Mastering The Art of Emotional Corseting: Living Rooms and Closed Doors

Dear friend,

After reading your letter about your grandmother, I’ve thought a lot about how “repression” and closed doors have gone out of fashion. Good things open doors, bad things close them (unless God opens a window). In our metaphors, anyway, we’re against keeping the private thing out of the shared space. I think all this is just a little bit wrong. When Julia Child in Julie and Julia (which I watched for the first time tonight) gets the letter from Knopf, she glances at her husband inside, takes several deep whooping breaths and steps out onto the porch for privacy. She actually leaves the house. That scene reminded me of what you said about crying your bathroom or on the street—anywhere but in the living room. Brute emotion, you called it. Whether it’s excitement or grief, does it demand total privacy because, like other completely private things, you can’t really blunt the edges so they don’t hurt or alarm the people around you? (And give them ammo too?)

I thought about this while watching Julie and Julia because Julie keeps having “meltdowns” in front of her husband that result in him calling her a narcissist (which she is—brute emotion is narcissistic) and leaving her. (For a night or two, anyway.) Meanwhile, in total and telling contrast, Julia writes her friend Avis that it’s becoming harder and harder to conceal from her husband how heartbroken she is about leaving Paris. Julia corsets her sad emotions; Julie blogs them.

It reminded me of your idea about how shared lives are half-lives, and how the things that make us tick are also the things that can make us explode. Julie and Julia shows two pretty convincing  happy, well-suited couples.  To the extent that there’s romantic crisis, it’s over how the two Julias’ search for a passionate direction leads us to look at what careerist passion can mean to a domestic relationship (basically, absorption in the work and neglect of the partner). The movie’s challenge—and I’m not sure it bones this particular duck—is figuring out how to make the weird and private “half-life” of well-loved work gel with the other weird and private “half-life” that is a couple’s world. Those two halves don’t always talk to each other, right?

You and I tend, I think, to let the latter half-life trump the first. I bet a lot of women do. Maybe a lot of people do, though in my limited experience (hello dad!) men fall into work-world and ignore the social noise around them better than women. My dad can sit in his open-plan office and ignore anyone coming up the stairs, even if they’re talking directly to him. My mom, to claim time to herself, has to close a door. Even that isn’t enough sometimes. One door in my parents’ house actually has a sign taped to it that says “PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK UNLESS IT IS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. THANK YOU.”

That door leads to the bathroom. And it has butterflies drawn on it to soften the blow.

There’s a formal desperation to that sign, I think; it exists because otherwise she would give into us all. My dad won’t, because he’s absorbed, so he never has to make the choice. He doesn’t actually realize that we’re there, and it doesn’t occur to him that we might be hurt. And so, by and large, we aren’t.

When work is like yours and mine and gets mainly done from home (and your partner’s does too), it’s that much harder to pick up the work-world because it feels antisocial. It feels—and Julie and Julia deals with the fineness of this line outright—not just absorbed but self-absorbed. It feels selfish and like a rejection of the couple-world, and who wants that?

This is why I think doors are important. Like my dad’s focus which protects him, doors protect us from having to make a choice between the work-world and the couple-world. Thanks to them, or something like them, we can fully occupy one half-life before returning fully to the next, instead of living in the liminal space between the two like one of those optical illusions that are either two faces or a vase but never actually kiss or hold flowers.

(If we could close those doors in our brains instead of relying on architecture, it would be much easier, of course.)

Remember our intense virginal past, full of (sexually frustrated) inspiration and achievement? The thing about being virginal is that (whether you want it or not) you do have a door to close.

I started this letter meaning to talk about grief, not work, and I seem to have lost my way. But I think something similar applies—shared space can almost equal shared everything else, and that’s weird when you’re dealing with an unshared loss. Mr. Carla Fran, in all his wonder, can’t overcome the fact that your grandmother was not his. You have a long past that doesn’t include him, and you will have feelings about it that he can’t feel. Your childhood, your feelings about your mother and grandmother from when you were five… those doors are closed to him, which has to be part of what makes crying in the living room so awkward. One of my dad’s favorite truisms is that when you’re born and you take your first breath, it contains so many atoms that when you die, you’ll have at least one of those atoms with you. When you have to take a breath that comes from an older story than the one you’re in (and what are grandparents but older stories?), the living room—where you do your present living with Mr. Carla Fran—might not be the place to feel an older story dying.

