Review by: Sandra Tarling

12/15/02

Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed
ISBN:0803242948
By Mimi Schwartz

In Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, Mimi Schwartz writes in her "4 A.M. Preface" that she began the essays collected in this book "in my bed fifteen years ago. They are the thoughts between dozing and waking that rouse me." She continues, "How to survive, how to be true to myself, what is beautiful, what is love, all seem imbedded in memory and collective expectations that shaped who I was supposed to become." And what Mimi Schwartz has become is a wife, mother, grandmother, professor of writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and an accomplished, insightful writer, as demonstrated in these essays.

Most of the essays focus on Schwartz's married life, her and her husband's relationship in particular. She wrote the thirty-four linked essays in this collection "because the media versions of marriage, in books and on TV, didn't match my own marriage experience." In her essay "Jimmy and June" (the title refers to her ideal married couple, Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson), Schwartz reflects upon the nature of marriage. She writes that after recently rereading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, she realized that she has "met no 'happy families that are alike' -- except on reruns of The Brady Bunch . . . The 'happy' families," including her own, "are just as complicated as those in misery." And therein lies what Schwartz illuminates for us in these little gems -- the delicate balance of accurately depicting the small domestic moments and simultaneously revealing the endless variations of everyday married life. In telling her stories about her life as a wife, mother and friend, she reveals the larger truths that evoke that satisfying "ah ha!" response as we recognize familiar experiences.

These essays first appeared in a variety of publications, such as Puerto del Sol, The New Press Literary Quarterly, Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, and Lear's Magazine. As a collection, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, is debuting as one of the first literary memoirs published by the University of Nebraska Press for its new American Lives Series. Tobias Wolff, series editor, says that they look for "books of great quality that don't depend on a sensationalistic hook to get the reader's attention." And Schwartz's book certainly fits this criterion. Written in a simple, direct, honed down style, these pristine stories focus on instances that range from watching her husband teach their son how to sew on a button to being faithful to the local grocery store to the more serious moments when she and her husband are confronted with her breast cancer and then his heart failure within a two week time span.

Unlike many memoirs that describe events that occurred years ago, Schwartz's essays are written from the perspective of someone who is living what she writes. There is an immediacy to them that adds to their vibrancy and lends them authenticity. For instance, in "The New Kitchen," remodeling the kitchen provides the opportunity to reflect on those middle years doldrums: "After five months of cooking in a dark makeshift pantry . . . we now have a brand-new kitchen with everything working." Once her newly remodeled kitchen is firmly planted in our minds, she then confides that "lately domestic order pleases me. . . . It must be that when our bodies disappoint us, we who stay together invest in home improvement. We can't change electrocardiograms, blurred vision, and dulling passion, but we can buy fresh paint, new gutters, and news kitchens of light and order." Quite simply and naturally, Schwartz views her home and its renovations as a feasible way of improving and bringing some order into her life during a time when, beyond her control, her body is aging. "My shoulder may still hurt from swimming too hard to stay in shape, there's a scar on my chest, stretch marks on my stomach, but at least my silverware drawer opens effortlessly." It is in these small details that Schwartz finds such truth about life in general, and her life in particular. In "Closet Fantasies," as she and her husband Stu put away the winter clothes and bring out the summer clothes, the art of a married couple negotiating is enacted as they decide which clothes to discard and which to keep for another year. Putting two meatloafs in the freezer for Stu before she leaves for a two-week writers workshop is symbolic of her guilt and fears at leaving her husband -- "I want him eating meat loaf for fourteen nights and loving every bite." Each detail is unwound to reveal a kernel of truth that resonates for all of us. In ruminating on why she and Stu have stayed together, it's in these small details that she looks for a reason: "Maybe we've stayed together because when we think about moving, we renovate instead . . . . Maybe it's because we both like ripped T-shirts and worn, comfortable shoes and eat the same Thanksgiving dishes with the same people every year." These physical elements manifest outwardly what Schwartz and her husband have become, both as individuals and as part of a couple. In "Towpath Therapy," Schwartz and her husband take fast walks together, their "rhythms right," on the local towpath; at other times, Schwartz walks the towpath alone. "I converse with myself, running scripts of glory and disaster through my head as my feet set their own pace." Through this daily routine, she demonstrates the need to strike a balance between being an individual and part of a couple.

Even though much of life, as viewed through Schwartz's eyes, can be seen in small details and everyday moments, the larger issues -- mortality, illness, old age -- do make an appearance. With discrete doses of humor, Schwartz leavens her story about adjusting to her new body following her mastectomy in "Dreaming of Lace." In imagining life without a breast, it helps her to think of herself "in purple lace panties with a matching top, equipped with a built-in left breast and an easy-to-unhook right one, which would tumble out, on cue, into waiting hands." Her description of her experience at Eileen's Lingerie where she goes to buy a prosthesis is peopled with lively, unique characters. Eileen herself, a "small, crotchety old lady who wore out everyone," assists Schwartz and promptly disillusions her regarding her imagined "purple lacy outfit." Despite her disappointment, Schwartz exhibits a mix of bravery and humor in her adjustment as she learns to accept herself, and allows her husband to adjust also.

Schwartz also treats her husband's heart failure, angioplasty, and subsequent treatment with a light touch of humor and sufficient seriousness, which allows us to see her worries, her attempts to remain optimistic, and her fears. Schwartz tells herself that she tries "to stay upbeat and carry him along the way he had carried me when I was down about cancer. But what if he would die with the next thud I heard? I could not manage auspiciousness; Stu's mood was always stronger." As she says in an earlier essay, Stu is the "glass half-full type," whereas she thinks of herself as the "glass half-empty type." But even so, this doesn't preclude her from kidding him that the cardiac rehab program sounds good, and he'll do better after a while -- "especially with three young nurses on duty."

In these short glimpses of Schwartz's married life, we gain such insights that it doesn't seem possible that so much can be said in so few words. In showing us how her marriage works, including its imperfections, Schwartz opens a window to her world that provides us her views and thoughts on life without heavy handedly imparting advice. She shows us how her married life works by portraying the everyday moments in a way that provides us fresh insights about the important things in life that bring us together.

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