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The Tender Land: A Family Love Story

The Tender Land: A Family Love Story

4.2 6
by Kathleen Finneran

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A superb portrait of family life, THE TENDER LAND is a love story unlike any other. The Finnerans -- parents and five children, Irish Catholics in St. Louis -- are a seemingly unexceptional family. Theirs is a story seldom told, yet it makes manifest how rich and truly extraordinary the ordinary daily experience we take for granted is. In quietly luminous language


A superb portrait of family life, THE TENDER LAND is a love story unlike any other. The Finnerans -- parents and five children, Irish Catholics in St. Louis -- are a seemingly unexceptional family. Theirs is a story seldom told, yet it makes manifest how rich and truly extraordinary the ordinary daily experience we take for granted is. In quietly luminous language, Kathleen Finneran renders the emotional, spiritual, and physical terrain of family life -- its closeness and disconnection, its intimacy and estrangement--and pays tribute to the love between parents and children, brothers and sisters.
Ultimately, it is this love that sustains the Finnerans, for at the heart of THE TENDER LAND lies a catastrophic event: the suicide at fifteen of the author's younger brother after a public humiliation in junior high school. A gentle, handsome boy, Sean was a straight-A student and gifted athlete, especially treasured by every member of his family. Masterfully, the book interweaves past and present, showing how inseparable they are, and how the long accumulation of love and memory helps the Finnerans survive their terrible loss.
THE TENDER LAND is a testament to the always complicated ways in which we love one another. In the end, the Finnerans are a family much like the reader's own: like every other family, like no other family.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The Tender Land is a strikingly original, formally dazzling family mystery. I've read very few contemporary novels that can rival Finneran's nonfiction. She's totally got the chops." --Jonathan Franzen
USA Today
...a penetrating account of family life that promises to give readers insight into their own relationships.
St. Louis Dispatch
...like life itself, this memoir evokes both sadness and joy.
Tom Deignan
The heart of this equally tough and tender book is the suicide of the author's gifted brother at the age of 15. Sean Finnernan was handsome, athletic and a straight-A student, seemingly on his way to a vibrant life. But the Finnernan family must deal with this tragedy, and one of The Tender Land's great strengths is its exploration of family life, and its evocation of the simple, day-to-day things that make parents and siblings both insufferable and invaluable. Finnernan also does not give in to the temptation, as many memoirists do, to dwell on the miserable.
Irish America
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Unforgettable in its restraint and quiet beauty, Finneran's debut memoir lovingly reveals her family's tragic history and her own painful coming of age. Born in the late 1950s into an Irish Catholic family, she and her four siblings had a comfortable life in suburban St. Louis, thanks to her mother's thrifty management and her father's success as a salesman. But depression and suicide ran in the family and the question of what caused her youngest brother Sean's suicide when he was 15 permeates the book as much as it has haunted the Finnerans--Kathleen was also disposed to depression and another sister tried to overdose at age 28. As a self-conscious, overweight child, the author at times felt ignored by her parents. Nonetheless, at a young age she understood the need to protect her mother from sorrow, so she "made up stories." Sadly for the author, her first sexual experience coincided with the night Sean died, making sex and death forever inextricable for her. She found comfort with a woman lover who was her best friend, despite her mother's cautious warning about being "different." Readers will relish Finneran's skill in capturing her characters. "My mother," she writes, "ends each day this way, dusting in the dark, and in the morning, as soon as she wakes, she dusts again, in daylight." To Sean's suicide note, which disclosed teenage loneliness and disappointments, Finneran offers an exquisite counterpoint in the form of this love letter. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Finneran, the middle child in an Irish Catholic family residing in St. Louis, presents a loving portrait of her family. Nine years separate Finneran from her next youngest sibling, Sean. Finneran transports the reader to various points in her family history, moving effortlessly between years and related events in clear and detailed writing. The Finnerans exist as a loving yet unremarkable family until Sean's suicide at age 15. Finneran's portraits of Sean, her other siblings, her parents, and herself in the wake of Sean's death are notable for their honesty and emotion. She details her own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts while trying desperately to shoulder the burden of her brother's sudden death. The result is an absorbing and thoughtful memoir and an outstanding first book. Highly recommended.--Dianna White, OCLC/WLN Pacific Northwest Svc. Ctr., Lacey, WA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
...eloquent and moving.
The Advocate
Finneran is a master storyteller whose intelligence shines thorough her prose and whose prose shines with an incandescent, tightly controlled passion. — Out Magazine
Beth Kephart
There always was an extraordinary love between Finneran and her younger brother, Sean. When he kills himself at the age of fifteen, nothing will ever again be as it was, no Finneran will ever stand apart from the knowledge of Sean's absence. Who was this gentle, intelligent, magnificently loving boy? What compelled him to swallow a deadly dose of his father's heart pills, considerately setting enough aside to hold his father over until the prescription could be refilled? Could anyone in the family have guessed at his sadness, have seen the quake of desperation coming, kept him alive? Is there any knowing what must be known to stop a suicide? Many years later, with subtlety and grace and a heartbreaking compassion for the truth, Finneran sits down to search for the answers, to honor her family, to speak to her brother on the page. In the way that Alice McDermott settles her readers into the tragic, mysterious hush of Catholic families, Finneran yields an exquisite portrait of the things that sustain one large, religious family before and after an unbearable loss. Her sincerity, her patience, her quest to tell this story demand a careful, sensitive read, a setting aside of all common judgments so that Sean can, in these pages, live again

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

The Evidence of Angels
To those who have seen The Child, however dimly,
however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time
of all.
- W. H. Auden
My mother believes she gave birth to an angel. She told me so when I
stopped by one day for lunch, and though we have never discussed it,
I imagine she told Michael, Mary, and Kelly just as matter-of-
factly. "I think there was a reason he was only here for a short
time," she said. "I think he was an angel sent to save someone."

