Chapters of a Life

Author Katrina Kenison ’80’s memoirs have attracted a growing legion of fans with their simple message: Enjoy the little moments in life before they’re gone.

by Elise Gibson

Her books celebrate the quiet moments of family life, moments so small, so ordinary that they might otherwise be overlooked. Katrina Kenison Lewers ’80 likes to say that “ordinary gets a bad rap,” and when you see how she lives you understand what she means. “Ordinary” doesn’t mean “second-rate” or “mediocre.” Her sense of “ordinary” means taking care with the details, slowing down, minding the view. Her two-year-old farmhouse, on a granite-strewn hillside with a sweeping vista of the southern New Hampshire mountains, feels at once open and cozy. Her yoga mat faces a flagstone patio, filled with pots of forsythia and pussy willow. A kettle of spicy tea, redolent of cardamom and cloves, simmers on the stove. Books stacked on the counter bear her name.

Katrina Kenison Lewers '80

“The whole idea about appreciating the ordinary is a theme of my adult life,” she says, setting a tray of homemade muffins and sliced pears next to the couch as she prepares to be interviewed.

It’s a life with which her growing legion of readers have become well-acquainted. She shares her life with her husband, Steven Lewers, who like Katrina is a veteran of the publishing industry, and their two sons, Henry, who attends St. Olaf in Minnesota, and Jack, who this year emptied the nest prematurely by heading to boarding school in the Berkshires. Kenison (her pen name) has written two memoirs that focus on family life—Mitten Strings for God [2000], in which she captures fleeting moments in the lives of her young sons, and last year’s The Gift of an Ordinary Day, which describes her family’s complicated search for a new place and way to live, while also grappling with a mother’s attempt to let go of her nearly grown sons.

Besides her memoirs, for sixteen years Kenison selected stories for the annual anthology The Best American Short Stories, for which she worked with guest editors like Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, and Ann Patchett. The highpoint, though, was the year she spent working with John Updike to select from the anthologies the best stories of the century. “That was one of the most intense and wonderful years of my life,” she said. “He was lovely.”

Much of Ordinary Day focuses on Kenison’s determination to leave a much-loved home in suburban Boston for a place where her sons could find their own paths, away from the competitive pressures that seemed to rule the schools in their affluent community. The journey included a two-year stretch of moving back to Kenison’s childhood home with her parents, plus living in a decrepit, though well-sited summer house, tearing it down, and building her current house in its place. The result is a book filled with intergenerational observations, the pursuit of meaning, working with contractors, reflections on marriage and parenthood, confronting adolescent angst, and a virtual primer on how to uproot, tear down, build up, and finally, compose a family life with its own, very individual sense of success.

Interspersed between the questions that follow are small sections from The Gift of an Ordinary Day, which will be released in paperback this fall.

You mentioned that your original idea was not to write a memoir but a book about the pressured lives of teenagers.
If there’s one thing we figure out by the time we hit middle-age it’s that happiness doesn’t have much to do with job title and how much stuff you have. Once your necessities are taken care of, happiness is about the quality of your relationships. Yet that’s not the message we’re giving our teenagers. So I did a lot of research into college admissions, and how invested parents get, the burnout teens feel once they finally get into school, and the narrow definition of success. I had a contract and was going to include a little of my family’s own story as a jumping off point to a more journalistic book. I spent a year on that but it wasn’t coming to life, so I sent some pages to my editor and she said, “I really love this part about your family.” I realized that what I could write about authentically was my experience as a mother.

The changes, when they began, were subtle at first. Somehow our treasured family ritual of reading together at bedtime slipped away. No one asked for stories anymore. Baths were replaced by showers, long ones, at the oddest times of day. The three-year gap between our sons, insignificant at six and nine, seemed to stretch into a chasm, unbridgeable at 11 and 14. Baseballs stopped flying in the backyard. A bedroom door that had always been open, quietly closed. And then one day, toward the end of my older son’s eighth-grade year, I looked at him over breakfast and realized I had absolutely no idea what he was thinking about. And when, for heaven’s sake, had he grown that hair across his upper lip? . . . I missed my old world and its funny little inhabitants, those great big personalities still housed in small, sweet bodies. . . . I missed the person I had been for them, too—the younger, more capable mother who read aloud for hours, stuck raisin eyes into bear-shape pancakes, created knights’ armor from cardboard and duct tape. Certainly my talents didn’t seem quite so impressive anymore, my company not as desirable as it once had been.

Your book has such finely observed details and descriptions of emotions that ring very true. Do you keep precise journals?
I did keep a daily journal while I wrote the book, but I never went back and read it. I didn’t need to use a journal because I was writing the very recent past. Like Tivo-ing a TV show. Some of those moments were so visceral, like coming to see this property for the very first time. It was really easy to access those memories.

