Laurel remembered her father’s lean back as he sat on his haunches and spread a newspaper over the mouth of the chimney after he’d built the fire, so that the blaze caught with a sudden roar. Then he was young and could do everything.
In The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty follows Laurel McKelva Hand in the days after her father’s death. Her father, Judge Clinton McKelva, dies in the opening pages after an eye operation, and Laurel is left to bury him, manage his young (younger than her!) wife, and come to terms with three deaths: his, her husband’s and her mothers (the other two long past).
The descriptions of Laurel’s return to Mount Salus and her childhood friends (called collectively her “bridesmaids”) and neighbors are funny and moving, as are Laurel’s frustrations with everyone’s descriptions of her dead father; as so often happens, the stories Clinton’s friends tell about him as they stand around his coffin do not match the man Laurel remembers:
Here, helpless in his own house among the people he’d known, and who’d known him, since the beginning, her father seemed to Laurel to have reached at this moment the danger point of his life.
“Did you listen to their words?” she asked.
“They’re being clumsy. Often because they were thinking of you.”
“They said he was a humorist. And a crusader. And an angel on the face of the earth,” Laurel said.
The father Laurel remember is no less heroic, but more human, more real. Laurel spends the remainder of the book recreating the man he remembers as well as his love for her long dead mother.
Fay, Laurel’s stepmother, is almost absurdly harsh and unlikeable, and her Texas family descends upon the funeral, to the perverse delight of the gossipy ladies of Mount Salus. Fay puts on a show of grief, both in the moments before Clinton’s death and when she arrives on the scene at the funeral, but otherwise seems angry, alone, and resentful of the love Clinton had for his first wife.
The most beautiful parts of the book come as Laurel wandered her parents’ home alone in the days after the funeral. She remembers them as individuals and as a couple, and we’re given poignant vignettes from two intertwined lives. Her mother’s life is clearly a little sadder, but their love for each other seems to make up for the pain of her childhood. This was one of my favorites, remembered as Laurel lay in her bed the night before her father’s funeral:
When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.
These scenes are scattered throughout, and Laurel remembers her parents together and individually. She remembers them before she was born and as parents and in their dying moments, painting a fuller, more complete picture than her father’s friends were willing to do. Laurel comes to terms with what she’s asking of her departed love ones:
What burdens we lay on the dying, Laurel thought, as she listened now to the accelerated rain on the roof: seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel—something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.
In the end, Laurel realizes just how “incapable of being kept” these memories and feelings are, and she comes out on top. I loved watching her process; it was sad and beautiful and redemptive and true, and there were so many perfect sentences and paragraphs that I had trouble picking what to put in this review!