January 16, 2012

Reading: The Gift of an Ordinary Day

 Last week I read The Gift of an Ordinary Day, by Katrina Kenison.  I don't read a lot of what I consider “mothering memoirs,” just like I don't read a whole lot of “mommy blogs.” But I do read lots of lifestyle blogs by interesting women who happen to be mothers, and I consider this book to be in that same category – even if the book's subtitle is “A Mother's Memoir.”  I recognized Kenison's name as the former series editor for the “Best American Short Story” annual anthologies, back when I used to be a serious student of the short story myself, and eagerly scooped up each volume.  (Kenison was laid off from that job with just a phone call, as she explains in this book.) 

Ordinary Day is a book of journeys and of deep changes within a family. It details the time from when her oldest son was about to enter high school, and she was suddenly seized by the idea to move out of their family's “upscale, well-groomed suburban neighborhood,” and move toward a slower and more rural way of life, and to also find a smaller, less intense high school to compliment her sons unique talents. I was instantly drawn into the narrative of their move from suburbs to country, as one of my own recurring fantasies is to own an old farmhouse, somewhere with a view of rolling hills and the sound of freight trains traveling miles across the land.  I completely related with Kenison's description of her new ideal of a perfect home:
“a cottage with sloping wooden floors, a screen door that would bang shut and fasten with a hook, daisies in a mason jar on a big screened porch table, walls that could be whispered through, beds covered with faded quilts, afternoon light filtered through the pines.” 
Oh yeah.
So the book is partly about the quest for a new home: buying a 200-year-old summer cottage in rural New Hampshire, living in it for one summer (and comforting the enraged tears of her younger son, upset at living in this terrible new place, so far from his old home and friends), then regretfully tearing it down and building a new, modest farmhouse on the site. (The new home took three years to complete, during which Kenison's family lived with her parents.)  Concurrently, the book is also about her two sons, growing from sweet-cheeked, happy young children, into, well....teenagers.  She describes one son at thirteen so vividly (surly, grunting, angry, refusing to wear anything but a baggy black hoodie sweatshirt) that I was compelled to put the book down and go plant a shower of kisses and snuggles on my own seven-year-old, sweet-cheeked boy.  

Ordinary Day is also about the deep changes in this woman's life, as she finds her role as mother and nurturer shifting. She has to adjust to the “empty nest,” and cherishes the simple joys of just having dinner together around the table, as her son's orbits and interests grow increasingly wider and wider, moving them away from home as they become young men.  She also has time now, time to sit and think and write, after being laid off after sixteen years from an editing job that also defined her. 

This was a great book for me to read at the beginning of the new year.  Fundamentally, this is a book about change, and finding grace, and home, right where you sit at any given moment.  About a family and all the little moments we take for granted, in anticipation of the big ones.   Like the gift of all those hundreds of nights at our table, after dinner, when the kids eat dessert and are tired and silly and know that it's the wrap up of one more ordinary, average day:
Katrina Kenison has a very sophisticated web site and blog, where you watch her read an essay cobbled from sections of the book (have a Kleenex ready) or view a slideshow of the lovely, light-filled home they built (and the gorgeous views from the rolling front lawn).

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