I remember one time, when my son Charlie was around nine, and we were living –my three kids and me— in the not-very-big New Hampshire town we’d moved to after my marriage to their father had ended. Charlie had come with me to the supermarket that day. As the guy at the cash register was adding up our purchases, he’d recognized me from some book jacket, I guess, because he started talking with me about my writing, and how much he liked my books.
After I paid, and we were heading to the car, Charlie nudged me. “That guy might be a good boyfriend for you,” my son told me. “You should let him know where we live.”
There were a few problems with this idea—the first one being that for reasons nearly impossible to explain to my son, this particularly friendly and well-read supermarket checker was almost certainly gay. (How to explain this to a nine year old? All I came up with, when Charlie asked me how I knew, was the observation, “Well, he’s just so….nice.”)
But our conversation, and my son’s hopeful and well-meaning efforts to fix me up with the man at Hannaford’s revealed a deeper issue: the idea that a nine-year-old boy would feel responsible for locating a boyfriend for his thirty- seven-year-old mother.
He did this because he loved me and wanted me to be happy, and because he knew I would have loved to have a little romance in my life, and I didn’t. Then there was this, I think: if someone else stepped up to the plate, to become the man of the house, he might have felt less weight of responsibility on his own young shoulders.
The original title I gave to my new novel, Labor Day, was The Man of the House—and one of the reasons it came to me, I know, was that I knew well (as did my three children) what it was like to live in a household where no such person exists. I was a single mother for most of the years I raised my kids, and though I am a very different person from the single mother in my novel—and my sons (both in their twenties now) were different boys from the fictional character of Henry-- the themes I explore in Labor Day are ones I knew well: Longing for romantic love. The dream of a family. A parent’s responsibility for a child. A child’s, for a parent. The fear of loss. The dream of a second chance.
For Henry, the surprising event, one hot summer day at the start of a long Labor Day weekend, of meeting Frank, the man who will embark on a love affair with his mother, Adele—inspires painfully conflicted emotion. As a boy whose own father has largely disappeared from his life, he’s drawn to this man who fixes the car and offers to play catch with him and—most importantly—makes his mother happy. But he’s scared too: that with Frank on the scene, his mother may abandon him.
“All this time I’d been picturing how now it would be the three of us together, like when we played catch in the yard, only really, it was going to be the two of them,” Henry thinks. “And me left behind.”I had no idea, when I started this novel, where my characters would end up. But I have this faith—learned over my many years of writing fiction—that if you bring a character to life on the page, he will take on a life of his own, and lead you where you need to go. Once Henry started telling his story, and I started writing it down—almost as if I were transcribing what he had to say, more than inventing it—the story unfolded before my eyes. I know why I wrote this novel more swiftly than any other I’d written: Because I had to find out, for myself, what happened.
I should add here that though the story appears to be coming from the perspective of the boy, the person who is telling the story is actually Henry, twenty years later, looking back from the perspective of an adult, on the events of that one extraordinary weekend that changed, forever, the lives of three people—himself, his mother, and Frank.
From a personal perspective, my own children are also grown and off living their own lives now. My son Charlie—the boy who so tenderly attempted to set me up with our supermarket checker—is twenty seven now, and living in Brooklyn, where he works with children helping them write and record hip hop songs, and performing in a band. His brother is twenty five, and working in Los Angeles. My oldest child—my daughter—is a counselor with kids in our home state of New Hampshire.
A few years back, I dedicated my memoir, At Home in the World, to my daughter. Labor Day is dedicated to my sons. Whatever it is I know about the hearts of thirteen year old boys, I learned it from them.