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The Things Between Us: A Memoir

Overview

The Montgomerys are among the last of a dying breed — New England WASPs who effortlessly combine repression, flamboyant eccentricity, and alcoholism. Fragmented by drink and dysfunction, the family has not assembled in more than a decade. But when Big Dad, the patriarch, is diagnosed with stomach cancer, the siblings return to their childhood home, Four Corner Farm, to help their parents navigate the specialists, treatment options, pain management, and, most difficult of all, ...

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Overview

The Montgomerys are among the last of a dying breed — New England WASPs who effortlessly combine repression, flamboyant eccentricity, and alcoholism. Fragmented by drink and dysfunction, the family has not assembled in more than a decade. But when Big Dad, the patriarch, is diagnosed with stomach cancer, the siblings return to their childhood home, Four Corner Farm, to help their parents navigate the specialists, treatment options, pain management, and, most difficult of all, their own anguish.

Big Dad has always moved carefully through life, taking responsibility for the farm, the cars, the house, and his wife. The irrepressible Mumzy, now in her late seventies, drinks her first gin each day at 8:45 a.m. and spends her time singing jazz standards and reliving the glory days when she rescued horses from the now defunct hunt club. Prickly and proud, the two have always tried to keep their chins up, but Big Dad's cancer rattles their formidable denial.

Montgomery's stunning memoir vividly evokes the often unspoken bonds between family members — bonds made of memory, love, and disappointment. Heartbreaking, lyrical, and frequently hilarious, The Things Between Us hums with a sense of wonder as the author discovers anew the most familiar people in her life, herself among them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Of the demons afflicting the well-heeled Montgomery family, the most obvious is cancer, ravaging the body of the author's beloved father. Equally insidious is alcohol: even at age seventy-eight [Montgomery's mother] begins the day with a cocktail. But the evil the author seems most interested in exorcising in this wrenching, unsentimental memoir is denial, the organizing principal of the family's life.... Montgomery's portrait of modern death is harrowing, but it's uplifting, too."

People

"A stunning addition to the literature of drunken mothers. Montgomery has a lovely, straightforward, trustworthy style. You like her utter lack of self-pity. You appreciate the absence of bitterness and judgment. There's no pretense of offering some grand lesson, other than love: Love as best as you can for as long as you can. That's all."

Los Angeles Times

"What Montgomery does, uncannily well, is to catch how normal an alcoholic family feels when you're in the midst of it. Montgomery has wrung an engrossing book from her eccentric (at best) childhood and the journey of reconnection she and her brother and sister take in the wake of their father's terminal diagnosis....Montgomery's greatest gift is to be able to describe her family clearly and unsentimentally but without cruelty. That's what allows us to laugh with the Montgomerys but certainly not to laugh at them. They're much too compelling for that."

O, The Oprah Magazine

"Most families have a black sheep. Montgomery's had a black hole — her mother, a frustrated performer and prodigious drunk. So imagine Montgomery's surprise when she is called home to mount a death watch — not for her Mumzy, but for her tight-lipped father, always something of a cipher for his children. Her memoir of a belatedly dutiful daughter, harrowing and inevitably heartbreaking, also manages to be scathingly funny."

The Boston Globe

"This is not just another memoir of alcoholism and family dysfunction — this is the smartest, funniest, warmest, and most wicked of alcoholism and family dysfunction memoirs to come along in many years. Lee Montgomery paints flawed and aching people with a touching and lovely palette."

— Anthony Swofford,author of Jarhead

"A monster mother, a beloved father, a trio of grown siblings who reunite to deal with a death in the family. The Things Between Us is unflinching and absolutely as fascinating as it is sad. It's also a scathing attack on the practice of medicine in America today and a perhaps inadvertent plea for us to rethink the role of hospice and our dying process."

