Books. Funny, what they do to us. Fill us with hope and wonder. Hurl us against the rocks of despair. Ask us unanswerable questions. Make us long for home.
In the pages of books, people and places come to some sort of real life. Often, if Pinterest boards are to be believed, the lives of the merely fictional far out-rank our own. Phrases like “I do not want to just read books, I want to climb inside them and live there,” or “she reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live” front lovely pictures of books, books, books, and we sigh plaintively, knowing we’ve connected with another faceless reader’s soul in cyberspace as we ‘pin’ the sentiment. (I often wonder if those who pin their great love for reading love the pinning more than the reading, but I digress…)
This morning, while the tests I ought to be grading nagged me from their folder on the coffee table, I curled up with my ‘cuppa’ and finished a book. A light snow coat outside the window, a dog’s snores in the background — who wouldn’t choose reading over grading tests? And so, I rationalized: I must be filled up! Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant did its office, filling me, sadly, with emptiness. I do love a paradox, but I dislike the unease Tyler’s characters settled on me. Pearl Tull’s small life — friendless and gray, with grown children who don’t quite know what to make of her, or worse, to do with her — might that one day be my own? I shudder at the thought.
“She had never been the type to gaze backward, had not filled his childhood with ‘When I was your age,’ as so many mothers did. And, even now, she didn’t use these photos as an excuse for reminiscing. She hardly discussed them at all, in fact — even those in which she appeared. Instead, she listened, alert, to any details he could give her about her past self. Was it that she wanted an outsider’s view of her? Or did she hope to solve some mystery? ‘Am I smiling, or am I frowning? Would you say that I seemed happy?’ ” (263)
No. Pearl never seems so. She ‘makes do.’ She ‘survives.’ She ‘carries on.’ A Depression-era stoic, Pearl. Abandoned early by a man unfit for a husband’s life. Her children often fail to understand her. She reliably returns the favor. A call to duty, and longing to be free. It is the story always of children and parents; time reverses the roles as the days slide ceaselessly into years, until suddenly, the years grow short. And we grow homesick.
What are we longing for? Family. Warmth. Community. Shared purpose & meaning. Love. Portrayed everlastingly by the gathering at the table. It’s always been the same story. “Come to dinner. I’ve prepared a feast. Welcome home.”
We’re all prodigals, you know. Longing for home. To be happy, at long last.
Pearl looked for signs of ‘happiness’ in the mementos of her youth. Ezra, Pearl’s middle child, narrates a bit of Pearl’s past as they look at all those mouldering photographs and diaries together. An epiphany of sorts occurs to him: “How plotless real life was! In novels, events led up to something. In his mother’s diaries, they flitted past with no apparent direction.” (268)
Ezra is wrong, of course. Real life (the one we all live) is the ‘greatest story ever told,’ vibrantly colored with suffering and joy. Filling us, by turns, with longing, hope, despair. Just like books, actually, but better. Here, in real life, the promise of ‘happily ever after’ exists. Until we find it, a bout of homesickness and a hunger for more than this life offers, steadily point us in the right direction.
Funny, what books do to us.