Early during World War II Carolyn Osborn began to learn the the meaning of “the duration,” an often used phrase for “nobody knows how long.” Her father, a Lt. Colonel in the Army’s field artillery stationed in California, said it before sending her mother, eight-year-old Carolyn, and her brother Billy, six, home to Tennessee. No one could have known this period would include her mother’s mental illness, a family secret, one hidden from her children. Fear of stigma silenced everyone. Before breaking through that silence, Carolyn was an adult with children of her own. This memoir is a record of that particular duration, of almost four years living with aunts, of attempts to keep the children together in Nashville, of her father’s divorce and remarriage, which brought her a beloved stepmother, and a new home in Texas.
The personal essays following the memoir are reactions to the wider world she eventually knew including growing up in a small Texas town, her father’s long involvement with guns, trips to Egypt soon after the first part of the Arab Spring, then to the Galapagos in search of the blue-footed booby, followed by investigating family ties to Scotland three different times, and finally learning, with the help of her husband, how to run a Texas ranch.
Where We Are Now: Short Stories
Marianne, the main narrator of these stories about her mother’s family, says, “The truth is sometimes a poor, sad thing—wax fruit melted in an attic, a lone mule wandering on the front lawn, a mute player piano—a few insubstantial fragments. All we could do was grab hold and make something more of them.” In the beginning story, The Greats, her relatives are so distant Marianne can only give brief glimpses of these “eccentric, willful, mysterious Moores.”
By knowing the Moores, we begin to know Marianne who tries to understand them. Curious as she is, she must continually accept the mystery of reality. Aware of the need for family mythology, she orders her world as best she can with what is given by reacting, reflecting, inventing and enlarging on the “fragments.” Other narrators reveal omissions Marianne can never know.
Marianne’s life and the lives of the Moores have a definitely southern flavor. They mirror fading nineteenth century morality, an acceptance of eccentricity, a habit of story-telling, a strong consciousness of place, and the influence as well as the particularity of family. These stories are also attempts to show failures and triumphs of love, the necessity of forgiveness, and the usefulness of different sorts of families—Marshall, Marianne’s husband, is raised by an aunt and uncle, Marianne, by her mother and her mother’s family, an uncle marries into an Italian circus family—and their fictions.
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Theo, timid and too used to routine, is still grieving over the death of his wife. As he works part time in the Ney Museum, he has before him a wonderful example of a non-conformist. Ney immigrated to Texas from Germany where she’d sculpted European greats ranging from Ludwig II to Garibaldi. She kept her maiden name and built her sculpture studio in Austin while her husband, referred to as her “best friend,” and her child continued to live elsewhere.
Rose Davis, a woman who stubbornly refuses to follow the easiest, most obvious path, has recently moved back to Austin. Divorced from her Texas husband, she has been living in Paris for seventeen years with her lover, Thomas de Buvre.
By finding each other, Theo and Rose discover unknown aspects of themselves. When they do, a larger world opens to them.
THE GRANDS: A story included in the O. Henry Awards Prize Stories 1990. Printed by David Holman, Wind River Press with woodcut illustrations by Barbara Whitehead.
Purchase The Grands at the Degolyer Library.
Warriors and Maidens
The 12 short stories in this collection are about the adversarial relationships between men and women, although many of the women are not, strictly speaking, maidens. The writer explores one of the the oldest themes in fiction—”Why does A love B who loves C?”—the endless mystery of what goes on between men and women. These fictions, marked by wry humor, draw the reader into different worlds whether they take place in Mexico or France, suburban Austin or a Texas ranch, today’s Santa Fe or an imaginary southern past.
Set in 1953, this is a story of a period of uncertainty for twenty-year-old Celia Henderson while visiting relatives in Galveston, a city built on a barrier island with its own history of instability and survival. In the pre-reform Galveston of the 1950s, during its good-old, bad-old days, Celia faces a series of conflicts: old south vs. old west, typified by a wild cowboy cousin, Emmett Chandler, and fifties’ prejudices, most apparent against homosexuals and Mexican-Americans. The man who exemplifies both is an artist she meets on the island. She must also deal with fifties sexual mores, especially the double standard, inherent in her attraction to an unhappy law student. The innocence of the fifties is interwoven with the problems of that time and the present. Celia gradually learns to accept her own fears, those of others, and life’s continual uncertainty.
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