"The Bigness of the World"
An Excerpt from a Story in The Bigness of the World
Originally published in Bellingham Review.
This story came out fairly quickly, except for the ending, on which I spent a fair amount of time stuck. I wrote one ending in which the narrator and her brother became adults, but that changed the focus of the story, and so I did what I generally do in such cases—I set the story aside, unfinished.
Months later, my partner Anne and I visited Point Reyes near Carmel, a stunning place. As we looked out at the ocean, Anne said, "Your mother should visit us. She really needs to see the ocean."
I grew up in a very small town in central Minnesota, and my mother has never ventured away, which means that she has never seen the ocean. "Why?" I asked. "Why does she need to see the ocean?"
"Well," Anne said, "How else can you understand the bigness of the world?"
The next day as we were waiting to have our oil changed, the ending came to me in a rush, and we got in the car and drove home, setting aside the other errands of which the afternoon was to be comprised. I made Anne sit in the car while I went upstairs to write; the moment seemed that tenuous to me. That phrase—the bigness of the world—led to the ending and became the title of the story and later, of the entire collection.
Ilsa was plump when we knew her but had not always been. This we learned from photographs of her holding animals from the pound where she volunteered, a variety of cats and dogs and birds for which she had provided temporary care. She went to Weight Brigade only that one time, the time that she met my mother, and never went back because she said that she could not bear to listen to the vilification of butter and sugar, but Martin and I had seen the lists that our mother kept of her own daily caloric intake, and we suspected that Ilsa had simply been overwhelmed by the math that belonging to Weight Brigade involved, for math was another thing that "absolutely petrified" Ilsa. When my parents asked how much they owed her, she always replied, "I am sure that you must know far better than I, for I have not the remotest idea." And when Martin or I required help with our math homework, she answered in the high, quivery voice that she used when she sang opera: "Mathematics is an entirely useless subject, and we shall not waste our precious time on it." Perhaps we appeared skeptical, for she often added, "Really, my dear children, I cannot remember the last time that I used mathematics."
Ilsa's fear of math stemmed, I suspect, from the fact that she seemed unable to grasp even the basic tenets upon which math rested. Once, for example, after we had made a pizza together and taken it from the oven, she suggested that we cut it into very small pieces because she was ravenous and that way, she said, there would be more of it to go around.
"More pieces you mean?" we clarified tentatively.
"No, my silly billies. More pizza," she replied confidently, and though we tried to convince her of the impossibility of such a thing, explaining that the pizza was the size it was, she had laughed in a way that suggested that she was charmed by our ignorance.