Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
She was fifty-three years old by then--a grandmother. Wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a center part. Laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. A loose and colorful style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady.
Give her credit: most people her age would say it was too late to make any changes. What's done is done, they would say. No use trying to alter things at this late date.
It did occur to Rebecca to say that. But she didn't.
On the day she made her discovery, she was picnicking on the North Fork River out in Baltimore County. It was a cool, sunny Sunday in early June of 1999, and her family had gathered to celebrate the engagement of Rebecca's youngest stepdaughter, NoNo Davitch.
The Davitches' cars circled the meadow like covered wagons braced for attack. Their blankets dotted the grass, and their thermos jugs and ice chests and sports equipment crowded the picnic table. The children were playing beside the river in one noisy, tumbling group, but the adults kept themselves more separate. Alone or in twos they churned about rearranging their belongings, jockeying for spots in the sun, wandering off hither and yon in their moody Davitch manner. One of the stepdaughters was sitting by herself in her minivan. One of the sons-in-law was stretching his hamstrings over by the runners' path. The uncle was stabbing the ground repeatedly with his cane.
Goodness, what would Barry think? (Barry, the new fiance.) He would think they disapproved of his marrying NoNo.
And he would be right.
Not that they ever behaved much differently under any conditions.
Barry had a blanket mostly to himself, because NoNo kept flitting elsewhere. The tiniest and prettiest of the Davitch girls--a little hummingbird of a person--she darted first to one sister and then another, ducking her shiny dark cap of hair and murmuring something urgent.
Murmuring, "Like him, please," maybe. Or, "At least make him feel welcome."
The first sister grew very busy rummaging through a straw hamper. The second shaded her eyes and pretended to look for the children.
Rebecca--who earned her living hosting parties, after all--felt she had no choice but to clap her hands and call, "Okay, folks!"
Languidly, they turned. She seized a baseball from the table and held it up. No, it was bigger than a baseball. A softball, then; undoubtedly the property of the son-in-law stretching his hamstrings, who taught phys ed at the local high school. It was all the same to Rebecca; she had never been the sporty type. Still: "Time for a game, everybody!" she called. "Barry? NoNo? Come on, now! We'll say this rock is home plate. Zeb, move that log over to where first base ought to be. The duffel bag can be second, and for third . . . Who's got something we can use for third?"
They groaned, but she refused to give up. "Come on, people! Show some life here! We need to exercise off all that food we're about to eat!"
In slow motion they began to obey, rising from their blankets and drifting where she pointed. She turned toward the runners' path and, "Yoo-hoo! Jeep!" she called. Jeep stopped hugging one beefy knee and squinted in her direction. "Haul yourself over here!" she ordered. "We're organizing a softball game!"
"Aw, Beck," he said, "I was hoping to get a run in." But he came plodding toward her.
While Jeep set about correcting the placement of the bases, Rebecca went to deal with the stepdaughter in the minivan. Who happened to be Jeep's wife, in fact. Rebecca hoped this wasn't one of their silly quarrels. "Sweetie!" she sang out. She waded through the weeds, scooping up armfuls of her big red bandanna-print skirt. "Patch? Roll down your window, Patch. Can you hear me? Is something the matter?"
Patch turned and gazed out at her. You could tell she must be hot. Spikes of her chopped black hair were sticking to her forehead, and her sharp, freckled face was shining with sweat. Still, she made no move to open her window. Rebecca grabbed the door handle and yanked it--luckily, just before Patch thought to push the lock down.
"Now, then!" Rebecca caroled. "What's all this about?"
Patch said, "Can't a person ever get a moment of peace in this family?"
She was thirty-seven years old but looked more like fourteen, in her striped T-shirt and skinny jeans. And acted like fourteen, too, Rebecca couldn't help thinking; but all she said was, "Come on out and join us! We're starting up a softball game."
"For Lord's sake, Beck, don't you know how I hate this?"
"Hate it!" Rebecca cried merrily, choosing to misunderstand. "But you're wonderful at sports! The rest of us don't even know where the bases go. Poor Jeep is having to do everything."
