"The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet: A Story of What Might Have Been”
Author: Terry Kay
Publisher: Mercer University Press
Price: $24.00 (Hardback)
Terry Kay, who turned 82 in February, is certainly among the senior statesmen of Southern fiction with 18 books going back to “The Year the Lights Came On,” a 1976 novel about the marvelous effects of rural electrification. Kay is a member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, four times Georgia Writer of the Year and has won a mantel-full of other awards.
He is best known for “To Dance With the White Dog” which became an Emmy-winning movie starring Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy, one of three of his novels made into film.
That novel tells the story of a widower, who is visited, one believes, by the ghost of his wife in the form of a stray white dog.
It is a gentle and tender novel.
This new book, “The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet,” set in 2019, in fictional Creel, in north Georgia, 50 miles from Athens, is very similar in tone—wistful, gentle, tender—and begins with a somewhat similar premise.
Luke Mercer, about 70 years old, a retired history teacher, is a widower. After a long and satisfactory marriage, he’s a little lonely, living a quiet, balanced, contented life, enjoying his daughter, son-in-law and grandson and friends he has known all his life.
But Luke’s peaceful life is upended when Middy Sweet, his first love, his high school girlfriend, comes back to town.
She is still lovely, elegant, charming and generous, and now wealthy, with a powerful desire to reunite with Luke, whom she knows she should have married all those decades ago.
Researchers have in fact learned that one’s first love makes a permanent impression on the brain, a kind of chemical imprinting, akin to when a newly hatched duck thinks the cat is his mother if the cat is the first thing he sees.
A friend of mine attended his high school thirtieth reunion, met up with the love of his teen years, left his wife, and married his high school sweetheart.
It was a catastrophe.
Middy has not had a happy marriage. Her husband, Charles Young, a rich, ambitious lawyer in Nashville, only valued her as a trophy wife. He was mean, controlling and unfaithful. No wonder Middy dreams of the fine young Luke, her knight in shining armor.
In spite of her stressful marriage she is still a kind and caring person which we see in a most unusual sequence.
Middy and her personal assistant Roza go to the Saks store in Atlanta. Roza assumes that Middy is shopping for herself and is a little confused when Middy tries on a dozen outfits from the teens department. They fit just fine but are too young for her. Middy pays but refuses to let the staff cut off the price tags.
As soon as they leave the store, Middy has them driven to a Goodwill store where she takes them in, explaining that they were from the estate of a young woman who had died suddenly.
Roza asks why? Why not just give Goodwill a check?
Middy answers that she would like to give some young woman “who’s never had a lot of anything” the thrill of “suddenly finding a Saks Fifth Avenue dress with the price tag still on it.”
What a wonderful moment that would be, she imagines.
Middy and Luke meet, talk, go on a picnic.
She insists on returning to the old barn where, in 1965, they had their first kiss.
Middy means to be with Luke, to undo, then redo the past, to have, in the time left to her, the life that she should have had half a century ago.
I couldn’t help but think of Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, who lost his young love Daisy and, after five years, with Daisy married to Tom Buchanan, has built a mansion near her and, now wealthy, means to have her back, make everything just like it was before. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is dubious: “You can’t repeat the past,” he tells Gatsby, who replies “Can’t repeat the past?... Why of course you can!”
Gatsby’s belief, like Middy’s, is more than just a belief in the power of money or even the power of love. It is a testimony to the power, the intensity, of the human imagination, that we can transcend time itself.
Luke is not so sure about any of this.
He cares for her, strong old feelings do arise, and he knows they would have been wonderful together, but Luke is by nature a cautious man and this sudden romance seems hasty and reckless. But it seems that Middy has good reason to hasten matters along. Time is not on her side.
This novel, like Luke himself, is quiet and requires patience and a calm reader.
Kay tells his tale in a pleasing and leisurely way, with a good many turns and surprises, worth waiting to see them develop.
As Luke and Middy talk, recalling dancing at the prom and Friday night football games, we learn of the events of their pasts. Both also experience visions, however—daydreams, regular dreams, sometimes what seem to the reader to be little hallucinations—and we learn from those as well.
I think a sensitive reader of any age , even a callow young person, under 50 say, could enjoy this story, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have some years on you, to have, yourself, looked into the past , seen what was missed, what might have been.
As Frank Sinatra, always a source of wisdom when it comes to romance, has assured us:
“Love is lovelier the second time around
Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground.”
Maybe, but be careful.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.