I knew that You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – the title of Sherman Alexie’s memoir that grapples with his mother’s death – would make me cry.
With Irving Stone’s 1954 historical novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, even with Love is Eternal as its title, I did not expect the tears I shed.
But in between Alexie and Stone I read an author unknown to me, a book I picked up because of its title, Monterey Bay. Lindsay Hatton offered no expectations. She, like her better-known colleagues, spoke of deep pain, of profound loss, of abiding yet unfulfilled love. But she did not make me cry. She offered instead a prosaic transcendence of pain.
I’ve always believed that the order in which books are read can change how you feel about them, or even what you can learn from them, adding depth to your appreciation of each. More than that, they can enlarge the experience of reading them. The impact of Alexie, Hatton and Stone is greater having read them in sequence despite the utter lack of logic to the sequence.
Sherman Alexie still carries the scars of his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alcoholic parents, systemic poverty and cultural deprivation, he shocks us out of white bread reality by telling us that his mother was raped and was the product of rape, that his sister, who was the product of his mother’s rape, died young, passed out drunk while her trailer home burned, that he himself was sexually molested as a child. He then cushions the shock with a scatological tale of a giant ‘grief crap’ he took during his mother’s funeral. Alexie can always make me laugh, but he didn’t make me cry talking about racism, the rez and its rape culture. I have mourned Native American oppression my whole life. But the fact that he could not forgive his mother’s lack of affection for him, that he could not forgive her though she has done her best, that made me cry. “She protected me against cruelty / Three days a week,” he said.
When I read Stone’s detailed biography of Mary Todd Lincoln I was still thinking about Alexie’s mother. Mary Todd’s life was as opposite to Lillian Alexie’s as is possible. She was born to privilege and dreamt of someday living in the White House with a husband that would not only be a great president but that would love her with all his heart. She had no idea of the pain that would come with that dream fulfilled. In the first three years of the Civil War her three Confederate brothers and a brother-in-law were all killed in battle. She was accused of being a traitor to the North even while battling to restore the shabby neglected White House and supporting her besieged husband. Then her 11-year-old son, Willie, the son she cherished most, died of pneumonia. Knowing she would witness Abraham’s assassination just three years later somehow made Willie’s death all the more tragic. I wept for her, knowing that Lillian Alexie would not have.
It made me wonder about tears.
Margot Fiske, Lindsay Hatton’s imagined hero in ‘Monterey Bay’, a 2016 novel unfolding in the 1940’s, felt plenty of pain. She’s 15 and in love with Ed Ricketts, a brilliant, charismatic genius/amateur marine biologist made famous by John Steinbeck as Doc in Cannery Row. She is smart and a talented sketch artist, made savvy beyond her years by her world-trotting entrepreneurial father. She is not a crier. Margot, who lives on to establish the Monterey Bay Aquarium, something for which both Ricketts and her father would have been very proud, loves but never possesses the love of her life. When she’s a young woman they are already both dead. Yet her story transcends the sadness – the inevitable product of human tragedy. In the midst of it, Lindsay Hatton delivers these splendid lines, evoking the voice of Steinbeck himself, explaining why Rickett’s brilliant marine collection, sketching and categorizing is useless:
“And I tell him,” he resumed suddenly, the sharpness of his voice making her jump. “When you’ve collected every little creature from the Sea of Cortez to Alaska, when you’ve fucked everything in lipstick and a Catholic school uniform, when all your jars are finally categorized and cross-referenced and organized to some lunatics version of order, when that damn essay has been revised and rewritten for the one-millionth time, do you honestly think you’ll be any better off? Any wiser? Sure, you’ll know the ocean inside and out, but people will still be a mystery, and there’s nothing in this world more tragic than that.”
Our efforts to know the world are as futile as tears if they do not help us understand ourselves. Sherman Alexie cannot get in touch with his pain, cannot forgive his mother. Even with the emancipation it helped yield, Mary Todd Lincoln could not get past her tears. Margo Fiske neither cried nor fell apart. She turned her loss into a plan to fulfill the mutual dream of the men she loved and lost.
There is little connection between Mary Todd Lincoln and Lillian Alexie. They lived a century apart. One was white and privileged, tenderly loved by a sober, capable man. One was of the native people who the white and privileged slaughtered and abused; she was conceived by rape, impoverished by racism, and married to a mild, incapable alcoholic. But they both grieved over the loss of a child, Lillian her eldest daughter and Mary Todd her middle son. And both had children that flourished, Lillian’s Sherman, Mary Todd’s oldest, Robert. Sherman Alexie advanced so quickly and so far beyond his origins that he cannot see that he is the product of his mother’s hard-hearted love, that because of her he escaped the rape culture. Robert Todd Lincoln lived to the ripe old age of eighty-two, growing wealthy because his mother had insisted he finish Harvard Law School before joining the Union Army. Sherman cursed his mother’s lack of tears. Robert turned his back on his mother’s non-stop tears.
Tears don’t wash away the pain. They don’t cleanse, they simply release the deep irresolvable sadness within. Lillian Alexie held her tears and left a son uncertain of her feelings, but certain of himself. Mary Todd cried for days after Willie’s death and for months after Abraham’s murder. She was a broken woman with little to offer her surviving children. She failed to transcend her pain, just as Lillian failed to let her pain show.
Irving Stone evoked tears from historical facts. Sherman Alexie invited me to cry with him, creating a mother-doubting kinship with me. Lindsay Hatton demonstrated that tears and sadness accomplish nothing. She accepted Steinbeck’s premise that ‘people will still be a mystery’ but didn’t let that knowledge deter a lifelong act of love. She let me glimpse the span that arches over the seductive river of tears.