Patch said, "I cannot for the life of me see why we should celebrate my little sister's engagement to a--to a--"
Words appeared to fail her. She clamped her arms tight across her flat chest and faced forward again.
"To a what?" Rebecca asked her. "A nice, decent, well-spoken man. A lawyer."
"A corporate lawyer. A man who brings his appointment book to a picnic; did you notice his appointment book? Him and his yacht-looking, country-club-looking clothes; his ridiculous yellow crew cut; his stupid rubber-soled boating shoes. And look at how he was sprung on us! Just sprung on us with no warning! One day it's, oh, poor NoNo, thirty-five years old and never even been kissed so far as anyone knew; and the next day--I swear, the very next day!--she pops up out of the blue and announces an August wedding."
"Well, now, I just have a feeling she may have kept him secret out of nervousness," Rebecca said. "She didn't want to look foolish, in case the courtship came to nothing. Also, maybe she worried you girls would be too critical."
Not without reason, she didn't add.
Patch said, "Hogwash. You know why she kept him secret: he's been married once before. Married and divorced, with a twelve-year-old son to boot."
"Well, these things do happen," Rebecca said drily.
"And such a pathetic son, too. Did you see?" Patch jabbed a thumb toward the children by the river, but Rebecca didn't bother turning. "A puny little runt of a son! And it can't have escaped your notice that Barry has sole custody. He's had to cook for that child and clean house, drive the car pool, help with homework . . . Of course he wants a wife! Unpaid nanny, is more like it."
"Now, dearie, that's an insult to NoNo," Rebecca said. "Any man in his right mind would want NoNo for her own sake."
Patch merely gave an explosive wheeze that lifted the spikes of hair off her forehead.
"Just think," Rebecca reminded her. "Didn't I marry a divorced man with three little girls? And see, it worked out fine! I'd be married to him still, if he had lived."
All Patch said to this was, "And how you could throw a party for them!"
"Well, of course I'd throw a party. It's an occasion!" Rebecca said. "Besides: you and Biddy asked for one, if I remember correctly."
"We asked if you planned to give one, is all, since you're so fond of engagement parties. Why, Min Foo's had three of them! They seem to be kind of a habit with you."
Rebecca opened her mouth to argue, because she was almost positive that Patch and Biddy had requested, in so many words, that she put together a picnic. But then she saw that she might have misinterpreted. Maybe they had just meant that since they knew she would be planning something, they would prefer it to be held outside. (Oh, the Davitch girls were very unsocial. "I guess you're going to insist on some kind of shindig," one of them would sigh, and then they would show up and sit around looking bored, picking at their food while Rebecca tried to jolly things along.)
Well, no matter, because Patch was finally unfolding herself from the minivan. She slammed the door behind her and said, "Let's get started, then, if you're so set on this."
"Thank you, sweetie," Rebecca said. "I just know we'll have a good time today."
Patch said, "Ha!" and marched off toward the others, leaving Rebecca to trail behind.
The softball game had begun now, at least in a halfhearted way. People were scattered across the meadow seemingly at random, with Rebecca's brother-in-law and Barry so far off in the outfield that they might not even be playing. The catcher (Biddy) was tying her shoe. The uncle leaned on his cane at an indeterminate spot near third base. Rebecca's daughter was sunbathing on first, lounging in the grass with her face tipped back and her eyes closed.
As Patch and then Rebecca came up behind home plate, Jeep was assuming the batter's stance, his barrel-shaped body set sideways to them and his bat wagging cockily. NoNo, on the pitcher's mound, crooked her arm at an awkward angle above her shoulder and released the ball. It traveled in an uncertain arc until Jeep lost patience and took a stride forward and hit a low drive past second. Hakim, Rebecca's son-in-law, watched with interest as it whizzed by. (No surprise there, since Hakim hailed from someplace Arab and had probably never seen a softball in his life.) Jeep dropped his bat and trotted to first, not disturbing Min Foo's sunbath in the least. He rounded second, receiving a beatific smile from Hakim, and headed for third. Third was manned by Biddy's . . . oh, Rebecca never knew what to call him . . . longtime companion, dear Troy, who always claimed it was while he was fumbling a pop-up fly at age five that he first realized he was gay. All he did was wave amiably as Jeep went trundling past.
