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These Precious Days

March 28, 2022

I’ve been in an essay-reading mood, and so I picked up Ann Patchett’s new collection, These Precious Days, and found them to be quiet essays. While I don’t mean that as a compliment, exactly, it’s not a criticism, either. Many of them were written during the first part of the pandemic lockdown, and so they have the whispery, held-in feeling of that time.

Patchett has led an interesting, if quiet, life, and the essay about her three fathers is fascinating, especially because one of those fathers actually took her to a farm and let her pick out a pig for her ninth birthday—the dream of any 9-year-old girl who has read Charlotte’s Web. We don’t hear what happened to the pig, but there’s no reason not to hope it lived a long and happy life.

My favorite of the essays is “How to Practice,” about a friend’s father and his eccentric collection of things, and how he left them to Ann and his daughter Tavia and other friends when he died, and how “he made everything magic when he was alive….Now it’s all just stuff.” I feel that way about the stories that go with things like my antique Chinese desk, the etched metal tray and carved wooden stand that my parents used and now we use as a coffee table, my mother-in-law’s victrola cabinet, handed down from her grandmother, and the silver tea cart an older relative pulled out of a closet years ago and gave to me, which has been on display and in constant use at my house ever since.

I even like the way the essay segues into the need Patchett feels to clean out some of the stuff in her house before someone else ends up having to do it (although I often dislike articles about cleaning things out, as most of them disregard the sentimental attachment some of us have to things). Most of all, I like what she says about how cleaning out is like writing: “I made the decision to wait until we’d finished with the entire house before trying to find a place for the things we were getting rid of. This is a lesson I picked up from my work: writing must be separate from editing, and if you try to do both things at the same time, nothing will get done.”

I do not like or understand what Patchett says in this same essay about getting rid of champagne glasses. Instead of hauling them out from the top shelf where she’d put them and ordering some champagne, she puts them in the basement, empty. (This year, starting at Christmastime, I decided that since we weren’t going out to restaurants and traveling to new places, I would order some of the kinds of champagne I’ve always read about but never tried. Dom Perignon was not the exquisite rarity I imagined it might be, but Krug and Taittinger rose champagne definitely were. We sipped them from my parents’ Waterford crystal champagne saucers.) “Had I imagined that at some point twelve people would be in my house wanting champagne?” Patchett writes. To which I reply that even if it’s a pandemic and you can’t invite many people over, you can use a few of them and shine up the rest for display, as a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Patchett says that she had “taken my cues from Edith Wharton novels and Merchant Ivory films. I had taken my cues from my best friend’s father.” She decides that she had “miscalculated the kind of adult I would be,” but her essay is sufficiently generous that it fills me with the joy of the things I love and which Patchett regards as excessive.

There are turns of phrase in some of the other essays that strike me as just right. In one, she describes the experience of waiting for her husband to come home and when he is late, deciding that he is dead: “I told the clock I wanted to wait another fifteen minutes before my new life began, the life in which Karl had been killed in a plane crash.” An hour or so later, when Karl walks in, she asks him why he didn’t call to say he’d landed and he says “it was too late….I didn’t want to wake you up” and Patchett’s pitch-perfect response is “He might have well have said, ‘I thought you were sleeping because I have no idea who you are.’”

There’s a great comparison for book-lovers, of how Patchett once had a conversation with a Hare Krishna in an airport and realized that the way he felt about God is the way she feels about books (as so many of us do): “I would stand in an airport to tell people about how much I love books, reading them, writing them, making sure other people felt comfortable reading and writing them.” She also notes that “as every reader knows, the social contract between you and a book you love is not complete until you can hand that book to someone else and say, Here, you’re going to love this.”

The title essay tells the story of how Patchett made a friend of a woman who was an assistant to a movie star (Tom Hanks) and who ended up spending the lockdown months staying with Patchett and her husband at their house in Nashville. It’s not clear to me why Patchett loves this woman so much, but her love comes through in every word, especially in what she says about the photo on the book jacket, a painting of her dog done by her houseguest.

