Teaching Maggie:
Letters on Life, Writing, and the Virtues of Solid Food

by Lee Reilly

Ruminator Books, 2000. ISBN 1886913366.
Reviewed by Tracie Nichols
Posted on 04/18/2006

Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Relationships; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Teaching Maggie is as much a journey as it is a collection of letters written by Lee Reilly to her god-daughter Maggie. The letters seemingly span the first three and a half years of Maggie's life, yet I found myself engaged with a sometimes funny, always trenchant, perception of our (U.S.) culture over a much longer span of years. It rapidly became obvious that there is something deeper at work than letters to a child, as the author (Auntie Lee) traces her own life and responses to our culture through the looking glass of Maggie's eyes. It is an exploration of Reilly's life experiences and perceptions with the twist of needing to explain them to someone who doesn't already have a working knowledge of all of the cultural and social cues that allow so much of our understandings to be unconscious and unspoken. "Now I've done it... Now you want to know what a feminist is. That is a difficult question to answer."

The topics of the letters are often light-hearted with a tongue-in-cheek tone. For example, Reilly has a serious talk with Maggie in one letter about her newfound ability to eat solid food. "Dinners of crushed peas and pulverized chicken in peach and carrot sauce are difficult to witness, and any parent who requires this of a friend or neighbor should be forced to watch certain scenes from "The Exorcist" or perhaps "Aliens" as a refresher course on what is and is not appetizing." They also are often profound. In another letter, Reilly begins by asking two-year-old Maggie, very politely, if she can conclude this stage of development soon. Even though she (Reilly) has "been known to engage in parallel play and obsessive ownership even as an adult", she is uncomfortable with Maggie's struggle with authority and self-identification and ends the letter by exploring her own sense of pushing boundaries and self-development. "I'm torn between yelling at you and cheering you on! And I feel, sometimes, as if I'm going through it myself, for I'm not so sure that I ever stopped experimenting, defining myself—long after it was developmentally appropriate—by the surprise in other people's eyes." I identified with this experience, and appreciated Reilly's willingness to expose what often goes unspoken. I deeply appreciated her willingness to question, to explore, to pull aside convention and family myth and look at ideas and experiences with new eyes.

Reilly touches on topics such as body image, government, family values (which she says was a typo and should be "values family"), being childless by choice, the elusive and plastic nature of memory, feminism, and the decline of thinking. There is a compassionate, sometimes acerbic, honesty and clarity in her approach that captured my attention from the preface through the postscript. I was especially touched by her description of why she chose to write these godmother letters.

"And so I offer these letters to you, Maggie. They won't turn pumpkins into Porsches or mice into valets; they will not prescribe a dazzling life course among princes or even recent beneficiaries of the boom economy. But they may in some odd and nonlinear way help you find an authentic life, among authentic people, christened with courage, graced with humor, blessed with depth, capable of self-awareness."

The author reaches across distance, and through a relationship often undefined or undervalued today, to share her thoughts with a child not her own or of her own family, but very much a part of her. And so I humbly suggest you swim in the waters of this "repository of the human spirit turned verbal."

Lee Reilly is also the author of Women Living Single, a book of interviews with women who lead non-traditional lives, and numerous magazine articles. She develops marketing communications for non-profits and for corporations.

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