Dozens of grandmothers find themselves sea-stranded on a cargo vessel. They don’t know how they got there. They got there because they are in the “Birth” section of Ramona Ausubel’s story collection A Guide to Being Born, coming from Riverhead in May.
You can hear their canes and orthotics tap and scrape against the metal deck. This ship wasn’t meant to take passengers, just cargo. It’s like the grandmothers are the main cargo. Or somehow got dropped off on this ship by mistake. Maybe that’s what they think.
Alice is one of the grandmothers. Or perhaps all the grandmothers are simply versions or shards of Alice. That’s what I thought. Alice is happy as usual, taking in the beautiful view on a comfortable bench and thinking about her family who are off somewhere in the real world taking care of their quotidian business. You sense that the ordinary hassles of life don’t concern Alice anymore.
Meanwhile the grannies are active. One group of survivalists has already boarded a lifeboat and are ready to be rescued. But the life craft doesn’t go anywhere and they are just sitting there waiting for their rescue to happen, like subway passengers who are told they are no trains but still insist on waiting on the platform.
Another practical group of grannies pull out scraps of paper and pencils and make lists of suggestions and priorities. They’ve got to have a plan. Some grandmothers engage in pleasant small talk, pay small compliments to each other and make polite inquiries about families, as if they were on a bench in Central Park on a fine summer afternoon.
The grandmothers wonder if they’re dead or dying. Some remember farewells from hospital beds. Is that really happening? They worry about significant domestic events back home, like whether the cat will scratch the couch legs again. Those with families wonder about them. Those without connections are grimmer, but they still wonder about the TV hour when their favorite program animates an otherwise too quiet living room. Those with close families remember close farewells and even help other grandmothers to imagine close farewells that they are not going to have. As if you could spread around your close family ties like jam so everyone could have some.
The purposeful grandmothers have broken into the storage crates on board where they find whimsical objects like toy baseball bats. They make string out of nautical ropes, attach the strings to the bats and attempt to fish with them, even though there’s nothing in the way of hooks or bait on the end of the string. Keeping busy. Other grandmothers have raided the galley where there is apparently nothing but canned peaches.
The grandmothers are in an Ausubel story, where we have a talented and compassionate writer spinning out a fragmentary, limbo world for them to dwell in, at least temporarily. It’s quite an art to spin narrative silk out of nearly nothing; out of a common but all-encompassing observation, the mortality of grandmothers.
I’ve never imagined a whole freighter filled with nothing but grandmothers. But now that Ausubel has imagined it for me, it’s difficult, right now, to think of anything else. Certainly it’s a gentler way for your granny to die than to be attached to some horrible tubes in an intensive care unit. This is a kind story, and Ramona Ausubel is a kind, original and provocative writer.