The events that mark any family time line punctuate the pages of “The Blessings”: death, childbirth, divorce and marriage. These changes unfold from different angles as a new family member narrates each of the 11 chapters.
“The Blessings” reads almost like a collection of short stories. But with each chapter the narrative polishes itself, revealing more about the Blessing family.
Author Elise Juska traces the story of this large, Philadelphia Catholic family over more than two decades. The struggles will be familiar, but it is the ordinary details that define the Blessings. The pickles wrapped in ham, well-worn seats in front of the TV, Mass at St. Bonaventure’s and casserole dishes provide a predictable backdrop to the unexpected – making the unexpected that much sharper.
Juska layers her story on top of a carefully constructed place. The Wawa store “smells of dinners clinging to the humid night air” and the “Phils” game broadcast over the minivan radio sets the reader down on Philadelphia concrete.
It’s a place Juska knows well; she grew up in the city and directs the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She draws from her knowledge of the City of Brotherly Love but births her stories in Maine. During the summer months Juska writes from Orr’s Island. Juska’s fiction has been published in The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Harvard Review and other publications. She received her master’s in fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire, where she received the Tom Williams Memorial for fiction writing and the Charait Award for best short story.
In “The Blessings,” Juska offers perspective from three generations. There’s Helen, the devoted wife and mother, who chronicles her pathway into old age: the cataracts, the swelling in her legs and the way time falls away. Through it all, she worries about serving her guests a late lunch or filling the candy dish so that it is full for her grandchildren.
Helen’s daughter-in-law, Kate, exposes her struggle to conceive children. Her personal pain is shoved against the backdrop of the Blessing family – the death of her husband’s brother and the ease with which her sisters-in-law slip into motherhood.
In the end, each family member’s voice reveals the same questions. They consider how to navigate feelings of loneliness from within a large family, what is owed to the past and what should be saved for the children.
The book closes with Elena, one of Helen’s grandchildren. Elena’s father died of cancer when she was young and his death is central to each character’s development. Elena is a college student and a photographer, capturing her family through her own images and collages of photos from the past.
In Elena’s artist statement she wrote, “My work is about a paradox.… The moments when everything you know is suddenly different, but everything is the same” – the way life is in a family like the Blessings. Through death and childbirth, divorce and marriage, the details remain the same. Mothers wrap ham around pickles and skewer them with toothpicks, sons watch the football game in worn sofa seats, and everyone knows when and where the family will gather.
Heidi Sistare is a writer who lives in Portland. She attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has published work in The Rumpus, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine and Edible Vineyard. Contact her at: