Editor’s Note: In honor of Nicholas Delbanco’s retirement from the University of Michigan, Fiction Writers Review is dedicating this week’s content to a celebration of Delbanco’s influential career as both a writer and a teacher. Delbanco is the author of nearly 30 books of fiction and non-fiction and is the recipient of numerous awards. On December 4th, a symposium entitled “The Janus-Faced Habit: The Art of Teaching and the Teaching of Art” will take place in Ann Arbor as part of a tribute to his legacy.
If, as Aristotle says, “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies,” then it is through the love of philia, a fondness or an appreciation, that I can write of the love that I have for Nicholas Delbanco’s short story “Departure,” published in Five Points.
The triple-headed goddess Hecate was once highly revered by ancient Athenians. In his writings, Hesiod mentions that Zeus himself honored Hecate above all things mortal and immortal. Not even the stars could outshine her. Triple-bodied, Hecate was known as the guardian of crossroads, as well as associated with ghosts, the dead, and blessings upon family. Often depicted in art as a statuesque female holding three flaming torches, the goddess is one in being. Much like Hecate herself, “Departure” is triple-bodied, structured in this case as a triptych—a portrait of three distant siblings (Joanna, Claire, and David) on the day of discovering the news that their mother has died.
Also like Hecate, each sibling carries their own flame, their own light—torches, ignited and fueled by their mother, Alice, whose light has, at last, expired. In the story, Delbanco creates a portrait of a family via triangulation, with Alice at its center. Each section moves through the interior landscapes and the quotidian experiences of these characters as the day carries them up to the news of this passing and, at times, circles back before they know she is gone.
The story carries something deeper, too: familial secrets, isolation, and loneliness. It confronts how individuals are inevitably shaped by their intergenerational and personal histories, and asks important questions about the meaning of family, namely: How well do we know one another? How do dark secrets–and death–reshape a family across generations? And how might hidden knowledge brings dead memories to life? In the process, “Departure” leaves a reader with a haunted feeling, its insights suggesting that at times invisible forces can, in fact, connect family members–despite great distances and perhaps even against their wishes.
But beyond structure and suspense, a good story must speak intimately to its reader, and it must do so through a voice with its own breath. And in this case, through the voices of these three characters, we are offered a portrait in fragments, which collectively captures a family separated by the American landscape but held together by its matriarch.
PART I: Joanna
“Departure” opens with silent images that capture Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as seen through the eyes of Joanna, a thoughtful, somewhat heartbroken woman:
A gull above her circles, pauses in its rising flight and releases what it carries and let’s the thing plummet and crack. It is, she knows, a razor clam, or maybe a mussel or oyster; the parking lot has been littered with shells, a white glaze of shattered dropped shellfish, and there are only two cars. Joanna drives past. A brand-new Volvo station wagon, complete with baby-seat and snowshoes, waits at the edge of the stairs to the beach; a fisherman’s truck stands idling there also, and the man inside raises his hand. She waves back—it’s the thing to do—but parks at the end of the lot. There, smoking, she stares at the bay.
Joanna is the first of the three siblings presented, and her eye betrays an awareness of an ongoing and inescapable life cycle of destruction and rebirth. Torn between the responsibilities of her unpredictable teenage daughter, Leah, who has renamed herself Artemesia (“because Artemisia was an artist, a painter in the old days when women weren’t supposed to paint…and since fifteen-year-old Leah was into nose-rings and tattoos this year she liked to think her name was Artemesia, Art for short”), the lingering past of both of her ex-husbands, and a new attempt at salvaging fleeting moments of passion with her roguish and somewhat unsatisfying lover, Joanna persists in a suspended state, much like her town on the Cape in February, which lives by tourism and dies again every winter. Delbanco’s season-eerie locale is rendered with an eye that is nothing less than expert, and equally honest. It is only fitting when Joanna hears of her mother’s death that she recalls the circling seagulls:
It’s not relief exactly, this shock that floods and fills her chest, but when Joanna, sitting, says, “I knew it, I knew something like this would happen today” she feels a kind of rising release, a sort of confirmation: the gull’s maw and desperate grackles and everything bottoming out.
PART II: Claire
In the second section of the piece the reader is introduced to Joanna’s sister, Claire. Immediately, Claire is presented as somewhat opposite of her sister. She is holding her life together through her mastery of domesticity, her skill at organizing rooms and interior design. Claire has an eye for order. Her closest friends seek her advice on how to brighten up their homes, make life appear more beautiful than it might otherwise be.
She has thought about this lately: branching out. It would be gratifying, wouldn’t it, to put your own individual stamp on other people’s houses and to unlock the energy and realize the potential of other people’s space. She doesn’t need the income and wouldn’t want to charge her friends, but yesterday at tea, for example, when Julie Cantor said, what’s wrong with this room—standing in what she insists on describing as her parlor and saying it doesn’t feel friendly enough and just doesn’t make people welcome—Claire understood in a heartbeat the problem was the lighting fixtures and how they didn’t work at all with that overstuffed couch-set and the Queen Anne armoire.
