The Catcher in the Rye

October 25, 2009 at 10:25 am (Art, Book review, Childhood, Family, Gorgeous Writing, Lectio, Writing)

For your listening pleasure while you are reading this post, here is the Count Basie Band (my dad’s favorite) playing Comin’ Through the Rye.

rye

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Mabel Ruth Kellick, in her teens. Whenever she showed me this photo, she would always say, “Mabel, coming through the rye.”

One of my three books waiting to get published (Who am I kidding? I am waiting for an agent to discover me and wrangle one of them into something salable) is called “Wonderful Plans of Old.” It starts with a family intervention to deal with the father’s alcoholism, and then goes backwards and forwards in time to explore the roots of this moment as well as the effects after it. When I was writing it, I was reading the Book of Isaiah, because it seemed to fit so well with the ideas of Desolation and Redemption I was exploring in the book, and each chapter title is taken from Isaiah. This chapter is from the very middle. Don’t worry: I will be tying all this seemingly random stuff together!

Among Fat Ones, Leanness

Kate was gone to China – we rarely heard from her. Patrick was home sometimes, six weeks at college followed by six weeks of working at home. And I was a high school senior: pianist, valedictorian, tennis team captain, and so very alone. My English class read The Catcher in the Rye that year, and like all adolescents I felt that Holden Caufield was my voice: repulsed by all the phoniness of adulthood and reluctant to move into the contradictions it seemed to mandate.

I rode the bus home from school, sitting in the front seat with a scarf over my nose and mouth to filter out the smoke – not all of it tobacco – that drifted from the back of the bus. Our driver was known to allow – even condone – smoking, so the bus was packed with students willing to walk ten blocks home from the wrong stop to smoke their pot in warmth for one mile. Roxie the bus driver would snap her gum, big ball earrings bobbling, and cackle to the back, “You smokin’ that horse shit back there?” She purposely aimed for the big bump halfway down Washburn Street and we would all fly into the air. Everyone but me laughed.

When I got dropped off, I walked across the street, got the spare key from the garage, and let myself in. No one was home. I’d drop my books at the kitchen table, take off my coat, and start the ritual. Holden had a malted and grilled cheese at the soda fountain. Without the equipment of a diner, I made do with a cheese sandwich on toast and a chocolate milkshake. Then I would line up twenty-five Ritz crackers – five by five – and slather them with peanut butter. Once I had eaten those, I checked into the ice cream – usually half of a half gallon would go next. Then Oreos: one column. By then my stomach felt tight, way beyond Holden and into a territory of loneliness Holden did not know, a territory where no one saw me, no one knew what I was doing, where no one seemed to notice that I was home, wanting someone to care about my day, wanting someone to notice that I had emotionally quit everything.

The upstairs bathroom was the place: away from anyone, close the door, turn on the fan, run the water, pretend I was a teenage girl obsessed with washing my face in case anyone got home early. No one knew – or really cared – what I was doing, even when I repeated this part of the ritual right after dinner. It really became quite easy. I would drink an enormous glass of water, and then it was amazing how easily it all came out – it didn’t even taste bad, just a watered down version of what I had just eaten. Three times and it was all out. I had had the feast – treated myself if no one else would – and still did not gain weight – as thin as a Junior Miss at least. So thin that my period stopped and Mom finally took me to an endocrinologist who took one look at me and said, “She’s too thin.”

I got thin, very thin, and I would lie in the hot June sun in the driveway on the lawn chair wearing only the Bloomies underwear and camisole I had bought on a class trip to New York City, the camisole rolled up to expose my browned stomach. I had no bikini and Mom wouldn’t allow one, but my blue-and-pink-striped cotton undies worked the same, as long as I had covered up by the time Mom got home. Our backyard was shaded by a huge maple, but there was a strip of strong sunlight along our driveway right next to the Gardiner Girls’ lilac bushes, which were on the other side of the waist-high chain link fence.

Mrs. Dixon came over one day and found me this way. I didn’t hear her approach since I had my Walkman on, slathering myself with coconut oil. “It must be nice to be so perfect,” she said, looking down her nose at me. She obviously disapproved of a teenage girl half dressed lying in view from Morton Avenue, or else she was jealous – a former beauty queen herself, believe it or not – whose figure with teenage children now was not what it had been.

I smiled in a knowing adolescent way and pulled my sunglasses back down over my eyes. If only boys would have the same response, but my obsession with my weight was mixed with a fear of sex, and the physiological effects of thinness had been to halt my hormones, leaving me desireless. I craved the jealousy of my female peers more than attraction by males. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a boyfriend if I had one.

