Mack and Jodie have no idea how much their lives are going to change when they decide to give up farming. Mack is hospitalized with depression, Jodie finds herself tempted by the affections of another man, and their teenage children begin looking for answers outside the family--Kenzie turns to fundamentalist Christianity, and Taylor starts cavorting with Goths. Told in the unforgettable voices of each family member, this powerful story of family life reveals the stubborn resilience of love and how sometimes the very thing we're looking for has been waiting at home all along.
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November 17, 2008
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Excerpt from Dwelling Places by Hampton Wright, Vinita
Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand
All the ways that God would lead us to that blessed promised land;
But he guides us with his eye, and we'll follow till we die,
For we'll understand it better by and by.
By and by, when the morning comes, when the saints of God are gathered home,
We'll tell the story how we've overcome, for we'll understand it better by and by.
-- "When the Morning Comes"
In Beulah, Iowa, widow women all over town garden in the clothes of deceased husbands. From a distance, they often look like small-framed men. They keep their husbands' clothes because it's wasteful to throw away hats and shirts that still have wear in them. They wear the clothes in memory of the men they have survived, even after the scent of them has been laundered away.
It was a full year after her husband's death before Rita Barnes could wear his clothes. Nearly ten years have passed since Taylor died, and Rita is stretched out on their double bed this morning, naked, because it was humid last night and because she's sixty-six and does what she pleases. She is mentally searching her pantry for cream-style corn, because her son Mack is coming home from the mental hospital today, and his wife Jodie is cooking a nice dinner for him, and a nice dinner for the Barneses always includes Rita's corn casserole. She's also promised chicken and homemade noodles. It will take some time to make the noodles, so maybe she should haul her bones off the bed now.
She stops at the bathroom, rinses her face, combs her hair, and puts in her dentures. In ten minutes she is at the kitchen table, taking some raisin toast with her coffee along with vitamins. The automatic coffeemaker that Mack and Jodie got her for Christmas five years ago is possibly one of the best gifts of her lifetime. She can go smoothly into her day, not even having to count scoops of coffee but leaving the waking-up process to the drinking itself.
By ten-thirty, the noodles are made and ready to throw in with the chicken, and Rita's house is cleaner than it needs to be. The farmhouse, where Mack's family now lives, is still the family center, just as it was when Rita and Taylor lived there. It turns out that Rita's status as mother of the family was not the main reason her home was the hub all those years. The house itself, large and functional and not very beautiful, is what compels them all to congregate. Rita figured that out a year or so after Taylor's passing, when she moved to town and a smaller place. The kids stop by every day, but they don't circle around and land at her little house in town the way they always did at the farm. She doesn't mind that as much as she expected. It's been nice to have privacy, or at least what passes for privacy in Beulah.
On her way out the door to make what she has come to call her "P&P run" -- the nearly daily trip to the post office and pharmacy -- she grabs two packages of heat-and-serve dinner rolls from the top of the fridge. They're for the party tonight. Jodie likes to have everything on hand several hours ahead of time. The trip out to the farm, also, is a daily event for Rita.
But her day goes south when she turns the ignition key. The engine whines but won't turn over -- for the third time this week. She huffs at the little car and tries again. She tries six times and then quits for a minute, feeling warm from the sun that surrounds her in the driveway.
Amos from next door comes out and stands in his drive just a few yards away. He puts his hands on his hips, which always looks funny when Amos does it, although Rita can't figure out why.
"Givin' you trouble again," he says, nodding toward the front end of the car. "Of course. On a day when I really need to go somewhere."
"You're always needing to go somewhere." Amos smiles a little. He's so old and wrinkled that it looks like a wince.
"But some days it's not that important. Mack'll be home this evening."
"Will he? Well, that's just wonderful. I'm sure you're all happy about that."
"Yes, we are." She turns the key again and listens to the engine strain but not start.
"How old's this car?"
"Nearly eleven years. Taylor bought it for me just a few months before he died."
Amos looks impressed. "That's a real long time for a car to run without a lot of trouble."
"I know. Shouldn't complain, I guess."
"Have Tom Longman look at it."
"I probably should." She tries one more time, and the Ford comes to life grumpily. She raises her eyebrows at Amos. "Now that it's started, I better do all the running around I need to."
Mack's coming home. This is the thought she woke up with, and she's come around to it again at least twenty times. When her son's name flickers across her mind, something tugs at Rita from inside. It's a sensation that has visited her often since the first time her first child moved in the womb. During pregnancy, from the core of Rita's body would come a soft stirring -- an echo, really, of the actual movement -- and her whole self would huddle around that feeling, because every nerve ending seemed to understand that Rita was destined forever to have a center to her life that wasn't even her life. She and Taylor Barnes made a little baby way back when, and Rita hasn't for a day or an hour since felt that she is the focus of her own life. Over the years, as her children . . .