The Tender Land


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An extraordinary memoir of a family haunted by tragedy: “I’ve read very few contemporary novels that can rival Finneran’s nonfiction.” —Jonathan Franzen
 A superb portrait of family life, this “absorbing and thoughtful” memoir is a love story unlike any other (Library Journal). The Finnerans—Irish Catholic parents with five children in St. Louis—are a seemingly unexceptional family whose lives are upended by a catastrophic event: the suicide of the author’s fifteen-year-old younger brother after being publicly humiliated in junior high school.
A gentle, handsome boy, Sean Finneran was a straight-A student and gifted athlete, especially treasured by every member of his family. Masterfully, the book interweaves past and present, showing how inseparable the Finnerans are, and how the long accumulation of love and memory helps them survive their terrible loss.
“Unforgettable in its restraint and quiet beauty,” The Tender Land is a testament to the always-complicated ways in which we love one another (Publishers Weekly). In quietly luminous language, Kathleen Finneran renders the emotional, spiritual, and physical terrain of family life—its closeness and disconnection, its intimacy and estrangement—and pays tribute to the love between parents and children, brothers and sisters. In doing so, she “reminds us of how complicated, unique, and fragile an organism the family is” (The Boston Globe).
“[Great writers] change us. Kathleen Finneran fits in this niche. . . . Her prose sings.” —USA Today
“Beautifully written . . . Like life itself, this memoir evokes both sadness and joy.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch



Publié par
Date de parution 11 juin 2003
Nombre de visites sur la page 1
EAN13 9780547349282
Langue English

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Title Page Contents Copyright Dedication Epigraph Acknowledgments The Evidence of Angels Two Summers New Year’s Day, 1990 As My Father Retires Acts of Faith and Other Matters The Tender Land About the Author
First Mariner Books edition 2003
Copyright © 2000 by Kathleen Finneran ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to reproduce selec tions from this book, write to trade.permissions@hmhco.comor to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.
The Library oF Congress has cataloged the print edition as Follows: Finneran, Kathleen. The tender land : a family love story / Kathleen Finneran. p. cm. ISBN 0-395-98495-5 1. Suicide victims—Family relationships. 2. Teenage rs —Suicidal behavior. I. Title. HV6546.F53 2000 362.28’3’092—dc21 [B] 99-089868
eISBN 978-0-547-34928-2 v2.1017
For my mother and father, in whose lives I see the e vidence of faith and love and labor
Knd for Sean Set me as a seal upon your heart, for love is stron ger than death. from the Song of Songs
Inwriting this book, I was fortunate to receive assistance anB encouragement from many deodle. I am grateful to DaviB GoulB anB Kathryn Haslanger (who has guiBeB anB insdireB me with her intelligence, gooBness, anB grace), of the UniteB Hosdital FunB, for allowing me a leave of absence so early in my e mdloyment anB for their continueB kinBness anB suddort; the MacDowell Colony for the Arts anB Cottages at HeBgebrook for the sdace anB time to write in such beautiful s urrounBings; Jan Figueira for her derdetual odtimism anB gooB cheer; Alene HokenstaB for her clear anB comdassionate thinking; Patricia McEntee for being heldful with the book’s beginning; WenBy Surinsky for her honesty anB enthusiasm anB for the dassion she has for her own work anB for the work of those whom she aBmires; Julie Eakin for her arBent anB intelligent reaBing of the book, in its many incarnations, anB for the continuing Bialogue she carries on with me about it; Laura Podenoe for reaBing anB scrutinizing the manuscridt with such care; Anne arasch anB Marlene Eskin for always ask ing to reaB more; Pat Dick for her early influence anB sustaineB interest; Georgia in nington for droviBing much-neeBeB affirmation; Douglas Gaubatz for helding me to learn, through the examdle of his life anB his work, how to look at things, anB for teaching me that the aBventure lies within the routine; Janis Irene RoBBy for all that she has contributeB in life anB in frienBshid anB in art; anB Karin Cook for making me be more ho nest than I might have been anB for sharing drecious Bays that insdireB the book’s title diece. I regret not being able to thank in derson the two teachers who most influenceB my writing. They are the late SonBra Stang, whose rega rB maBe me want to write well anB whose suddort was instrumental in the dublication o f this book, anB the late Stanley Elkin, who droviBeB me with the recommenBations I n eeBeB to aBvance from one dlace to the next, anB whose work I lookeB to for instruc tion anB insdiration. I am Beedly grateful to Anne EBelstein, my agent, w hose dresence in my life— dersonally anB drofessionally—is one of the best th ings to have haddeneB to me as a consequence of my writing this book; anB to Elaine Pfefferblit, my eBitor, who saw some dotential in the few dages I sent to her, waiteB datiently while I wrote the rest, anB gave to the book, anB to me, her undaralleleB atten tion, intelligence, loyalty, wisBom, skill, anB gooB counsel. I thank my darents, Thomas anB Lois Finneran, my brother, Michael Finneran, anB my sisters, Mary ElBer anB Kelly Sonntag, for trusting me with the material of our lives anB for always taking an interest in what I write. For enlarging our family anB aBBing new life to it, I thank my sister-in-law, Sauni Van Pelt Finneran, anB my brothers-in-law, Dan ElBer anB Duane Sonntag, anB I thank, with the greatest love anB Belight, my nieces anB nedhews, Sarah, Jesse, anB Allison ElBer, anB Stedhanie anB Nicholas Sonntag. I thank, cherish, anB am forever altereB by the derson most resdonsible for my having written this book—my brother Sean Patrick Finneran—anB regret that he BiB not realize the joy of living longer. Most esdecially, anB most affectionately, I thank R oberta Swann—in whom my gooB fortune has its origins—for reaBing anB refining wh at I wrote anB for giving me the frienBshid I neeBeB to begin this book anB to finis h it.
