Glitter and Glue

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I am a big Kelly Corrigan fan.  Her video, with its tag line we won’t come back here, brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.  I loved The Middle Place.  I have forced many friends to listen to me read her essay about turning 40, and her sustaining female friendships, which makes me weep.  One review I read of her work called her the “poet laureate of ordinary life.”  We have the same birthday.  I mean … I adore her.

All of this means that I dove into her new book, Glitter and Glue: A Memoir, enthusiastically.  My interest in, curiosity about, and affection for the mother-daughter relationship is extremely well documented here.  I was intrigued to read Kelly’s thoughts on her mother, who figures quite peripherally in The Middle Place.

The book’s title comes from something Kelly’s mother told her when she was a child: “Your father’s the glitter but I’m the glue.”  That single line brought tears to my eyes because it reminded me of my own childhood: I’m the child of a glittering mother, who’s been seeking that same kind of dazzle in her friendships for many years.  Myself?  More glue, I think.

Kelly’s mother was and is formidable, her rules strict, her love tough, and her authority absolute.  Glitter and Glue starts out with the assertion, so familiar to all daughters, that we only understand our mother’s influence – and brilliance, and love – once we are out of their shadow, and with time.  Most of Glitter and Glue takes place in a family’s home in Australia, because it is there, shortly after her college graduation, that Kelly begins to see her own mother with clarity and affection.  After taking off on a big adventure to see the world, Kelly and her friend run out of money.  They need jobs, and the only ones they can find are as nannies.  Kelly moves into the Tanner house to help shortly after their mother (and wife) has died.  The Tanners are the central characters of the book: Martin and Milly, the children, Evan, the step-brother, Pop, the grandfather, and John the grieving father and recent widower.

During her five months with the Tanners, Kelly develops relationships with each member of the family.  She also hears her mother’s voice all the time – as do we, the reader, in the form of italicized phrases.  “God knows, every day I spend with the Tanners, I feel like I’m opening a tiny flap on one of those advent calendars we used to hang in the kitchen ever December 1, except of revealing Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, it’s my mother,” Kelly reflects on the unexpected but undeniable way her mother is animate in this foreign house halfway around the world.  Kelly had left home, certain that the grand experiences she sought could not be had at home, but her time with the Tanners teaches her that important, formative things can happen inside the mundane-looking reality of family life.  Towards the end of her time in Australia she reflects that “…I was wrong, things definitely happen in a house – big, hard, beautiful things.”

There are two ways that Kelly’s time with the Tanners brings her mother to mind.  More obviously, she is being the mother, as the only adult female in the family.  But, less visibly but equally importantly, she is keenly aware of the contrast between Martin and Milly’s lack of a mother and her own strong one.  In both these ways, Kelly’s mother looms large over the time at the Tanners’.  Her voice guides Kelly as she takes on a maternal role for the first time.  Simultaneously, as Kelly realizes how interwoven her mother is with her own identity, she keeps tripping over all the painful ways that this won’t be true for Milly and Martin.

It’s not until after I put her to bed that night that I can bring myself to think about my mother and the reams of things she did for me that could and should have softened me.  What is it about a living mother that makes her so hard to see, to feel, to want, to love, to like?  What a colossal waste that we can only fully appreciate certain riches – clean clothes, hot showers, good health, mothers – in their absence.

This blend of omniscence and invisibility defines Kelly’s dawning awareness of her mother’s importance.  This observation is so accurate it made me almost uncomfortable: what did I take for granted about my mother – what do I still take for granted?  It made me want to pick up the phone and call the mother I’m so privileged is still alive, well, and nearby, and say: thank you.  At one point, Kelly chastises Milly with words that ring in her head, even as she says them, as “verbatim Mary Corrigan.”  This, I imagine, is a fairly universal experience: hearing our own parents’ voices as we say things to our children that we recall (and probably disliked) hearing when we ourselves were small.  For me, right now, the main one is “only boring people are bored.”

The narrative moves smoothly back and forth between describing Kelly’s life at the Tanners and recollections of her own childhood.  The memories of growing up illuminate Kelly’s mother beautifully, and I had a powerful sense of her as a wise, smart, practical woman who did not budge after she made up her mind and cared more about doing the right thing by her family than she did about their liking her.  As Kelly says goodbye to the Tanner family at the airport, she finds herself overcome with emotion.  Her powerful reaction surprises her, and as she reflects on all the details about their lives she will remember, she also realizes part of its root: Martin and Milly taught her a lot about her own mother.