Claire also understands the needs of other people. Yet like many caretakers who are more concerned with putting the needs of others before her own, she is often left uncared for herself. Her husband, for example, offers little empathy during Claire’s moment of abandonment to attend to her mother. In the midst of Claire’s aspirations, her husband has grown excessively interested in exercising. She is acutely aware that he is either on the verge of a mid-life crisis, or lying about his motivations for improved physical prowess. However, Claire does not press him on the issue. Instead, she brilliantly focuses her energies towards the delicate “putting together” of the fineries surrounding her atmosphere. More importantly, it is through Claire that the reader sees a shared moment with her dying mother, Alice. For it is Claire the caregiver who has traveled east most frequently, recalling an earlier trip upon receiving the news of her mother’s death. Sitting at her mother’s beside the previous month, initially not recognized as her mother’s daughter, she muses on the way we come to understandings about our selves and others:
It was peculiar, wasn’t it, how something you don’t notice becomes all you notice suddenly—how, for example, she had taken air for granted and paid no attention to her mother’s labored breathing, and then all of a sudden she noticed the sheet and how it rose and fell. Alice had been sturdy once, not fat or plump so much as sturdy, but now she seemed near-skeletal, the long slow declension from congestive heart disease and the body’s collapse near-complete.
“How did you get here, Claire de Lune?”
“No problem. I flew from Detroit.”
Alice was lucid now. “When?”
“Do you want anything?” she asked. “Is there anything . . .”
“How was the trip?”
“You’re looking well,” she lied.
In this moment we not only see Claire’s vulnerability as a daughter who must witness her mother’s decline, but also the strength and generosity she musters to offer this small kindness in telling her that she “looks well.” Claire’s concern for others is genuine, as well as her own ability to lie to herself, if not for any other reason than to keep moving forward in her own life. Claire is the keystone in the triptych of her family. Like the goddess Hecate herself, Alice was once caretaker and mother. Blesser and carrier of hidden shadows in the trenches of the family’s psyche. Upon Alice’s deathbed, it is Claire who takes on the completed role of caretaker and mother. This part of the triptych offers insight into how Claire is now the parent to her own mother, with Alice circling back herself in the cycle of life. And like the goddesses of old, whose imagery and reverence often die away and transform with time, so too does Claire witness the transformation and impending death of her own mother. This leaves Claire as the one who bears a new flame at the family’s center.
PART III: David
It is through David, however, presented in the last segment of the piece, that the whole story is brought to its conclusion. David, an artist, has immersed himself in an artistic life, a life of “avoidance,” of meditating and painting and a string of estranged lovers. But David, too, has an invisible bond with his mother. Like Joanna, David seems to almost foresee the moment of his mother’s death:
Then David told them how, that afternoon, he’d stopped, on impulse, at Muir Woods and walked the trail an hour (past the sightseers and the instructional signs, the benches with their carved initials and a pair of men in wheelchairs and a group of high-school students on a field-trip with their teacher) to what he thought of as his sacred grove—well, no more than any other grove except in the way that it mattered to him, this particular cluster of redwoods where a year before he’d promised himself that next year would be different, a ring that counted on the trunk, a year to mark as growth-spurt since he was turning thirty-five and that was Dante’s fateful year, the middle of the journey in the middle of his life. Che la diritta via era smaritta, that much he could remember: where the direct way was a muddle and the direction unclear.
“Or remember Yogi Berra,” Richard said. “And his immortal saying. ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’”
Lucy laughed. “Well, has it?”
“Has it what?” he asked.
“Been a year that mattered?”
And that was when he understood his mother was going to die. That was when he shut his eyes and pictured his sister Joanna, a continent away and staring at the other sea, and sister Claire uneasy in her starter castle—
Again, there is the feeling of some unspoken force that binds this family through their mother’s death. And through David we learn of the family secrets of their father–Alice’s husband–lurking in David’s memory. We learn later that Alice’s husband died in a car accident, that he may have been an alcoholic, that there were quite possibly other secrets as well. As an adult, David feels almost shackled by his mother and often secretly wishes that she would simply leave him alone. It is as if she is a reminder of dust in the closet that nobody wants to clean up.
There is also the feeling that David’s love for his mother could never bring him to tell her of his feelings, and whether or not those feelings matter much in the end anyway. Here, Delbanco’s final turn in the triptych, is the part of the story that I love best. The prose is delicate and striking. Through one of David’s zen-like meditations, the reader time travels into his childhood and recalls what life was like before his father’s accidental death. This new discovery releases the ghosts of memories—heavy, secret, often associated with shame.
David is six, maybe seven years old. He’s standing with his father at the entrance to the race-track, so it must have been August in Saratoga, and what he wants is ice cream but his father insists on a coke. “A coke won’t melt,” his father says, “you wouldn’t want ice cream all over your shirt.” There are horses and trainers and horses and jockeys and he can distinguish between them—the jockeys and exercise riders—because exercise riders can wear what they want, and he’s holding his paper cup carefully, carefully so the soda won’t spill when a woman approaches them, smiling, saying “George?”
Somehow, by taking the reader back to a few precise moments in David’s childhood, Delbanco writes all that needs to be written. A few interactions with a child’s father reveal an entire family’s severing relationship. It is the kind of true loss that accompanies any departure.