Tom Milton

Sara's Laughter

Despite warnings from her mother that if she waited too long to get married she wouldn't be able to find a husband, Sara waited until she found the right man, but now she is thirty-five and she is having trouble getting pregnant. Her hope is kept alive by a dream in which God told her husband she would have a baby. When something unexpected happens it looks as if her dream will come true, but when her plan is thwarted Sara loses her way and discovers a side of her nature she never imagined.

EXCERPT:

“So when am I going to have a grandson?” her father asked when she returned to the living room. The television was muted for another commercial.

“When God decides to give you one,” Sara replied.

“Oh, don’t give me that. You’re not married to God, you’re married to a—” Again he stopped short of saying it. “What’s the matter with him?”

“There’s nothing the matter with him.”

“I thought colored people were well hung. Is that a myth?”

Sara controlled herself, but her anger was rising. “Dad, I’m leaving. I’m not going to listen to you making racial slurs about my husband.”

“I wasn’t making a racial slur about your husband,” her father said, backing off a little.

“What were you doing?”

“I was just expressing my frustration.”

“Well, you should find another way to express it.”

“Personally, I like the guy. I think he would have made a great baseball player. Dominicans have fast hands, so they play well in the infield.”

“Where do the Irish play well?”

“We play well everywhere.”

“Then why haven’t there been more Irish baseball stars?”

“There’ve been hundreds of Irish baseball stars. What do you think Babe Ruth was?”

“I don’t know. Was he Irish?”

“Of course he was. All the big stars were Irish,” her father asserted forcefully, “until they started letting colored people into the game.”

“I didn’t know that Joe DiMaggio was Irish.” Remembering how in the old neighborhood an Italian boy had confided to her that when he grew up he wanted to be a white man, she realized that she had given her father an opening.

But her father didn’t take it. He only said: “There were some good Italians, but all the big stars in those days were Irish.”

Her husband would have pointed out that the big stars now were Latinos, but she didn’t know enough about baseball to make the case. At least she had distracted her father from putting the blame on her husband for their inability to have a child.

“I have to go,” Sara said, hoping for once to get off lightly.

“Where are you going?” her father asked. He always tried to stop her from leaving with the implication that she had nothing better to do than to take care of him.

“I’m going home. And then I’m going to a party.”

“Where?” Her father acted as if she were a teenager needing his permission.

“In the Bronx. Marcelo’s family is celebrating Reyes.”

“You mean Epiphany. If you don’t watch out, you’ll end up speaking their language.”

“I already do. Te amo, papá, pero a veces puedes ser muy difícil.”

“I understood that. You don’t think I did, but I did.”

“Well, in case you didn’t, I said I love you, Papa, but at times you can be very difficult.”

“I know,” he admitted. He gazed at the muted television sadly. “I miss your mother. At times she was a pain in the ass, but I loved her. I still love her. And I’m still mad at God for taking her away from me.”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, softening.

“If I bug you about giving me a grandson, it’s only because it would make me so happy.”

“I understand. I’m doing everything I can.” She hesitated, and then she said: “I’m probably going to have surgery.”

“Surgery?” He looked alarmed. “What for?”

“To correct the problem.”

“What problem?”

“I keep telling you,” Sara said patiently, “it’s not Marcelo’s fault we can’t have a baby. They tested him, and he’s fine. It’s my fault. I have endometriosis.”

“What the hell is that?”

She decided not to go into the details since her father was squeamish about feminine matters. Once, while looking for a contact lens she had dropped in the bathroom, he had spotted it on top of a carton of tampons, and he let her retrieve it, afraid to touch the carton. “It’s an obstruction inside me that stops me from getting pregnant.”

“How did it get there?” her father asked as if he were ready to kill whoever was responsible for it being there.

“It grew there.”

“Why?”

“They don’t know why.”

“Well, why did it happen to you?”

“I ask that question over and over.” She had not only asked the doctors, but she had also asked God. “And all they can say is, it happens to a lot of women.”

“Is it like cancer?”

“No. It won’t kill me. But as long as it’s there, I can’t get pregnant.”
Her father puffed on the cigar, thinking. “How do you know your doctor’s right?”

“I don’t know. But I have faith in her.”

“Your doctor’s a woman?”

“She’s one of the best. She treats the wives of a lot of famous people.”
“That doesn’t mean she knows what she’s doing. I think you should get a second opinion.”

“I already did. In fact, she’s my fourth opinion.”

Her father flicked the ash off his cigar, missing the ashtray. Ringer raised his head, twitching his ears as if some ash had landed on him. “You know what I think? I think those doctors are taking you for a ride. It’s all about money. They don’t give a shit about you.”

“The doctor I have now cares about me.”

“Aw, I don’t believe it. And how could a woman possibly be a good doctor?”

