I read about Bette Howland and her memoir/novel Blue in Chicago in the NY Times obituaries last month. According to the obituary she was a a protege (and perhaps lover) of Saul Bellow and had a troubled life.
I got her book out of the library, and Blue in Chicago is an extraordinary work, giving a rich portrait of Chicago and the complexities of Jewish family life. Here is an excerpt:
“Words of Yiddish passed over the table like the Angel of Death. It was the language of bad news; bodily functions; the parts of dead chickens.”
And this, about her grandmother’s funeral:
“It seemed strange to me that my grandmother was at one and the same time carrion–garbage–that had to be got rid of, shoveled quickly out of sight; and something precious and tender, of infinite value, being laid away for safekeeping–sunk in a vault. These things seemed opposed, bu the weren’t; they couldn’t be; because both were true. It was necessary to hold them both in your mind at once. That’s all we were trying to do, standing over the open grave…
At weddings they all want to write their own scripts anyway; be original; make up new words. For funerals the old words seem good enough.
But it was just too cold. The wind was goading. People couldn’t stand still. Humiliating to be thinking about your fingers and toes when you knew your mind ought to be on eternity. The sky was white as the trail of a jet.
Two workmen bent, releasing the tapes. The long blue box slid smoothly downward. I felt my grip on my own life loosen a little…
So my father was right after all. It was all over. The old woman’s sons were not going to say Kaddish for her. They didn’t know how.”
I could quote so much more–worth a read!