— Carolyn See, author of Making a Literary Life

Publishers Weekly
In her bittersweet memoir of her father's death from metastatic stomach cancer, Montgomery (editor of Tin House magazine) charts the rough terrain of her eccentric New England family life and explores the trauma it took to reunite her dysfunctional family. Montgomery's mother is a falling-down drunk who has gin for breakfast; her gentleman farmer father, Big Dad, ignores his wife's alcoholism. The author's sister, Lael, and brother, Bob, are nine and six years her senior: Montgomery feels as if she grew up solo, in a different world than they. Escaping harsh realities is a family trait and none of the family has spent so much as a holiday together in more than a decade before Big Dad's news, when they all, reluctantly, come home. Montgomery skillfully shifts her narrative between the harrowing dailiness of her father's yearlong illness, her mother's escalating drunkenness, her own impending sense of loss and a damaging familial past she recalls with deeply mixed emotions. Montgomery's lyric and nuanced rendering of her love for her miscreant tribe has comic as well as tragic moments, but she steers clear of both sentimentality and New England stoicism, creating a tender portrait of modern death and real American families. (Aug. 9) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Montgomery (executive editor, Tin House magazine; editorial director, Tin House Books) has spent much of her life escaping her eccentric, dysfunctional family, experimenting with drugs during her youth, and moving far from her girlhood home in Framingham, MA, as an adult. While she has remained connected to her father, Big Dad, the parent on whom she depended while growing up, her mother's persistent alcoholism and weird behavior continue to alienate her. Montgomery's two siblings have stayed away as well, the family having not congregated in more than ten years. When Big Dad is diagnosed with stomach cancer, Montgomery returns to the family home to care for him, supporting him through surgery and chemotherapy, while Mumzy escapes by drinking and flirting with her Bulgarian nurse. As Montgomery walks with her father and the two reminisce, she traces her life in this repressive family, wondering why no one ever called Mumzy an alcoholic. Montgomery writes her memoir with precision and grace, showing how a parent's decline and ultimate death can unite a family and lead to self-discovery, forgiveness, and healing. Recommended for large public collections.-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The executive editor of Tin House magazine perfectly captures a middle-aged rite of passage: returning home to help a parent die. Montgomery grew up in Massachusetts. Jovial "Big Dad," though emotionally distant, fiercely loved his three kids. Mumzy was a lush, larger than life except when passed out from too much gin. Their offspring escaped in various ways; Montgomery herself married and moved to the West Coast after several fraught vocational crises and love affairs. When her father, whom she had always tried to please, was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she headed east to care for him. Her debut memoir delineates Big Dad's sickness, Mumzy's ineffectual courage, the author's helpless attempts to micro-manage her father's diet and to control the experience by taking small, useless notes at the doctor's office. It captures the awkward pressure to have meaningful conversations before it's too late, the guilt over leaving ailing parents for even an hour, let alone a weekend. Montgomery expertly interweaves the present-tense narration, which describes Big Dad's decline in the late 1990s with occasional glances back to her '60s childhood, which are well placed and never gratuitous. Kudos also for her careful attention to the emotional thickets of siblinghood; she subtly renders the struggles and strains among a brother and two sisters suddenly called on to act like adults in a situation that encourages regression to childishness. The author lays bear the trials of alcoholism with a light touch, never descending into whining or acrimony: "I will never be able to explain my mother, but I will most likely spend my life trying. . . . How do you explain that your mother drinks gin andtonics for breakfast? You don't."Everyone with a terminally ill parent should read this spare account, which is damn near perfect.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416543107
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 7/10/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Montgomery is the editorial director of Tin House Books and executive editor of Tin House, a literary magazine. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Story Magazine, Black Clock, Denver Quarterly, and The Iowa Review. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Read an Excerpt

Preface

October 1998 Framingham, Massachusetts

First things first. You have to meet my mother. You have to meet the Mumzy in the morning, sitting with her old tree root legs, stunted and worn, dangling off the edge of the king-size bed she shares with my father. In front of her is a purple walker, reminiscent of a racing bicycle with four wheels, its wire basket stuffed with socks, notebooks, a Kleenex or two. She looks up at the clock that sings a different bird song every hour on the hour and announces to my father, who is reading in a chair, "Monty, it is eight forty-five." She holds up three fingers to indicate the number of ounces of gin she wants in her drink. My father leaves the room, and I study my mother's face, the folds in her skin collapsed around bones and things she cannot express. I pat her shoulder and follow my father into the other room to watch him make my mother a drink — one of his many chores since Mother broke her shoulder a few years earlier.

