Wyatt Cooper's book Families/A Memoir and a Celebration is a book I wish I had written. In fact, I thought it was the book I wrote with Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, but I found out that was wrong. Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree was a memoir of Fairhope, which may have been a family to me but is not viewed that way by anybody else. Cooper's book resonates with a broader readership, not only because of its wisdom and its beautiful prose style, but also because, in reflecting on his family of origin, he reaches more profound and more universal conclusions.
In a second book, The Fair Hope of Heaven, I attempt to widen my lens to include more of the background of Fairhope's family, and rather than simply outline my own reaction to certain characters who shaped my own thinking and influenced my life, I write of past citizens of Fairhope and place them in the context of Fairhope today with its penchant for destruction of the the old and its new citizens' determination to ignore its original higher cause of making the world a better (not just a questionably prettier) place. The Fair Hope of Heaven is yet unpublished, but the two publishers who turned it down did so with the grace to say kind things about it, ultimately rejecting the book because they felt it lacked appeal to a audience outside Fairhope.
Families names its mission and nails it in one touching volume. Published in 1975, Cooper's book describes at some length his upbringing in the South, the panoply of characters in his family who formed his life, and his philosophy of life as a result.
He begins by describing a family reunion. He writes, These reunions were of major importance to us. They registered the changes that took place in our lives: the marriages, the births, the moves, the prosperings and the failings to prosper. We watched each other growing up or growing old, and we felt ourselves to be a part of some timeless process, a process the rules of which applied equally to us all.
The reunions did not end when Grandma died, though they had already begun to fade some years before when she, like most of us, left her farm and moved to the town. It would never be the same in the city; there would be other demands on one's attention; one would go as one went to other engagements; it became an event sandwiched in between other events.
One needs land, really, to feel that kind of sense of family, for in those days it was the land that made you, that nourished you, that would, eventually, claim you. The land was home. It was permanent and eternal; it ahd always been there and would always be there; it was made of the bones of millions of years and the dust of centuries; it had known the games of Indian boys, and the battles of unnamed men. You stretched out your body upon it in the early days of spring. You felt it grow warm beneath your belly. You filled your lungs with its clean, rich, and lusty smell. You ran your hungry fingers through the tender green stubble of its surface, you lay and listened to the music of its silence, and gazed through half-closed eyes at the wide, high, pure, blue sky. It belonged to you and you belonged to it...
Wyatt Cooper was a Mississippi farm boy who was to grow up and become an actor and screenwriter, then to marry Gloria Vanderbilt and father two sons for whom he wrote his book. As I wrote this post in early May of 2006, Anderson Cooper, one of those sons, was on C-Span2, talking about his own book, Dispatches from the Edge.
I have written on my blog of my fascination with Anderson and his whole family. Gloria Vanderbilt has endured much human pain in what should have been a life of privilege, and Anderson, under 40, is much more than tv news' latest pretty face. He and his mother have appeared on several television shows discussing their story and the books by and about both of them and the whole fascinating family.
Theirs is a larger-than-life epic that has mysteriously touched my own. I cherish the Southern connection, and the fact that at one point, covering the fashion beat in New York, I was at a reception in the beautiful Vanderbilt mansion where they all lived. It was a business party, to meet Gloria, then designing a line of fabrics, and have the chance to ogle her stuff and report on it. Wyatt and the boys were elsewhere, perhaps on the upper floors. Whatever she was, Gloria Vanderbilt has always worked -- as a movie hopeful, an artist, a hawker of blue jeans and fragrance -- and she has always been accessible to the public. Years later, a friend of mine, having read Families, approached her at a retail promotion in Florida of her new perfume, and found her to be gracious and genuine.
I recently re-read Families for reasons other than information on the family. I parsed it for style and substance, and for inspiration for yet another book. Well, why shouldn't I? I have a family too, and it is more than just Fairhope.