May 25, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Magin LaSov Gregg
I read Lisa Romeo’s Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss while I taught Hamlet and could not stop comparing these texts, which share a few striking similarities, including father loss, a fatherly spirit who converses with the living, and head-on interruptions of cultural silences imposed on the bereaved. The first rule broken, of course, is the ban on speaking openly about the existential crisis that ensues when one confronts mortality.
Most famously, the grave-digging scene in Hamlet forefronts the image of a skull (poor Yorick!), a famous Renaissance momento mori, to remind audiences that finite borders mark life as precious. It is because we will die that life calls us to attention.
In Starting with Goodbye, Romeo includes a chapter titled “Momento Mori” in which she describes the brutal act of cleaning out possessions in her late father’s den. Each object encountered thrusts Romeo back into the moments when an object illuminated her father’s love and care. A painful realization dawns when she finds a canceled check her father wrote to cover one of her horses. She recalls “having a sense” at the time the check was written “that no matter what terrible thing might happen or threaten to happen, it was okay, because my father would be able to fix it, smooth things over, make it right.”
Therein lies the rub. After her father’s death, Romeo’s once cherished parental safety net disappears, even if this safety net had grown tenuous and complicated by geographic and emotional distance, as well as Romeo’s responsibilities for her own family. Much of Starting with Goodbye compels me, but this rumination undid me. And I suspect other children who’ve lost parents will relate.
The aftermath, the life one must live without a parent to offer guidance or protection, stings more than the initial shock of death precisely because of its relentlessness. As Eula Biss has written, “The suffering of Hell is terrifying not because of any specific torture, but because it is eternal.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that I have a few things in common with Romeo, including sharing an alma mater (Syracuse University’s S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications), parent loss (although I was twenty-one when my mother died) and producing writing that is also invested in candid, public conversations about grief.
What I find most valuable about Starting with Goodbye is how this book shatters grief myths to expose bereavement experiences that often go unacknowledged within American life. For example, there’s the quiet relief a child might feel, and that Romeo confronts, when a parent dies after a long or deteriorating illness.
There’s the truth that our absent loved ones are ever-present. They are dead and never truly gone. A corpse might become a ghost, as in Hamlet, a memory, or a lingering and difficult-to-name presence who shows up to chat, as is Romeo’s experience.
Her narrator never defines these unexpected fatherly apparitions, nor does she label them as paranormal but simply notes, “We talk, my dead father and I.” And her chapter “What Happens in Vegas” contends with these unexpected father-daughter conversations, funeral ephemera, and the deaths of celebrities who remind Romeo of her father.
In turn, Romeo’s ruminations amplify the emotional complexities of early mourning, when there is no rulebook or how-to manual for how to get this right, despite American culture’s insistence on five tidy consecutive stages of grief.
At the chapter’s conclusion, Romeo remarks on the deaths of celebrity icons who remind her of her father, and whose losses trigger new experiences of grief. Her point? Grief is not a straight line with a fixed beginning or end. It’s more like a wave or a ripple, more like a surprise.
“As each one of these old men dies or fades from public life, I designate others to take their place, men slightly older than my father was at his death, older than he ever got to be,” she writes.
For me, these musings were most welcome and powerful. My mother resembled Mary Tyler Moore, and they both lived with type 1 diabetes. When the actress died last year, I felt, for a moment, like I’d lost my mother again. Romeo’s candor normalized my own reaction, and gave me a model for a grief experience where I’ve rarely found appropriate models.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was published following my mother’s death—and Romeo references this book, which has become a seminal grief-text of our time, comparable to C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in the twentieth century. But I find Starting with Goodbye more helpful because of Romeo’s wry wit, which offers a much needed cultural critique.
In her chapter “Leaving Las Vegas,” she examines then discards hollow platitudes that, at the level of language, illuminate a cultural tendency to erase or project positivity onto experiences of grief and loss. Platitudes appear in italics, followed with Romeo’s plain text critiques.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” she writes. “There’s a lot you can do, but I can’t let you know. I can’t think straight, figure out whom or what to ask and risk a no.”
“You are in my thoughts and prayers,” she adds. “Great. Now, when I get home, talk to me, let me talk. Don’t be shocked.”
As I read these lines, I thought once more of ghosts—of grief as a kind of haunting where language fails to adequately capture or categorize experience. In Romeo’s story, ghosts are more symbolic, more speculative than literal. And yet, as in Hamlet, the possibility of a ghost speaks to a child’s longing. Even in adulthood, we need our parents.
Grief, from the old French grever, means “to burden.” And for children who lose their parents, grief can feel like a burden, like an intractable weight that changes in shape or size, and shifts unexpectedly. It was Carl Jung who popularized this notion when he wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”
However, I worry that “burden” has negative connotations that contribute to our cultural tendency to avoid and deny death. I prefer thinking about grief as a relationship like any relationship, a commitment borne out of love. For seventeen years, I have mourned my mother in direct proportion to my love for her. Grief keeps us connected. Death is not the end of a relationship, but a turning point, as evidenced by Romeo’s title: Starting with Goodbye.
Perhaps this is why I’ve already planned to give copies of her memoir to friends, family, and students beginning their own grief journeys.
In American culture, where talk of death is still taboo, we need more stories about the aftermath of loss, about what it means to live with candor in the face of grief. We need stories that speak with frankness about parental death. We need writers like Romeo to start a new conversation, to keep it going.
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Md. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Post, Manifest Station, Literary Mama, Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. She blogs about life after loss on her personal website, and she swears she will finish her memoir in 2018.