The small red-shingled saltbox is empty on the afternoon I see it first, silent, as if waiting in the hushed stillness for human life to return. Outside, in the slanting light of a late September afternoon, the touch of a long-ago gardener is everywhere in evidence. Peonies sprawl along the stone wall, ancient lilac bushes frame the driveway, mint and thyme multiply at the kitchen door beneath a rampant vine of lacy clematis climbing to the rooftop in full ivory bloom. . . . On the narrow screened porch there is a jumble of wicker chairs, an old metal glider, its cushions faded from decades of afternoon sun, and a small square table set, as if for all time, with binoculars, notebook and pen, a reading lamp, and a well-thumbed copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America.
Beyond the windows there, a grassy lawn gives way to a steep decline, fields, stone walls and a wide-open view of mountains, two gentle peaks looking like nothing so much as a pair of softly rounded breasts. There is not another house in sight, just a dilapidated gray cottage far across the field and an old shed on the other side of the road. There is something eternal here, ancient, quiet and still.

The small details seem so intimate; not in a confessional way, but in a bittersweet way that mothers, especially, will recognize.
The act of writing helped me figure out what I was feeling about my sons growing up and the transition of being one kind of mother to another kind of mother. Being incredibly proud and joyful one day to nostalgic and almost mournful the next day, that sense of things that slipped away while you weren’t paying attention. I was writing to capture it and to understand it. The hard thing was imagining people reading it. At the first reading I felt like I was running around town in my PJs; not naked, but oddly exposed. But then, meeting other moms and getting letters from them made me think we all need to spend time in our pajamas telling our stories. The best thing we can do is to take off this public face for a while and not talk about our children’s perfect SAT scores, but about things like how sad it is to see them go or how hard it is when our children’s dreams don’t come true. To have these other mothers say, “I feel like you’ve been writing my life” made me realize we’re all in this together.

If motherhood has taught me anything, it is that I cannot change my children, I can only change myself. Try as I might I can’t shape either one of them to my desires or design, but I can choose, moment by moment and day by day, my own reaction to who they are. So perhaps my real job now isn’t to direct my sons’ lives, but to work on becoming more thoughtful and deliberate about my own. It will be enough, I think, if I can help my older son approach the months ahead not as a final push toward some holy grail called college admission, but as an essential rite of passage, an opportunity for his own growth. It will be enough, too, if I can support my younger son’s transition into a new school not by trying to orchestrate and oversee his life, but by being strong and sturdy myself, so that his new freedoms can be explored within clear boundaries and on solid ground. And it will be enough if I can begin to learn the art of letting go by practicing it in the present.

Your book is not prescriptive, but one message that’s very consistent throughout is simply to pay attention.
We tend to be so busy; we race through life and we miss it. Even though there was a lot going on with us—we were building a house and moving and going through these physical transitions—it’s that watchfulness, that listening and attending with your heart to the present moment. It’s a spiritual practice and it allows me to write in such detail.

How has your life changed now that both boys have left home?
I’m more public now than I’ve ever been. When the kids were at home I always had an excuse not to go on the road. Some people have to learn to say no. I’m turning 51 and I’ve realized it was time to start saying yes. I like being home, but it’s time to be something other than a nurturer of children. The world needs more maternal energy out there.

You make “ordinary things” sound compelling, whether you’re describing the smell of the air or your enjoyment of hearing your son practice the piano.
We demean the word “ordinary” until we get to a point in our life that we would give anything to have that ordinary day that we forgot to cherish. I think that’s universal, because we all go through losses of friends and parents, we have troubles with our children, our jobs, our marriages. Then we look back on that life that we took for granted and say, “I wish I’d appreciated it.”

I make a list one day of things I’m grateful for. Amid the comings and goings of teenagers, I can still get so enmeshed in the necessities and logistics of life that I miss the beauty. “We do not remember days, we remember moments,” the saying goes, and surely it is the moments, the small, fleeting details of us as we are right now, that I want to seize and capture. If memory is the art of attention, then pausing to be grateful is a way of remembering. And remembering is a way, perhaps the only way, of holding on to the way we are now, the things I love, the moments I wish never to lose.

Maybe it is a form of prayer, this list making in the name of gratitude and remembrance. If so, I pray for ordinary things. The golden wonder of sunrise and the deliciousness of sleep. The sight of sons, sleep-softened, side by side in T-shirts and flannel pants, bent over cereal bowls, dissecting the morning’s sports news. Jack, astonishingly tall, just showered and dressed for game day in a blue-and-white-striped shirt and his father’s twenty-year-old green necktie.

Backpacks that weigh a ton, jackets that are never zipped, shoes with broken heels that no one ever bothers to untie. My husband calling, as he has every school day morning for 14 years, “Train’s pulling out.” The hasty good-byes as they rush out the door, cutting it close. The scent of Old Spice lingering in the upstairs hall. Solitude. The prickling silence of the suddenly empty house. The vastness of sky beyond the kitchen window and the blue quietude of morning.

Summer ’10 SAQ