Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Wonder of Little Moments


There's a song I enjoy by Rob Thomas with lyrics that include "Our lives are made in these small hours/ These little wonders, these twists and turns of fate/ Time falls away but these small hours/ These small hours still remain." As I finished reading The Side-Yard Superhero, by Rick D. Niece, those lyrics came to mind, because this book is a celebration of the "small hours" that make up our lives and of how memory keeps those small hours with us.

This "automythography," as Niece calls it, is a collection of stories about the people and events that impacted Niece as he was growing up in small-town DeGraff, Ohio. Nothing all that extraordinary happened to the author when he was young, and that's exactly what makes this story extraordinary. Niece is a good storyteller with a talent for observing the little details. He uses those details to frame truths about life, sometimes stated, sometimes implicit. The stories in the book are loosely framed by young Rickie's relationship with Bernie Jones, a boy who is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy.

There were a number of entertaining stories in the book, but my favorite chapters were the two in which Niece told about the carnival that came to DeGraff. Several small stories are imbedded in that larger story, including a very touching account of how Rickie and his friends tried to help Bernie Jones experience the carnival - in some ways, they succeeded, but in other ways, they failed. I also liked but was sort of saddened by the story of Rickie's trip to the "Nature's Oddities" tent, when he got a "back-stage" view of one of the performers. My favorite bit, though, was Niece's description of watching his parents ride the merry-go-round together: "It's nice when your parents are in love and not afraid to show it." Again, he's hit on one of those unimportant little moments in life that mean everything.

Having thought about the book some after finishing it, I think I see another theme at work, as well. At several points, Rickie is made aware of the limitations Bernie faced because he was bound to the wheelchair - he can't go to school, he can't ride the Ferris wheel. It was a major undertaking for Rickie to take Bernie along on a portion of his paper route one afternoon. However, it seems to me that a number of the characters in the book have lives that are restricted in some way. There is Miss Lizzie, who rarely leaves her house after long ago losing her fiance. There is Danny, one of Rickie's friends, who is emotionally crippled by a terrible set of parents. There is Tim, the carnival performer, who is doomed by being a little person in the 1950s to being "Teeny Tiny Tim." There is Mrs. Waite, who is limited in activity and lifespan by an illness.

Sometimes people in the story try to break out of the restrictions. At first I thought the story about Fern Burdette was sort of strange. Fern had been a pioneering female journalist, and on her return to DeGraff, wore nothing but a brassiere from the waist up. After reading the rest of the book, though, and thinking about it, I can see that Fern was trying to break out of society's limitations on her. She'd been doing it all her life, but once her career was over, abandoning the "normal" dress code was a clear way to say, "I refuse to let you tell me what to do." Even though she tried to break free, I don't think Fern was entirely successful; everyone considered her an eccentric -- loveable, but definitely eccentric.

I don't know that Niece would agree with me on this point, but I think he faced his own limits growing up in a small town. Unlike most of the other characters in the book, though, he was able to escape the limits by attending Ohio State University. After that point, he was never the same, and life in DeGraff disappeared as well - his family moved from the town. I'm not trying to say the limits placed by the small town were negative. I think it's like Bernie's wheelchair. At the end of the book, the adult Rickie returns to Ohio to visit Bernie in a nursing home. Bernie is pretty much bedridden by that point, and Rickie realizes that as much as the wheelchair limited by Bernie could do, it also provided him with at least some degree of freedom and self-control. So what is a wheelchair -- or a small-town upbringing? Is it something that keeps you from riding the Ferris wheel? Or is it something that supports you as you go out on adventures like helping Miss Lizzie give out Halloween treats? Is it something you can occasionally escape to ride the tea cups, something comfortable and familiar you can return to when the ride is over?

On the surface, this is an entertaining and nostalgic collection of short stories. But below the surface of all those little moments, I think we can find some big truth.

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