My father was sitting across from me at the kitchen table.
From merely looking at his face, I can usually tell exactly what he
is thinking, especially if anything has been said that either of us
might consider questionable. He has communicated silently with me
since I was a child, staring at me from across a room or in the
rearview mirror of the car until I look up to see what he wants to
tell me. It is an unspoken language of astonishment, criticism, and
condemnation. It has always kept us close.
The first time my father communicated with me this way I was
five. He had picked me up from kindergarten. Usually my mother picked
me up, but it was a beautiful fall day, and even though he was still
in the construction business, and good weather was a commodity, my
father was splendidly carefree sometimes, coming home early and
taking us on long drives to undisclosed destinations, special places
he wanted to show us. But before we could go to wherever we were
going that day, we had to drop off a boy in my class. His mother
drove us to school and mine drove us home. When he saw that my father
had come instead, the boy ran for the front seat, where I usually
sat, so I climbed in back and sat behind my father. As he started the
car, my father looked at me in the rearview mirror as if to say he
recognized what the boy had done, usurping the seat that should have
been mine. When we got to his house, the boy told my father to pull
all the way up to the top of the driveway, as close to the front door
as he could. "Closer. A little closer," the boy said. It was
something my mother did every day without direction, the boy having
instructed her the first time we took him home. He hated to walk any
farther than he had to. Now the boy sat up high in the front seat to
see out past the hood of the car, saying, "Just a few more feet." My
father looked at me in the rearview mirror again. "Here is a real
baby," his eyes said. I felt privileged then, and I didn't fight for
the front seat later that day, as I usually did when we picked up
Michael and Mary from North American Martyrs, the school I would go
to the following year when I started first grade. Instead, I stayed
in the back to watch in the rearview mirror for anything else my
father might want to tell me.
It was almost twenty years later, and many words had passed
unspoken between us by the time my mother revealed her belief that my
younger brother, Sean, was an angel. It was a few weeks after Sean's
death, and she spoke with such certainty and composure that I longed
for my father to look at me and let me know what he was thinking. But
he kept his eyes cast toward the table and continued to eat his
sandwich without the slightest reaction, leaving me to wonder whether
my mother's assessment of Sean's life and death was something he had
already accepted, maybe even agreed with. He was unwilling to look at
me, to meet my eyes in a way that might trivialize my mother's faith.
Or perhaps the possibility of what she said consoled him, as it must
have consoled my mother. Maybe the trauma of losing their fifteen-
year-old son was lessened by believing his life was more than it
might have been. Maybe faith has that effect.
My mother's faith has always been a natural, constant, almost
practical part of our household. Her days begin and end in prayer.
Each morning she sits in the living room with a large glass of
instant iced tea and roams page by page through her prayer book,
offering up her prayers for the living, her hopes for the dead. It is
a time of privacy, but one she conducts in plain view, fielding her
family's early morning inquiries calmly and quietly without ever
looking up. When I still lived at home - as a child, as a teenager,
and even as a young adult - I used to take my cereal into the living
room, sit cross-legged on the couch across from my mother's chair,
and eat my breakfast while she prayed. I never spoke and she never
acknowledged me, until, having finished my cereal, I would get up to
leave and she would hold her glass of tea toward me, asking if I'd
mind adding more ice. It was a ritual. It was a way to participate,
if only peripherally, in my mother's routine.
I don't have the same kind of faith as my mother, and as I
sat there that day eating lunch with my parents, I turned her belief
about Sean into something more like metaphor, though I knew that was
not how she meant it. To her, Sean was not merely angelic; he was an
actual angel. And I knew if I asked the obvious question - which of
us was he sent here to save - she would have many answers. Maybe it
wasn't just one of us. Maybe it was all of us. Or maybe it was
someone we never even knew.
After we finished lunch, my mother got up and stood at the
sink, staring out the kitchen window.
"Tom, the bird feeders are almost empty," she said to my
father, and, turning to me, "We had a cardinal come this morning. I
saw him sitting on the back fence when I woke up, and then he kept
coming closer until he was right here on the windowsill. It's such a
thrill to see that red in winter."
Above the kitchen window, a placard painted with flowers
read, "What you are is God's gift to you. What you make of yourself
is your gift to God." One of the many aphorisms that could be found
hanging in our house, it was painted to look like a cross-stitch
sampler and reminded me of the prayers my mother embroidered that
hung above the bed Mary and I shared when we were little. One of the
prayers - "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to
keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to
take" - confused me. I didn't understand the word keep in terms of
preservation. To me, it meant possession, permanent or otherwise. It
meant asking my mother "Can we keep it?" whenever a stray animal
wandered into our yard. It meant our neighbors keeping our goldfish
while we were on vacation. Saying the prayer, I thought we were
asking God to hold on to our souls - to keep them - while we slept,
and I imagined God gathering them up every night and storing them
