September 18 — Louisville, Kentucky
I always find that a reading in my hometown is both warmer and more disconcerting than reading in other cities, warmer, because so many old friends and relatives are sitting on the chairs at the back of the bookstore, disconcerting because they are old friends and relatives who do not view me first of all as a writer. Either they know too much about me, or not enough. They have come out of that mixture of kindness and curiosity—what we call support—that leaves me a little breathless, like a hearty slap on the back.
My dear friend Carol, who with her husband Michael has run Carmichael’s Bookstore and its twin for thirty-one years, as chain bookstores and other independents come and go, introduces me with cheerful affection; I may have been one of her first customers, long ago when I lived down the block in Louisville, and they have launched each of my new books ever since.
Then it’s my turn. I go to the lectern, thank Carol, and stand for a moment, looking out at the crowd. I recognize some faces and not others, all expectant, waiting. Briefly I wish, as I always do, that I could spend the hour finding out who they are; their stories may not be as shapely as mine but they are probably just as interesting. Perhaps some day I will have the nerve to lay my new book aside and ask them to talk about themselves, which would certainly produce an awkward silence.
Instead I begin to read a favorite from my new collection, “Sagessse,” one of a pair set in France in the late 1940’s.
The story has a smoothness and a richness, like half-melted chocolate, that makes it easy to read; dread and anguish lie under that smoothness and sweetness and may not be detected by the listeners. At fifteen pages, it is short enough; I do not have to gallop to complete the reading in twenty minutes, which is my ideal time.
There is a lovely pause at the end. We are all drawing new breaths, as though fresh air has blown into the room on the heels of that girl, the narrator, her time, her place, the shadows of the world war just past, which she does not understand, but feels.
I ask for questions. They are wonderful questions, the best of my readings so far: how the war affects children, my theme, and how many women have felt, as girls, the “touch on the naked thigh” that is a speechless violation; one woman tells me it happened to her twice and she has never mentioned it before.
Then twenty or so line up to buy books and I take out my favorite yellow fountain pen, filled as always with dark brown ink, and begin to sign. This time, I make no mistakes; I don’t forget or misspell names, and the few seconds of talk with each of my readers fill me with hope, as though we are all at the beginning of a long and fruitful conversation.
“My name is Darlene,” the next woman in line tells me, and as I begin to write, I say, “That’s one of my favorite names. The woman who raised me had a niece named Darlene.”
The next woman in line says, “That’s my sister.”
It is Barbara, whom I haven’t seen since we were both about eleven. Barbara, and Darlene: beloved nieces of Lucy Cummings, who loved us all.
We have found each other again, after more than sixty years.
I think of how Barbara must have decided to come to the reading, of how she may have wondered if I would remember our connection.
“I visit Aunt Lucy’s grave four times a year,” she says, and her eyes fill with tears.
I will visit it this week, for the first time in years.
“Mending”, with its stories of torn and sometimes mended souls, has brought us together; we will see each other again.
Lucy would be pleased.