Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pitch Uncertain: A Mid-Century Middle Daughter Finds Her Voice

By Maisie Houghton

Cambridge MA, TidePool Press, 2011

210 pages Memoir

Maisie Houghton is a woman of about 70, and a few years ago in a memoir writing class, she began working on a memoir of her childhood. She had thought that she would be writing a biography of a family friend, the actress Ruth Draper, but instead, she was encouraged to tell her own story. Pitch Uncertain is the result, and coincidentally she found a publisher in her hometown of Cambridge MA who wanted to publish her story. She says, “All my life, I have been lucky.”

All of us have stories, and Maisie Houghton is no different. Although she has lived a more privileged life than most, her stories could be most anyone’s—in fact, I identify with much of what she writes. When she was a baby, her father was overseas fighting in World War II, as was my father. She is one of three girls; so am I. She was raised in a close relationship with her grandparents, as was I. She had a beautiful mother and a charismatic, but distant, father. Could be my parents. The major difference between her childhood and mine was money and status.

Houghton has keen insight into the child’s point of view because she was a child who saw and felt everything. As the middle daughter, she struggled to be heard and “noticed in the family hierarchy.” She says, “. . .in thinking about those childhood years, I realize I cannot extricate myself from the ‘we’. ‘We felt, we played, we knew.’ Where was the ‘I’”?

I have felt the same safety in relationship with my sisters, as she notes, “linked together in a curious alchemy of early instinctive loyalty and later deep, satisfying intimacy.” For Houghton and her sisters, the bond of sisterhood had been passed down to them, because their mother was one of five girls. She says her mother was beautiful, and yearned: “Don’t look at me, but tell me I’m attractive, intelligent, worthwhile.” The same probably could have been said about Maisie who suffered from the same insecurities as her mother.

One chapter is devoted to each of her parents, and their complicated and strained relationship fills another chapter. I read with interest the chapter about their summer home at Dark Harbor on Ilesboro Island off the coast of Maine. I have been at my sister’s summer home on Lake Michigan for the past two weeks. Last week was spent in a kind of “Grandma camp,” much like the summers Houghton spent at her grandmother’s home and then at her own family’s home. At one point, we had 17 people at the cottage. I chuckled as I watched the older children hone in on the adult conversations. Houghton mentions that she learned a great deal about life by listening to those adult conversations on lazy summer evenings. “What we did during those summers in Dark Harbor was minimal. What we noticed was a lot.”

I enjoyed, as well, the references to life in the 1950s, the role of women during those years, and the niceties and formalities that seemed so important. Things like linens and silver and fine china—these things that have been lost in the casualness of today’s living. Does anyone know how to polish silver anymore? Any woman “of a certain age” will enjoy those parts of Pitch Uncertain, as well.

Pitch Uncertain is a valuable book; not because Maisie Houghton is an important celebrity, but precisely because she is not. Her childhood was memorable because of what she noticed, what she remembered, and what she learned. The reviewer in the New York Review of Books reminds the reader of another Maisie: "Maisie Houghton might well have entitled her beautifully written autobiography What Maisie Knew. For her penetrating account of growing up in a dysfunctional upper-class family is inevitably bound to evoke for the reader Henry James’s keenly observant protagonist. Both Maisies are astonishingly perceptive; both Maisies are trying to figure out how they fit in and who they are." All of us have that opportunity to make sense of our lives and pass on our stories to our children and our children’s children. Her book is an excellent example of a life memorialized.

My sister has begun writing our family stories and her memoir. I will most definitely give her this book as an example of a well-written memoir. I received this book from the publicist, and I am most pleased that she sent it to me. I enjoyed the common ground that I found with Maisie Houghton.

Here is a reference to her memoir in Vogue:

The excellent review in the New York Review of Books:

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