somewhere, a large warehouse of souls being guarded until we got up
again. And this is why I was confused: If God was already keeping our
souls during the night, which we had prayed for him to do in the
first place, it didn't make sense to ask him - if we died - to take
what he already had. When I asked my mother about this, I wasn't able
to explain my confusion clearly, and feeling frustrated by this
inability, I kept my other questions to myself. How did God know what
time we were going to wake up? I wondered. Did our souls come back
automatically as soon as our eyes opened? What if my soul got mixed
up with Mary's? Sometimes I woke up on her side of the bed and she
woke up on mine, with no memory of how it happened. Did God have a
system to keep track of such stuff?
As a child, saying that prayer every night, lying in bed
below the sampler my mother had stitched, I never considered the
possibility that any of us would die in our sleep. Just as I never
thought it would happen when, if Michael, Mary, and I had been
fighting, my mother made us apologize before we went to bed, telling
us we would feel bad forever if one of us died during the night and
we never got the chance to say we were sorry. But now it had
happened, and I knew, too well, what my mother meant. Sean hadn't
died in his sleep, but his death was sudden. None of us thought one
day that he would not be here the next. And though we had no quarrels
with him that had gone unforgiven, it didn't matter. He had killed
himself. For the rest of us, there could be no greater guilt. We had
not seen his pain, and for that we would always be sorry.
My father went outside to fill the bird feeders. Watching
him, my mother tapped on the window and pointed toward the fence. The
cardinal had come back. "Come see," she told me. The cardinal flew
closer to my father and followed him as he finished filling the
feeders. It was the food, of course, that the cardinal was following,
but when my father came back into the house, the cardinal, instead of
perching on one of the feeders, sat on the empty birdbath and stared
at the kitchen window as if it were waiting for someone to come out
again, and then it flew up and stood on the windowsill, as it had
when my mother saw it that morning, and looked at us through the
"Hi, pretty bird," my mother cooed. "Hi, pretty boy." We had
been watching the cardinal for only a few minutes when Kelly came
home. The youngest of us, she was twelve and still in grade school
when Sean died. I was twenty-four, Mary and Michael two and four
years older.
Kelly threw her coat on a chair and her books on the
table. "What are you looking at?" she asked.
"A cardinal," my mother answered.
"What's the big deal about a cardinal?" Kelly went to the
refrigerator and got out the milk and then pushed herself between us
at the window. She was the only child now of what my mother referred
to as her second family, Sean and Kelly born so many years after
Michael, Mary, and me. She looked at the cardinal, then turned to my
mother. "Don't even try to say that's Sean," she said, and seeing a
smile on my mother's face, my father and I started laughing.
"I mean it," Kelly said. She was blunt about everything,
including my mother's beliefs, and I imagined her rolling her eyes at
the idea of Sean as an angel. "Yeah, right," she'd say, ready to tell
us all the ways he wasn't.
When my mother went out to sprinkle some seeds on the
windowsill, I thought the cardinal would fly away, but it didn't. My
mother said something to it and then she came back in and stood at
the kitchen sink again, watching it through the window. "What's
wrong, little guy?" she asked. "Aren't you hungry?" The cardinal
looked at her for a few minutes and then flew off to the telephone
wire, the tree, and out of the yard altogether. "Goodbye, little
guy," my mother said. "Goodbye, pretty red bird."
As I stood there with her, watching nothing now, I thought
about how much she and Sean sounded like each other. They both talked
easily and openly to animals, using the same tone of voice, sometimes
even the same words. "Goodbye, little guy," my mother called out to
the cardinal. "Go on, little guy, you're free now," I had once heard
Sean say to a frog. We had been riding our bikes on the river road
that runs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi, just north of
where we lived in the suburbs of St. Louis. It was a Saturday near
the end of October, a few weeks after Sean's fifteenth birthday, and
we had planned a longer ride than the one we usually took to the
Brussels Ferry and back. This time, instead of touching the ferry
sign and turning around, we would board the Brussels Ferry with our
bikes, ride up the other side of the river to a ferry farther north,
cross, and come back down. Sean hoped to reach the town of
Hamburg. "Brussels and Hamburg in the same day," he said. It was his
dream to ride to all the towns in Missouri and Illinois with European
names. Florence, Rome, and Athens. Frankfurt, Strasbourg, Vienna,
"We'll pass through Batchtown and Nutwood, too," he told me.
He had drawn a map and slipped it into the plastic sleeve of his
handlebar bag. Batchtown and Nutwood meant as much to him as Brussels
and Hamburg. It was the names of places that he loved.
After the first few miles, Sean's map was already unreadable.
It was the same with every map he made, drawn meticulously and sized
to slip into the special handlebar bag he had bought to hold his maps
in place so that he could read them while he rode. We never got very
far before they were obscured by things he saw and stopped for, rocks
and wildflowers mostly, leaves and weeds and sometimes money. This
time it was two giant fern fronds full of spores and some tiny orange
flowers that were blooming beside them. He planned to scrape the
spores off the ferns and look at them under his microscope. The
flowers? They were pretty.
"Did you know that people used to think that carrying fern
spores could make you invisible?" he said.
