I was not an ideal daughter. (Watch the comments section for confirmation from my siblings, cousins, aunts…)
But in mom’s last years, blind, immobile, in a wonderful small-town care home, few visitors because of Covid and wishing she were in the hereafter, my daily conversations with her via Alexa gave me a little atonement. And, on the conversation we’re about to tell you about, a feeling of…maybe awe is the best word.
(You may want to try this with your own aging mom, or dad.)
In the second year of Covid, George Saunders published A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, a book version of the class on the iconic short stories of Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev that he taught MFA students at Syracuse University for twenty years. He selected seven stories and followed each with a lively “Afterthought” to help us understand why they are classics. You don’t have to take my word that it’s an outstanding read. It was a New York Times bestseller and named one of 2021’s best books by The Washington Post, NPR, Time and others.
(Go ahead, read it now if you have time. If not here’s Spice’s Summary: The brief, unjust life of the humble Alyosha, nicknamed “Pot” for breaking one, an uncomplaining and obedient peasant, he smilingly serves his family and a local merchant who pile on the work, accepts his father chastising the orphan cook he wants to marry, falls off a roof and just before dying, “looked like he was amazed at something.”)
I wish (among so many other things) that I’d asked mom if she’d read Tolstoy. This story, written in 1905 but not published until 1911 after his death, would have been contemporary literature for her, a prairie girl of humble Ukrainian heritage who followed a moral path of what was right, true and good.
Before reading “Alyosha the Pot” to mom, I’d gone through the twenty-three page Afterthought and underlined things to talk about, including these:
The story makes a beautiful case for cheerful obedience. The story makes a beautiful case for the argument that making a beautiful case for cheerful obedience is a gift to tyrants. Which is it?
Personally, I’d like to see him sit up in bed and chew out his father and apologize to Ustinya and call for the priest to marry them right then and there, in front of the merchant and that whole crappy, demanding family.
It was a day when mom, as our Scottish rels say, was “switched on.”
What does it take to “switch us on” to a good story?
From his years of writing, reading and teaching, George Saunders suggests the highest aspiration of a good story is to move you, create an incremental change in the state of your mind, make you feel more alive. And keep you wondering “into the white spaces afterward.”
Afterward I emailed my siblings:
Today I read mom “Alyosha the Pot” by Tolstoy and picked out the key points in George’s analysis to discuss with mom. She was incredible, again. There is much controversy about the story’s ending. She said she didn’t think it was a fair way to end the story and wished Alyosha got to be accepted by his dad, but understood why Tolstoy had done this: cut-and-dried and it would not have shocked us, kept us wondering or been believable. Post story there was lots to talk about too. Like did she read Russian stories at school? Did G&G read to them? Margie, if you get a chance ask Ellen if we had to pay for the postage for the books we got from the Regina public library. I think it was free…That led to postage costs today which set mom back for a shock.
Mom didn’t have to pay postage for the books she got for us from Regina, something she started doing when we were young because our one-room country school didn’t have a library nor was there one in “town.” Every month we’d return our books and if we wanted, add a note to indicate whether we would like something similar, or different. It was the best gift she gave me.
Bakes, Roger. “Public Libraries.” The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. According to Roger, the loaning library mom used was established in 1953, when I was four years old.
Saunders, George. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. New York: Random House, 2021. One of my favourite books of all time. George used the Penguin Random House translation of the story from Tolstoy’s book The Portable Twentieth Century Russian Reader, while The Literature Network, an older translation I think, says Tolstoy’s book’s was titled Family Happiness.
Schaeffer, Carol. A Book is a Quiet Weapon.” The New York Review. April 21, 2023. I understand the anger but this is going too far. In the Ukraine, it’s now illegal to import or distribute books published in Russia and existing Russian books are being recycled into egg cartons and toilet paper.