So much for getting off lightly. “Dad, you’re entitled to your opinions. If you think women aren’t good for anything but waiting on you, then I’m not going to argue with you. But at some point I may stop waiting on you.”

“You wouldn’t do that to your father.”

“Don’t push me. I have my own problems to worry about.”

Her father took a swig of beer and shifted his foot, which disturbed the cat.

Ringer finally sat up and yawned and then looked at her father expectantly. No doubt the cat had canned tuna or fresh flounder on his mind.

“I still think,” her father said, ignoring the cat but not facing her, “that if you and your husband do what normal couples do, you’ll have a baby.”

“Just like that.”

“Yeah. Just like that.”

“All right. Then you can help me.”

“How?” he asked, looking puzzled but interested.

“You can pray every day to the Blessed Mother and ask her for a miracle.”

“Oh, you don’t need a miracle to have a baby.”

“Most women don’t. But I do. So will you pray for me?”

“Sure,” he finally said. “She owes me one.”


READING GROUP GUIDE:

An introduction to Sara’s Laughter

Sara is the older of two sisters who were raised in Woodlawn, an Irish neighborhood in the Bronx. Sara is happy and social, whereas her sister Becky is unhappy and antisocial. Driven by envy, Becky has repeatedly done malicious things to Sara like disfiguring her dolls and trashing her high school yearbook and sabotaging her relationships with men. At the same time Becky has always tried to outshine Sara by getting better grades and making more money.

Their father, who fought with the marines at Guadalcanal, was a lineman with the phone company, and their mother was a traditional housewife. They lived in the two-family house in which their father was born, initially with his parents on the ground floor and later with tenants. The girls went to parochial schools and to Fordham University, where their mother hoped they would find husbands, and then they got jobs in Manhattan, where for a while they shared an apartment.

Though her mother keeps warning Sara that if she waits too long to select a husband the good men will all be taken, Sara is determined to wait until she finds the right man for her. When she finally does find him there are two complications: the man is married, and he isn’t white. The first complication is more easily resolved since Marcelo is in the process of getting an annulment of a marriage that was never consummated. And except for not being white Marcelo has all the qualities her parents could have wanted in a husband for their daughter, including the fact that he really loves her, not to mention the fact that he is a physician, so the second complication doesn’t stop Sara’s parents from accepting Marcelo as a son-in-law, though it lingers in her father’s fear of having a black grandson.

With her older daughter married and her younger daughter doing well at a job on Wall Street, their mother gets their father to sell the two-family house in Woodlawn and buy a single-family house in the neighborhood of Yonkers where she grew up and where most of her old friends still live. But within a year their mother dies of a heart attack, and their father is stranded in a neighborhood where he has no friends.

Concerned about him, Sara and Marcelo sell their condo in Manhattan and buy a house in Yonkers that is close enough to her father so that they can take care of him but far enough away so that at least they have some privacy. By now Sara has dropped out of corporate life, where she worked as a buyer for a national retailer, and she is a third-grade teacher at a parochial school within walking distance of her house. Marcelo is working at a clinic in the neighborhood of the Bronx where he grew up, so their house is in a good location for both of them.

Meanwhile, Becky has married a man she met in a bar and is living in Tribeca in an apartment she bought for “only” three and a half million dollars. She flies back and forth from New York to London, promoting the trade of complex securities that she has designed, while her husband Bart owns a wine store in Tribeca that she bought for him.
By now their father has retired from the phone company, and he is commuting daily to Woodlawn, where he hangs out at a neighborhood bar with his old friends. He cannot understand why neither of his daughters has given him a grandson, and he refuses to believe there is any physical reason why Sara can’t have a baby, though she has patiently explained the reason to him—an advanced case of endometriosis.

Sara is being treated by a famous doctor in Manhattan who specializes in fertility problems, and she is willing to try anything, including methods that aren’t approved by her church. Though her doctor has told her the odds of an embryo surviving in her are almost zero, she keeps trying and hoping for a miracle. Her hope is kept alive by a dream in which God told her husband she would have a baby. When Becky, who doesn’t want to have children, gets pregnant accidentally from an extramarital fling, Sara comes up with a solution that would finally make her dream come true. But when things don’t go according to plan she loses her way, and she discovers a side of her nature she never imagined.


A conversation with Tom Milton

I was comfortably settling into a good read about a woman’s relationships with her husband, her mother, her father, her sister, and a friend, and about her efforts to have a baby, but having read your previous novels, I expected her to have a public mission.

Sara has a personal mission, but it evolves as things happen.

Her personal mission is to have a baby, and you put an obstacle in her way—an advanced case of endometriosis.

A lot of women Sara's age have such obstacles, which they didn’t expect to have.

Sara’s mother tells her she wouldn’t have had a problem if she hadn’t waited so long to get married.