In the kitchen an old wooden chest of my grandfather's stores booze and nuts and crackers. My father flips open the top, reaches into its belly to pull out a half-gallon jug of Tanqueray, and pours it into a jigger twice. There is something disconnected about his movements, but he says nothing. The only sounds come from the clinking of glass and ice and the pouring of spirits.

I am following my father around my childhood home now — watching, studying — because the doctors recently found the reason that he has been losing weight and, in the last few weeks, has found it difficult to swallow: He has a tumor in his stomach. They do not know if it is malignant or not, which is why I study him so vigilantly; I am trying to decipher our future.

Dad reaches into the fridge and grabs a handful of fresh mint, and from a cabinet, a few plastic straws, and stuffs the bunch into the glass. He knows I watch him so he completes this maneuver with a self-conscious flair. "Take that!"

My father and I deliver Mother's drink and sit silently. I lie back on the lavender carpet and stretch my back, sneaking peeks at both of them. My mother, sitting on the edge of the bed, stares out the French doors into the field and my father goes back to his paperback thriller. The black pancake face of their little dog, Inky, peeks out from under the bed, and while I pat her, I pull at an odd tumor, a sac of skin, that hangs off her neck. Mom looks at Dad and then at me sadly, her expression asking, Now what do we do? I smile at her, trying to be reassuring, as I am thinking Dunno. Dunno. Dunno.

Three days earlier, on a bright autumn morning, Mom and Pop call with the news.

"But the test says no cancer?" I say into the phone. "That's good, isn't it?"

"Partly sunny, partly cloudy," Dad says. "It's the same damn thing. There's still a tumor there."

According to my father, they can't identify the tumor because "the asshole" on the other end of the scope can't get a piece of the thing to analyze. When he says this, all I can think about is the doctor. I had known his daughter in kindergarten. I remember her especially well because I had adored her mother, particularly how she made tuna sandwiches. I'd never seen anyone do anything so mundane with such care. She used Miracle Whip, not mayonnaise, and toasted the bread, cutting off the crusts, and slicing the beautiful remainder into tiny triangles.

"Please come," Mother says from the other extension.

"What is she going to do, Barbara?" my father says.

"You need support."

"I DO NOT need support."

"I do, then," she says.

"I need the kids available if I have to have surgery," my father says. "There's no point..."

"Fuck it," I finally say. "I'm coming."

"Jesus," my father says. "Your language is awful. You take after your mother."

"Go to hell," my mother says.

Dad says nothing, but hell is where I'm headed. I climb on a plane and fly east, back to Framingham and my parents' home.

