Laundering the Whitneys

Anonymous (et al) is a frequent commenter here. Sometimes the comments are wonderful and sometimes they're a little off point but overall, I love them. This particular anonymous comment was exceptional and I thought it deserved special attention, particularly given the popularity of its subject matter right now. Thanks, Anonymous. Comment any time you want. And if you want a byline, you can either take credit in the comments of this post, or send me an e-mail.

The titles of my favorite novels come and go, but laundry duty will always be with me.

I read a novel about an elderly man and decide its meh, okay. Not a classic. The writing is good, far from brilliant, but transparent enough not to annoy me and that’s okay if only the story were more engaging. It’s the kind of novel where the wash gets done on time, the dishes never pile up, and the kids can count on three square meals a day. That’s a fair review to share with my friends, but it probably won’t get published in the New York Times. But, hey, I’m not a critic, just a reader.

The story didn't grab me. I didn't relate. The main character is forty years older, male and he’s dealing with the complications of old age. What kind of plot is that? I need something a little more appealing. Exciting. I’m a happily married housewife with four kids. My husband and I are trying to pay the mortgage, put a little away for the future, and raise sane kids without killing them. The demands of life make the romance of my college days difficult to replicate. In fact I’m not even sure if replication is the right approach. I tried that with my kids and look at how they turned out. I love a good romance novel and I’m not going to give up my thing no matter what my weird, nosy, self-taught psychologist, neighbor friend tells me over the backyard hedge about romantically obsessive thirty-something novel readers.

Then I get the call. It’s about my father. He's in trouble. He can't afford special care. Neither can I. And could I put him up in our extra room until we figure out something better? The first things I notice are his frequent slips of memory. It’s part of the degenerative disease that brought him to me. His seemingly insignificant fears are me frustrations. His idiosyncrasies become my aggravation. How is this going to play out for me? For my family? I put off wondering how it’s playing out for him and I pray for a solution. A cure. That’s a faith-filled prayer, isn’t it? The faith to heal. That God has power to cure my father and relieve me of this terrible burden.

But the relief I’m praying for has already been delivered. It’s occupying the spare room. I just haven't prepared a place to receive it. Yet.

I begin to notice my father’s anguish. He’s losing his sense of purpose in a life that was, until recently, filled with purpose. His childlike questions are, at first, annoying, but in his innocence I find terms for endearment. A smile on his face is worth a hundred prayers and I begin wearing my knuckles thin on heaven’s door, begging not for my happiness, but for his, searching not for my escape but pleading for his welfare. The mathematics of life, seen through his eyes, becomes a simple equation. The totality of his blamelessness, his virtue, his incorruptibility, his pure love communicate a cure. God didn’t anoint me his savior. Somehow, in the imperceptible sum of eternity’s calculus, I understand. God anointed my father the healer.

It’s been over six years now. My father is still with me. One son is on a mission. A daughter is in college in another state. There are two teens at home. I come across that novel about the elderly man and I remember it barely registered at “meh, okay” on the likeable-ometer. But heck, I’ve got some time, and nothing better to read. I’m surprised by how I’m riveted to every detail. The story is palpable. The human interaction enthralling. The hope ennobling. The poignancy plumbs the depths of my soul. It’s the kind of novel where the wash builds up, the dishes don't get done, and the kids have to forage for their own food. I hold the novel and cry. What was I thinking when I assigned this masterpiece to the trash heap of mediocrity? It’s a classic. It’s touching. Every word poetically penetrates my heart.

I discover that I’m not ground of the same optical prescription I was when first I read this timely work of art. The novel didn’t change. I did. And that is the secret garden of novel reading. I see myself seeing through a lens of a different color and over the course of my reading life I accumulate an eyeglass case bursting, filled with spectacles for blocking the sun, for farsightedness and shortsightedness, one with a feminine touch and another for my husband’s masculine keenness. There’s one prescribed for youthful impatience, and another for childlike innocence, and all of the glasses ground for the purpose of helping me read. In focus.

The laundry still piles up, but for a very different novel today than yesterday. And tomorrow it will back up behind yet a very different story.

Best of luck laundering the Whitneys.


Anonymous said...

Wow. That was beautifully articulated!

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

What a beautiful post! That was great.

Nichole Giles said...

Beautiful. And I share some of those feelings. Sometimes, certain novels are meant to be read at a different stage in life. They're written for people who need help with a specific emotion or situation--and not everyone can identify with it right off, but the ones who can will appreciate that writing forever.

That's why we write.

Thanks for sharing this beautiful post.

Josi said...

Wow, that was beautiful--and Anon makes a powerful point. Maybe I need to go back to some of those "Meh" books I discounted back when I couldn't relate.

Laurie LC Lewis said...

There is great wisdom here for readers and authors alike. Thanks, Anonymous, and thanks LDSP for recognizing a gem when you see it.