Readers may not always agree with her, but Ann Patchett expresses herself so well in these essays that we can get the quiet pleasure of seeing the world from her point of view, for a while.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    March 28, 2022 5:10 pm

    A friend of mine lent me this recently and I haven’t really explored beyond the title essay. From your discussion, I think I’d really like “How to Practice,” so I’ll read that next. I love all your special items. It’s so true that things carry stories that make them mean so much more than just whatever their literal look or function is – until the story is lost.

    I’m going to keep thinking about your champagne glasses. When my mother-in-law died she left us her rather fancy ‘good’ dishes, which are pretty fine bone China with platinum edges (and so, among other things, they have to be hand washed). We haven’t used them at all, but especially since it seems unlikely our daughter will want such impractical dishes, maybe we should just put them out. We also have some champagne glasses tucked away, also inherited. We don’t drink champagne but we could use them for something else. Things of beauty, as you say.

    • March 29, 2022 11:23 am

      You can drink anything cold out of a champagne glass and it makes the day better–ideally something you sip, which might includes any kind of fruit juice.
      I have three sets of china. The one we use for everyday is from my paternal grandmother, and even though it has a platinum rim we put it in the dishwasher. The one I use for holiday dinners is from my maternal grandmother, and it has a gold rim so we hand wash it. We also have my parents’ fancy china which I use occasionally. And when we have afternoon tea we get out the Portuguese china dessert plates left to me by a great-aunt and about which another relative pronounced that we would “never appreciate them.”
      Some of my favorite crystal goblets–and I have many–are three left from a set that my grandmother used. She used them, and she broke some of them, and she kept on using them until there were only three left. They’re things of beauty, but if a person can find a place where it’s easy to get them in and out, they should be used, especially because that develops the associations with them that keep them handed down. I associate my grandmother’s china with holiday dinners and hope that at least one of my kids will too.

  2. March 29, 2022 12:15 am

    This sounds an interesting book, wheb we get to see the world with another perspective it is always a gift. It may not be my usual cup of tea, but I think I would try to read this one and see for myself!

    • March 29, 2022 11:25 am

      One of the things I didn’t mention but that she does well is talk about not wanting to have children, and how people react to that. It’s not a perspective I’ve thought about for years, although I wasn’t a person who always knew she wanted children.

  3. March 29, 2022 5:01 pm

    These sounds like a pleasant collection of essays. I like the quiet description since they seem to be about everyday sorts of things.

    • March 30, 2022 1:36 pm

      They mostly are, except for one on flying planes, which seems less everyday to me.

  4. March 30, 2022 12:31 pm

    This is on my list. I loved her nonfiction book Truth and Beauty, about her friend Lucy Grealy.

    • March 30, 2022 1:39 pm

      I liked reading Truth and Beauty. I often have the sense with this author that I like her kind of in spite of myself–I think she’s very different from me. I thought State of Wonder was a marvelous novel, although I didn’t care much for Commonwealth or The Dutch House, and I wasn’t as impressed as the rest of the world with Bel Canto.

      • April 1, 2022 4:43 pm

        I fell in love with her while reading her 2013 collection of essays: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

        • April 1, 2022 4:56 pm

          I know I read that one, but it made little impression on me, somehow.

  5. April 2, 2022 7:02 pm

    This sounds right up my alley.

  6. April 6, 2022 8:10 am

    The things you inherited from your relatives are lovely.

    I’ve got a wooden tea cart with decorative tiles on top that used to belong to my grandmother. It used to sit in her living room, now it’s next to my desk, full of office stuff. I also got lovely wine glasses from her, her collection of special tea cups and an entire set of white china with gold edges that I picked up last year from my aunt, who wanted to get rid of it. I haven’t used it yet, but I plan to. I like things that have a bit of family history.

    The essays sound good, too.

    • April 6, 2022 8:38 am

      Family history is what makes so many of these pieces more than just “stuff.” Like writing names on the backs of old photos, writing a brief history of an antique piece and attaching it inside before you take it to donate or sell might give it some informal provenance.

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