I write about my adman, essayist dad, Tom Murray here a lot; less about my novelist mom, Carol Murray.
He and his stories and his sensibilities fit better on a communication blog than hers, which are both darker and deeper: A difficult and traumatic childhood in post-Depression Detroit. A first marriage that ended in her (much-older, University of Michigan professor) husband’s suicide. A second marriage to her also much older ad agency boss—my dad—that began in deep love but was plagued by her manic depression and alcoholism and failure to get any but the smallest publisher interested in her hard, sad novels with names like Jesus, Adolph and Pete, Women With and Without, Last Words and Dog Lady. A divorce, gathering health problems and her death, at 52.
So: She’s harder to write about, and much of her writing was so dark—it’s not “snackable content,” shall we say.
But over the holidays I uncovered a raft of letters she sent to a friend, when she was about 45 (and my little sister and I were about 12 and 9, respectively). Here are a few excerpts that—if you like my writing enough to be reading this on a Tuesday, when you clearly have other things you ought to be doing—you might appreciate.
The first letter, from February 21, 1982 has a paragraph about me. I was getting terrible grades, and not just in math. One quarter in the seventh grade, I turned in an F in English. Now I was in eighth.
Is David overwhelmed by the competition? I wonder. I have told him a million times, beginning at six hours of age, that he is a genius. But maybe he didn’t believe me. I do remember he once asked me, maybe when he was four: “How do you know I’m terrific?” I will admit that [Tom] and I may be a hard act to follow. Up to now, teachers and we have assumed David is simply spacey, dreaming his own dreams during math (and who can blame him), marching to a different drummer. That was when he was getting all C’s. The further down he goes and the closer he gets to high school, college, the less charmed we are by his inattention, though maybe we are dead wrong. I remember one of his teachers, a virginal twenty-one-year-old, who, when I said I didn’t know how to change him (make him pay attention instead of wafting in class) said: (I loved her for it) “WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO?” Change him, that is. …
Another letter from 1982 concerns the shortcomings of another member of the family:
My dog has fleas. He has given them to the wall to wall [carpeting]. I must simultaneously, way within 10 minutes, give him a flea bath and entertain the exterminators so the great passing back and forth is over. I must pay between one and two hundred dollars to the exterminator (he must come twice to catch the eggs that hatch; another flea bath?) and do I have to do this every time I send the stupid dog to the kennel where he attaches the fleas in the first place? The dog also has a hernia, about three hundred dollars worth, and I have never liked him. I don’t want him to get killed by a car, but I would like him to evaporate. I fantasize at night, before sleep, that I take him out to the corner of Stow Rd. and Route 303 and he can’t find his way home again, he is that stupid, and someone in the area adopts him, totally ignorant of his fleas and his hernia, until love has occurred. My children say if I ever did that, they would run away from home. Some days that appeals to me too.
In a letter from 1983, she’s worried about my dad, recently retired but feeling “overwhelmed” by a big freelance book project. “But his hemorroids [sic] are up and his sinuses are draining properly so I think he’s in better shape than he does.” Regarding her own job prospects at the time, she wrote, “I am waiting for prospective employers to call me and am tapping my teeth and grinding my feet.”
And she always, always had something rotten to say about the preppy little Ohio town where she in her cowboy boots and her burlap ponchos (and classical music and literary novels, both written and read) seemed so out of place. “This town,” she wrote in a journal in the 1970s. “Hate this town. So many women here spend days stumping (rhymes humping) for Reagan, decoupaging wastebaskets, macraming guest room toilet paper covers, playing bridge (and stuffing buckeyes down their brassieres?). Call a friend, most subdued realtor I know. Want to move to Shaker Heights; only time children see black faces here is on television.”
In a 1983 letter, she continued on that theme, this time including my older half-sister Cindy’s hometown of Birmingham, Michigan, in her litany.
Was it Thoreau who said beware the occupation which requires a change of wardrobe. Was appalled the last time I visited Cindy in Birmingham and we went down for a coffee and a danish and to get away from the kids and every lady down there was all dolled up in leather skirts and I was, as usual, in levis and cowboy boots. Not much better than Hudson, where [Izod] alligators adorn left tits and EVERYONE wears a rubberized rain coat that is green on the outside and blue on the inside and pink and green belts.
She once compared her humor style to Mort Saul. Or was it my father who did? But she could write about love, too. From a 1983 letter:
The battering in my first marriage goes a long way to explain my second. On one of our first dates, Tom stopped a tennis game to remove a caterpillar from the court and deposit it gently on the grass alongside. Not long after, we were in Canada and he stopped his car on a super highway to save a wandering turtle the size of a grapefruit. He put the turtle in the bathtub back at the motel and fed it lettuce from his picnic sandwich until we could find a river to take the turtle to.
And I got a kick out of the last letter, which remarks that my overachieving little sister Piper, “as usual, is knocking them dead,” and:
David appears to be buckling down to high school. His grades so far look pretty good, certainly better than they have been. We are shooting for a three point with handsome rewards for same. One of his requests was that we fly him to Chicago for a Cubs game. That, I’m afraid, would take a four point six.
In the end, I wound up flying myself to Chicago, I guess. And following their difficult act the best way I’ve known how. Hers, every bit as much as his.