I’ll know it was the Tanner kids who pointed me back toward my own mother, hungry to understand her in a way I clearly didn’t yet.  They put her voice in my head.  They changed her from a prosaic given to something not everyone has…

One strand of the book that I found tremendously compelling was Kelly’s clear and incisive ability to understand her parents’ marriage, and the different – but equally crucial – roles each had played in the family.  As she becomes a mother herself, Kelly begins to see the ways in which being the “glue” to her husband’s “glitter” were a choice, and not always an easy one.  A new identification with her mother develops when Kelly has her own children: “I began the transition from my father’s breezy relationship with the world to my mother’s determined navigation of it.”

Glitter and Glue is told in Kelly’s inimitable, funny, wise voice, the one that is now familiar from her other work and which feels like I’m talking to a particularly well-spoken and hilarious friend.  Over and over again I laughed and blinked away tears, often on the same page.  On the last page of the book Kelly says, “I want to tell my mom that I admire her, the quiet hero of 168 Wooded Lane,” and the whole story comes into sharp, bright focus.  This book is a love letter to her mother, just as The Middle Place was one to her father.  Even though the child and adolescent Kelly couldn’t necessarily appreciate her mother in the moment (and isn’t this true for a great many of us?) , the middle-aged one can recognize the ways in which Mary Corrigan contained “the strongest currency [a child] would ever know: maternal love.”


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14 Comments

  1. Posted February 3, 2014 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    This has to be one of the best book titles I’ve ever heard. I love your review and will certainly be getting this book.

  2. Posted February 3, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Ahhhh!!! I cannot wait to read it! I’m planning to see her when she’s here in the DC area on Feb 8th. I’m mid-way through The Middle Place and am LOVING it so far. She’s such an incredible writer.

  3. Posted February 3, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    My pre-ordered book should arrive this week and I can’t wait. I still consider The Middle Place to be near the top of my favorites pile and from all I have been reading, I’m pretty sure that Glitter and Glue will be joining it. What a wonderful, wonderful review.

  4. Posted February 3, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Ooops – meant Feb 28th.

  5. Posted February 3, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    As always, love your review. And I think I have you to thank for introducing me to Kelly Corrigan’s writing for the first time way back when! Looking forward to digging into my copy as soon as it gets here!

    {And if I miss it because I’m terribly out of the loop and spastic social media… if she happens to makes it to Boston for a reading will you let me know?}

  6. Posted February 3, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    I can’t wait to read this book, and I am happy to know about it, thanks to your review. I grew up in a family similar to Ms. Corrigan’s: a “glittery” dad and a mom like glue. As you know, mothers and daughters is a persistent theme and obsession in my own life, given the loss of my mother in my early 20s and now being the mother to my own daughter. The two stories are so inextricably woven.

  7. Posted February 3, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    I’m excited to check out this “new to me” author; I plan to check out her essay about turning 40 and also this book when it is released, so thank you for this great review. I am certainly the glue in this family (though maybe some days, when I can muster it, the glitter glue). I’m also now wondering if my mother is related to yours. During my childhood and teenage years all I heard was “there is no such thing as being bored, just boring people”. And wouldn’t you know, I just said that very thing two days ago to a very whiny, “bored” six year old who has about 200 square feet of toys and art supplies. It’s a good line, that one.

  8. Posted February 3, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Thank you for introducing me to a new author! I haven’t heard of her, but I love book recommendations and will add her to my list :)

  9. Posted February 3, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I loved Glitter and Glue, though I suspect I will appreciate it even more when I have children of my own. Lovely review.

  10. Posted February 3, 2014 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Oh that glitter and glue line gives me chills!

    Great review, L!

  11. Posted February 4, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    What rock have I been hiding under? Thank you so much for introducing me to Kelly! I just spent the last hour reading links and watching her videos – laughing and crying both. I cannot wait to read not just this book, but all of them.

  12. Posted February 4, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I love reading your book reviews!

  13. Posted February 8, 2014 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    I can’t wait to read the book (and that essay you linked at the beginning). I haven’t read any of Kelly’s work before. For sure sounds like my cup of tea.

  14. Posted February 10, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful review, Lindsey – I’ll definitely put this on my ‘to read’ list. Is it coincidence you and Katrina Kennison are posting on the same book today?

    admin Reply:

    Yes, coincidence! My review was actually last week though. I’m not at all surprised that Katrina and I both loved the book.