Light Years: A Memoir
Lyons & Burford
"From the womb, I wanted light," writes Le Anne Schreiber in a book that is both infused with, and about, light. It is also about flora and fauna, life and death, time and territory — as well as stray cats impaled by arrows, sumacs "united in a rhizomatic conspiracy" to take over the author's acre of land, one helper whose business card reads "Landscaper La Femme," and another who "wielded his backhoe with the delicacy of a gourmand probing a lobster claw for its last sweet morsel."
Schreiber's book is a masterpiece of clarity and detail; her descriptions vivid in their straightforward simplicity, as when she describes a tale told by her Aunt Veronica. "Like all the family stories," writes Schreiber, "this one was very short, little more than bare fact whittled to a sharp point." Or, when describing the piece of land she buys in upstate New York after fleeing Manhattan in her search for light, and home, she says, "It wasn't much — just one sloping acre shaped like a blunt-tipped piece of pie being lifted from the pan — but it was unposted and all mine."
Light Years is a memoir prompted by the death of much-loved parents and her only sibling, a brother, over a period of five years. Yet, Schreiber lets the reader know of these deaths almost in passing, and though they are always in the background, there are times the reader forgets about them altogether.
The book opens with father teaching daughter the intricacies of fly-fishing, mostly by telephone and mail from Minnesota after a single visit to the author's new home and the stream that meanders near it. "Each year," she writes, "he planned a visit so we could enter the stream together, but each summer he was detained, first by my mother's illness, then by his own." In the meantime, she sends him pictures and descriptions of her favorite stretches of stream; he sends trout flies that he has crafted in his basement workshop.
On what turns out to be her last visit home, he asks if the two of them can talk "about a few things 'just in case,'" then says he would like a portion of his ashes to be cast into the stream his daughter has grown to love. Only now does the reader realize just how ill Schreiber's father is, and know for certain that her mother is already dead.
". . . I said I knew just where," she writes after describing her father's timidly put forward proposal concerning his ashes, "just in case." It's not where the sycamore spanned the stream, she explains, for "the winter after my mother died, the sycamore had been pried loose from its mooring on the bank by the force of high water released during a rare January thaw."
Soon after, we learn of her father's death: "It is spring now. . . . Rod and creel and ashes wait with me for summer, for the long light, when they will enter the stream at the riffles." Up to this point, Schreiber has been releasing the trout she catches. Now she writes, "Sometimes I wonder if the creel is his permission for me to keep what I catch. Right now, it seems more important that he taught me how to release. This summer I will carry the creel, empty, and bear the wicker weight of his absence."
Moments that touch the heart with sadness are balanced with Schreiber's humor and insight, never more apparent than in her descriptions of settling into Ancram, New York (pop. 1,533), and the lessons she learns in the process. Her first battle is with the land, much of it "an impenetrable tangle of briar, staghorn sumac, thorny blackberry bushes, and wild honeysuckle, all festooned with miles of runaway grapevine."
After a series of attacks and counterattacks — with some help from Landscaper La Femme — Schreiber wisely concludes: "I knew there was no war to be won, just an annual engagement with worthy adversaries whose tenacity I admired, even counted on, to survive my onslaughts. I had intended a limited, one-time intervention, as if paths and a glade could be carved out of a jungle once and for all, as if my acre, like the house it hosted, would sit tight for interior decoration. As if I were the character, and the acre merely a setting, not a protagonist with purposes of its own."
Schreiber's humor is at its peak in describing the stray cat she adopted even though she "was not, as they say, a cat person." Her first impression of the animal, she writes, was that "he was large, dirty, smelly, carnivorous and, to judge by his entrance, pushy." When she petted him, her palm "returned black and smelling like an NBA locker room." (Before fleeing to the country, Schreiber was the first female editor of the New York Times sports section.)
A series of adventures and misadventures between author and cat, clearly allegorical, all described with humor and insight, follow — including the arrow shot through the feline "shoulder to shoulder" during one of his roamings. Ultimately, as with the land, Schreiber and the cat, named Sebastian — in homage to the martyred saint who suffered at the hands of arrow-wielding pagans — reach an understanding.
It's at moments like these, when one is lulled by a Sebastian who spends much of his time curled up on the sofa, "going outdoors only for brief inspection tours of the nearest reaches of his territory," that Schreiber chooses to hit the reader with the fact that this is, after all, a memoir. "My brother died in October," she writes, shifting abruptly from the sleeping feline, "five years to the day after our mother's death, three years to the month after our father's. I am stripped clean of family."
