A. Manette Ansay is the author of a story collection, a memoir, and six novels, including Vinegar Hill, an Oprah Winfrey Book Club Selection, and Blue Water, a Lifetime Book of the Month Pick. Her most recent novel, Good Things I Wish You, collages the historically true story of the composer and pianist Clara Schumann with the life of a contemporary woman struggling to balance the demands of motherhood and art. Ansay is Professor of English at the University of Miami, where she is mentor to a pack of lively grad students. In her spare time, she home-schools her ten year old, waffles between Bikram and Vinyasa-based yoga (one too brutal, the other too forgiving,) and studies for her C1-level German exam. She is revising her seventh novel—title up for grabs—and working on a memoir about learning a second language.
Good Things I Wish You
“I have moved eleven times in the sixteen years since leaving home, a word which, to me, will always mean southeastern Wisconsin, and the little town where I was raised, and my grandmother’s one hundred acre farm seven miles to the north. At thirty-six, wading through the shallows of middle age, I have been permanently shaped-and am still held fast-by landscapes which exist in memory alone, though this makes them no less real when they come to me in dreams, when fragments are triggered by a random fact or phrase. Here is my body’s lost exuberance. Here is my Catholic faith, that Gothic cathedral, that haunted house. Here are the straight highways, the crops and their seasons, the blue haze of Lake Michigan: wide open space beneath a close sky.
It doesn’t take much-a look, a phrase-and suddenly I’m a child once more, running hard and fast down a narrow dirt road which has since been developed into another antiseptic side street, the fallow fields surrounding it sold, subdivided, populated by three bedroom ranch houses, each wrapped in vinyl the color of a hospital gown, each with its garage door shut, an expressionless face, like someone waiting for bad news. Yet there’s no sense, as I run, that I’m recreating something, repainting this landscape as if by numbers, filling in color and sound. I’m simply here, I’m home, and any return to the present will be informed by what I’ve seen.
How is it that, for this splendid moment, I’m able to run-something I haven’t done since I was twenty-elbows pumping, heels striking the earth, carrying myself deeper into a place that is nowhere, nothing, lost, in a body whose unselfconscious sense of movement, whose entitlement to such movement, is lost as well? The part in my hair feels like a cut where the August sun strikes against it, the skin tingling pink. There’s a sweet, cold ache in my chest, a lemonade taste in my mouth. I feel as if I could run forever, but, of course, I’m wrong. When the ball of my foot meets a stone, I suck in my breath and hop toward the ditch, where I collapse matter-of-factly to inspect the damage.
A coin of blood, bright as a posy. In its center, a pebble. A scrutinizing eye.
Automatically, I offer my thanks to God, my pain to the Pour Souls in Purgatory. The pebble is God’s message, His communication, His way of making me pay attention; I study it the way I’d study a difficult problem at school. Give thanks in all circumstances, the Bible says. Perhaps, the pebble kept me from running ahead into the path of a rattlesnake sunning itself in the dust. Perhaps, the pebble has delayed me just long enough to prevent me from crossing Holden Street, where I live, just as a speeding car hurtles through. In my world, in the deep, underwater sleep of belief, there is no such thing as an accident. Just because you can’t find the reason doesn’t mean it isn’t there. God is simply testing you, testing the condition of your Faith.
I imagine my Faith like a diamond or ruby, a shining, precious stone. Something that must be protected. Something that can be shattered, stolen, lost. A person who loses their Faith, I know, becomes an atheist. The sound of the word gives me the feeling I get when, at slumber parties, my friends and I sneak outside. We walk through the darkness in our flimsy nightgowns, pretending there is somebody following just behind us, a man dressed in black and holding a knife. We can feel his hot breath on our shoulders. We can hear him licking his lips. We stare straight ahead, taking slow deliberate steps, for he’s unable to touch any of us-as long as we all stick together. As long as nobody looks back.
I stand up, brush off my shorts, eager to head back home. Already, the pebble is a story I can tell, a currency to be spent. I’ll walk all the way to Holden Street on my heel, careful not to jar the pebble loose. There, I’ll find my younger brother and make him watch me dig it out. If he’s admiring, I’ll let him keep it. If he feigns indifference, I’ll tell him about tetanus, enact the grim onset of symptoms, suck my cheeks hollow as starvation sets in. When he’s on the verge of telling our mother, tears bright in his eyes, I’ll admit that I’ve had a tetanus shot.
Then, with slow relish, I’ll describe the length of the needle, how the nurse shoved it in to the bone.
* * *
“The cradle rocks above an abyss,” Vladaiir Nabokov writes, “and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
Memory, then, like the switch on the wall. The pull chain on the lamp.”