Is there any relationship more complicated and, when it works, more rewarding, than the mother-daughter bond? Two authors with strong Vineyard ties have approached this essential kinship from both sides, from the formative years, and during the final years.
Sandra Eugster’s riveting memoir, Notes From Nethers (Academy Chicago Publishers, $18.95), shows us the author’s supremely normal childhood up until the age of nine when she enjoys a trio of best friends, a perfectly okay public school, and a big middle class home in a quiet neighborhood in Baltimore. But the time was the late Sixties, and Sandra’s already eccentric mother, Carla, caught up in a whirlwind of idealism, separates from her professor husband, sells the house, and moves herself and her three daughters to land in rural Virginia for the purpose of starting a commune.
Sandra’s world could not have changed more drastically if she’d fallen through the looking glass and bounced into Wonderland. In an era that caused even mild people to become radically weird, a procession of the lost, the poetic, the troubled and the seriously disturbed parade through the farm called Nethers, some of them transient, others pitching in as full-fledged communards.
Every commune needs its economic schtick to survive — hemp hammocks, organic goat cheese — and Carla and her brigade decide to establish a counter cultural boarding school. Classes are optional and young Sandra, although she’s reading Moby Dick at the age of 11, tucked away in her special tree-nook, manages to evade mathematics until years down the line when she needs to bone up for the S.A.T. (at which point she must face the stark fact that she hasn’t partaken of formal education since the third grade.)
In the meantime, she tends goats, raises untold generations of chickens, helps to build outhouses and geodesic domes, milks a legion of cows, prepares meals of brown rice and vegetables for 15 to 20 people day in and day out, sleeps in haystacks in the same clothes for weeks at a time, and lives in smothering proximity to far too many people, some of them beloved, others strange, and still others strange and scary.
Sandra’s story is a saga of aching loneliness, for she’s separated by age from almost everyone else in the commune. With the exception of one kindred spirit — a boy — who stays for far too short a time, she meets no one even remotely like herself during the whole of her growing up years.
In Notes From Nethers, normalcy has never seemed so luxurious, and Sandra’s re-entry into the “real” world is as tough a decompression process as emerging from the bottom of the sea and avoiding the bends.
In her memoir and her grown-up life she tries to come to terms with her likeable but often clueless mother who fails to see how the imposition of a tribal life style could be so traumatic for her youngest daughter.
Maybe it doesn’t take a village to raise a child. Maybe the family is still the most reliable incubator.
For those who loved the memoir The Glass Castle, or who lived through the Sixties, or who ever wondered about that amazing era, Notes From Nethers is a must-read.
D.G. Fulford grew up in a loving family, both nuclear and extended, on a tree-lined street in Columbus, Ohio. In her twenties she moved to Los Angeles with her husband and baby, where she wrote books and a weekly newspaper column. Later she split from her husband, raised her daughter alone, went on writing, colored her hair pink, red and tortoise shell, and in the Nineties moved to Virginia City, Nevada, where she opened a small bookstore and kept on writing. Her hair was still pink, red or tortoise-shell. When her father died and her mother seemed too vulnerable to be alone, Fulford moved back to Columbus.
Designated Daughter by D.G. Fulford with Phyllis Greene (Hyperion, $22.95) is about those grown-up female offspring, one per family, who step up to the plate to be with Mom. It’s not that the other siblings don’t care, they do. It’s just that the designated daughter cares more. Or worries more, or both. This lovely meditation on family ties and the unbearable prospect of losing the central pillar of one’s life, is unexpectedly uplifting. The key is in the sub-title: The Bonus Years With Mom, for in this merging of their lives, mother and daughter have drawn even closer to one another, and have learned to savor each moment of togetherness, knowing the next moment or the next could be the last.
This is a family of writers, which makes the telling of their stories all that much richer. D.G. Fulford, with her author/journalist brother, Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City, Once Upon a Town, to name a couple), wrote the best-selling To Our Children’s Children. Mother Phyllis, following her husband’s death, sat down and poured her heart into It Must Have Been Moonglow, Reflections On The First Year of Widowhood, and suddenly this lifelong wife and mother found herself on the book tour circuit.
Humor is one of this family’s major food groups, and they serve it up in even the grimmest of times. Here’s Fulford after her own and then her mother’s furnace expired one blustery winter: “We were spent. Then one morning I called her, and she sounded more relaxed and happy than I’d heard her, maybe ever. She had finally taken a Percocet. It was like talking to Timothy Leary. ‘I feel wonderful,’ she said. ‘Kind of floaty but wonderful.’ ‘I told you you’d love drugs.’”
Ms. Greene writes about attending her grandson’s graduation and the laborious climb, step by step, to the top of the bleachers. “I thought then and I am positive now that I should have just sat there for four years until our youngest grandchild, Hannah, graduates from [the same highschool].”
Fulford writes the body of each chapter, and Greene weighs in at the end of each, a charming codicil. The reader laughs and cries in equal measure — assuredly a cliché, but how often do we actually engage in this dual set of responses? At the end of Designated Daughter you find yourself longing for another chapter or two; you wish to wander in D.G. and Phyllis land indefinitely.
Of additional interest by a Vineyard-connected writer: author, public speaker and social advocate from Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Debra A. Collins, has produced a collection of spiritual reflections in A Glimpse of A Glimmer (dac publishing, $14.95). Ms. Collins, with a deft and incisive use of metaphor, examines many aspects of Christian faith in today’s world. In the preface, Mark J. Chironna, Ph.D., bishop of The Master’s Touch International Church writes about A Glimpse of A Glimmer, “You hold in your hands the work of a poet, a prophetic voice, and a wordsmith. A woman of God who has seen much, learned much, hoped much, believed much, and endured much. She knows what it is to trust God for the impossible again and again and to live life . . . in the firm conviction that God is up to something good.”
There is a Brunch Book Signing with Debra Collins, author of A Glimpse and a Glimmer, a Collection of Spiritual Reflections, is Sunday, August 10 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Lola’s Southern Seafood on Beach Road in Oak Bluffs.