Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Membership

"I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the 'membership' of my life."

I am fascinated by the family dynamics in Hannah Coulter.

I strongly desire this type of closeness and "membership"
but it has not been my fate.

In one generation, I have seen this type of membership of community and family disappear.

Have you stumbled into the "membership" in your life?

Do you still find that the extended family is alive and well?

How has the family changed since the 1940's?
How has it stayed the same?

Another thing I noticed in Hannah's family was their silence.
When Virgil is missing, they do not speak of their fears.
They do not speak with one another of their pain and sadness and anger.

Because this is so different from how our family dealt with our grief,
I found it heavy and sad.

I would burst if I could not say I was afraid.

Hannah's family would not have liked my chatty self.

What do you think?



  1. I agree. I noticed of course the silence mentioned. She talked as if it helped to keep all that stuff in and that apparently they would fall apart if it was spoken out loud. Why??? I don't get that. I hate silence between people with a passion. That would be my number one peeve. The thing that irks me the most with my mate. What I especially would hate is that things are just glossed over with a simple sentence. No, let's communicate instead. I haven't read as far as Virgil yet.

  2. The "Membership" thing has kind of bothered me whenever it comes up. For me it's an intrusion of Berry's voice into the story, just when Ive been able to settle into thinking I'm hearing Hannah. He uses it in his other books, too, and I wonder if "community" would do just as well?

    As for my family and my husband's - we all talk. Probably too much. We're more likely to talk something to death rather than to be silent about it. And Steve says that my family talks so much we talk over and under, around and through all at the same time. He says he doesn't know how we hear one another because we all talk at the same time, loudly, all the time!

  3. I'm an adopted girl, with elderly parents, one of whom is the youngest of 9, one of whom is an only child. So my first cousins are in their early 70's. it's strange - so my extended family is broad, but mostly unknown to me.

    I'm excited to read more. come quickly, my hannah coulter book, come quickly!

  4. I still don't have a copy of the book. I'm going to have to break down and buy it. I feel way behind now.

  5. Last summer our community lost a helicopter pilot who was fighting fires. At the memorial service one local pastor was struggling to communicate the love and response of the community to the family. A friend went up to him after the service and said, "The word you are looking for is membership. We belong to one another."

    Funny how you often find membership outside of family bloodlines. I see it even in Hannah Coulter's life. I think Andy Catlett is a "member" in ways her own sons are not.

    When my oldest son married he was astounded by the number of "fake" aunties and uncles my daughter-in-law had. Isn't the designation of Aunt Mary to someone unrelated a way of showing membership?

    Some cool word pictures: When we lose a loved one we feel dis-membered. When we remember a loved one we are re-membering.

  6. Laura--I agree. The word doesn't work for me and I hear Wendell.

    I hear "card-carrying" and I have to work hard not to think about cults and secret societies.

    On the other hand, I always appreciate it when a writer makes me think about word choice. "Community" would not have jarred me the way "membership" does. Perhaps that's his intent.

  7. When we decided to move back to Terry's hometown to raise our kids, we unknowingly joined a membership of family and friends that had known Terry all his life. Like Donna, I don't have that with my own family or childhood community. I'm so glad we did raise our kids around great aunts and uncles, first and third cousins. There are about 40 people in our small town with our last name and we are somehow related to all of them.

    Since reading Wendell's books, I've taken every opportunity to visit more of my family when I go to St. Louis. I had a chance to visit with my Mom's cousin I hadn't seen in twenty years (her husband was also there and he died three months later). She told a few priceless stories about my Mom's childhood and other family stories I'd never heard.

    I think Wendell chose "the membership" as a unique identifier and I agree with Carol's ideas about "member". There is something a bit more intentional about being a member than belonging to a community, isn't there? I read one interview where Berry was talking about how to have something like the membership in modern life. He basically said we have to choose that THIS is where we will spend our lives and THESE people are the ones we will invest our lives in and around. It reminded me of the Benedictine monk's vow of stability. They vow to stay in one place for the rest of their lives.

    My birth family handles serious matters with silence. We talk about everything under the sun except what is really happening. When my Mom died, my brothers, sister and I didn't talk about it for years. Even now, it is a rare and precious moment when we get serious and talk about the effect of her deaths on our lives and our family.

  8. I promise to quit writing such long comments. Sitting on hands ala Carol, now.

  9. Don't you dare sit on your hands. I love every single word.

  10. Yes. It's an intentional word and carries all the connotations you mention, Sandy. Choice, commitment, responsibility, identity, and so on.

    Community says "optional" to me. Membership says "participation required".

    Please don't sit on your hands! Anyone! You're welcome to comment until the cows come home.


