Interview with Ann Putnam: ‘My research ended with an answer which was its own mystery”
Ann’s father and uncle
“Writing this now in a rainy light after loss upon loss, a memory comes to me. When I was a teenager, I took voice lessons from Ruth Havstad Almandinger, who gave me exercises and songs I hardly ever practiced. I have wondered why this memory has so suddenly come to me now, and why this, the only song I remember, comes back to me whole and complete:
“Oh! my lover is a fisherman/ and sails on the bright blue river
In his little boat with the crimson sail/ sets he out on the dawn each morning
With his net so strong/ he fishes all the day long
And many are the fish he gathers
Oh! My lover is a fisherman
And he’ll come for me very soon!”
If only I’d known then that my true love would be a fisherman, I might have practiced that song harder and sung it with more feeling, which was what Ruth Havstad Almandinger was always trying to get me to do. If only I’d had a grown up glimpse of my true love when I was sixteen, I would have sung that song so well. If only I’d known he would have cancer and go to the lake for healing the summer after the radiation treatments were done. If only I’d known that I would be his fishing partner that miracle summer of the sockeye come into the lake from the sea. If only I’d known that the cancer would return and that I would do everything I could to save him, knowing all along that he could not be saved, and that my heart would break beyond breaking, then break again. If only I’d seen the sun coming up over the mountains and the sky shift from gray to purple and the pale smudge of light against the mountains turn gold just above the crest. If only I’d seen the sun glinting off those sunslept waters as my love lets down the fishing lines, and off in the distance a salmon leaps—a silver flashing in the sky as if to split the heart of the sun—before it disappears into a soundless splash, in this all too brief and luminous season, to spawn and to die—oh, how I would have sung that song.”
I absolutely love memoirs. This is an excerpt from Ann Putnam’s dramatic memoir, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye (Southern Methodist University Press). Ann’s story revolves around her mother and father and her “dashing” bachelor uncle, her father’s identical twin, and how they lived together with their courage and their stumblings as they made their way into old age and then into death. Ann says it’s the story of the journey from one twin’s death to the other, of what happened along the way, of what it means to lose the other who is also oneself.
Full Moon at Noontide takes the reader through the gauntlet of the health care system with all the attendant comedy and sorrows, joys and terrors. Finally it asks what consolation is there in growing old?
An interesting note – during the final revisions of her book, her husband was dying of cancer and he died before she finished it, but she found out something during her grief and pain – how pure love becomes when it is distilled through such suffering and loss. “It’s like a blue flame that flickers and pulses in the deepest heart,” she says.
We had a chance to interview Ann about her gripping new book, Full Moon at Noontide. Enjoy!
Thank you for this interview, Ann. You mentioned in your book that you would have loved to have one more chance to ask your father anything. If you had one more chance to ask your father anything, what would it be?
After my father died, I wished so many things. So many questions I might have asked him and did not. Not just who begat who—our family has an archivist who recorded all that—but the desire and longing and betrayals that every life, every family knows. Where were the secrets that would bring my family’s history into the light? All the while he was ill and then during his months of dying, I’d thought just exactly of this. I wanted to carry around a tape recorder and record everything he thought about. I wanted to take his picture here, there, everywhere. I wanted to talk long into the evening about his growing up in the South, about his mother and father. I wanted to hear his stories. He was a historian and was good at telling stories. That’s the way he presented history to his students.
But I did none of these. I found myself wordless and awkward and afraid. And by then he tired easily and often didn’t have the words he needed. I thought the tape recorder would be a bit ghoulish, and would anticipate his death, some way. So I think that’s why I eventually wrote the memoir. I think I would like to ask him now, if that was all right with him. Was it all right to say the things I said, to tell my stories the way I did? I would not have to ask him if he loved me. That I have always known.
What was unique about your father and uncle’s relationship other than the fact they were twins?
What an interesting thing to ask! My. My father and uncle weren’t just twins; they were identical twins. And I think that fact was the most significant thing about them. How to tease out the thread that was not the result of their twin ship? They looked alike, sounded alike; they both loved history and teaching, the color maroon and Chevy cars. But my uncle and father had great differences. My uncle saw life as a betrayal; my father saw it as a gift. Still, I think those differences were the result of their strange and compelling twin ship. Even late in life, people referred to them as “the twins.”
It was like this: we’re all in Hawaii, on a beach walk, and one of the twins makes that terrifying turn to find the other gone. And there it is, like a refrain all through their lives: Where’s Henry? Where’s Homer? Are you all right Homer? Are you all right Henry? Are you there? Just so you’re there. To be half of a whole forever. I’m not sure I answered your question.
