For the past couple of years, my mother has been writing her life story. What started for her as a diversion—taking a continuing-ed class at our local library called “A Legacy of Your Life”—has turned into a full-fledged mission. It began as a few stories about how she met my father, her experience as a 1964 contestant in the Miss Mississippi pageant, and memories of her eccentric grandmother—not to mention some embarrassing recollections of my childhood. But now, as her writing project has continued and the stories have multiplied, those individual memories have grown into a much fuller biography of my mother’s life, and our history as a family.
As I made my way through Alice McDermott’s newest novel, Someone, recently nominated for the National Book Award, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was reading my mother’s stories. The stuff that makes up the narratives is different, of course; McDermott’s Irish-American Marie Commeford, raised in Brooklyn, is worlds away from my own mother and her Southern lineage. But the overall result is the same: a woman piecing together bits of what she remembers of her life— from childhood, adolescence, marriage, motherhood—until she leaves behind a fully formed portrait of who she used to be, who she is now, and how she will be remembered.
Marie doesn’t look at her past through rose-colored lenses; in fact, she suffers from recurrent eye problems throughout her life, which compromise her vision and even temporarily blind her at points. (This is one theme you can’t miss, dear readers!) But, her perspective grows clearer as she gets more distance from each event, and she’s able to weave together the past and present into something satisfying. Marie’s father—whom she loved and sought love from—turns out to be someone who can’t control his alcohol addiction, and is eventually killed by it. Her brother, Gabe—whose pious, studious nature overshadowed her own personality as a “little pagan” and continually made her feel inferior and maybe even unloved—turns out to be someone who struggles with his sexual identity until he has a complete mental breakdown. The confident, cocky Walter Hartnett—who so captivated Marie’s heart as a young girl, and then broke it by marrying a wealthy socialite—turns out to be someone whose disability made him feel less than whole and kept him from becoming who he wanted to be.
Each of the characters in the novel, the people in Marie Commeford’s life story, is a someone—and not always the someone Marie thought they were or expected them to be. But that’s part of the beauty of her narrative. As she puts together her own personal history, she also realizes the stories of others, giving each one a true, authentic story worth remembering.
As a teenager, Marie learns first-hand the importance of people’s stories while working as an assistant at Fagin’s funeral parlor. In between wakes, she often escapes upstairs to Fagin’s mother’s apartment, where she fills in old Mrs. Fagin and her friends on the latest arrivals. There, while Marie listens, the “women of the upper room” pay tribute to the dead by telling stories about them:
Recollections were raised, sorted, compiled. If there was a good story attached to the life of the dead, whatever woman among them had it would be given the floor, and whatever part of the story was deemed, perhaps, too delicate for the old lady’s ears (or, more likely, mine) would be acted out with a series of gestures and nods and sudden silences that I quickly came to be able to interpret as readily as the rest. . . . [T]here was a sense, too, in their sorting out of recollection and rumor, of gossip, anecdote, story—and even in their disappointment when a body came to the funeral parlor, a stranger or out-of-towner whom none of them could produce a single word fro—of some duty on their part, Mrs. Fagin and her attendants, to weave a biography of sorts for the newly dead. . . . she and her compatriots would lean together to tell as best they could the story of the life—breathing words onto cold embers was how I sometimes thought of it, and, one way or another, getting them to glow.
What seems at first to be a gossip session is actually a way of giving life to those who have left this world, a way of honoring them and giving meaning to lives that otherwise might remain anonymous or be forgotten.
And yet, though others can and will tell our stories, the only way to ensure truth is to construct our own narrative. One of the most stirring anecdotes in the novel comes from Gabe, who tells a tale of a female parishioner whose life everyone else thought they knew. A widow with three children and a regular at Sunday Mass, she was also said to be an alcoholic, a “hard case” as the head priest told Gabe. Having a hard time reconciling the quiet churchgoer with the rumored alcoholic everyone else insisted she was, Gabe decides to follow her one Sunday morning. He watches her purchase Life-Savers, which the store owner tells Gabe is obviously to mask the alcohol on her breath, and then trails her to church, where she gives out the leftover coins from her purchase to each child for the collection plate. In the end, her Sunday ritual of stopping at the store on her way to Mass was not an opportunity to sneak a drink, or an attempt to cover her drinking, but rather a chance for a conscientious mother to make change for her children’s church offering.
McDermott’s Someone leaves us with an appreciation of ordinary lives, made extraordinary through the simple act of story-telling. It reminds us that the world is filled with someones, as evidenced by the wonderful illustration of crowded Brooklyn brownstones on the book jacket. Every brownstone holds a family of someones, each someone with his or her own story to tell.