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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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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.50(d)

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 thatmy 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 glass.

"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, Versailles.

"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 somewhere."

"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 bodies."

"Maybe they became invisible to other people but not to themselves."

"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 grinned.

"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 disappeared.

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 out.

"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 beginning.

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.