Can you tell us about how you went about researching your family’s history and something unusual you found when doing so?
My father was an identical twin, as I’ve said. I never knew their mother, my paternal grandmother. Our only connection is my name listed in her obituary, a 10 day old granddaughter named Ann. I knew a few things about her. I knew that her fiancé had drowned before her very eyes. I knew that after she had said, “I will never smile again.” And there she was in all the family photos ever after, her unsmiling face. I wondered what blight she had brought to her marriage to my grandfather later, and to those two little twin boys. Was there enough love to go around? I wanted to know what had happened that afternoon at the lake in Atlanta, Georgia, years before my father was born. What answers could be found through the fog of years? I was trying to see the figure in the carpet, the long arc of their lives in spite of what must have seemed the sad, dark, end of it. A thing whole and complete has a beauty of its own, even when the things apart are too terrible to say.
Found in The Atlanta Constitution, May 1, 1909. “Two Victims of Drowning in Waters of Lakewood.” Under that headline was my grandmother’s picture and that of her fiancé, William Withrow. But my grandmother had not drowned, though of course she was a victim too. I read on. The other who drowned was William’s sister Pearl. “Brother dies in vain attempt to save sister. William and Pearl Withrow find a watery grave….None could tell why the boat holding the three of them capsized and the real reason will probably go down as another in the long list of mysteries surrounding this ill-fated lake.”
The article described how my grandmother had clung to the overturned boat as she watched Pearl pull her brother beneath the surface. And then the trespass of her picture in the paper, her life so suddenly laid open for all to see. She was twenty-one. Then the violence of the hooks and barbed wire and dynamite to bring the bodies up. It wouldn’t have been until after the note inside the green bottle had been found floating near the shore that she would have remembered how he’d said a prayer before they took to the water, how Pearl had tipped the boat, how he swam to Pearl and not to her. How smoothly they had slipped down. To Whom It May Concern: I and my sister have become tired of life and we have decided to die in this way. Withrow. And so her life became part of the mythology of that murky lake haunted by its history of drownings, suicides and murder. And my research ended with an answer which was its own mystery.
You took care of your mother and father and your father’s brother as they approached a time in their lives when they could no longer take care of themselves. How did that make you feel to take on such responsibility?
Oh my. Everything you could imagine. Like I was drowning. Drowning in all of their needs and my guilt at not meeting them. I wanted to save them and ultimately could not. Maybe a part could speak for the whole. I am remembering a night about a week before my father died. He had been in a nursing home for about 6 or 7 weeks, but this, the true end, was just around the corner. I came into his room one evening, and there he was, slumped under a dim yellow light. He wakes up when I touch his face.
“I’m just so thirsty,” he tells me. “Can you get me something to drink?” But this I cannot do. I hold the plastic cup to his mouth and he takes a sip and chokes and chokes and I think he’s never going to breathe again. He’s unremembering how to swallow. He tells me again how thirsty he is. I burst into tears, then calm down and touch his face.
“I’m afraid about the water,” I say. “Dad, I’ll be right back,” I tell him and go to the couch at the end of the hall. I lean over and put my head in my hands. I can feel my heart coming apart inside my chest. It’s hard to breathe. Suddenly there’s a hand on my shoulder. It’s Lisa, the charge nurse. “It’s good to cry,” she says.
“I don’t want to cry in front of him.”
“It tells him you love him.”
“He’s eighty-seven years old,” I say. I think how lucky I’ve been to have had him so long already, how ungrateful I am to be so sad. “I know he’s old,” I say, “but he doesn’t feel old to me.”
“That much more of him to lose,” she says. “Our culture has no name for such loss.”
“I’m so scared,” I say. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“But here you are anyway.”
And I was.
What kind of advice can you give to children of aging parents?
Oh, I wouldn’t presume to be able to give advice. I think that’s one of the reasons I wrote my book. To just tell the story of my parents’ and my uncle’s journey into old age and death and what happened along the way and my part in it. What I learned I can say: That it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. That it was a great honor to be able to do it. That some of the most terrible things you can imagine can also be miraculously funny. That you will be amazed at how strong you are, how much stronger you can become.
Thank you so much for your time in answering our questions, Ann. Godspeed to you! Ann will be on virtual book tour throughout the months of June and July to talk more about her book, Full Moon at Noontide. If you’d like to visit her official tour page where you can read more interviews and guest posts from this talented author, click here.