Copyright © 2006 by Lee Montgomery

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface

1. Lunatics

Framingham, Massachusetts

2. The Garden

October 1998, Framingham, Massachusetts

3. Fury

1965, Framingham, Massachusetts

4. Wanderings

October 1998, Framingham, Massachusetts

5. The Diagnosis

October 1998, Boston, Massachusetts

6. Surgery

November 1998, Boston, Massachusetts

7. Miracles

Summer 1997, Framingham, Massachusetts

8. Recovery

November 1998, Framingham, Massachusetts

9. Thanksgiving

November 1998, Framingham, Massachusetts

10. Long Winter

February 1999, Portland, Oregon

11. Chemotherapy

March 1999, Framingham, Massachusetts

12. Escapes

May 1999, Portland, Oregon

13. Love Story

May 1999, Framingham, Massachusetts

14. Hands

May 1999, Framingham, Massachusetts

15. Floating

Memorial Day, 1999, Stevenson, Washington

16. Night

June 7, 1999, Framingham, Massachusetts

17. Ends

Tuesday, June 8, 1999

18. Fireflies

Tuesday, June 8, Framingham, Massachusetts

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Introduction

Reading Group Guide

The Things Between Us

By Lee Montgomery

Discussion Points

  1. Considering that this book focuses primarily on her relationship with her father, why does the author begin with: "First things first. You have to meet my mother." What does this first scene tell you about "Mumzy" and the Montgomery parents' relationship? How does their behavior throughout the book reinforce your early impressions of them? Does either of them ever change? Does the way that Lee relates to them ever change?
  2. Lee spent most of her childhood trying to cope with her mother and adoring her father. Why do you think Lee identifies so strongly with Big Dad? In what ways are they alike? How are they different?
  3. Despite hints of a deep resentment and long-held anger, Lee still seems to love her mother very much. What is it about Barbara that Lee admires? Knowing some of the facts of her life, can you sympathize with Barbara at all?
  4. Compare and contrast the author's childhood in New England with her adulthood in Southern California and Oregon. In what ways do the two regions offer similar experiences? In what ways are they different?
  5. On page 7, Lee calls her father a "classic Yankee." Using examples from the book, explain what she means by this.
  6. Lee and her father "spend [their] lives together doing chores," (p. 14-15). Even after she moves away, they complete projects together over the phone. What is the symbolism inherent in this characterization? What does it tell you about their respective roles in the family?
  7. The author describes her mother's family, theBegoles, as a family that "loses things." What has Barbara Begole Montgomery lost? Do you think Lee is a part of that legacy? If so, what has she lost? What is she trying to find?
  8. On page 48, Lee describes her family as planets in the solar system. Why does she make each of her associations between family members and their respective orbiting masses?
  9. When you think of a "New England WASP," what comes to mind? How do the Montgomerys hold up to your stereotype?
  10. Sprinkled throughout this memoir are moments of violence or extreme emotional reaction, mostly the result of days, months, and sometimes years of repression. Identify each of these moments and discuss how they reveal the private struggles of the people involved.
  11. The author spends a lot of time describing Big Dad's hands as she moves with him through the final months of his life. Discuss the appearance and significance of hands and the ways the author uses them as a symbol.
  12. The three Montgomery children each sped away from their childhood and its memories as soon as they were able. Yet, as their father declines, they spend a lot of time recollecting their lives at Four Corner Farm. What changes do you see happening to them and among them, due to revisiting these memories?
  13. Lee, in particular, obsesses about her relationships with her parents and siblings, who have left her feeling disconnected and abandoned for different reasons over the years. Discuss her conflicting need to be both close and distant from her family at various points in her life.
  14. The Things Between Us explores the dying "blueblood" New England lifestyle, thus providing a fascinating window into an American subculture on the wane. What is the town of Framingham, Massachusetts, like? In what ways is the Montgomerys' world just like any American family's? In what ways is it different?
  15. Many authors write memoirs in order to better deal with their painful experiences. In detailing his life and death, how has Lee Montgomery paid homage to her father? What do you think about her portrayal of her mother, considering the facts of their history together? What clues do you see in The Things Between Us that reveal how the author has or hasn't been able to come to terms with her family's love- and resentment-filled past?

Enhance Your Book Club Experience

  1. Research the Boston, Massachusetts area and the small community of Framingham. You can start with information and photos at www.visitnewengland.com and www.visit-massachusetts.com/boston.html. Have a "Yankee" party and go horseback riding, apple-picking, drink cocktails, and share what you've learned of the region's history. You can even have everyone prepare and bring New England foods, such as those found at www.newenglandrecipes.com. Learn about the ongoing foxhunting tradition (though of course they don't use real foxes anymore) that's carried on by the Old North Bridge Hounds at www.onbh.org — you may even be able to follow one of their hunts.
  2. As a group or individually, watch the movies War of the Roses (which the Montgomerys found hysterically funny) and When a Man Loves a Woman (a movie about the struggle a husband and child face in the wake of one woman's alcoholism). Discuss the effects of alcoholism on all the Montgomerys, parents and children alike.
  3. For more information on the book or Lee Montgomery, visit www.TheThingsBetweenUs.com

Lee Montgomery is the editorial director of Tin House Books and executive editor of Tin House, a literary magazine. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Story Magazine, Black Clock, Denver Quarterly, and The Iowa Review. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