As I write this I wonder: besides the fact that another person doesn’t share your past, could the difficulty also be partly about the room? Parlors and studies and foyers and billiard rooms are conceptually marvelous because they suggest (rightly or wrongly) that there are right rooms for things. The living room, where you couldn’t do your crying, is a special case, partly because it’s in a thirty years’ war against the Family Room for supremacy. (Is it telling that the American family home wants to dedicate one room to Family and another to Living?) When all you have is a Living Room, a shared bedroom, a kitchen and an office, where do you cry? Your solution seems right. At least the bathroom is built to withstand water.

When my grandma died I lived alone, so there was no corseting of the kind you describe, but my living room wasn’t much comfort to me either.  I drifted to a running track that has a big hillside with little trails. I walked up the steepest one and when I was winded (a whole three minutes in), it gave me something to do with the explosive throat-knot. Those old atoms wanted out, but I couldn’t let them out in a Living Room, which suddenly seemed frivolous and dingy and small. How dare sofa cushions exist in a world where my grandmother doesn’t?

Once the big emotion passed and I got myself down the hill and home, I realized I wanted some corseting. Not for me, not exactly. I wanted (here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say or see) to be a corset for my mom. I wrote then that I wanted to be down the hallway and that still seems right. If there’s a hallway, a door’s implied. I worried about her. My mom always holds it together, but this seemed like the exceptional case: she might fall apart utterly. I worried (weirdly) about her dignity. To think of her stripped of it—to think of her, for example, sitting on a trail by a track sobbing—seemed like the worst thing in the world.

Did you have this feeling too? Mothers and grandmothers. Oof. Very hard to imagine them as elemental selves and not our structures.

Corseting is tough, as Julie and Julia acknowledges, with its triumphal last meal in which Julie successfully bones a duck. (Telling, right, that Julia is an excellent duck-boner? She’s very good at keeping her sadness in.) When my grandma died, since I couldn’t be there for my mom (she was in Chile), I drove to my Tia’s house and kept her company on her first night without her sister. I did my best. When I got there her eyes were red from crying. We didn’t cry in front of each other, although I spent most of that night awake and she did too. All in all, I think we were pretty good corsets for each other. Of course, there was a built-in pressure-valve: we weren’t sharing a room. We could keep up the decorous facade up and save the waterworks for bed. That made our corseting easier.

It’s harder to corset if you’re Mr. Carla Fran—both distant (not a direct relative) and living inside the closed door, but I think it can be done. Do you remember the scene in Julie and Julia when Julia Child, who has concealed her devastation at leaving Paris and tried to wave away the fact that her 8 years of work will go unpublished and turned out to be “just something for her to do,”  reads in a letter that her sister Dorothy is pregnant? Paul is standing there when she gets the news, and she breaks down. When she sobs “I’m so happy” into his shirt, he says, “I know.” Good corseting, Paul.

My point, insofar as I have one, is that whatever her reasons were for “repressing” her sadness and reading her letter from Knopf on the porch, Paul’s insufficiency wasn’t one of them. When her corset fails, he’s there. Her reasons have everything to do, I think, with the basic privacy we all need, whatever our sex our age or time—the space for an unfiltered reaction that doesn’t jeopardize the things we most value.

Dear friend, I’ve blathered on about this and that and the other and I haven’t said the really important thing, which is how sorry I am, and how much I wish I could be down the hall from you right now.



P.S.–Speaking of hallways, Easter, mothers and Julia Child, I poached my first ever egg.

Mother’s Day

Chum o’mine,

I thought of you on Mother’s Day. I hope it has cooled off in your city. While it was hot for you, the air here was sodden and unraining, the kind of day where you wear a cardigan and sweat through it after walking a block.

I spent Mother’s Day with mine. It was her first without her mother, and the weekend felt a little like one of those blown-glass figurines they used to sell at malls before there was Swarovski crystal. Birds with blue trim, hot air balloons, tiny grand pianos. glassblown pianoIt was lovely and delicate and so brittle you could almost hear the pieces tinkling musically as they broke on the floor.

My grandmother’s sister, age 92, spent it with my mother and me, along with her daughter, who recently left her husband and is living with her. For a day we were a colony of mothers and overgrown daughters in nested roofs. I made lunch, they brought salads. A family friend brought a cake. We sat outside with the potted tulips I’d bought my aunt and great-aunt. My father was there, a benign presence. Nothing noteworthy was said. It was the sort of afternoon where what matters is that the bell peppers were slightly overcooked, but there were Russian pastries and teacups and the gentle hilarity of a little old lady, hunched and bird-boned, speaking aghast into a computer and hearing her son’s voice answer from overseas.

They left. I updated my mother’s and father’s computers. I taught my father how to use Facebook.

Sunday night, while my mother was ironing her hair in the bathroom, I brought my computer in and clicked it open on the vanity, wondering for a moment, as I opened my web browser, whether what I was about to do was the right thing.