We were passing all our favorite places - the house with the
word PIES painted on the porch rail, the fish-fry stand where we
always stopped for soda. We were on a mission: Hamburg or bust.
"When was that?" I asked.
"I can't remember. The Middle Ages maybe. I read it
"You mean like they'd put the spores in their pocket or
something and then think they were invisible? Couldn't they see
themselves? Even if there weren't mirrors, they could still see their
"Maybe they became invisible to other people but not to
"Either way, it doesn't make much sense."
"Your gears are slipping," he said.
"Only the low ones."
"How can you stand riding that way?" he wondered.
When we reached the small park where we always stopped for
lunch, we walked our bikes across the grass to a picnic table that
stood beneath a tree beside the river.
"Table, tree, trash can," Sean said. "This would be a good
place to teach Sarah the letter t."
"You're teaching Sarah the alphabet already?"
"No, but someday I will be," he said. Mary's daughter, Sarah,
was four months old and not much time went by that Sean wasn't
talking about her. He took his unclehood seriously, riding his bike
to Mary's nearly every day to see her and supplying us with daily
updates on what she was doing. "Table, tree, trash can" was the kind
of thing he said a lot during those days, as if he had altered the
way he experienced the world, or his expression of it, to meet the
needs of his newborn niece. One of the things she needed most, he
decided, was to know the name of everything she encountered. "School
bus, Sarah," he would say as he pushed her in her stroller. "Car,
Sarah. Stop sign. Sprinkler, Sarah. Kitty. C'mere, kitty," he would
say. We had all grown used to his stopping midsentence to name
something whenever she was with us. "Home, Sarah," I heard him say
once when they returned from a walk. "Home, Sarah," he whispered as
he lifted her, sleeping, out of her stroller.
He was already looking forward to the time when she would
talk. "What do you want to tell me?" he would ask her, and she would
kick her legs a little, fix her eyes on him, and smile. "Do you want
to tell me about your duckie?" he would ask, waving it in front of
her face, and he would rock and talk, taking both their parts, asking
her questions and answering them for her.
"I wonder what her first word will be," he would say
sometimes, but he would be dead before she said it. "Door," she would
say one day, watching us walk through it. "Door," she would tell us
again as we kissed her goodbye.
Table, tree, trash can. It was a spare assessment of the
surroundings, but it was accurate. There was not much else around.
"River, clouds, sky," Sean said, and he looked at me and
"Boy, bike, bird. Snap out of it," I said.
He squinted toward the sky, then touched my arm. "Where's the
bird?" he asked.
When we reached the picnic table, he threw down his bike. "Oh
no! Oh God!" he screamed, and he started to cry.
Near the center of the table, a frog was stuck in a pink
mound of bubble gum. If it had struggled to free itself, it had given
up, and it sat there panting, its body expanding and contracting so
fiercely it looked as if it would soon explode. A brown river frog,
it had turned gray.
"Somebody did that to him," Sean cried. He took a cup out of
his bag. "Go get some water from the river," he said, and when I
returned, he was stroking the frog's back with his finger as he
worked his pocketknife under the gum. He stuck his finger in the
water and then ran it, wet, over the frog's back. "Do that," he told
me, and then he began digging deep below the wad of gum, almost into
the wood of the table, to keep from cutting the frog. He had stopped
crying, but his eyes and face were wet with tears.
"Maybe he just jumped into it," I said.
"No. Somebody did it to him. Some fucking asshole," he said.
I had never heard him talk like that.
"How do you know?"
"Because frogs have strong legs. If he jumped on this, he
could jump out of it. He might take some gum with him, but he
wouldn't get stuck."
He paused for a moment to wipe his face on his sleeve, and
then he pointed his knife at an indentation where the frog's front
feet were stuck. "See?" he said. The same mark - the size of a
thumbprint - encircled the back feet. "Someone held him down. Real
funny," he said.
He freed the wad of gum from the table and lifted the frog.
The gum looked like a small pink pond beneath the frog's body. It
reminded me of a ceramic figurine my mother had on her dresser of a
little bird swimming on a puddle of blue porcelain.
The frog seemed less frightened. Its heart was beating more
slowly and its color was turning back to brown. We sat down on the
picnic table, and as I continued stroking the frog, Sean gently
removed the gum from its feet and legs and belly. "Poor frog," he
said, in a voice like my mother's. "Poor little frog."
When he was finished, he carried the frog to the bank of the
river and set it on a spot of wet ground. The frog didn't move. Sean
lay down next to it. "Go on," he coaxed. "Go on, little guy. You're
free now." The frog remained motionless. It looked calm and its color
matched the Mississippi, but it wouldn't move. "Go on, little buddy,"
Sean said, and he picked it up and placed it on the back of his
hand. "Jump now. Jump," he said, and when he lowered his hand into
the water, the frog leaped off.
We went back to the table and ate our lunch without saying
much more about it. When we were finished, Sean took out his tools
and adjusted my gears. By the time he declared them tolerable, it was
too late to ride to Hamburg and back, so we rode to the landing where
the boat for Brussels boarded, pedaled up to the sign that said
FERRY, touched it as we always did, and turned around.
"Ferry," Sean said as he placed his palm against the metal. I
rode up beside him and balanced myself against the sign, and we sat
there for a moment watching the ferry as it made its way slowly to
the other side. It was the last ride we took together. Eleven weeks
later he was dead.