The night of my first drink, I had gone to a senior dinner dance with a childhood pal, and there, in a funky bar in Buffalo, I had several white Russians. They tasted good, and I enjoyed, for a time, the way I warmed up, chatted with everyone, danced without inhibitions. But on the way home I felt bad, guilty, headachy, and when I crashed into my room that night, I planned the next morning to confess and gain absolution from my parents.

When I finally awoke, a beautiful, sunny spring day, my head ached, and I lumped down the stairs to the kitchen where my father was making a second pot of coffee. I slumped into a chair and drank the glass of orange juice he offered.

“How was the dance?”

“OK, I guess.”

“Did Jeremy behave?”

“Barely.” I finished the orange juice and poured some more.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked. “Aren’t you guys going to church?”

Dad sat down across from me and took a deep breath, sighed long.

“Mom’s upstairs in her room.”

I looked up. Something had happened.

“She had to have her stomach pumped last night.” I stopped. I had a vision of an ambulance in the driveway, reds lights flashing on the neighbors’ houses and on the Sansones’ garage wall. Mom on a gurney coming out the front door.

“She … wanted to show me what I looked like, so she drank an entire bottle of wine.”

I felt sick to my stomach. “Is she OK?”

“Yes. She’s going to be OK. She’s resting upstairs.”

“Can I go see her?”

He nodded.

I got up, holding my throbbing head, and went into the living room and up the stairs to the second floor. Across the hall I could see that the door of the sewing room where she had been sleeping of late on the spare bed was shut. I approached it quietly and peeked in through the crack. She had her eyes closed, but she heard me at the door and opened them.

“Hi, Moll. You can come in.”

I opened the door, which squeaked a little, and closed it behind me. The lovely soft sun had risen and came in a strip under the shades on the east window. I moved slowly to the bed and sat down on the edge.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Kind of bad,” she whispered. “Did Dad tell you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry. On the night of your date.” She cleared her throat, which appeared to be a painful process. “How was it?”

“It was fine. Do you need anything?”

“No.”

“Can I lie down with you?” She made room, turned over and faced the wall. I lay down on top of the blanket and spooned in next to her, like she used to do with me when I was scared by a nightmare, but our positions were reversed. I put my arm around her and just stayed. The shade glowed with the sunlight outside, but in her darkened room it felt more like sunset.

She was there through the next two weeks, up until my graduation. Dad called and told her boss that she was very sick. After school I would come home and lie with her. Then I would go back downstairs and sit at the table, doing my homework: Calculus, AP Bio, English, Psych – a breeze really, it just took time – and maybe I would play the piano, or practice my valedictory address, or I would take the car and drive to the school a few blocks away and practice my forehand, hitting my tennis ball against the big brick wall, over and over and over and over until blisters formed and broke open and my hands bled.

Count BasieDid the music end? Here it is again.

I would not wish such a senior year on my worst enemy. Unfortunately, many students in high school DO have this kind of senior year. I have been teaching seniors now for eleven years, and I am convinced that it is one of the most stressful and difficult years of a kid’s life. It is like Kindergarten in reverse. Kindergarten means leaving the safety of home for the unknown of school; senior year involves leaving not only the now thoroughly known of school, but also leaving hometown, everyone known and loved for 18 years of life, and heading into the unknown of adult life.

Yes, some students are Homecoming King or Queen and apply early decision and are accepted at their first choice college, with a happily married mom and dad standing proudly behind them. But plenty of others are dealing with a parent’s illness or divorce or a major family problem, they have suffered socially throughout school and are glad to be leaving it behind, though they are simultaneously terrified of the blank slate before them. Sometimes no one has ever seen or understood their situation, and they have no support at all as they apply to colleges, all the while knowing that there is no money available at home to support this huge and expensive venture.

catcher in the ryeThese kids need a catcher in the rye. They are technically adults, and yet many of them are running dangerously close to a cliff’s edge. Oddly enough, I have found myself in a job where I can BE the catcher in the rye for some of these kids. In my previous teacher job, I saw 75 kids a day for 40 minutes each: they were a blur. Because I now have a small class of students and see them for over two hours a day, my relationship with them is very intense and becomes very close. I know their lives and their dreams. Also, the programs that my colleagues and I run require students to leave the safety and familiarity of their home schools and take an early leap into independence and novelty. We often end up with the kids who are happy to be leaving their high schools behind.

Because I was also one of these types, I find myself with a rare ability to see their fears and their hurts, and I find myself so grateful to be in a position to help them, to the best of my ability. To quote Holden, my main man,

“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Not crazy, Holden. I hear you, dude. Many of us have fallen off that cliff because no one was there to catch us. But anyone who has been over that cliff can see – preternaturally almost – those heading toward the edge. You can see it in their eyes, in their stance, in their words or their silence. If you personally survive the fall and pick yourself back up, you are in a unique position to see those little kids nearing the edge and to try to get in the way.

