2022 Reading Challenge

2022 Reading Challenge
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Excerpt: Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

Today I’m pleased to introduce you to a new novel by a talented author who is also a talented book marketer and publicist. I first “met” Caitlin Hamilton Summie while she was promoting another author and we’ve worked together to spread the word about a number of books by now (search her up on here and you’ll find a number of great examples of this), so I’m delighted to now have the chance to help her promote herself!

About the Book

Sarah Macmillan always puts family first, but she can’t quite stretch her arms wide enough to hold on to everyone as they all age: her career-minded, inattentive younger sister, Glennie; their grandparents, who are slowly fading; or a pregnancy Sarah desperately wanted. But it’s her tumultuous relationship with Glennie that makes Sarah feel the loneliest. She’d always believed that their relationship was foundational, even unbreakable. Though blessed with a happy marriage to Al, whose compassion and humor she admires, Sarah shoulders both caregiving and loss largely alone and grows bitter about Glennie’s absences, until one decision forces them all to decide what family means-and who is family. Narrated by the chorus of their three voices, this elegantly told and deeply moving novel examines the pull of tradition, the power of legacies, the importance of forgiveness, and the fertile but fragile ground that is family, the first geography to shape our hearts.

The Excerpt

Cleaning House

Sarah 

October 1995

In their dusk-lit nursing home room, my grandparents seem at peace with the half-darkness, in that space between what they know and what they don’t. It’s as if the shadows suit them, soften the edges. Promise a gentle passing.

But none of that is true.

As their day nurse, Kirsten, said on the phone yesterday, “You did  something. I don’t know what. But this situation has been going on for days now, and you need to get over here and fix it.”

I know Kirsten well enough now to have heard the laughter in her voice, but there was a sharpness in it, too, that sent a wash of fatigue over me and stalled me for an entire day. I’m the default caregiver, still being unemployed. I can’t seem to market myself so maybe this field isn’t for me, but at least temping has allowed me to care for my grand- parents in moments like these. Dad gets two personal days. Glennie is even more unreliable now that she wants to take the MCAT early, next semester, the wrong time to push herself if you ask me, but she doesn’t ask, just pops in sometimes to prove she’s okay. And Mom has to ask for time off weeks in advance at the garden center because she’s the manager. It doesn’t matter to the owners that these are her parents, and I know she loves her job. Still, I’m not sure how to handle everything, I want to say, standing here in the nursing home hall- way. No one has time to listen, though, not really, not when there are health crises almost every day in the nursing home and deadlines and rigid, rule-following bosses. I could imagine what Kirsten would say anyway, and I could even imagine her saying it.

“You’re as good as your mother with them.” Her dyed blond hair in a tight ponytail, showing hints of dark brown at the scalp. The deep wrinkles in her forehead. Baggy eyes. Baggy scrubs, solid purple or ones with flowers. Eyebrows raised as if to warn me. Kirsten could be thirty or fifty, but I bet she is closer to thirty. She has her hands full every day, and her sympathy for me is limited, and I understand. Who needs angry eighty- and ninety-year-olds?

My grandparents have been arguing, and the argument has escalated into barks with my name in them. Sarah!

Then suddenly this morning, silence. They will not talk to each other. In fact, they will talk with no one.

Except, apparently, me.

Kirsten phoned to update me after their breakfast, and I said I’d be  by before they ate dinner. And now here I am, on this crisp October evening, gathering courage before crossing the threshold, wondering what I’ve inadvertently done that has made my grandparents, married for a remarkable 61 years, stop speaking to one another and the staff.

The door to my grandparent’s room is pushed back against the wall, and three black numbers form a diagonal down the white paint: 129. Someone has taped construction paper leaves to the door announcing their 61st. Congratulations, Catherine & Ed!

Grandpa lays quietly in his bed, hands in constant spasm, his middle grotesquely enlarged. Grandma, in a chair by the foot of his bed, stares fixedly out into the hallway, her same determined glare suddenly fiercer. She’s wearing a navy sweat suit, which bags around her legs. Her hair lies flat on one side, then swoops up on the other. Her scalp shows through in spots. She slumps, but she stays where she is, right by Grandpa. She waits. She can’t see me, but she will try. For as long as it takes.