By that time, Barry had managed to locate the ball. He threw it toward Biddy, but she was tying her other shoe now. It was Patch who stepped forward to intercept it, apparently without effort. Then she turned back to home plate and tagged her husband out.
Patch and Jeep might have been playing alone, for all the reaction they got. Biddy straightened up from her shoe and yawned. NoNo started clucking over a broken fingernail. Min Foo was probably unaware of what had happened, even--unless she'd been able to figure it out with her eyes closed.
"Oh," Rebecca cried, "you-all are not even trying! Where is your team spirit?"
"For that, we need more than one side," Jeep said, wiping his forehead on his shoulder. "There aren't enough of us playing."
To Rebecca, it seemed just then that there were far too many of them. Such a large and unwieldy group, they were; so cumbersome, so much work. But she said, "You're absolutely right," and turned in the direction of the river. "Kids!" she called. "Hey, kids!"
The children were hopping in an uneven line a good twenty yards away, beyond a stretch of buzzing, humming grass and alongside flowing water; so at first they didn't hear her. She had to haul up her skirt again and slog toward them, calling, "Come on, everybody! Come and play ball! You kids against us grownups!"
Now they stopped what they were doing (some version of Follow the Leader, it seemed, leaping from rock to rock) and looked over at her. Five of the six were here today--all but Dixon, the oldest, who'd gone someplace else with his girlfriend. And then there was Barry's son, what's-his-name. Peter. "Peter?" Rebecca called. "Want to play softball?"
He stood slightly apart from the others, noticeably pale-haired and white-skinned and scrawny in this company of dark, vivid Davitch children. Rebecca felt a tug of sympathy for him. She called, "You can be pitcher, if you like!"
He took a step backward and shook his head. Well, no, of course: she should have offered him the outfield. Something inconspicuous. The others, meanwhile, had broken rank and were starting toward her. "Not It, not It," the youngest child was chanting, evidently confused as to what softball was all about. Patch and Jeep's three (wouldn't you know) were vying to be first at bat. "We'll draw straws," Rebecca told them. "Come on, everybody! Winning team gets excused from cleanup after lunch."
Only Peter stayed where he was. He was balanced on a low rock, alert and motionless, giving off a chilling silence. Rebecca called, "Sweetie? Aren't you coming?"
Again he shook his head. The other children veered around her and plowed on toward the playing field, but Rebecca gathered her skirt higher and pressed forward. Long, cool grasses tickled her bare calves. A cloud of startled white butterflies fluttered around her knees. She reached the first rock, took a giant step up, and leapt to the next rock just beyond, teetering for a second before she found her footing on the slick, mossy surface. (She was wearing rope-soled espadrilles that gave her almost no traction.) So far she was still on dry land, but most of the other rocks--Peter's included--turned out to be partly submerged. This meant that the children had been disobeying instructions. They'd been warned to stay away from the river, which was unpredictably deep in some spots and wider than a two-lane highway, not to mention icy cold so early in the season.
Peter kept as still as a cornered deer; Rebecca sensed that even though she wasn't looking at him. For the moment, she was looking at the scenery. Oh, didn't a river rest your eyes! She sank into a peaceful trance, watching how the water seemed to gather itself as it traveled toward a sharp bend. It swelled up in loose, silky tangles and then it smoothed and flowed on, transparent at the edges but nearly opaque at the center, as yellow-green and sunlit as a bottle in a window. She drifted with it, dreaming. It could have been a hundred years ago. The line of dark trees on the opposite shore would have looked the same; she'd have heard the same soft, curly lapping close by, the same rushing sound farther off.
Well. Enough of this. She tore her gaze away and turned again to Peter. "I've got you now!" she told him gaily.
He took another step backward and disappeared.
For a moment, she couldn't believe what had happened. She just stood there with her mouth open. Then she looked down and saw a turmoil in the water. A small, white, big-eyed face gulping air and choking. A frantic snarl of thin, bare, flailing arms.
