Lucia Berlin was relatively unknown when her first compiled collection of short stories called ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ was released three years ago, 11 years after her death. But this collection became a huge hit with readers and critics alike, and she gained recognition in a way that she never did during her lifetime.
I absolutely loved it too, and it found a place in my Best Books of 2016 list.
Hence, when it was revealed that Picador in the UK (and Farrar, Straus, Giroux in the US) were going to release two (and not one!) new books this year by Berlin, I was thrilled.
The two books are – Evening in Paradise, a short story collection (Yay! More stories from Berlin), and her memoir Welcome Home.
I rarely read memoirs, but given that Berlin’s real life was as endlessly fascinating, adventurous and rich as the stories that drew from these experiences, I was very keen to make an exception this time.
Welcome Home consists of Lucia Berlin’s memoir peppered with wonderful photographs (of her, her sons and family), and a selection of her letters (a majority of them to friends Edward and Helene Dorn).
The memoir comes first, and rather than a linear retelling, Berlin has focused on places she has lived in and the memories associated with them. It has a spare, impressionistic feel to it; the hallmark of Berlin’s writing.
It begins in Juneau, Alaska where Lucia was born, and the description is enchanting enough…
They said it was a sweet small house with many windows and sturdy woodstoves, screens taut against mosquitoes. It looked out on the bay, onto sunsets and stars and dazzling Northern Lights. My mother would rock me as she gazed down at the harbor, which was always crowded with fishing boats and tugs, American and Russian ore ships.
From thereon, Berlin writes about her childhood in places such as Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, El Paso in Texas and then onto Santiago in Chile.
The rate at which Lucia Berlin moved places both during childhood and adulthood is simply astonishing. Her father was a mining engineer and thus the family kept shifting often.
In Montana for instance, Berlin talks about how her father took her into the mountains every Saturday for weeks before the first snow. An old prospector lived alone in a cabin up there, and they carried winter supplies to him. This snippet of her life offers us a glimpse into Lucia’s early fascination with stories.
I carefully tore out pages from magazines and glued them onto the walls with flour and water paste, careful so as not to wet any of the text. The idea was to have a tight patchwork of pages all over the cabin, from floor to celing. All through the dark days of winter Johnson (the prospector) would read the walls. It was important to mix up the pages and magazines, so that page 20 might be high on a north wall and 21 on the bottom of the south wall.
I believe this was my first lesson in literature, in the infinite possibilities of creativity. What I knew for sure was his walls were a great idea. This way, since they were not in any order, whenever he read a page he had to invent the story that went with it…
When her father gets called abroad for the Second World War, Lucia and her family move to El Paso in Texas to stay with Lucia’s grandparents, where relations between them and her mother are fraught.
Most evenings he (Lucia’s grandfather) was at the Elks club and my mother was at the Pomeroys’ playing bridge or in Juarez. The two of them ate in their own bedrooms and never spoke a word to each other.
Once the war is over, Lucia’s father comes back and they move to Patagonia in Arizona, and it’s a phase in her life where she wonders, “Is it possible that we were all happy every day that we lived there?”
It is during her teenage years that the family moves to Santiago in Chile, and here Berlin lives a rich life brimming with a buzzing social circle – friends, parties, balls, dresses and so on. Her mother cannot adapt to this high society life, always retiring to bed early with a bottle, and it falls upon Lucia to host these gatherings.
After moving back to the US during her late teens, Berlin goes on to marry a sculptor with whom she has two sons – Mark and Jeff. He ditches her and just before her second son Jeff is born Lucia meets and marries the jazz musician Race Newton. This period of her life is also marked with moves and chaos as the family first settle in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then move on to the East, to New York City, where the jazz scene is flourishing.
Berlin finally marries Buddy Berlin, another jazz musician, who is brilliant, charismatic and dynamic but consistently struggling with a drug addiction problem. She eventually went on to divorce him too and never re-married.
However, Berlin’s memoir was unfinished at the time of her death, and she had left off at the time when the family was once again on the move in both New Mexico and Mexico (she had not yet divorced Buddy Berlin, which she would eventually do).
One of things that is so fascinating about Berlin’s stories and her memoir is the constant moving, travelling, never settling down anywhere for long periods. It only gave way to chaos and upheavals. One wonders why that is so….
Of course, she didn’t have much choice in her younger years given the demands of her father’s profession, but even in her adult years, she was never rooted to one place. It could be that on some subconscious level, she welcomed upheavals and the chances it offered to re-invent herself, as opposed to staying in stasis for too long at any one place and suffering boredom.
It is a mesmerising, fascinating life nevertheless, and gave Berlin a lot of rich material to work with when writing her stories.
At the end of the memoir, Berlin provides a list of the places she has lived in titled, “The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived in”
Here’s a snippet:
Corrales Road, Alameda, New Mexico – No running water, no electricity, no bathroom. Two kids in diapers.
Thirteenth Street, New York City – Five flights up. Two kids, none walking. Blizzard, all streets closed, miracle. Rothko.
Acapulco, Mexico – Honeymoon. Three weeks of rain. Flood, dysentery, Mark electrocuted, more flood.
An article in the Los Angeles Times sums it up wonderfully…
As the list of her homes suggests, her 68 years were almost impossibly full of travel, adventure, loves found and lost, alcoholism and its defeat, and the struggle to get by as a single mother of four boys.
The second section of Welcome Home comprises her letters.
The first letter is a poignant one from her father when he is away at war and Lucia is 8 years old.
The reason I’m writing you this, Lucia, is that I’m so far away I can’t talk to you like I used to, and I just suddenly remembered, in the middle of this war, that you’re growing up without a daddy almost. I want you to know, now that you are the young lady of the house, that you are a partner in this family and we want it to be the most wonderful and happiest family in the whole world…
The second one is to a friend Lorna, where she confesses that she loves Lou (Berlin’s first love before she married) but is not sure she wants to marry yet given her desire to make something of her life. Berlin was 17 then.
I love Lou and we’re still going together, but all of a sudden I have become ambitious, and I want to finish school and there are so many bloody things I want to do…I never thought school would ever come between me and a guy…I’m real proud of myself…got two A’s in summer school…I like this idea of doing something and working for something that I can be proud of doing…
The later letters are mostly to her friends – poets Edward and Helene Dorn, and many are written in 1959, the period when she was in New York with her second husband Race Newton. And then on, she wrote from Mexico and New Mexico when she was married and living with Buddy Berlin. Essentially these letters correspond to the same time period as her unfinished memoir. They give a great feel of what was going on in her mind during those times, her struggles, and her attempts to churn out quality writing material often asking Edward Dorn to give the necessary feedback.
Welcome Home is a wonderful companion piece to Lucia Berlin’s short story collections. And it was just as much of a pleasure to get a glimpse into her real life, as it was to read her stories.