I was still standing at the kitchen window with my mother. Other
birds had come to eat the seeds she had spread for the cardinal,
plain birds, brown ones and black. Four or five of them were flying
to and from the windowsill, and she greeted each of them as she had
the cardinal. "Hello, little guy. Hello, pretty fellow." Watching
her, I wondered why I felt an ambivalence, bordering on disbelief,
about some things - angels - while others, things that could be seen
as equally implausible, I accepted without a second thought. A few
weeks earlier, my mother had told me about the vision she had had at
Mass the Sunday before Sean died. All the boys from Sean's grade
school basketball team had appeared at the altar, wearing their good
suits. It looked as if they might be going to a sports banquet or
their grade school graduation, my mother said, but instead they were
standing in two lines, carrying a casket. The vision had come to her
quickly, after communion, and though she didn't have time to notice
where Sean was standing, she sensed, for sure, that he was there.
I found my mother's belief that Sean was an angel unsettling,
but I had accepted her vision as if it were the most ordinary of
occurrences. Nor did I find it odd that she didn't recall having the
vision until the day following Sean's death, that it returned to her
after the fact, wrapped in its own revelation. My mother would see it
as God's way of preparing her in advance, placing Sean's death
somewhere in her subconscious, telling her the time was coming.
"Move away from the window," Kelly said, coming back into the
kitchen from the family room, where she'd been watching TV with my
father. "Step back slowly from the birds and move away from the
window," she said, imitating a voice from one of the police dramas
she and my father favored. "I mean it," she told us, switching back
to her own voice. It was a phrase she tacked on to almost everything
she said. She had been born with a forceful personality, my mother
maintained, and from the time she began to speak, she seemed to
possess the speech patterns to support it.
She took a can of cookies from the cupboard and headed back
to the family room. "Prettiest little girl in the world," I heard my
father say. Unlike the rest of us, she had never been blond, and with
her dark hair and bright blue eyes - and because she was the baby -
she had long ago declared herself to be my father's favorite.
Driving home from my parents' house that day, I wondered if
there was any connection between my mother's vision and her belief
that Sean was an angel, and I thought that if angels did exist, maybe
sudden death - suicides, accidents - was the means by which they were
recalled from the world, their ascensions masked in human misfortune.
Perhaps this was how the movement of angels, their very existence,
was kept a mystery. And if this was true, did doubt necessitate such
tragic endings? Was there a time when angels came and went more
freely? Maybe there was a time when angels disappeared by putting
fern spores in their pockets, a simpler time, a time when people
accepted - even believed in - the inexplicable, a time when everyone
in the world was more like my mother.
Within a few years, I would have a vision of my own, but it
would not make me less ambivalent about angels. Sick with a strep
infection, I had a fever so high I was to be hospitalized the next
day if it didn't go down. During the night, my fever climbing, I saw
Sean sitting on the floor at the end of a long tunnel of white light.
A child of four or five, he was wearing the white suit he had worn as
the ring bearer at a cousin's wedding - white shirt, white jacket,
white shorts, socks, and shoes - and he was drawing something with
white chalk on the white ground. I was standing at the other end of
the tunnel, outside the light, holding a picture. "Come closer," he
told me. "I can't see it." I stepped into the light, and as I walked
toward him, I could feel my body beginning to disappear. "Come
closer," he kept saying. "I can't see it." Little by little, with
each step I took, my body left me. It was as if I were being erased,
rubbed out in clean horizontal bands beginning with my feet, my
ankles, my shins, my calves. I continued to walk through the light.
As each level of my body disappeared - my knees now, my thighs and
hips - I felt more and more euphoric. I kept walking, wanting to be
near him, to be with him again, until, just one step away, only a
small sliver of me remained. I existed only above my forehead. With
one more step, the step it would take me to reach him, I would leave
my body completely. When I realized this, I became frightened and
stopped. He held out his hand.
"I'm here," he said. "You can come now if you want."
"I can't. I'm scared," I whispered, and as I did, he
By morning, my fever had fallen, and I lay there wondering
what had happened during the night. Was it a dream? A hallucination?
Would I regret not having gone? Lying there, I felt a deep sadness,
as if I had lost Sean a second time, and I remembered being at my
parents' house the day after he died, feeling as if every time the
door opened he would walk through it. After a while, I couldn't bear
it any longer. I went out in the back yard and stood in the snow,
everything so white around me - the house, the ground, the trees, the
fence. I stood there, coatless, watching my breath leave my body, the
cold exhalation of it, thinking in the silence Sean, his name my only
thought now, breathing out and breathing in: Sean. The snow settled
like a wet white dust all over my body. Buried deep within it, my
feet were no longer visible. I stood there, maybe hours, maybe
minutes, until Mary appeared at the back door. "Come in," she
said. "It's cold." And as soon as she said it, I could feel my hands
and feet stinging from the very thing she called it: cold, cold.
Waking up from the white light, I realized that the light and
the snow were like two sides of the same story, my body leaving me in
whiteness, my body coming back. But which was more real? The dream or
the day after, life or what comes later? "Come closer," Sean said. "I
can't see it." "Come in," Mary told me. "It's cold." I looked at her
standing in the doorway, the house dark behind her, the brightness of
the snow between us, a sight so familiar - Mary calling me to come
in. "Come in," she would call out when we were children. Maybe it was
dark or time for dinner. Maybe our favorite TV show was starting.
There had always been something maternal about Mary. She had a way of
making sure we were all where we were supposed to be, Michael and I
when the three of us were growing up, Sean and Kelly later. "Come in,
it's cold," she called out, and looking at her in the doorway that
day, I suddenly saw her as the child she had been, storing extra
pairs of mittens in the mailbox when it snowed. By keeping them
outside, she reasoned, covered and close by, we could exchange our
wet ones for a dry pair and keep on playing, uninterrupted by the
wait that came with standing at the door and calling for my mother.
Walking toward her through the snow that day, it was as if the past
were taking over, surrounding me, protecting me, momentarily shutting
down the sting of Sean's death, the cold numbing bite of it, letting
me walk toward a memory of Mary - the mailbox, the delight of dry
mittens - until I entered the house again and could see the pain on
my parents' faces, on Michael's face and Mary's, on Kelly's, seeing