  11. Here is a lovely quote and commentary from Hannah Coulter by a blogger who is a wise woman.


  12. Thanks, Carol for that link. It was a wonderful post. I was raised by thrifty parents who were teenagers in the depression. Dad also witnessed the great poverty in Europe after WWII and never forgot it. Both my grandmothers made patchwork quilts from scraps of clothing. They canned fruits, vegetables and jellies from their gardens and fruit trees. One grandma crocheted rugs from bread wrappers and other scraps of clothing and pantihose. Nothing went to waste! I once took that grandma home after a visit (a two hour drive) and she wanted to eat at Long John Silver's. She didn't finish her french fries and carefully wrapped them in a napkin to take them home. This was pre-microwave days and I can't imagine how she made them edible but the idea of wasting food was anathema. (I often blame my weight problem on that lesson being drilled in my head far too well!)

  13. Okay, this is coming from somebody with no strong familial community... no sense of really belonging anywhere. My family tree is a bit of a hedge and 20 years ago, when I was an adult, my mom married into a large close family that I have never felt a part of.

    So, that said, I LOVE the word "membership". It means belonging to me, being accepted, be a beloved part of something bigger.

    As for the family's silence, I found the whole concept of kindness and grief fascinating. I somehow picture that many families/communities dealt with those times that way. How else could a town go on when it was constantly reeling with grief. There would be wailing and whining unceasingly. At some point you just have to survive.

    "... of what we felt we could not mention without being overpowered and destroyed. That kindness kept us alive, I think, but it was a hardship too."

    I understand this.

  14. Here's my take on *membership*


  15. On silence: I understand that silence. When my husband was deployed last year (not his first deployment, but his scariest) I felt like I had a bubble in my chest. I had a feeling if I talked about the scary things kept hidden there, I would fall apart, or something really bad would happen. So I stayed silent. I had a hard time blogging and I really didn't enjoy talking to my mom on the phone. I was afraid I would burst!

    On Community: Something I love about Hawaii is how in-tack family is. I didn't know this existed any where anymore. Generations in the same little town, and sometimes the same home. Cousins and Aunts close by. Close enough to keep an eye out for you (or on you) at school or in the community.

    I hate that we don't have that. Though I feel close to my sisters, we are spread all over the country. I think it wouldn't be a bad thing for my kids to have an Aunt working at their high school or a few cousins to hang out with on a Sunday afternoon.

  16. in tact. I meant in tact. I'm not sure if that's a real word either, though, now that I'm typing it....

  17. On silence, I realize after reading the comments that when my daughter was gone to Croatia for 5 months, there was times that I kept my silence so that I could just "pretend" that she was only one hour away. Although the hard part was late at night when I went to bed, even though my husband was there, I didn't want to show my severe missing her. I kept it to myself. I still think that if I could have talked about with him and had him hold me, I would have felt better. I suppose one of the reasons I kept silent was because I thought it was a good idea that she go and it did give her a great experience like no other and broaden her mind. But I think my husband might have said, "Well, you shouldn't have let her go." Then again, I don't know if he would have said this 'cause we didn't talk about it.

  18. my best friend and I are completely opposite on the silence issue. she says that is why we fit so well, because we can't both be talking at the same time.
    I do feel that part of the family's silence is fear of never being able to stop the flow of fear. as each of my family members have passed it has gotten harder and harder for me talk about them. my daughter is the one who understands this the best for me. she just comes and sits by me for days. doesn't make me talk to her and kindly fields all calls.
    it seems that these families are naturally very reticent so I wouldn't expect them to handle grief differently.
    there don't have to be words to know the love and acceptance these family members feel.
    and what a perfect grandmam.

  19. I've been on both sides of the fence, both the grieving and the "comforter".

    When my sister died, my children were 3, 2, and 3 mos. I was afraid if I started crying, I might not stop and there would be no one to care for my children. I worried people that I was not crying enough...I can't tell you how frustrated I was by that analysis. I wanted to scream, "Will you be mother to my children if I end up in the fetal position and never become functional again???? NO, you won't, and so I am doing the best I can. BUG OFF." Actually, the words were harsher, but I will edit for the purposes of kindness (-:

    When I am in the place of comforter, I tend to fly into worker bee mode. Bring a meal, clean a room, do an errand, watch a child. I would love to learn to sit in the quiet with someone and have that be a comfort. I am afraid my nervous energy fills the room to overflowing. It's something that will probably come with practice.

    The silence of grief here reminds me of the silence of romance in Jane Austen. So much is felt and thought, but no one shares their feelings for a long time. Within the culture, it works. But there is a tension, an unspokenness, that can have incredible influence on the community. I am such a blurt-er, it always surprises me to read such reticence.


  20. oh, di. I can sooo empathize. I am so sorry.

  21. di, I gottcha. when I am the comforter I am in hyper mode. when I am in grief, I am comatose.