She’s the only brave one in the whole damn family.

My grandmother wanted me to have the china, which had gone  to the oldest grandchild for five generations. She told me over the phone early last May, slipping the news into a discussion about how to clean my moldy shower curtain. She referred to it as my shower curtain because she refused when discussing anything remotely inti- mate to acknowledge that Al might use the item, too. Thrilled as she  was that we were back together, she wasn’t thrilled about the living arrangements.

We talked on a warm day, a bee buzzing kind of day, when Al and  I had looked around the house and each chosen a chore. Al decided to clean out the fridge, which for him meant eating all the leftovers. That accomplished, he’d disappeared into the back yard. I’d peeked out the kitchen window at him, momentarily forgetting Grandma. When I looked back at my notes about how to clean the shower curtain, I’d   scribbled add china.

“Back up, Grandma,” I’d said.

“Back up to what?” she’d asked, sounding tired. “To the china part.”

“Oh,” she’d said. “Well.”

I’d fiddled with my pen like it was a baton.

“I’ve mentioned this on and off for years, Sarah. I’m leaving my  china to you,” she’d said.

“Why?”

“Because I’m leaving the silver to Glennie.” 

“No, I mean why are we talking about this?”

 “Because I’m cleaning house, too,”

I didn’t want the china. I don’t really want anything, except what    I already have, a pale orange sweater she knitted for me my freshman  year of college and the few photos she parceled out last Christmas. But what I want isn’t the point, though I have trouble remembering that. The point is that she wanted to give me something, me and Al, and she wanted to give it then, before she got to the now, in which on bad nights I pop in for a visit and find her sitting in the nursing home hallway strapped into her wheelchair, picking at the scab on her head. 

“Be gracious,” she’d said finally as our conversation wound down.

“About a moldy shower curtain?”

She didn’t think I was funny. She said, “You’re being flip. How’s Al?”

 I peeked out the window again and saw Al bent over our vegetable patch. He seemed to be examining the garden. He seemed to be debating.

“He’s trying to weed.”

“Trying? Is he actually doing anything?”

Grandma loves most everything about Al, except what she interprets as a certain lack of decisiveness. It’s hard not to love Al, with his big dim ples and white-blond hair, as if it has been bleached. But her love came  around slowly, after she recovered from our decision to live together.

“Is he going to ask you to marry him or not?”

Grandma had sounded perturbed, and I remember thinking, It’s my life. I couldn’t be pressured into doing what I wasn’t ready to do.  She blamed Al for my reservations. She expected me, after all, to believe in marriage, as if her success ensured mine.

I stared out the window at Al, who had begun to vigorously pull up my basil. I didn’t stop him.

“Grandma,” I’d said, “I’m not in the mood to talk about weddings or death.”

“You never are,” she said. Her voice shook. “Did it ever occur to you that I might need to?”

I was trying to think of how to tell Grandma I was sorry, but the apology got lost in my rising anger, tempered slightly by the fatigue of     being at odds with her, and then she said, abruptly, “Oh, never mind.  Why do you want to clean your shower curtain?”

“I want to get the mold off.”

“Pitch it,” Grandma said, and then she hung up.

That was on May 2nd, just before her 88th birthday, the celebration of which was postponed by a late-night phone call, by a sudden family conference in the emergency room of Abbott Northwestern Hospital. By the sudden move here.

(c) 2022 Caitlin Hamilton Summie 

About the Author

Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, JMWW, Mud Season Review, Belmont Story Review, Hypertext Magazine, and more. Her story collection, TO LAY TO REST OUR GHOSTS, won the fourth annual Phillip H. McMath Book Award, Silver in the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for Short Stories, and was a Pulpwood Queen Book Club Bonus Book. Her debut novel, GEOGRAPHIES OF THE HEART, was inspired by three stories in her collection and is due out from Fomite Press in January 2022. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003. Find her online at caitlinhamiltonsummie.com.

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