on their faces the pain that must have been on mine.
The snow had started falling the night before. Michael had
driven through it, to my apartment in South St. Louis, to tell me the
news and bring me back to my parents' house, where my mother, my
father, and Mary were waiting. Spending the night at a girlfriend's,
Kelly would also have to be picked up, brought home, and told the
news, but my parents would wait until morning to do it, my mother
sending me to get her, as she had sent Michael for me.
It was three or four when Michael knocked at my door.
Normally a forty-minute trip, the drive had taken him hours. On the
way home, he leaned forward over the steering wheel, pushing his face
as close as he could to the windshield, trying his best to see
through the snow. "Shit," he said as we crept along. "Snow motion,"
Sean called it once when we were driving together in the other
direction, he, Mary, Kelly, and I slowly making our way to my
apartment. "Get it?" he said, and gaining momentum from his pun, he
launched into one of the games he liked to play. "What's the opposite
of snow?" he asked.
"Don't start," Kelly said. "I can't stand that game."
"Neither can I," Mary said. Talking with her eyes closed and
her head bent back on the passenger's seat beside me, she reminded me
of my mother.
"What's the opposite of snow?" Sean mouthed to me in the
rearview mirror.
I shrugged and he mouthed the answer, but I couldn't make it
"Stop it, you guys! I mean it!" Kelly said.
She hated Opposites, a game Sean and I had invented one day
when we were riding our bikes. In it, words could be paired based on
meaning, sound, or both. What is the opposite of wood? Wouldn't. Of
fast? Feast. Of hear? Say. Of boy? Sink. "Bzzz," Sean would say,
imitating the wrong-answer sound on a game show. "We'll have to
consult the judges on that one." And then we would argue over whether
the correct pronunciation of buoy was boy or boo-ey.
What is the opposite of snow? If he finally told me, I don't
remember. "What's the opposite of firefly?" he had once called me at
work to ask. "I give up." "Waterfall," he said, and then hung up
right away, as if he realized, as I had, that firefly and waterfall
were as good as the game would ever get.
It was almost morning now. Michael was still hunched over the
steering wheel, maneuvering us through the snow. By the time we got
home it would be daylight, and it would seem as if it had come upon
us suddenly, as if we had driven out of all that white darkness
directly into dawn. I watched Michael peering through the windshield,
ready for any glimpse he could get of the road. We had hardly spoken,
and it felt to me - did it feel that way to Michael? - that words
would mean nothing now, as if, after delivering the message that he
had driven through the darkness to deliver, knocking on my door to
say that Sean was dead, all language, any language - Sean's language,
opposites, puns, rhymes, riddles - had become meaningless.
So we were silent, and in the silence he kept steering us
toward where we needed to be, just as he had years earlier with Sean,
getting up in the middle of the night to head him toward the bathroom
as he wandered in his sleep from room to room. Sean was six or seven
then, Michael nineteen or twenty. Sharing a room, they slept in the
same double bed, and when Sean began to sleepwalk, it quickly became
clear that the bathroom was his desired destination. After roaming
the house one night, he went back to his room and relieved himself in
a drawer full of Michael's sweaters. The next night and every night
thereafter, up late as I always was, it became a common sight to see
them, Michael's hands on Sean's shoulders, steering him toward the
toilet, aiming his penis for him while he peed, sound asleep, then
guiding him back to their bedroom, the two of them never talking.
When we finally got home, my father was waiting at the front
door. He held out his arms to me. "I'm sorry," he said.
"It's not your fault," I told him.
He turned his face from me, looking hurt and quietly offended.
"I'm sorry," he said, taking me in his arms and trying
again, "that you're all so young." And he hugged me then, harder than
he ever had.
Late in the afternoon, the snow stopped falling, and we all
went together to the funeral home and the florist.
"Do you think they'll have enough flowers for him here?" my
father asked as Mary and my mother placed the order.
"It's just the snow, Dad," Michael said, knowing that my
father, a former salesman, took the absence of other customers as a
sign that the florist was failing.
Looking less worried, he took Kelly's hand and held it.
"What's your favorite flower?" he asked her, and she
shrugged, undecided for once, saying she wasn't sure.
Back home, the flowers ordered, Sean's funeral arranged, I
went up to my old room and lay on the bed. The house was quiet now.
No one was crying, though that would come again, my parents rushing
to one or the other of us, one or the other of us rushing to them.
But for now there was nothing. Next to my bed was a picture I had
taken of Sean, and I picked it up from the nightstand and stared at
it - Sean at twelve, wearing a T-shirt that said TRIUMPH. He was
sitting in my room, on my bed, saying something, though he had
stopped and smiled when I snapped the shutter. What was he telling me
that day? "Did you know . . . ? Did you ever wonder . . . ?" "Did you
know that on a cellular level people are basically the same?" "Did
you ever wonder, since the orbit of every planet in our solar system
is an ellipse, why elliptical orbits are called eccentric? I mean,
geometrically, that's what they are, eccentric, noncircular, but in a
larger sense it's ironic, isn't it?" "If you had to be a rock, would
you want to be igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic?" he
wondered. "You'd probably be metamorphic," he said before I'd made up
my mind.
"Do you think my teeth look okay?" he had asked me a few
months earlier, when, after six years of orthodontic work, just
before he turned fifteen, he was finally free of his braces. I was
the reason he had been forced to wear them, having knocked most of
his front teeth out one night when he was nine. Not realizing he was
standing behind me, I had hit him hard in the mouth with a bat. It
was Mary who had thought to pick up the teeth so they could be
reimplanted. "They're his permanent teeth," she kept saying. Michael
went to find my parents, and Mary held a wet rag to Sean's mouth
while Kelly and I and the other kids who were playing baseball in the
neighborhood that night scoured the street for his teeth.
He hadn't held what had happened against me. I looked at his
picture. His braces had been temporarily removed, and though I
couldn't remember the reason he had been spared them that summer, I
was grateful that he had been given a few months' reprieve. He was
smiling more than he might have.
Outside, the day was turning dark, and I got up and stood at
the window. It was snowing lightly again, and the tracks I had made
earlier looked like faint shadows now, sinkholes filled with fresh
snow. Any sign that I had been out there would soon be covered
completely. Looking down at it all - the subtle changes in the snow,
my footprints disappearing - reminded me of the first time Kelly
encountered impermanence, the phenomenon of things passing. She and
Sean had spent the morning making snow angels. She was three or four,
