'Brien" was the only word Harvard hadn't been able to Latinize; evidently it was just too Irish to be transformed into something grand.
After my father had recovered from depression and gone back to work, he spent most of his time sitting at the card table he positioned in front of the bedroom window, next to the rusty green file cabinet given him by his brother Ray. I remember him sitting at his card table after dinner, pecking away on his Smith-Corona, the reassuring rat-a-tat-tat of the typewriter echoing in the quiet house. There he typed his business letters, soliciting work and following up on his calls; filed his onion-skin carbon copies; planned his sales trips, trying to make at least one coincide with the New England foliage. That way he could take along his binoculars and go for a ramble late on a sunny autumn day down some Vermont back road, The Field Guide to the Birds in his back pocket-his modest idea of heaven.
His bout with depression had required my father to make a bargain: sacrificing status and a high-paying job for work he could control. He knew, I think, that he'd be at risk for another breakdown if he tried to get back into the corporate world, and he was at peace with his decision.
My father's office equipment, the rickety card table, was an old hand-me-down covered with children's pencil scrawls. It was a cramped, inadequate place to work; he would have to spread his paperwork out on the bed and the floor. The card table shows my father making do with what he'd been given, learning to live with lowered expectations for his professional life, and doing so with grace. I wonder if its penciled surface also says something else: that he never found a big enough place in the world, or a way to express his gifts fully? Men need rooms of their own no less than women, and my father never had one. Even when Kevin and I moved out, leaving my parents with more disposable income and with vacant bedrooms that could have become offices, he stayed in the bedroom, working away at his card table.
What could not be taken away was his Harvard diploma. This made him exceptional, and also gave the whole family distinction. There was a particular thrill in living as close to Harvard as we did-our Belmont house was about five miles away-and when we'd drop in at Harvard Square for a family outing, perhaps for a movie at the University Theater (the "Unie") or a Sunday lunch at St. Clair's, Dad would take us for a walk through the Yard, pointing out the sights-Massachusetts Hall, Widener, John Harvard's statue-and I would be awed that he could belong to such a great university.
Unlike my mother, my father never told family stories. None of us can remember any tale told about our O'Brien grandparents, sitting around the dining room table on a Sunday afternoon. My father's stories were not about his family but about his magical days at Harvard in the 1920s when he took English courses from legendary figures like Charles Townsend Copeland and George Lyman Kittredge. My favorite was the one about the D-double-minus he got from Kittredge.
"Tell the one about the D-double-minus," one of us would say, and my father would lean back in his chair and begin.
"Well, first of all, I was a cocky son of a gun-I'd just transferred in from Holy Cross, where I'd gotten all A's, and I thought I would do well here. And I studied and studied for Kittredge's exam, I assure you, and I thought I'd done brilliantly on it. Then Kittredge called me into his office, and said, 'Mr. O'Brien, sit down. I have never been required to give a D-double-minus before, but your examination has called this out of me. What is your explanation?' I told him I didn't know what had happened. I had studied the material thoroughly. I knew it cold. 'Aha, Mr. O'Brien,' he said, 'you indeed have studied, but did you think?'"
At this point in the story my father would always laugh. "Think?" he would say, amused by his youthful ignorance. "I had no idea what the man meant. No idea at all."
I never tired of hearing it. I liked knowing that my father, who'd graduated magna cum laude in literature, had once gotten a D-double-minus from the great Kittredge. The story made him human and fallible. But it also gave him a heroic glow in my eyes, for it meant that my father had learned how to think, and now knew what Kittredge meant about the difference between studying and thinking, which I didn't grasp at all.
When I was in graduate school at Harvard I would meet my father for lunch every couple of months at Ferdinand's, a long-vanished French restaurant on Mt. Auburn Street. When I got there-always a few minutes late-he'd be at his reserved table, reading-maybe a Civil War history, maybe a Dickens novel. Sometimes we'd get the table in the window, our favorite, and we'd sit there in the midwinter sun, perhaps sipping a glass of wine and ordering omelettes, glasses sparkling in the sunlight, talking about writers and books-by then I was immersed in Willa Cather, a writer my father loved for her Catholic themes.
At the end of lunch I'd hand over some of the books he'd requested from Widener-one of them, I remember, was The Life of Archbishop Lamy, the clerical biography that had sparked Cather to write Death Comes for the Archbishop-and he'd give me a couple to take back. The waitress would bring the check. By then money was not the terrifying lack in my father's life it had once been, although from long habit he would scrutinize the bill carefully. "This one's on me," he'd say, and I'd enjoy having my father treat me to lunch. Then we'd walk out into the winter light together, me off to the library, my dad off to the Co-op bookstore "just for a browse."
I'm trying again to get my Harvard ID card. I walk into Harvard Square by my usual route down Concord Ave and Garden Street, passing the spa where I buy the Globe and talk about the weather and the Red Sox (in first place at the moment, tormenting us with midsummer hope), then passing the Radcliffe Institute. I try not to stare at a group of women picnicking on the grass-could it be the same ones?-and tell myself that it's really much better that I'm on my own. After all, Thoreau didn't have a think-tank at Walden, did he? Willa Cather doesn't send her artist-heroine Thea off to an artists' colony for her spiritual and creative transformation, does she? No, she sends her off-alone-to the Southwest.
