Durations, by Carolyn Osborn, is really two books: a memoir of her childhood in Tennessee and move to Texas, and a collection of personal essays. The memoir focuses on young Carolyn navigating life without a mother and the ways war separates families. Osborn describes her family shuffling from state to state and town to town, following her father's army orders until "my father decided we should go back to Tennessee 'for the duration,' a phrase much in use which I translated to 'nobody knows how long.'" While her father is sent to various army bases, Carolyn, her younger brother, and her mother live with relatives when their mother becomes ill and is sent to a state mental hospital.
Carolyn and her brother are shielded from the truth of their mother's condition for many years by well-meaning relatives who had no way of explaining it to them, or to themselves. Carolyn is taken to live with her father's mother and two sisters in Nashville, while her brother is sent to live with other relatives. The author often returns to the mystery of her mother's condition and the shadow it placed on her life.
Almost a void, the place where my mother lived, grew into a forbidding amorphous shape out there somewhere on the edge of the city, just as she remained on the edge of my life. Somehow just knowing approximately where she was made her absence more bearable. As she had been before, she remained away; only now she had grown closer.
Osborn shares a sometimes-lonely childhood where her aunts fill in the gaps of her motherless existence by introducing her to books, sending her to dancing lessons, and teaching her how to ride a horse. The matter-of-fact tone of the book reflects the strong character of a culture in wartime America and evokes a certain nostalgia. Written in first person, past tense, we are always looking back.
When her father remarries, Carolyn is relieved that the days of the aunts are over, but acknowledges a fear and uncertainty about her stepmother. There are only a few hints of her confused emotions. "'What would you like for me to call you?' I let the question go in one breath. 'Mother,' she said and smiled though there were tears I her eyes as well as mine."
The personal essays in the second half of Durations take the reader through a variety of the author's experiences across a wide range of time. We visit small-town Texas where football rules and neighbors' sheep threaten a wedding. We travel to Egypt, the Galapagos Islands, and Scotland before returning to Texas and the challenges of ranching and weather. This combination of memoir and essay collection is a curious one. The leap over decades from Texas to Egypt, the Galapagos, and Scotland is a little disorienting without a theme or chronological order linking the essays and memoir together. Though the essays stand alone as interesting conversations with the author, they are less engaging than the memoir.
In the end, I found myself wishing the memoir were longer and wanting to know more about Carolyn Osborn's life as a young woman in Texas. Still, Durations is a window to a time few can remember and a poignant portrait of the American South during World War II.
Carolyn Osborn is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and moved to Texas when she was twelve. She has worked as a newspaper reporter, radio writer, and English teacher. Known for her short stories, she has received several awards for her writing, including the Antioch Review's Distinguished Prose Award and the Lon Tinkle Lifetime Achievement Award by the Texas Institute of Letters.
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