17. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
by Helen Simonson
When you are a new parent, and if you are a reader, you will probably buy books about raising children. I found Dr. Benjamin Spock, Penelope Leach, Barry Brazelton, and the Ames & Ilg books that go year by year to be the wisest of counselors as I navigated this new territory of parenting, without a mother's guidance. They helped me through. They gave me confidence and humor. They made me feel like I could do this most wondrous work of bringing up children. When children become teenagers, there are still many guidebooks to give aid to worried parents. But once they go to college, or begin working, or join the military, there are no more books. The only phrase I've ever heard is 'the empty nest.' Well, yes, perhaps physically, but definitely not emotionally. I've found the years since my children graduated from high school to be the most trying, nerve-wracking, and rewarding of my life as a parent. And no one tells you. At least in my experience, there is no one writing about how to cope with adult children. Even the two words 'adult' and 'children' offer a clue to the difficulties. They are still our children, but they have become adults.
After a surprising coincidence, when I found myself reading this book, and watching the movie, Everybody's Fine, I began to think that perhaps literature and film may fill the gap and offer direction, because both of them deal with the subject of parents and adult children. Not only parents, but single father parents. I found it incredibly serendipitous. When there are adult children, there are also aging parents. Of course, not everyone is old when their children are grown but those of us who waited until our thirties to have these children suddenly find ourselves in our fifties or sixties. So, not only are we coping with our little babies all grown, but we are coping with the physical and emotional changes that come with older years.
In Everybody's Fine, Robert De Niro has a lung problem, for which he must take medication. His wife has been dead for several months and he wants to get all his children together. He finds in the course of the movie that things are not as he thought they were. At one point one of them tells the father that they don't tell him the truth about their lives.
In Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the Major at sixty-eight is still in quite good physical health, but is lonely since the death of his wife six years earlier. He has just one son, but honestly that 'boy' felt like he was ten children. He was so incredibly self-absorbed, unkind, thoughtless, and selfish. He absolutely drove this reader crazy. His father loves him, and tries his best to make him happy, but that son does nothing in return.
So that is one facet of this excellent book - the father and adult son relationship. Another dimension of Major Pettigrew's life is a growing interest in a widow who keeps a grocery store in the village, Mrs. Ali who is ten years his younger. And she has her own troubles with the younger generation; not her children but her nephew who has moved in to the small quarters above the store, and tries to take over her life.
"It is a fact of life, I suppose, that the younger generation must try to take over and run the lives of their elders," said Mrs. Ali. "My life is not my own since my nephew came to stay. Hence, the dream of a cottage of my own has reawakened in my mind."Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is full of moments such as this.
"Even in your own home, they track you down with the telephone at all hours," said the Major. "I think my son tries to organize my life because it's easier than his own - gives him a sense of being in control of something in a world that is not quite ready to put him in charge."
"That's very perceptive of you," said Mrs. Ali, considering a moment. "What do we do to counteract this behavior?"
"I'm considering running away to a quiet cottage in a secret location," said the Major, "and sending him news of my well-being by postcards forwarded on via Australia."
She laughed. "Perhaps I may join you?"
"You would be most welcome," said the Major, and for a moment he saw a low thatched hut tucked behind a gorse-backed hill and a thin crescent of sandy beach filled with wild gulls. Smoke from the chimney indicated a fragrant stewpot left on the wood-burning stove. He and she returning slowly from a long walk, to a lamp-lit room filled with books, a glass of wine at the kitchen table...
There are other elements of life which are dealt with in this book. We see prejudice, in terms of both nationality and economic status. In addition to the adult children situation, there are other family problems, all too familiar to most people: jealousy between siblings, in-law concerns, and then the whole property dilemma. Who gets what and when? Do you sell off a future inheritance for cash now? What about the importance of 'things?' And there are worries about development in the little village.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a story filled with everyday truths; ones that I rarely consciously think of, but certainly recognized as I read them in print.
It surprised him that his grief was sharper [his brother, younger by two years has just died of a sudden heart attack at 66] than in the past few days. He had forgotten that grief does not decline in a straight line or along a slow curve like a graph in a child's math book.
[speaking of the dawn chorus] those birds perform a miracle every morning and the world ought to get up and listen.The book really encompases all the richness of life; the good, the not-so-good, the problems that can be solved and those which one must simply live with. It is utterly fair without judgments. It doesn't feel like the author had an agenda to promote. She tells the story and lets it flow with warmth and humor and deep humanity. I loved it beyond words.
'The world is full of small ignorances. We must all do our best to ignore them and thereby keep them small, don't you think'
It was never a good idea to confide in people. They always remembered, and when they came up to you in the street, years later, you could see the information was still firmly attached to your face and present in the way they said your name and the pressure of their hand clasping yours.
He should have telephoned before arriving. The fiction that he was welcome to drop in at any time, because he was family, could only be maintained as long as he never took Marjorie at her word.
I would like to mention how much I enjoyed the print.
This book was set in Caslon, a typeface first designed in 1722 by William Caslon. Its widespread used by most English printers in the early eighteenth century soon supplanted the Dutch typefaces that had formerly prevailed. The roman is considered a "workhorse" typeface due to its pleasant, open appearance, while the italic is exceedingly decorative.I compare it to the
ITC Baskerville by Keystrokeof the Persephone books. I am so put off by the Baskerville that I almost can't read the books. The Caslon is so clear, so lovely, so easy on the eyes that I don't even think about it, whereas when I read the P. books, I'm always aware of the print and how much I don't like it.
And the cover is perfectly beautiful. It is complementary to the words inside.
Oh, and I must mention that this is Helen Simonson's first book!