Sean six or seven. From my window, I watched the two of them falling
backward, flapping their arms and legs, standing up to admire their
creations, then falling down again. Angels? Sure, if that's what you
see, I remember thinking when Michael and Mary taught me how to make
them. To me, they looked like blurry abstractions, semicircular
swaths in the snow. But seen from the second story, their shapes were
more discernible.
I watched Sean and Kelly cover the yard, making one angel
after another, until, every inch imprinted, they lay there in the
last figures they had formed, each of them embodying the outline of
an angel. By afternoon, Kelly up from her nap, the angels were barely
visible. Buried beneath a fresh snowfall, only the slightest, most
delicate indentations - half of them the size of Sean's body, half
the size of Kelly's - could be seen as evidence that they existed.
Rushing to the window to see them when she woke, Kelly started crying
and wouldn't stop until Sean took her out to do them over, and
falling down and getting up again, falling down and getting up, they
resurrected all the angels they had made that morning.
Now the snow was too deep and wet for anyone to lie in, much
less move. Turning dark, the yard - the world as far as I could see
it from my window - was empty of angels. I could hear my father
downstairs, talking softly to someone. Would there be enough flowers
for him? he had asked earlier. No. Of course not. How could there
be? "Sunflowers," I wanted to say when Kelly couldn't name her
favorite flower at the florist's, but I couldn't think of the word
then, only the image of her and Sean and Mary sucking on the seeds in
the summer and spitting the shells on the sidewalk. "Sunflowers," I
remembered now, looking at the yellow rectangle of light spilling out
from the kitchen, coloring a small section of snow below my window.
I followed my father's voice downstairs. In the living room,
he and Michael were paging through the paper. My mother was sitting
at the kitchen table making a list, and in the family room, Mary was
feeding Sarah. I sat down beside her on the sofa. Across from us,
Kelly was rocking fiercely in the rocker next to the stereo, as she
always did, the music turned up so high we could hear strains of it
seeping out of her headphones. "What?" she would say, lifting the
headphones off her ears a bit if I looked at her too long. "Nothing,"
I would answer.
It could have been an evening like any other, with Sean
coming home any minute. "Why's everyone here?" he would ask, before
turning his attention to Sarah, squeezing in between Mary and me on
the sofa, saying it was his spot, just as we had done fifteen years
earlier, Michael, Mary, and I claiming the seat closest to Sean,
arguing over whose turn it was to feed him or hold him or rock him to
sleep. "There's time," my mother would always say to settle it,
taking him from one of us and giving him to another.
Yes, there's time, I thought. There was the time before he
was born and the time after. Ordinary time. A time when we woke up
every day, our souls still within us. And now there was this time.
The time being. A time for which my father had said he was sorry, one
for which we were all too young. It would be a time - this time -
unlike any that had passed before. A long time. A time presided over
by angels perhaps, messengers in slow motion.
That's what I was thinking when my mother sent me out soon
after to tell the neighbors the news. I was thinking about time - the
slowness of it one day, the speed of it the next. It was nearly six
o'clock. When we were children, the whole neighborhood grew quiet at
that hour, everyone having been called to come in. If it was still
light out, the street would come alive again later, in spring and
summer and early fall, all of us gathering at the streetlight after
supper, claiming as much of the day as we could. But in winter, the
quiet continued. No one came out again. It was quiet now, the street
calm and white and quiet. As I walked from one neighbor to the next,
I remembered running down the street the night my parents told us my
mother was pregnant. It was a spring night after supper; Sean would
be born the following fall. The news was supposed to be a
secret. "It's bad luck to tell everyone too early," my mother
explained. It was a Saturday night. She and my father were getting
dressed to go out and I lay on their bed pleading - "Just one
person!" - until my mother consented, saying we could tell the
neighbor who was coming to sit for us that night. Of all the adults
in the neighborhood, Mrs. Fallon was my favorite. I ran down the
street and knocked on her door. She was an old woman who lived alone
and spoke in one-word exclamations. "Marvelous!" she said when I told
her. ("Beautiful!" she said the first time she saw Sean.) I ran back,
breathless, and reported her response to my mother. She shook her
head and laughed. "I meant you could tell her when she came tonight,
not that you should run down there right away." "Oh," I said, and I
went out to play again, satisfied that I had told someone, but still
harboring the thrill of a secret, the knowledge that when the time
came, I would get to deliver the news to another neighbor, and
another, until everyone knew.
If she were alive, what would Mrs. Fallon say these fifteen
years later? Was there a word that would sum it all up, one that I
could race back and report to my mother? Or would I leave her as I
left the others, stunned, speechless, all of them having peered
through their front windows when I rang the bell, all of them having
turned on their porch lights. Recognizing me, they opened their doors
wide. But I was no one they knew that night. Standing before them, I
was the darkest, most diminished of souls, a messenger of agony,
coming to announce the end of the world as I knew it and the
beginning of eternity, a time unlike any I had ever borne.
I stood at the end of our street, each neighbor notified. A
winter night, quiet, so quiet. In another season - spring, summer,
fall - we would come out again and gather at the streetlight,
children telling stories, choosing sides, my team, your team, each of
us running to reach the place called home - the streetlight, where
every game began and ended - yelling Safe! when we got there, the
word ringing out over and over, one after the other of us touching
the streetlight, safe, safe, safe.
But it was winter now. The quiet would continue. No one would
come out again. I stood at the end of our street, snow falling all
around me, and I watched in the darkness as doors started to open,
neighbors coming out, one and then another, two or three of them
walking slowly up the hill to our house.
From a distance, I followed them back home, pausing to watch
the snowflakes swirl beneath the streetlight, white glitter falling
to the ground. "Did you ever wonder what life would be like if there
were only two states of matter instead of three?" The snow looked
like white sparkling dust circling the lamppost. Wasn't that how
stars got started - cosmic dust spinning in a circle? No two
snowflakes are the same, we were told as children, but I didn't
believe it. How could anyone really know? How could we be certain
there wasn't another one out there, identical, waiting to drop? Over
time, how could we tell? I watched the snow falling through the
light. It looked beautiful and endless. What is the opposite of
eternity, I wondered. A short life, he might tell me. A story still

