The Things Between Us: A Memoirby Lee Montgomery
The Montgomerys of Framingham, Massachusetts, 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 had avoided assembling under one roof for more than a decade. But when Big Dad, the patriarch, was diagnosed with stomach cancer, the siblings all returned 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. The Things Between Us is Lee Montgomery's alternately wrenching and riotous story of her family reuniting as one of their own is dying.
Even in healthy times, Big Dad moved carefully through life, taking responsibility for the farm, the cars, the house, and his wife. Meanwhile the irrepressible Mumzy drank her first gin each day at 8:45 a.m. and spent 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 tried always to keep their chins up. But Big Dad's cancer rattled their formidable denial, and their habitual coping mechanisms took on heightened meaning when he became sick and the family reconvened. In Big Dad's last months, Montgomery accompanied him on his daily walks as he bade farewell to the places where their lives had unfolded; she and her mother sang old songs, and eventually composed their own jazzy musical called "If You're Dying of Cancer, Do You Want Us to Tell You?"
Montgomery's stunning memoir vividly evokes the often unspoken bonds between family members -- bonds made of memory, love, and disappointment. Heartbreaking, lyrical, and often 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.
"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
- Free Press
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Read an Excerpt
The Things Between UsA Memoir
By Lee Montgomery
Free PressCopyright © 2006 Lee Montgomery
All right reserved.
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, andpours 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
Excerpted from The Things Between Us by Lee Montgomery Copyright © 2006 by Lee Montgomery. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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