I went to Meghan O’Rourke’s nine-part series on grieving over the loss of her mother on Slate, and asked my mother if she wanted me to read her the second-to-last one. I had glanced at it and it seemed more hopeful than despairing and dealt, curiously enough, with Easter.

My mom had been really moved by a couple of Megan’s essays; she identified, months ago, with her experience of feeling her mother’s presence like a blanket, as something tangible. She had since, she told me, lost that sense of presence. She didn’t feel her anymore.

I started to read.

My dad came in halfway through. My dad has unpredictable taste. He felt, for instance, that Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking was irredeemably self-indulgent and selfish. I didn’t want him to pronounce on Megan’s essay; didn’t want him to import his critical self—which doesn’t always sense context; didn’t want him to turn this moment into anything other than what it was. I felt him judging every word. My blown-glass piano was crumbling.

I read on, trying to keep my voice from being melodramatic or monotone, trying to toe the line between sappy and abstract. Was it too literary? Too high-brow? Too self-indulgent? Too American? Was this really an experience that meant anything to anyone who’d suffered so great a loss? Was it the worst kind of presumption to read this account to my mother, who perhaps hadn’t gotten beyond it, wasn’t ready to look forward to the next step?

I finished the article, my mind calculating a billion reactions and ways of minimizing damage. I barely understood what I read. The end has to do with traditions, a father who’s a Classicist and advises Meghan to make apple pie next year—to understand that her making pie was a way of calling her mother, whose presence (like my mother’s mother’s) had left her.

The article ended. My mom and dad both said, very simply, that they loved it. My dad went to lie down. My mom picked up her flatiron, looked at me, and told me I was having a massive allergic reaction. I glanced in the mirror: sure enough, my shoulders and chest were blazing red, red as a really bad sunburn. Everything itched.

She called my dad. He said, eyes still closed, that it was probably an allergy to ibuprofen (he dislikes the fact that I take it for migraines). I snapped that I’d taken the medicine at 8:00 that morning.

My mom touched my shoulder. It was blazing hot. “This just started now,” she said. “You weren’t like this before you started reading.” “Huh,” I said.

“It was the essay,” she said, in a sudden moment of clarity, and I knew she was right. She bent down and hugged me—she guessed the itchy tangles I’d waded through in the last few minutes, wanting it to be okay.

I mumbled something about that not being it. “You poor thing,” she said, and grinned. “That’s what it is. Here, read another one and let’s see if you get redder.”



(More on mothers and death here.)


Dear Millicent,

It took me awhile to write back because your essay was just so durn lovely.  Isn’t it fitting that eggs are the food returned to? If your life were a novel, it would all be a delicate nod to the connections between mothers and children, continuance and nourishment.  Like how in Billy Elliot (lord knows why that movie has remained in my easy-reach library), he is drinking a glass of milk when he sees the ghost of his mum.  Also, I very much like your description of being down the hall, and want to say how honest and comforting and all around lovely it is. Lovely is a word that is appearing a lot in this paragraph, probs for good reason.

Architecture? Halls, doorways, well-lit paths? I am listening to a song at the moment called “Good Houses” that relates domesticity to “sweet cages.” And, with my friend who recently miscarried, the phrase that kept appearing in our conversation was “that door had been opened” for her, and that the room beyond was to be explored.  She is considering adoption.

Sometimes when I think about birth and death, particularly among female generational lines, I get spooked by thinking of us all as a series of husks (my grandmother the husk of my mother, my mum the husk of me, and me the kernel of the next husk).   We are Russian nesting dolls, all containing the younger, smaller, next things (I know this image is problematic, but it remains for me).  And, what seems a terrifying part of a grandparent’s death (especially the maternal grandmother), is that we get promoted to the next size up, and our parent gets bumped to the front line.

Both my father’s parents have died, his father with a surprise of cancer, and his mother after years of decline and saving graces (including a new kidney!).  It felt at about the right speed of what happens with grandparents.  My mother’s father died the year I was born (and she was on bed rest with me and couldn’t go to his funeral).  Her mother is alive, but her mortality is present, and when my mom calls and I don’t answer, I am afraid that the message will be the inevitable sad news about my grandmother.  I am afraid for my mother when her mother dies.  I think it will shatter something in her, maybe that teenage idea that mothers are silly neurotic creatures, and the loss will be its full weight.  I am also probably afraid for her because I am afraid for my own future moment of the same pang and pain, felt nakedly when the opportunity to give her honor has passed.  Our mothers alone, in the emotional hard parts, is tough, maybe because even our presence wouldn’t give them the balm needed?

