INTERESTING FAMILIES CREATE INTERSTING PEOPLE…AND CHARACTERS by Karen Harrington
Sometimes, I think a whole book is a love letter to one particular character. That’s how it was for me a couple of years ago when I began writing COURAGE FOR BEGINNERS.
There were many things I wanted to tell the young character, Mysti Murphy.
I’d tell her that as a kid, I believed everyone made the same kind of mac and cheese. Take it out of the box, boil the water, toss in the noodles, add a splash of milk and powdered cheese and voila!—dinner. Then I got older and went to a friend’s house, whose mother made baked mac and cheese. Baked! There were three kinds of cheese in it, and it wasn’t Tweety Bird yellow. I thought, what is this? This is not how it’s done at my house. What else could be different at my house?
As a kid, I had to confront the fact that my family was different. You mean there are different kinds of macaroni and cheese? Yes.
You mean there are different kinds of families? Yes.
You mean some mothers leave the house? Drive cars? Yes.
Mysti and I have something huge in common.
Our mothers are agoraphobic. I didn’t know that word for a long time. When you’re so young, you can’t give a name to things you don’t understand. What I knew was this: my mother stayed inside our house to the point that some neighbors didn’t know I had a mom. She never appeared at school functions, and I only have a handful of memories of our family being in the car together. A few dinners out. Trips to the art supply or fabric store.
My dad did all the driving. My dad bought my mother a car she never drove. Instead, she painted, grew a garden in our backyard, and sewed our clothes. I came home to portraits of Laurel and Hardy, full black-and-white murals on the wall, and way too much homegrown cantaloupe. She sewed us hideous orange coats out of waterproof, quilted neon orange cloth. I hated that coat. I wanted it to die a horrible death. I got sick of cantaloupe. I didn’t care much about her painting beyond reading the names of colors printed on her tubes of paint. I stayed outside a lot.
And then, there was the inexplicable belly-dancing phase. Somehow, in the pre-internet age, my mother found a place that taught classes and my dad drove her there once a week. She’d practice at home and turn up the music really loudly. I remember a neighbor boy asking me, “What’s that weird music?”
“What music?” I replied. Then took off on my bike.
At age 10, I believed the inside and outside of my house were two entirely different places. I did everything to keep the two worlds from intersecting—I never had a sleepover and was careful not to let anyone come inside. There was that giant black-and-white mural on the wall that had nothing in common with anything in the house. What if someone saw?
This is how I perceived the struggle of the main character, Mysti, in my novel Courage for Beginners. That sense of separate worlds that must be kept separate. Mysti loves her family, but she’s uncomfortable with the way her mother’s agoraphobia threatens to expose her as different. None of her homemade clothes or homegrown snacks fit in with seventh grade, a time when being different makes you a target.
Man, I feel for that girl.
I’d love to tell her that we can easily shake off the bad memories of seventh grade. If we’re lucky, we look back and see how we were forged into stronger people because of our differences. I’m at the point in my life where I no longer view the differences in my family as a source of embarrassment; instead, I celebrate them because I can look back with compassion and a little bit of awe.
You see, I once had no appreciation for my mother’s artwork, which must have been a kind of therapy for her—a way to bring the world to her doorstep on her own terms. Or her green thumb, which must have been her way to contribute to our family since my dad did all the grocery shopping. Or even what that awful orange coat really meant. I don’t have to guess at its true meaning now, as a mother myself. It meant love and protection. She wanted us to be seen when we walked to school. (Oh, we were SEEN, all right!)
As for the belly-dancing phase, I’m still rendered speechless. An agoraphobic belly dancer? You’ve got to be kidding, right? That is ripe material for a writer, one I’ll leave for another wordsmith.
But you know what I think about that sometimes? I think it means even the shyest, most inhibited souls on earth have a fearless side of them that contradicts their nature. And I sort of like knowing she possessed that side.
It’s true that when you’re a kid, you think mac and cheese is the same everywhere. You think your family is like all other families. Later, you wish your family were like all other families.
As you grow older you realize – weren’t we all trying to hide some difference about our families or ourselves? Yes, every single one of us.
And so you bring your own difference out from under a rock and into the sunshine. And you’re glad for it. It made you who you are. It gave you empathy and love, understanding and courage. All the stuff that made you feel so set apart from the world now has value and worth. You wouldn’t change a thing. (With the possible exception of that horrid orange coat. It was that bad.)
And that’s what I’d like to tell Mysti Murphy, and all the other Mysti’s out there.
Karen Harrington (www.karenharringtonbooks.com) is the author of SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, which was selected as a 2014 Notable Children’s Book from the Children’s Literature Assembly and a 2013 Bank Street Best Books of the Year recognition. Karen is a former corporate speechwriter and as such, feels she must meet deadlines or die, because old habits die hard. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband, two daughters, and sneaky dog. You can find her online at www.karenharringtonbooks.com and on Twitter as @KA_Harrington.