And Sara argues with her mother, insisting that the only reason she waited was to find the right man for a husband.

But there were a few complications with him, including the fact that he wasn’t white. You’ve dealt with the issue of racism before, but here you put it in another context.

In this context it’s not about civil rights, it’s about the extent to which parents accept interracial marriage for their children.

Sara’s mother seems very accepting. Of course it helps that Marcelo is a doctor, and that her mother is beginning to wonder if Sara will ever get married. Her father has a bigger problem.

I think no matter which men their daughters marry, fathers have a bigger problem.

The relationship between Sara and her father is a variation of the daughter-father relationship that played an important role in three of your other novels: The Admiral’s Daughter, All the Flowers, and A Shower of Roses. You’re obviously fascinated with that relationship.

So were the ancient Greek dramatists. It has a lot of potential for drama.

I noticed that the daughters have one thing in common—they’re all the oldest children in their families.

They are. And in that position they challenge their fathers, they question the values of their fathers.

In your novels the conflicts between the daughters and their fathers have societal dimensions.

The conflicts are over issues that I want to examine and make people more aware of.

Sara is under pressure from her father to give him a grandson, and in using medical technology to help her conceive, she runs into the limits set by the doctrine of her church. I know you have a reason for subjecting Sara to this conflict.

It raises a lot of issues. Do people have a right to have their own children? Should they pursue having their own children no matter what it takes? Should people do anything that technology makes possible?

There are issues in using technology for this purpose, but there are also issues in adopting a child, as Sara’s friend Regina points out.

Yes, either way there are issues. Regina's issue is not knowing what you're getting when you adopt a child.

Let’s talk more about Sara’s father. Like so many men, he depends on women to take care of him, and when his wife suddenly dies he shifts the responsibility to his daughter.

He expects women to take care of him. But he’s not a mama’s boy, he’s a ladies’ man. And he's a member of the "greatest generation." He went to war, he came back and got a job and raised a family and never complained about the big things, only about the little things.

There are times when you catch glimpses of how much he appreciates Sara, but he really doesn't show it much.

As Sara's mother says, he has a good heart, but he's tough, and he holds people to high standards, including himself.

The other relationship that fascinated me was the one between Sara and her sister Becky.

It’s the old story about how one child envies another for a relationship with a parent.

Sara is clearly her father's favorite, and Becky feels close to their mother. But Sara is the one who hears her mother's voice in her head.

Sara has a major issue with her mother that wasn't resolved before her mother died.

And her sister has an unresolved issue with Sara.

That's what makes families so interesting, their unresolved issues.

The plot is driven by these unresolved issues, so your novel is about much more than a woman trying to have a baby.

It’s about how people deal with their unresolved issues.

Before I let you go, I have one more question. Can you tell me why Sara laughed when God told her she would have a baby?

When her students read the story of Abraham and Sarah in class, one of them asks her the same question.

And she does what a good teacher does—she asks her students why they think Sarah laughed.

So why do you think my Sara laughed?

I don’t know. I think she laughed because she felt blessed.

Well, let’s see why the other readers think she laughed.


Discussion questions

1. To what extent is Sara influenced by the voice of her mother in her head?

2. What’s the difference between the messages Sara gets from her mother and her father about her inability to get pregnant?

3. What issues does Sara confront as she uses the technology available to women who have fertility problems?

4. Evaluate the advice that Sara gets from Dr. Vesely.

5. How would you describe Sara’s relationship with her mother?

6. Does Sara achieve separation from her mother?

7. Sara’s sister accuses her of being daddy’s little girl. Is this a valid accusation?

8. Why is Marcelo the right man for Sara?

9. Marcelo has two complications: he is married, and he isn’t white. Which complication is harder for Sara’s mother to deal with? What does that tell us about her mother?

10. How deep do you think her father’s racism is?

11. Would Becky have been a different person if she had been an only child?

12. Explain Becky’s behavior after she got pregnant.

13. What do you think of Sara’s solution to her sister’s problem?

14. What perspectives do we gain from Sara’s conversations at lunch with her friend Regina?

15. What perspectives do we gain from Sara’s conversations with Father Paul in front of St. Brigid?

16. How does Sara’s view of the local abortion clinic evolve during the story?

17. Would Sara have joined the protesters in front of the clinic solely as a matter of principle?

18. Why is Sara mesmerized by Brother Jeremiah?

19. What did Sara and Becky learn about themselves that changed their relationship?

20. Do any miracles occur in this story?

21. Why did Sara laugh when God told her she would have a baby?








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A love story about two young musicians caught up in events of the Vietnam War.
A young woman opposes her father, a white supremicist, over civil rights in Mississippi.
A story about the courage of five women during Argentina’s war of terror in the 1970s.

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