The Evidence of Angels
Tothose who have seen The Child, however dimly, howev er incredulously, The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all. —W.H. Auden My mother believes she gave birth to an angel. She told me so when I stopped by one day for lunch, and though we have never discuss ed it, I imagine she told Michael, Mary, and Kelly just as matter-of-factly. “I think there was a reason he was only here for a short time,” she said. “I think he was an angel s ent to save someone.” My father was sitting across from me at the kitchen table. From merely looking at his face, I can usually tell exactly what he is thinkin g, especially if anything has been said that either of us might consider questionable. He h as communicated silently with me since I was a child, staring at me from across a ro om or in the rearview mirror of the car until I look up to see what he wants to tell me. It is an unspoken language of astonishment, criticism, and condemnation. It has a lways kept us close. The first time my father communicated with me this way I was five. He had picked me up from kindergarten. Usually my mother picked me u p, but it was a beautiful fall day, and even though he was still in the construction bu siness, and good weather was a commodity, my father was splendidly carefree someti mes, coming home early and taking us on long drives to undisclosed destination s, special places he wanted to show us.But before we could go to wherever we were going that day, we had to drop off a boy in my class. His mother drove us to school and mine drove us home. When he saw that my father had come instead, the boy ran for the fro nt seat, where I usually sat, so I climbed in back and sat behind my father. As he sta rted the car, my father looked at me in the rearview mirror as if to say he recognized w hat the boy had done, usurping the seat that should have been mine. When we got to his house, the boy told my father to pull all the way up to the top of the driveway, as close to the front door as he could. “Closer. A little closer,” the boy said. It was som ething my mother did every day without direction, the boy having instructed her the first time we took him home. He hated to walk any farther than he had to. Now the boy sat up high in the front seat to see out past the hood of the car, saying, “Just a few more feet.” My father looked at me in the rearview mirror again. “Here is a real baby,” his e yes said. I felt privileged then, and I didn’t fight for the front seat later that day, as I usually did when we picked up Michael and Mary from North American Martyrs, the school I would go to the following year when I started first grade. Instead, I stayed in th e back to watch in the rearview mirror for anything else my father might want to tell me. It was almost twenty years later, and many words ha d passed unspoken between us by the time my mother revealed her belief that my y ounger brother, Sean, was an angel. It was a few weeks after Sean’s death, and s he spoke with such certainty and composure that I longed for my father to look at me and let me know what he was thinking. But he kept his eyes cast toward the table and continued to eat his sandwich without the slightest reaction, leaving me to wonde r whether my mother’s assessment of Sean’s life and death was something he had alrea dy accepted, maybe even agreed with. He was unwilling to look at me, to meet my ey es in a way that might trivialize my mother’s faith. Or perhaps the possibility of what she said consoled him, as it must
have consoled my mother. Maybe the trauma of losing their fifteen-year-old son was lessened by believing his life was more than it mig ht have been. Maybe faith has that effect. My mother’s faith has always been a natural, consta nt, almost practical part of our household. Her days begin and end in prayer. Each m orning she sits in the living room with a large glass of instant iced tea and roams pa ge by page through her prayer book, offering up her prayers for the living, her hopes for the dead. It is a time of privacy, but one she conducts in plain view, fielding her family ’s early morning inquiries calmly and quietly without ever looking up. When I still lived at home—as a child, as a teenager, and even as a young adult—I used to take my cereal into the living room, sit cross-legged on the couch across from my mother’s chair, and eat my breakfast while she prayed. I never spoke and she never acknowledged me , until, having finished my cereal, I would get up to leave and she would hold her glass of tea toward me, asking if I’d mind adding more ice. It was a ritual. It was a way to participate, if only peripherally, in my mother’s routine. I don’t have the same kind of faith as my mother, a nd as I sat there that day eating lunch with my parents, I turned her belief about Se an into something more like metaphor, though I knew that was not how she meant it. To her, Sean was not merely angelic; he was an actual angel. And I knew if I as ked the obvious question—which of us was he sent here to save—she would have many ans wers. Maybe it wasn’t just one of us. Maybe it was all of us. Or maybe it was some one we never even knew. After we finished lunch, my mother got up and stood at the sink, staring out the kitchen window. “Tom, the bird feeders are almost empty,” she said to my father, and, turning to me, “We had a cardinal come this morning. I saw him sitting on the back fence when I woke up, and then he kept coming closer until he was rig ht here on the windowsill. It’s such a thrill to see that red in winter.” Above