My heart aches for the Holdens and the Mollys of the world, and the many real teenagers I have seen undergo this process. My heart aches because it ached for me going through it. Holden sobs for Phoebe in her joy on the carousel, and it is true that innocence – either in its still pure form or lost through no fault of the child – is worth our sobbing over. The events that cause this are often beyond anyone’s control; who can stop cancer or death or any of a variety of things from raining on our parades? But I wish here to offer thanks that I have been given the opportunity to see and assuage what pain I can. God grant me the wisdom and the strength to do so.

carousel

Carousel by Leeanne McDonough as found at http://dazzioart.com/

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13 Comments

  1. Liz in Virginia said,

    Hi, Maureen —

    I loved this . . . .

    This may be a little tangential, but your idea of Desolation and Redemption stayed in my head as I was reading, and I’m wondering: for your narrator (is her name Molly?) is the desolation itself what redeems her? Or in a future chapter does she encounter redemption or a Redeemer?

    I ask this because of the notion we’ve sort of bandied about earlier — that some religious traditions teach that the suffering itself has redemptive power (“offer it up;” a friend telling me that my dying mother’s suffering was “a gift” — from whom? Her? God?); others point toward redemption as an escape somehow from the desolation . . .

    I’m just wondering how your Molly-narrator will travel that road — and how do you see it for your students?

    Even more tangential — I just finished reading COLUMBINE, and cried for one of the two murderers — who was so clearly suffering and had no one to rescue him from his demons.

    Deep . . . !

    –XOXO — Liz

  2. Kittery said,

    Wow. You *will* get published.
    I loved this. Lots. 🙂

  3. Amy in Ohio said,

    Wow.wow.wow.

  4. Maureen said,

    Ah, my fan club! Thanks Amy and Kittery and Liz!

    The book in its current incarnation was structured in a way far beyond my abilities to pull off, but here was the premise:
    It starts at the intervention: Molly’s mom leaves, Molly comes home from college, the dad goes to rehab. Then it jumps around in time, backwards and forwards and twisty around (I think my pretentious plan was to simulate a Celtic knot) to show both how the various peoples got to that point in time (back to families leaving Ireland and conceiving out of wedlock and alcoholic childhood), The first half is the Desolation part, caused by bad fortune, circumstances, human decisions, and genetics. Part two of the book deals with Redemption, again going back and forth in time from the reunion of the family after rehab. It shows the roots of moving toward wholeness, and again looks at the combination of human choice, good fortune, faith, following a moral compass, and love – for family and mate.
    What I attempted to do was show that courage, risk, love over all, is redemptive, and that cowardice, fearfulness, self-centeredness is what leads to Desperation.

  5. Maureen said,

    For my students, I try to at least be their fan club, their cheerleader, their person who sees them and values them and believes in them.
    At the end of Girl, Interrupted (the book) Susanna sees Girl, Interrupted at her Music and starts crying, saying to that girl “I SEE you. I SEE you” and I always get sad and think how much it would have helped if someone had seen Molly, seen beyond the “perfection” to the hurt and loneliness.

  6. Liz in Virginia said,

    And had seen Maureen . . .

    XOXO

  7. Kittery said,

    Your “pretentious plan,” lol. I love it. I think with the proper encouragement (an editor) you could definitely make that happen. A figure eight, at least. 🙂

    If your students don’t realize or appreciate (fully) what you’re trying to do for them now, they will when they get older. And it will make such a difference, knowing someone saw, and someone cared..

  8. Maureen said,

    Ah, Liz, I know it’s clear as day that this is actually a memoir. I switched the names so I could see it all more objectively and play with it artistically, and some chapters I completely made up, especially ones where I attempted to write about my ancestors in Ireland. That chapter above is all real, though.

  9. Mrs. Bartlett said,

    Liz, re the Columbine book, I just read an essay by the mom of Dylan Klebold in Oprah magazine. Man, it was just heart-wrenching.
    One of my Redemption chapters deals a little bit with that issue. I’ll have to brush that one up and post it ….

  10. Liz in Virginia said,

    He’s the heartbreaker; the other one (Eric Harris) is presented less sympathetically (forensically diagnosed as a psychopath). But Dylan — tragic, tragic.

  11. thegirlfromtheghetto said,

    I was just stopping by, and so happy to read this post. You are so talented, believe it will happen, and it will!

  12. kfsullivan said,

    Read more of your writing. You are good and I will pray with you for the chance to show more of us so. I teach high school (seniors) as well, love Lectio Divina and good books. I will be reading, trying to learn a thing or two from your writing. You are far ahead of me.

  13. katekellick said,

    hi there just doing some research about my family and have found the photo of mabel ruth kellick, please who posted this?

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