At 53, Rebecca Davitch mistress of the Open Arms, a crumbling 19th-century row house in Baltimore where giving parties is the family business suddenly asks herself whether she has turned into the wrong person. But can she really recover the woman she has left behind?
1. It is upon Peter's second disappearance during the picnic that Rebecca first thinks: "How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?" (p. 20, lines 33-34). Why does Rebecca's "identity crisis" begin at this particular moment in her life?
2. Did Rebecca "choose" her life, or is her life just an example of Poppy's observation: "Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you've got"? (p. 252, lines 1-2). Do people choose their identities, or do they just "end up" the way they are?
3. Rebecca asks her client: "Mrs. Border, have you ever stopped to consider what a marvelous purpose a party serves?" (p. 38, lines 17-18). How does Rebecca answer her own question? Would she answer it differently at the end of the novel?
4. What is the significance of Rebecca's "Freudian slip"--if it can be called that--when she tells Zeb that she is a "superficial" woman, when she really means "superfluous"? Is Rebecca either "superfluous" or "superficial"? Is superfluous a word one could use to describe any character in the book?
5. "[Zeb] had a theory that Min Foo's many marriages were her way of trying on other lives" (p. 29, lines 34-35). Is this the same as what Rebecca is trying to do? Is this a universal fantasy that Rebecca is living out? What might be Tyler's opinion of one trying to "go back to take the other fork in the road" or "trying on different lives" ? What other examples can you find in Back When We Were Grownups that provide different ways to think about or define the concept of identity?
6. The opening words of the novel, "Once upon a time . . . ," recall the motif used in fables or fairy tales. In what ways does Back When We Were Grownups resemble a fairy tale or contain elements of the fairy tale or fable? Does Back When We Were Grownups have a moral?
7. Rebecca realizes the irony of the fact that the more she does for her family, the less she is appreciated. "It had occurred to her, often, that the way to win your family's worshipful devotion was to abandon them" (p. 87, lines 17-18). The reader learns a lot about how "Beck" feels about her family--but how does her family feel about her? Does it matter to Rebecca whether her family appreciates her or not? What does the book suggest about how family members treat one another generally in society?
8. How is marriage portrayed in Back When We Were Grownups? Are there marriages of convenience, or are there examples of marriage where both parties to the marriage are equally "useful" to each other, as Rebecca advises NoNo on her marriage to Barry (p. 246, lines 31-32)? Is Rebecca's advice to NoNo convincing to the reader? To Rebecca herself? Why do marriages fail: Joe and Tina's, Will and Laura's, and Min Foo's first two marriages?
9. How would you compare the different types of love explored in the book? With respect to Poppy, Rebecca observes: "Apparently you grow to love whom you're handed" (p. 157, lines 1-2). Is this applicable to the love Rebecca has for any of the other people in her life? In the case of her sons-in-law, Rebecca had promised that she would treat them differently than her mother treated Joe, and "she had kept her promise so faithfully that now she couldn't say for certain whether she truly loved her sons-in-law or merely thought she did" (p. 144, lines 23-25). Is there a practical difference for Rebecca? How do the other characters love Rebecca?
10. What is the significance of Tyler's ending the tale with Poppy's hundredth birthday party? What is really being celebrated?
11. Is the ending of Back When We Were Grownups anticlimactic or satisfying? Is the reader mad at or frustrated with Rebecca, or proud of her? At what point does the reader come to "recognize" the "real" Rebecca?
12. Can Rebecca be described as a heroine? A martyr? Is she an ordinary or extraordinary woman? When she realizes that she has brought the Davitches her "joyousness . . . [which] she had struggled to acquire . . . Timidly, she experimented with a sneaking sense of achievement. Pride, even" (p. 246, lines 31-36, to p. 247, lines 1-4). Is this her greatest achievement? What are Rebecca's failures?
13. Is there significance to Rebecca's dream about the boy on the train (p. 21, lines 1-17)? Why does she realize that Peter was the boy on the train at the moment that she does (p. 273, lines 32-33)? Is Peter her chance at creating a new life or identity? Is Rebecca's dream a metaphor for her "identity crisis," and, if so, what does it tell us about how seriously to take her "identity crisis"?