But Sebastian isn't through with his lessons for Schreiber, and not long after, she writes of the stray, "It seems we are wed to this repetition, each the other's link to this cycle of loss and recovery. In these years, I have come to rely upon his capacity for survival, his power to transform my fear of ending into an anticipation of spring."
Schreiber is also perceptive enough to know that Sebastian now plays a unique role in Ancram "where 'newcomers' remain newcomers for two generations, at which point they achieve the status of 'relative newcomers.'" She was first known as "the lady who bought Mary Jane's house," and since Mary Jane had preceded Schreiber in town by 94 years, the author sensed an "unavoidable undertone to the phrase, as if it were a euphemism for 'dispossessor.'" However, once the arrow affair put Sebastian on the front page of the local paper, Schreiber became "the lady with the cat with the arrow."
Part one of the memoir ends with the author's moving description of casting her father's ashes into the water. "I felt a deep sadness that brought tears to my eyes, which added their slight flow to the stream that was carrying my father's ashes to places perhaps more distant than I can imagine. But I also felt a powerful wave of relief rising and cresting with me. I had fulfilled my promise, and my reward was a sudden explosion within me of all the love that was contained in its making."
It is not until part two of the book that we learn of Le Anne Schreiber's childhood. Born in 1945, two days before "the Enola Gay made history," she lived with her parents and older brother in a tiny apartment on the third floor of a house at 1010 Main Street in Evanston, Illinois. "I loved the mnemonic tom-tom beat of that perfect address," she writes, "so much easier to commit to memory than the nonsense clauses of the Nicene Creed which was our first task of learning . . . at St. Nicholas Grammar School."
The address was all she liked. "Like most families," Schreiber says, "we bided our time while the war machine changed gears. The apartment was our holding bin. Every night for six years, I was stored away in that hand-me-down crib, its barred sides only inches from the windowless walls of the dressing closet that served as my bedroom."
She describes vividly the day she and her mother walked to the almost-finished house the family had saved enough money to buy on Cleveland Street in one of the myriad postwar suburbs springing up across the United States. "I saw my mother pulse and glow with the pleasure of imminent escape. Even her stride was different, longer and faster and hard to keep up with." They had brought with them a big bottle of Windex. "As I sprayed and she wiped each of the thirty-five small panes of the grand whole that was the picture window, it felt as if we were pulling the blind forever on those dark forties and snapping it wide open on the light-filled fifties."
But Schreiber quickly discovered that "the picture window let in light, but the light did not reach the nooks and crannies of the imagination." The lessons she learned in the family's new "ranch house" (until she saw the house, she envisioned "a sprawling outpost of bunk-beds and hitching posts, with a triangle my mother would ring to call us in from the corral to dinner") would influence her many years later.
As she began remodeling "Mary Jane's house" in Ancram, she recalls, "I was guided . . . by an unconscious formed in the darkness of 1010 Main and reformed in the inescapable brightness of Cleveland Street. . . . The goal I set myself was providing each room with plentiful natural light without opening up the space so much that it ran wild through the house." One room, small and dim, she converted into a closet. "Only years later," she writes, "did I realize that this turnabout was my best revenge upon 1010 Main."
The year she bought her house her mother was ill and she worked with a sense of urgency, aware that "my sudden desire to create a home was linked by more than circumstance to the sudden likelihood of my mother's death." She was also discovering that home did not mean structure. "I was aware that whenever I left New York to join my parents, I said I was flying 'home,' and that whenever I returned to New York, I also said I was flying 'home.'" And later, "As long as my parents lived, home could be a shifting site. In a world minus them, I would need to fix myself in place."
It is in Ancram that Schreiber has "fixed herself," at least for now. The "lady who bought Mary Jane's house" has become "the lady who lives in the gray house with the big yellow cat, who fishes and writes about it." When a phrase gets too long, says Schreiber, "you get a name, and you hope it is one you would want to answer to. After ten years my name has spread a little ways through town, but not far."
It is here, in her fixed place, that Schreiber ultimately feels "the full impact of what I had become — the lone survivor of a natural disaster wandering in the wasteland of my family's destruction." It is here, too, where nothing in her environment goes unseen, unexamined or unappreciated, that she finds her comfort and survival: in swimming, in dreams, in memories, in friendship, in the study of Einstein's theory of space-time, in nature — and in light.
Reviewer Emily d'Aulaire writes from her home in Redding, Connecticut.