Review from Arches alumni magazine, Spring 2010
Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye
Ann Putnam, instructor of English
224 pages, hardcover
Southern Methodist University Press
Review by Linda Patterson Miller
There is a surreal quality to Ann Putnam’s family memoir as she evokes images from her “mind’s eye or memory.” A father falls, but where? When? As the story opens, Putnam is leaving the university after Friday afternoon classes when she imagines that she sees her father—“an image that comes unmoored from its holdings across the miles.” Back in Spokane, 300 miles away, her father, Homer Cunningham, has had a stroke, and “of course it’s the beginning of the end.” Or is it?
Putnam’s story chronicles the progressive difficulties and heartbreak of caring for her aging parents following Homer’s stroke. When the Cunninghams can no longer manage at home alone, Putnam steers them to University House, an elegant retirement community close to her home in Seattle. This story might be every family’s story in confronting the ravages and demands of time, and yet Putnam’s story transcends the ordinary with its cast of characters and its accompanying drama. I have read no other account that better captures the shifting dynamics of life for those who must suddenly adapt to communal living. Let one example suggest the goings-on at University House: On the first evening that the Cunninghams will be introduced to their new neighbors, Homer chokes on his evening meal, paralyzing the dinner table until Ann’s husband, Ed (the white knight of this book), jumps up to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Everyone at the table continues to eat, looking out and away, as if nothing is awry. Putnam’s vivid reenactments of such comic moments of truth suggest why her own husband and children regard her as the family comedian. Yet there are moments even Putnam cannot make funny. When the family first goes to tour University House, they visit some apartments and by mistake end up in one that reflects the underbelly of retirement-home life. The door swings open to reveal “a woman so large she has literally melted into her wheelchair” in the midst of dirt and chaos. She inches forward “on little pink feet in little pink slippers” and her hair lies “in stringy brown strands across her scalp.” Shelves full of pills line all the walls such that her apartment “is a pharmaceutical warehouse.” Putnam confesses that “it’s such a dark thing to see. A mind fallen in on itself,” and the experience for Putnam is “so shocking there is no way to make it comic.”
As Putnam’s parents adapt to life at University House, they have with them Homer’s identical twin brother, Henry, who has lived with them for a good part of their married life, making them noteworthy for their unusual threesome. Putnam strives to understand Henry, “the very image of my father but not my father,” and a compelling narrative strand of this memoir revolves around the twins as they stand in counterpoint to each other: Putnam’s father as the greatly loved professor who wears natty camel blazers and brown oxfords, and Henry, who prefers old see-through shirts, baggy pants (sometimes belted with safety pins), and run-down shoes. Although Henry’s confrontational public behavior and blind adherence to self-made truths exasperate the family, Putnam’s mother provides the elegance and emotional continuity that melds together this family’s unlikely configurations. Mrs. Cunningham stands out in her feminine clothes, but when she stops wearing makeup as Homer’s decline worsens, Putnam knows that “everything that follows will be a turning backward.”
Good memoirs like this one do look backward, but also inward. Putnam’s story weaves in and out of the past as it unravels family mysteries while also underscoring “the miraculous goodness” of her father and of her parents’ unabashed love that has acted for Putnam as a lifelong safety net. Putnam’s sensibilities recall Henry David Thoreau, whom she admires for daring to believe “in the miracle of Walden Pond” even as he questioned “if it was truly bottomless as myth would have it.” As a seeker after truth no matter the cost, Putnam appreciates both “the realism of Thoreau and the transcendence,” qualities that epitomize the equilibrium of Putnam’s own tautly rendered memoir of family, home, loss, and redemption. Putnam heightens her story throughout with a certain slant of light caught midway between the earth and the sky, and the book’s most evocative moments occur as the family gathers around a dinner table at various local restaurants, especially those with floor-to-ceiling windows fronting spans of sky and water and mountains. During such moments, we see the family’s attempt to circle the table as if to contain their belief that all will be well, despite the growing odds against them. On one of those evenings, they had had “a spectacular sunset, the sun laying golden ripples over the water before it disappeared behind the mountains off across the water. But the sun vanished too soon even now, and we all remarked on it,” Putnam writes. “Still, it had been a beautiful sunset. And there was the water.”
Putnam’s apt summary of this luminous book reveals its central beauty and truth. “Maybe what I knew from memory and an imagination forged in love might, if I were so lucky, yield a greater truth that would extend beyond all the sorrows to come and my anguished part in them.” Readers of this fine work are lucky indeed to have Ann Putnam’s memory and vision in print, for they light the way for us to embrace our own pasts with dignity, and even joy.
Linda Patterson Miller is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, Abington.