14. What does "The Open Arms" symbolize? Is the name of Rebecca's house intended to be ironic? How might the dynamic of the Davitch family be different if their family business were something other than running a party facility out of their home?
15. How does Tyler develop the characters in her novel? Compare how certain characters, such as Poppy and Rebecca's mother, speak a lot, and others, such as Peter, say very little. How much do we learn about some of the lesser characters by the few words they say in the novel? How is Rebecca's character developed differently than the other characters?
16. What is the meaning of the title (p. 188, lines 11-17)? What does it mean to be "grownup," and can Rebecca or any of the other characters be described as "grownups"?
17. Does the concept of "family" defy definition in Back When We Were Grownups? Might the reader wonder how Rebecca came to be so accepting of all of the assorted people she welcomes easily into her family? Is she rebelling against her own mother's intolerance, or simply filling the void of her lonely childhood?
18. For Rebecca, "the most memorable of the five senses . . . was the sense of touch" (p. 34, lines 28-29). The sense of taste also figures prominently in the book, invoked by the descriptions of the food served to Rebecca (p. 64, lines 8-9; p. 131; and p. 205) and Biddy's gourmet foods. What does Tyler achieve stylistically by invoking these senses, or any of the other three senses?
19. How would you characterize the conversations Rebecca has with her grandchildren? What do they reveal about Rebecca? For example: Rebecca tells Merrie about her dream (p. 49, lines 13-14), and she discusses Poppy's birthday party with Peter (p. 117, lines 20-35).
20. What is the significance of the descriptions of the lives and families of the workmen who frequent The Open Arms? Are they merely humorous interludes, or is their placement in the novel significant to Rebecca's progress in her search for her identity?
21. Is Tyler's choice of the motives of Robert E. Lee as the topic of Rebecca's college research project intended to be humorous? Ironic? Is Rebecca's realization about Lee's motives analogous to her own self-recognition, and, if it does invite such comparison, what does that tell the reader about how to view Rebecca's identity crisis? (p. 232, lines 6-23)
22. How do Tyler's descriptions of Baltimore, the scenery during the drive from Baltimore to Macadam (pp. 127-28), and the town of Church Valley, Virginia (pp. 57-61), affect the atmosphere and mood of the novel? Do they reinforce any themes of the novel? Is Rebecca's life like the once elegant street of Baltimore that "never reverses" (p. 47, line 1)?
23. What are Will's good qualities? Does the reader sympathize with Will? Like him or dislike him? What happened at the family dinner that made Rebecca "end it" with Will that night (p. 218, lines 6-8)? Is Will in fact the one who was "superfluous"?
24. In several places, two characters' conversational paths converge. (For example, p. 64, lines 30-31.) Where else does Tyler use this style to convey how people talk to each other--but don't seem to really hear each other? Are these realistic conversations? What does it tell us about the way people communicate?
25. How does Tyler achieve a balance between the celebratory and the mournful in Back When We Were Grownups? Does one tone dominate the other?
26. Rebecca frequently feels that she is untrue to her own nature. (For example, p. 183, lines 14-15; p. 69, line 24; and p. 162, lines 25-) Is Rebecca really a "fraud" (p. 39, lines 28-29), or is this a common character trait?
27. Rebecca explains that she refers to Min Foo as her daughter but still refers to the other girls as stepdaughters because "acquiring" stepdaughters was the most profound change in her life (p. 234, lines 15-27). Are any of the other characters shaped by such profound events in their lives? Is Rebecca's a typical or understandable way people deal with such profound life changes, or does it say something unusual or significant about Rebecca and her own situation?
28. When Rebecca and Tina discuss Joe's poor driving, Rebecca recalls Joe's bout with depression and the reader glimpses a little crack in the veneer of Rebecca's perfect memories of Joe (p. 97). Dare we think that Joe's death was a suicide like his father's, and, if the thought occurs to us, doesn't it occur to Rebecca too? Might there have been more "bad" memories that Rebecca has blocked out?
It is upon Peter's second disappearance during the picnic that Rebecca first thinks: "How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?" (p. 20, lines 33-34). Why does Rebecca's "identity crisis" begin at this particular moment in her life?