Having traveled a great deal since birth, partly due to my father being in the Air Force and the rest is blamed on some gypsy spirit residing deep within, much of Gretel Ehrlich’s story, “About Men” resonated with me. I understood her loneliness for places once visited, and the need to find solace in the now places as she did while on the New York Subway searching for posters of Cowboy’s. “What I am aching to see is horseflesh, a glint of spur, a line of distant mountains, brimming creeks, and a reminder of the ranchers and cowboys I’ve ridden with for the last eight years” (Ehrlich, 1985).
In contrast, for me personally, is Joan Didion’s memoire of a woman that has a lot of time at “home” and is clearly unhappy with how she must live out her days. Home can mean many things to people, after all is it a unique and subjective experience that only we can appreciate-good or bad.
In these stories I read each woman seems to define “home” as an entirely different existence, though they are both lonely, drifting through life in the places they must now call home.
Even though Greta was not born on a ranch, she felt a connection to the ranch life so strongly that she decided to live among them for eight years. Greta felt a kinship to the cowboy’s she lived with so deeply that writing about them became more than a hobby or pastime.
She felt the need to set the world and society right on the stereotypes and bent visions of those who roamed the Western sky. Greta reminds me of a big sister standing up to bullies who are bringing down her best friends. When she says, “Such ideas have perverted manliness into a self-absorbed race for cheap thrills” (Ehrlich, 1985, p. 83) it is obvious to me she is offended greatly by societies depiction of the Cowboy and feels the need to defend the disesteemed character of him. Joan Didion writes, “And the nameless anxiety colored the emotional charges between me and the place that I came from” (Didion, 1967).
Obviously there is great deal of conflict for Joan as she tries to give her daughter a “home” that she once had with her parents and constantly struggles with her desire to be at her parent’s home where she had felt happy and content. Living with her husband and daughter she seems lost, and homesick, even though she is much older. In Joan’s story we, the reader, must at times read between the lines, as Joan is not entirely clear on some points. Like when she says she is tired of her parent’s dusty house and dusty lifestyle. Also, I felt that Joan was dealing with an identity complex, not really knowing how to be in her own home, especially when she felt such a longing to be back with her parents. Her husband even felt this rift and Joan writes about it stating, “My husband likes my family but is uneasy in their house, because once there I fall into their ways, which are difficult, oblique, deliberately inarticulate, not my husband’s ways” (Didion, 1967).
The sad truth is that Joan feels trapped in her parents’ home though she has long since moved from there on to her own home. She muses, “That I am trapped in this particular irrelevancy is never more apparent to me than when I am home” (Didion, 1967). Joan then reflects on what kind of home her baby will receive from her, and what kind of mother will she be. I believe, as parents, we can all relate to these feelings of adequacy and wonder which is at least one area I feel connected to Joan and her story. Joan states quite boldly, “Paralyzed by the neurotic lassitude engendered by meeting one’s past at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard I go aimlessly from room to room” (Didion, 1967). Never alluding to a home full of abuse, trauma or otherwise it seems that Joan is really struggling with her childhood, that has naturally extended into her adulthood and somehow has become lost in translation.
I can’t help but wonder why so much negativity surrounds her description of “home”- “paralyzed, aimlessly, neurotic- those are very powerful words Joan uses to describe a home she misses and I feel confused. Gretel lives away from the ranch but longs to return, even attempting throughout her day to find solace, “When I am in New York but feeling lonely for Wyoming I look for the Marlboro ads in the subway” (Ehrlich, 1985, p. 82). Rather than missing a small family unit as Joan does her mother and father, Gretel has encompassed a lifestyle and called it “home”. She creates a stoic image of men who possess physical prowess, and a tireless heart. Writing, “For the most part his work is done on horseback and in a lifetime he sees and comes to know more animals than people” (Ehrlich, 1985, p. 83).