I don’t know, dear friend, but I think being down the hall, as you have described it here, will be part of my definition for what real love is.  I can see the thought in my own brain in sixty years.

Besties,  and yes, chirpier things tomorrow,


Hallways and Eggs

Dearest CF,

There is nothing like being told by the Brentmeister General that I’m better than all the rest to comfort and console. Thank you, dear one. And before leaving our beloved BBC, I second your love of the non sequiturs between episodes of Peep Show. I’m so pleased by the incredible realism achieved by merely leaving things unexplained. It’s so remote from our own painstakingly worked out American emotional stages, which, in trying to be realistic in their televisual representations, end up imposing a totally fictional logic on emotional events.

My grandmother died on Saturday. The usual emotions apply. But, having accepted that this year has snatched the reins away from my life, I’m trying to at least enjoy the view.

My grandmother called four people over and over the night before she died: her older sister, my mother, my uncle, and me. When I first heard this, it registered as bad news I would soon have to deliver. That she was calling me, and that I wasn’t there. The world is going to gray for awhile, I thought, once I really hear that.

Either I still haven’t heard it, or that dreaded feeling never came. Terrible grief—body-shaking, no-sleeping, trying to write a eulogy and instead writing acrostics of her name all night—all this, yes. But not this particular brand of regret. I said goodbye when I left. She was lying in her little bed in my parents’ bedroom, gathering energy and will for the drag-out fight when they came to take her out of bed and into the living room. She was a little distracted, preparing for battle, peeking out from my Ernie and Bert sheets. I made her promise she’d get up. She finally promised she would. It was a pleasant way to leave her. Had it consisted of eggs, our farewell would have been lightly scrambled. I’ve cried every other time I left her. I didn’t cry then.

Awhile ago when I wrote you, I had ropes on the brain. Now it’s eggs. She used to make me soft-boiled eggs at night before bed. I tried making them the other night. I can’t remember how you get the egg out of the shell without everything spilling out into the bowl. I’ll give it another shot tomorrow. I seem to remember buying a friend little egg-cups from Williams Sonoma, which I think might have been designed for this very reason. I can’t remember what she served mine in.

It warms me to know I was there long enough that she remembered me sleeping in the next room, and that she called me thinking I was there. She slept at night in that house alone. For awhile I was across the hall, just a shout away. I’d eat scrambled eggs on toasted marraqueta in her room in the mornings. I’m glad she knew that. You never know at the time—at that stage so much gets muddled. While I was there, she sometimes mixed me up with her niece. Other times she knew exactly who I was and kept me up into the wee hours, chatting about her triumphs and thoughts. Even Rear Window, which I watched with her three times.

On her last night, the confusion was providential: she confused my mother with me. Something deep rests knowing she needed me, specifically, as an ingredient for that transition, and that she was comforted to find in my mother (on whom she always relied, and whom she needed elementally) an amalgam of the people she wanted there.  Every time I think of this, I swell with relief. I’m glad there was something for me to give her, even just a head poking in to say “Here I am.” I hope that in her imagination, at least, I gave it.

I never called her again. Pretended it was because I didn’t want to talk to my uncle. The truth is I feared an alteration. I didn’t want the last time to be by phone, confused and bleary and a sacrifice. (She hated talking on the phone; waved it away sometimes when I was there.)

She died in the morning with both of her kids, each holding one of her hands. My mother dressed her, combed her hair, put on her earrings, put on her favorite color lipstick.

When I heard, I drove a couple of hours to spend the night with her sister, who is 92. She wanted me to come because she worried about my being so far from my mother at a time like this. I wanted to be there, since it would be her first night without her little sister. She was fine. Affected, but a rock. Entertained everyone who came to the house, legs neatly crossed. Made smalltalk. Made chicken soup. Flipped through pictures of my grandmother, trying to decide which ones to enlarge. When I arrived she’d finally had an hour or so along, and her eyelids were red. Neither one of us slept well, but at times like these it’s good to have someone you can yell for down the hall.

Thinking of my own mother alone in that house now, sleeping in my grandmother’s bed, thinking of her mother’s face the moment before she died (her eyes flew open before she went pale), it’s desperate-making not to be across the hall for her. Hard to watch your mother go through the hardest thing she’ll ever have to do, and watch her go it alone. This is the emotional illogic–the stuff that takes you by surprise and never makes it into organized American TV realism. When the world goes gray, and it does, it’s this that I think about: not my grandmother but my mother, small and shaking, watching her mother’s casket sink down after the church service.

My outlook is much improved, however, and I will write sprightlier things tomorrow.



(For more on mothers and death see “Mother’s Day” here.)