the kitchen window, a placard painted with flowers read, “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is you r gift to God.” One of the many aphorisms that could be found hanging in our house, it was painted to look like a cross-stitch sampler and reminded me of the prayers my mo ther embroidered that hung above the bed Mary and I shared when we were little . One of the prayers—“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”—confused me. I didn’t und erstand the wordkeepin terms of preservation. To me, it meant possession, permanent or otherwise. It meant asking my mother “Can we keep it?” whenever a stray animal wa ndered into our yard. It meant our neighbors keeping our goldfish while we were on vac ation. Saying the prayer, I thought we were asking God to hold on to our souls—to keep them—while we slept, and I imagined God gathering them up every night and storing them somewhere, a large warehouse of souls being guarded until we got up ag ain. And this is why I was confused: If God was already keeping our souls duri ng the night, which we had prayed for him to do in the first place, it didn’t make se nse to ask him—if we died—to take what he already had. When I asked my mother about this, I wasn’t able to explain my confusion clearly, and feeling frustrated by this i nability, I kept my other questions to myself. How did God know what time we were going to wake up? I wondered. Did our souls come back automatically as soon as our eyes o pened? What if my soul got mixed up with Mary’s? Sometimes I woke up on her si de of the bed and she woke up on mine, with no memory of how it happened. Did God have a system to keep track of such stuff?
As a child, saying that prayer every night, lying i n bed below the sampler my mother had stitched, I never considered the possibility th at any of us would die in our sleep. Just as I never thought it would happen when, if Michael, Mary, and I had been fighting, my mother made us apologize before we went to bed, telling us we would feel bad forever if one of us died during the night and we n ever got the chance to say we were sorry. But now it had happened, and I knew, too well, what my mother meant. Sean hadn’t died in his sleep, but his death was sudden. None of us thought one day that he would not be here the next. And though we had no qu arrels with him that had gone unforgiven, it didn’t matter. He had killed himself. For the rest of us, there could be no greater guilt. We had not seen his pain, and for th at we would always be sorry. My father went outside to fill the bird feeders. Wa tching him, my mother tapped on the window and pointed toward the fence. The cardin al had come back. “Come see,” she told me. The cardinal flew closer to my father and followed him as he finished filling the feeders. It was the food, of course, that the c ardinal was following, but when my father came back into the house, the cardinal, instead of perching on one of the feeders, sat on the empty birdbath and stared at th e kitchen window as if it were waiting for someone to come out again, and then it flew up and stood on the windowsill, as it had when my mother saw it that morning, and looked at us through the glass. “Hi, pretty bird,” my mother cooed. “Hi, pretty boy .” We had been watching the cardinal for only a few minutes when Kelly came hom e. The youngest of us, she was twelve and still in grade school when Sean died. I was twenty-four, Mary and Michael two and four years older. Kelly threw her coat on a chair and her books on th e table. “What are you looking at?” she asked. “A cardinal,” my mother answered. “What’s the big deal about a cardinal?” Kelly went to the refrigerator and got out the milk and then pushed herself between us at the wind ow. She was the only child now of what my mother referred to as her second family, Se an and Kelly born so many years after Michael, Mary, and me. She looked at the card inal, then turned to my mother. “Don’t even try to say that’s Sean,” she said, and seeing a smile on my mother’s face, my father and I started laughing. “I mean it,” Kelly said. She was blunt about everything, including my mother’s beliefs, and I imagined her rolling her eyes at the idea of Sean as an angel. “Yeah, right,” she’d say, ready to tell us all the ways he wasn’t. When my mother went out to sprinkle some seeds on the windowsill, I thought the cardinal would fly away, but it didn’t. My mother s aid something to it and then she came back in and stood at the kitchen sink again, watchi ng it through the window. “What’s wrong, little guy?” she asked. “Aren’t you hungry?” The cardinal looked at her for a few minutes and then flew off to the telephone wire, th e tree, and out of the yard altogether. “Goodbye, little guy,” my mother said. “Goodbye, pretty red bird.” As I stood there with her, watching nothing now, I thought about how much she and Sean sounded like each other. They both talked easi ly and openly to animals, using the same tone of voice, sometimes even the same words. “Goodbye, little guy,” my mother called out to the cardinal. “Go on, little guy, you ’re free now,” I had once heard Sean say to a frog. We had been riding our bikes on the river road that runs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi, just north of where we liv ed in the suburbs of St. Louis. It was a Saturday near the end of October, a few weeks after Sean’s fifteenth birthday, and we had planned a longer ride than the one we usually took to the Brussels Ferry and back. This time, instead of touching the ferry sign and turning around, we would board the