She describes the Cowboy as having a “toughness and interior fragility” which contradicts what society has depicted of the American Cowboy as being “tough as nails, and lacking emotion”. In comparison, “home” to Joan was hallways, rooms, doors and dust that accumulated on century old furniture, while “home” to Gretel was a western sky, herd of cattle, men with hearts of gold and the woman who loved them. Gretel was more involved with the plight of the Cowboy, and Joan was consumed with her place in this world away from her parents’ home. It seems that Gretel is creating her own vision of the Cowboy on her terms, by what she witnessed on one ranch in Wyoming. Claiming it is the “geographical vastness and social isolation” that makes the Cowboy hard to hold and even harder to love going so far as to state, “They lack the vocabulary to express the complexity of what they feel” (Ehrlich, 1985, p. 84). Perhaps Gretel felt the need to be the voice for the American Cowboy, and a strong sensitive one at that. Is it possible that she created the Cowboy in her mind the way she wanted them to be, even admitting in her story that they were “standoffish and formal” (Ehrlich, 1985, p. 84) while claiming they are impulsive, passionate and intuitive.
It seems contradictory, perhaps she is still learning too. And does Joan really miss her parents and their dusty old house or is she merely unsatisfied with her new marriage and new home? Is it perhaps easier to go backwards than forward, in an effort to free yourself from any responsibility? When Joan writes, “There is nothing like seeing a thing you know was meaningful to you once and is now empty and wondering” (Didion, 1967)- what was all that for? I can’t help but wonder.
Here she is, a woman with a child of her own grasping for emotions of the past rather than working on building new memories with her new family. That was most frustrating for me, but possibly because I did not have a home growing up and I married early, glad to get away from the daily strife my parents created on a regular basis. It seemed absurd to me to constantly go back to those days and reflect, let alone long for them. Honestly, I don’t believe there was a week that passed my mother wasn’t wasted and my father wasn’t beating her up. Because of these moments in time I have learned to be thankful for the beautiful life I have surrounded myself in, determined to break every cycle of abuse, neglect and addiction.
Maybe Joan needed a reason to go on, to find herself in the new. And maybe Gretel found a bit of herself in the ranches of the west- The old and the new, the real and the perceived it is all relative I suppose. These selections are Non-Fiction due to the fact that the women wrote firsthand accounts of their experiences. Gretel wrote about the “football-field-sized lambing sheds” and recited a bit of history when she said, “many of the men who came to the West were Southerners-men looking for work and a new life after the Civil War” (Ehrlich, 1985, p. 84). Joan’s visit home “is made palpable” as she recites her experience in the present tense. It is easy for me to use my imagination as each writer sets the scene; Gretel in the Wild West and Joan in the East and the California West. I can envision myself on a horse, riding the range, pulling calves and holding baby lambs as Gretel’s story winds its way across the wide open plains.
Similarly, I am planted into Joan’s childhood home walking the halls, smelling the dank air, and looking inside cupboards that hold antique plates and bowls. The author’s use of imagery is sensational, and makes for an easy and enjoyable read. I can envision Joan’s sense of confusion when upon describing her home of childhood from her now home, she says, “It is a vital although troublesome distinction” (Didion, 1967, p. 164). So, in attempting to explain the distinction between the homes, she creates a troublesome tone.
She takes me to her parent’s home quite easily as she goes about describing the “Canton dessert plates and assay scales” (Didion, 1967, .p. 164). Because my life did not hold the same truths as Joan’s I find it hard to relate to her longing for home. But I do relate when she states the importance of creating a home for her daughter who is having a birthday, and the reason she had come home at all. She writes, “She is an open and trusting child, unprepared for and unaccustomed to the ambushes of family life, and perhaps it is just as well that I can offer her little of that life. I would like to give her more” (Didion, 1967, p. 167). How many times have I said this very same thing about my own children?
In conclusion, I found both of these stories to be very intriguing and enjoyable to read. Both of these women are obviously very passionate about their relationships in life and both have a need to express, and to protect those who reside there. Because I am from the state of Wyoming Gretel’s story deeply resonated with me, as I too have fallen in love with the Old West and its beautiful country and the Cowboy Code. And often when feeling lonely for my Wyoming, while residing in a small beach town in Maryland, I too search the landscape for a glimpse of Western wonder in a billboard, or a sign, perhaps in the smile of a stranger as I secretly hope for a tip of his hat and a “howdy ma’am.” As Gretel would say, “their strength is also a softness, their toughness, a rare delicacy (Ehrlich, 1985, p. 85). And I would say from experience, a delicacy indeed.