Monday, June 8, 2015

Soft Serve for Soft Hearts: Remembering Marvelous Maeve

Tee: Arizona, J. C. Penney's
Jeans: So, Kohl's
Shoes: Chinese Laundry, DSW
Bag: Target
Belt: Izod, Marshalls
Sunglasses: Candies, Kohl's

Tee: Arizona, J. C. Penney's
Jeans: City Streets, J. C. Penney's
Shoes: Venus
Bag: Nine West, Marshalls
Belt: Wet Seal
Sunglasses: Michaels

Tee: Arizona, J. C. Penney's
Jeans: City Streets, J. C. Penney's
Shoes: Christian Siriano for Payless
Bag: Nordstrom
Belt: Marshalls
Sunglasses: Michaels

The whole creamy crew, plus our old pal minty.

This week I'm rolling out gumball bead necklaces in soft sherbet shades.  Which is why I included this shot of a larger-than-life custard cone (although I probably would've posted it even if today's topic was rodeo clowns).

The late great Maeve Binchy would certainly second this sentiment, as she's owned up to having a "custard heart."  I'm not sure if this is a Maeve-ism or an Irish-ism, but either way it spoke to me.  Even if custard means pudding across the pond (and pudding means something else); it's still soft and sweet and gooey and all the things that a good heart should be.  I learned this and much more in Maeve's Times, a collection of her Irish Times columns compiled by her husband after her death in 2012.  I've been reading Maeve's books since high school and always assumed 1) that she was in her sunset years, and 2) that she led a quiet life (probably because reading her books was, as their jackets proclaimed, "like having tea with an old friend").  It turned out that I was wrong on both accounts. She was only 72 when she passed, and her life was bustling.  She began her professional life as a history teacher who traveled the world on her summer vacations.  She wrote her father vivid letters about her adventures, and he was so impressed that he submitted them for publication to the Irish Times.  The paper offered Maeve a full-time position, and she ended up working there for decades, even after making it big with her books.  As origin stories go, it's a nice one.  I love imagining Maeve's father proudly posting the letters that would launch her career.  

Teaching and journalism proved apt training for writing fiction.  Binchy went on to produce twenty plus novels, most of them bestsellers.  All focused on the quiet and not-so-quiet dramas of small town Irish life (even Dublin is a village according to Maeve), and for that reason they were all realistic.  Alternately light-hearted, sad, and shrewd about the dark truths of life, Maeve's tales always emerged as optimistic.  It was an optimism that was more trustworthy than the kind that comes without shadows, and for that reason it was all the more hopeful.  Maeve's was a voice you could trust.    

Still, she had some mischief, too (she wasn't Irish for nothing).  Although I always thought she was funny, it wasn't until I read Maeve's Times that I realized the sharper side of her wit.  Take this passage from her July 9, 1996, column "Curmudgeons of Summer" (which also has the bonus of ice cream):

' "I don't like summer myself.  Personally," said the girl in the pale pink shorts and the dark pink halter top.  She was eating a huge ice cream cone and waiting in the crowds to see the USS JFK come into view in Dun Laoghaire.

She looked like an advertisement for summer, with her shining hair, her 97 small, healthy teeth, her light suntan and her air of well-being.

"I know," said her friend, who was no use as a friend.  She had said 'I know' to people for all of her 18 years, and you could tell she would do so forever.  "I know what you mean."

The girl who didn't like summer, personally, was was at least a person of views; she was prepared to elaborate on her stance.

"You see the thing about summer is that you expect so much from it," she said earnestly.  "Every time you open the papers or turn on the television, there's someone saying, "Here comes summer," and you get all excited and then nothing much happens at all" ' (302).

This is just one of the many examples in which Maeve uses gentle, almost companionable sarcasm to expose a character flaw.  As unkind as it seemed to this prematurely sour pink lady, I must admit that I rather enjoyed it.  (To be fair, Maeve ends this exchange with an expression of pity for the girl because she has no tough love friend to set her straight.  Even as she mocks, she mothers.).

Still, the part that hit home for me was the one about writing, namely the November 30, 1984, piece "Develop Your Own Style" (a mantra, apparently, that applies to more than high heels and handbags).  Binchy urges young writers to "write as they talk" instead of crowding their prose with a bunch of big words.  I couldn't help but smile because I used to do this.  My eighth grade English teacher insisted that I rewrite my salutatorian speech because otherwise no one would understand it.  I was, of course, righteously offended.  Who cared if anyone understood it?  I was supposed to use big words -- that was the point of being salutatorian.  Stern but kind, ex-teacher Maeve is sympathetic to such misguided behavior:

"It's not easy to do it at once, not if you have been used to writing as a vehicle for other people's thoughts and expressions.  But once you start, it becomes easier and easier and you will wonder how you could ever have begun a tale with some showy sentence full of words and hiding what you meant to say.  It's a bit easier also to hide the real you, and what you feel if you use the disguise of other people's language.  It's somewhat safer to say "within the hallowed walls of this esteemed place of learning" instead of saying "here at school" because the first one has a kind of sardonic ring to it . . .  the second is more naked." (209)

Now, if sardonicism is your thing and/or if you're talking about said school ironically, then I'd say go full steam ahead with the first version.  But if all you're trying to do is establish the setting of a school dance or bake sale, then listen to Auntie Maeve.

Finally, Maeve devotes many a column to defending the elderly, the poor, and the all-around unpopular.  This is where her journalistic roots and innate soft-heartedness come into full flower, foreshadowing the underdog-championing sagas that would seal her fame.

So, that's Maeve.  Pretty marvelous, huh?  The next time I'm dithering outside a Kohr Brothers window, torn between chocolate mint and vanilla orange twists, I'll think, Maeve, this cone is for you.

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