Copyright (c) 2000 by Kathleen Finneran. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

What People are Saying About This

Tillie Olsen
Tillie Olsen, author of Tell Me A Riddle

The Tender Land is a rare and wondrous book, a work of such stature, wisdom, depth, and passion that it will surely become a classic. Kathleen Finneran has created a family portrait that is alive, poignant, and totally absorbing. She is the real thing; this is a book that will transcend time.

Meet the Author

KATHLEEN FINNERAN was born in St. Louis and is a graduate of Washington University. She was the recipient of a Whiting Award in 2001. The Tender Land is her first book. She lives in St. Louis.

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The Tender Land: A Family Love Story 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story almost became secondary to the lovely writing, I could not believe there is not another book by this author! She is a very talented writer and i wanted more
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be an excellent example of a well written but rather boring memoir. The author wants you feel the emotions and feelings of the family as they deal with the suicidal death of a family member. The author takes too long to get to the heart of what each family member is feeling. There was too much other information included that cluttered up the memoir. Anyone that has delt with this subject or is dealing with it now might find this memoir helpful. I have never had to deal with a suicidal death in the family and I found the subject, as presented in this book, to be very uninteresting to the point of being boring. The subject matter as it was presented to me did not make me want to continue reading after the first chapter. I felt like the author could have covered the same material in half the space and been more direct.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book so beautifully tells the story of the Finneran family, I feel as if I am enjoying a beautiful painting.Having lost a son myself, I can very easily feel the emotions portrayed. For me the key to a really good book is when I forget that I am reading because I am so immersed in and moved by the story. This book is that.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a beautiful memoir. The author writes with clarity and delicacy and great insight about the intricate details of her family's history. The relationships are beautifully and warmly drawn. I treasured every word, every image, every member of her family. The author somehow enables love to make itself present in each depiction. And the reader him/herself also feels embraced.