Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

When I moved to Indianapolis, over 11 years ago, I met three neighborhood women. Back then we all had 1-year old babies, and 3 of us also had 2 older children, all roughly the same ages: 5 and 3. I didn't know it then -- at the time I couldn't see past the high maintenance child care -- but throughout the years we would forge long-standing friendships.

This year all 4 of our youngest children turn 13. They all have Bnai Mitzvahs scheduled. This weekend marked the second one. Last night, on the dance floor, I was thinking about the significance of the year. I love a good party as much as the next girl, maybe more but, while dancing with my three close friends, my mind wandered, and what settled in was the realization of how weighty this year of simchas is. I wasn't giving short shrift to the obvious significance of the year -- that our newly-minted teens are becoming responsible members of the Jewish community -- but I couldn't help but feel the passing of our lives as mothers to young children. It was a sad and joyful moment, looking back on our 11-plus years of mothering and friendship. I thought about our friendships and what came to mind first were the big, dramatic moments -- like when my friends swooped in and took care of my kids when I had my tonsils out; when they helped care for two of my kids when my middle child had an emergency appendectomy. Those are the things extended family usually help with, and because no one in our little group has extended family in the area, we have come to depend on each other. Then I reflected on the little, routine, everyday moments -- those smaller, everyday transactions like carpooling, venting frustrations over the phone, or joined holiday celebrations. Those are what makes up the bulk of the foundation of our relationships. Each one of those small transactions is like another pour from the pitcher, the layers of all these moments accruing, creating a deep, family-like bond.

Family. My parents divorced when I was young and my dad raised me in a town far away from our extended family. Sometimes I think the underlying theme of my life has been my attempt to recreate and recapture that elusive element. Even though I now have a family of my own, I think there is a part of me that is always searching. In "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Dave Eggers tells the story of his own family's dissolution. When Dave was in his early twenties, within a span of just months, both his mother and his father died of cancer. Because Dave's older brother and sister had commitments, Dave was left to care for his 7-year old brother. Eggers's memoir is a shining example of the type of fluid writing that many teachers nowadays encourage (and English teachers of yesteryear worked to quashed out of us). Eggers's story isn't easy to read -- I mean, how comfortable could it be to read a story about someone so young who had to deal with incredible loss, while at the same time bravely navigating the unknown by raising his own brother? Still, despite the difficult subject matter, because Eggers is such a lay-it-all-on-the-table writer, I found his memoir uplifting, in the same way you might be relieved after the burden of a long-held secret is revealed.

Family. Like Eggers, I guess we all strive to make the best out of our situations. Like Eggers, we may try to recreate a sense of family to fill in the gaps. Sometimes, like in Eggers's case, we may need to strike out on our own and be pioneers. Or, if you're really lucky, you might find family in unexpected places, like in the smiling faces of your friends on the dance floor.

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