The Things Between Us

By Lee Montgomery

Discussion Points

  1. Considering that this book focuses primarily on her relationship with her father, why does the author begin with: "First things first. You have to meet my mother." What does this first scene tell you about "Mumzy" and the Montgomery parents' relationship? How does their behavior throughout the book reinforce your early impressions of them? Does either of them ever change? Does the way that Lee relates to them ever change?
  2. Lee spent most of her childhood trying to cope with her mother and adoring her father. Why do you think Lee identifies so strongly with Big Dad? In what ways are they alike? How are they different?
  3. Despite hints of a deep resentment and long-held anger, Lee still seems to love her mother very much. What is it about Barbara that Lee admires? Knowing some of the facts of her life, can you sympathize with Barbara at all?
  4. Compare and contrast the author's childhood in New England with her adulthood in Southern California and Oregon. In what ways do the two regions offer similar experiences? In what ways are they different?
  5. On page 7, Lee calls her father a "classic Yankee." Using examples from the book, explain what she means by this.
  6. Lee and her father "spend [their] lives together doing chores," (p. 14-15). Even after she moves away, they complete projects together over the phone. What is the symbolism inherent in this characterization? What does it tell you about their respective roles in the family?
  7. The author describes her mother's family, the Begoles, as a family that "loses things." What has Barbara Begole Montgomery lost? Do you think Lee is a part of that legacy? If so, what has she lost? What is she trying to find?
  8. On page 48, Lee describes her family as planets in the solar system. Why does she make each of her associations between family members and their respective orbiting masses?
  9. When you think of a "New England WASP," what comes to mind? How do the Montgomerys hold up to your stereotype?
  10. Sprinkled throughout this memoir are moments of violence or extreme emotional reaction, mostly the result of days, months, and sometimes years of repression. Identify each of these moments and discuss how they reveal the private struggles of the people involved.
  11. The author spends a lot of time describing Big Dad's hands as she moves with him through the final months of his life. Discuss the appearance and significance of hands and the ways the author uses them as a symbol.
  12. The three Montgomery children each sped away from their childhood and its memories as soon as they were able. Yet, as their father declines, they spend a lot of time recollecting their lives at Four Corner Farm. What changes do you see happening to them and among them, due to revisiting these memories?
  13. Lee, in particular, obsesses about her relationships with her parents and siblings, who have left her feeling disconnected and abandoned for different reasons over the years. Discuss her conflicting need to be both close and distant from her family at various points in her life.
  14. The Things Between Us explores the dying "blueblood" New England lifestyle, thus providing a fascinating window into an American subculture on the wane. What is the town of Framingham, Massachusetts, like? In what ways is the Montgomerys' world just like any American family's? In what ways is it different?
  15. Many authors write memoirs in order to better deal with their painful experiences. In detailing his life and death, how has Lee Montgomery paid homage to her father? What do you think about her portrayal of her mother, considering the facts of their history together? What clues do you see in The Things Between Us that reveal how the author has or hasn't been able to come to terms with her family's love- and resentment-filled past?

Enhance Your Book Club Experience

  1. Research the Boston, Massachusetts area and the small community of Framingham. You can start with information and photos at www.visitnewengland.com and www.visit-massachusetts.com/boston.html. Have a "Yankee" party and go horseback riding, apple-picking, drink cocktails, and share what you've learned of the region's history. You can even have everyone prepare and bring New England foods, such as those found at www.newenglandrecipes.com. Learn about the ongoing foxhunting tradition (though of course they don't use real foxes anymore) that's carried on by the Old North Bridge Hounds at www.onbh.org — you may even be able to follow one of their hunts.
  2. As a group or individually, watch the movies War of the Roses (which the Montgomerys found hysterically funny) and When a Man Loves a Woman (a movie about the struggle a husband and child face in the wake of one woman's alcoholism). Discuss the effects of alcoholism on all the Montgomerys, parents and children alike.
  3. For more information on the book or Lee Montgomery, visit www.TheThingsBetweenUs.com
Read More Show Less

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