I pass the Harvard Registrar's office where my father's college file is kept, packed away in some dusty basement with the other records of long-ago Harvard men. Then through the Cambridge Common, going past the new statue to the Irish Famine, and my favorite route through Harvard Yard, the one that lets you enter right next to Harvard Hall where I took my Master's written examination in 1970 and tried to fake my way through a translation of Havelock the Dane.
The anxiety that's accompanied me everywhere for my first month here nudges its way into my consciousness, penetrating my "All will be well" mantra with its usual doubting questions. This anxiety's view of the world is really deplorable: it doesn't trust anything; all it can see are promises made to be broken, commitments forgotten, stony, indifferent people. "What if the paperwork hasn't been done?" the niggling voice says. "What if nobody's ever heard of you? What if you'll never be in the system?"
"All will be well," I breathe as I walk into Holyoke Center and wait for the elevator. I get off at the fourth floor and go over to the window that says "Harvard Identification-Faculty and Guests." It's the same man behind the counter. He asks for my social security number, taps it into the computer, then asks "Sharon O'Brien?" It feels as if the keel of the boat has just scraped the shore. Social security, I now know what that really means. He takes my picture, and I know I look bad: flyaway hair, eyes glinting a little maniacally, forced smile that shows the age lines I try to hide.
"I could take it over," the man says tactfully as we look at the computer screen together, but I say no, it's okay. In a few minutes I'm given my shiny plastic maroon and white card with this slightly dotty middle-aged woman staring out at me, but at least it has my name on it, and they've got the O-apostrophe right. I now have a Harvard ID number. My validation will last until 6/30/97.
Holyoke Center is a familiar place. When I was in graduate school, I had a cubicle office on the fifth floor where I held tutorials. I remember guiding undergraduates through senior theses on Norman Mailer, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Henry James, and Hollywood in film.
My favorite tutee was the Hollywood-in-film writer, a scrawny senior living in Dunster House known as "Mouse." Mouse was convinced he'd never finish his thesis-he was a B student, and he thought he might be overreaching by going for honors. "Plus," he said, "you have to know this about me, I always turn in papers late, so I'm worried I'll never make the deadline." The deadline for honors thesis was infamous: you had to have your thesis, all bound and scrubbed, to Warren House by 5:00 on the due date-or the door would be locked and the thesis unacceptable. No extensions. "So do you want to go for it?" I asked. "I think you can do it." "Okay," he said. "I'll give it a shot."
I kept teasing him and bugging him and told him right up front that we were going to employ behavior therapy to get him through. Mouse was a beer aficionado and I told him that he had to write two pages a day before he could reward himself with a beer. Intrigued, he agreed to try this method. I made him sign a pledge. I promise my tutor that I will write two pages every day and will drink not even one sip of beer until I have done so. Signed, this 2nd day of February 1973, Mouse. After Mouse turned in his thesis at ten minutes to five (he would graduate cum laude in English) he and his roommate took me to Charlie's Kitchen and treated me to a cheeseburger, fries, and a pitcher of beer. It was one of the few times I remember in grad school when I thought that maybe, after all, I was in the right business.
I keep persuading myself that I've entered some spiritual zone where the worldly values no longer matter, but I get exposed here for the fraud I am. I feel obscure in Cambridge, unfamous, invisible. Partly it's sheer wounded narcissism, but even more it's the feeling that without a real role or identity here, I don't exist. It's being on the fringes of Harvard without a real place to be that's tough-close enough to see everyone at home in a place where I used to belong. I find myself getting that feeling of littleness I used to have as a grad student, like when I was telling a professor which of my friends had just gotten jobs-"Amy got hired at Williams, and Susan at Smith"-and he interrupted me and said "No, no, how are the men doing?" Now Harvard has several important feminist professors, and no one would ever say, of graduate students, "How are the men doing?"
I email a couple of famous Harvard scholars. I hope they'll be free for lunch or a drink. "Just too busy this semester." "Let's definitely get in touch in the spring." I understand. They're busy, and they don't know me personally, and they have lives. "Maybe you're not well-known enough to show up on their radar screen," the niggling voice says. "You're only a one-book person. You're not hot anymore."
I try to quash the voice, but it's hard to cope with the hierarchies at Harvard, the lists of who counts and who doesn't. I count at Dickinson but here I don't count. I have to get over letting that bother me and be a Buddhist about all this-but I'm not and it does.
By the early fall I have found two Harvard buddies: Lynn and Bill are my friends and mentors. They're both assistant professors, on the other side of the status line, and they're sweet and generous. We have fun hanging out together.
Excerpted from The Family Silver by Sharon O'Brien Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 26, 2004
This absolutely original take on family and rememberance is a must have. O'Brien writes from the heart and shares with her readers a story about understanding, longing, and hope. Themes we all can relate to.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.