May 23, 2018 § 5 Comments
After a long day of air travel from North Carolina to Sacramento, I arrived at the baggage carousel to collect my big, black suitcase. I’d packed for the summer and my life for the next two months was all there: eye wear, books, clothes, toiletries. As I watched the carousel go round and round without my suitcase, I recalled the adage about there being only two types of luggage: carry-on and lost. Passenger after passenger from my flight reclaimed baggage and still I waited. The area emptied. Only two bags remained and neither was mine. Indignant, I marched to the lost luggage office to complain. Before filling out the forms, though, the claim attendant insisted on returning to the luggage carousel to have another look. Only one suitcase remained—a big, black, and nondescript behemoth. “That’s not mine,” I insisted, but the attendant lifted it off the carousel and plucked the tag out from under the handle to show me…my own name. “Happens all the time,” the man said, which I thought gracious. I had forgotten all about my idiocy, but thanks to Susan Harlan’s new book, Luggage, that moment has been vividly brought back to mind.
From Herodotus to pilgrims of the Middle Ages to the 21st century traveler to the real and the fictional, Harlan explores the accouterment of journeys in this latest installment of the Bloomsbury “Object Lessons” series—books that take on “the hidden lives of ordinary things.” Harlan’s academic work on ordnance in Shakespeare and her professed love of objects inform this little book. An intimate look at suitcases, trunks, totes, and other baggage, Luggage illuminates the intricacies of how we carry our lives with us when we travel.
Full of factoids and observations, Harlan lurches from the mundane to the fascinating. A visit to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama is both. The Center, one of Alabama’s “top tourist attractions,” is where the country’s unclaimed luggage is sorted and sold or displayed. While it was fascinating to learn about this place, I didn’t need to know that Harlan had to stop to look up directions. However, I appreciated the notion that without our luggage, “we’re set loose in the world unprepared…[t]his is the anxiety at the heart of lost luggage.” Harlan also, to varying degrees of effectiveness, unpacks the etymology of the word “luggage” and outlines the growth of tourism. But Harlan is at her best when she explores the luggage of film and literature. There is Mary Poppins and her “infinite” carpet bag. The suitcase of Orhan Pamuk’s father is luggage which “tells a story about exile.” There are the soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and those pieces of home they brought with them to Vietnam. And I was delighted to find that Grace Kelly’s perfect little overnight case in Rear Window got a mention.
Harlan’s exploration of the minutiae of luggage makes for introspection. While reading, I found myself thinking of baggage and travel I’d not contemplated in some time, and in some cases, not at all. I was embarrassed all over again when Harlan discusses nondescript black suitcases, and was happy to have confirmed my own impression of the Sacramento airport’s Auschwitz-like display of suitcases. I recalled a trip to the lost luggage counter in Frankfurt when most of my baggage went missing at customs and my outsized joy when they were delivered to me in Prague just a few days later. There were the green Atlantic suitcases I received for my high school graduation that I took to Mexico, and the big backpack I carried to Guatemala. After weeks of being on the road and sleeping in bunkhouses with other people, that backpack became a repository of space that was just my own. During travel, as Harlan says, “[a] suitcase marks the boundary between inside and outside; public and private.”
Harlan mines the life of things we pay little attention to, or simply don’t recall, and calls up nostalgia through the memory of objects. The Samsonite line of marbled tan suitcases Harlan describes were a fixture of my childhood—in particular, the overnight case, with its mirror and faux-silk lining and pockets. When I wasn’t using it for sleepovers, I used that case as a vanity and repository for secret, special items, like folded notes and seashells. In Luggage, Harlan brings it all back with a rush of delight—just like a lost suitcase, returned at last.
Adrienne Pilon is a traveler, teacher and writer. She lives in North Carolina with her family.
May 22, 2018 § 9 Comments
Author Steve Almond’s four-year-old daughter Rosalie interviews him about his depressing new book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country :
Rosalie Almond: What’s wrong with you?
Steve Almond: I have a new book out.
RA: The one about stupid stories?
SA: It’s about bad stories.
RA: Like something bad happens?
SA: Not exactly. There are bad stories in which something bad happens. But when I say “bad stories” I mean stories that lead to bad things happening. Stories that are untrue or that are cruel, stories that make people want to break things, rather than build things.
RA: I don’t get it.
SA: Okay. Here’s an example. If I said to you, “You can’t trust people with green eyes, because they will steal your toys. You have a right to play with your toys, don’t you? But if you see a kid with green eyes, you shouldn’t be nice to them, because they just want to steal your toys.”
RA: Why do they want to steal my toys? What did I do to them?
SA: I understand. But okay, wait a second.
RA: I hate them!
SA: Wait a sec—
RA: People with green eyes should die!
SA: Okay. Time out. That was just an example. People with green eyes don’t want to steal your toys.
RA: But you just said they did!
SA: Right. But that wasn’t true. It was just a bad story I told you.
RA: Why did you say that if it wasn’t true?
SA: Because when you tell a bad story a lot of the time people will listen to you, and that gives you a lot of power. Someone who wants to become a famous radio host, or even the president, can tell bad stories as a way of getting attention. They can say, “People with green eyes want to steal your toys!” And, “People who read books think you’re stupid!” And, “You can’t trust people with dark skin!” It doesn’t matter if those stories are mean and untrue.
RA: It doesn’t?
SA: Not if it helps you get power. If you can find people who feel frustrated and angry and who are in pain, bad stories make them feel good.
SA: Because now they have a good reason to feel angry. If they feel like they don’t have enough toys, or they worry that they might not get dessert, or if they see other kids who have more than them, those things make them angry. Bad stories give them a reason to feel angry. And someone to blame.
RA: But why do other kids have more? That’s not fair.
SA: You’re absolutely right. It’s not fair. In a fair world, we would divide things up more equally, right? There wouldn’t be people with 100,000 chocolate cakes and other people who don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. But if you’re a person with 100,000 chocolate cakes, you can distract people from how greedy you are by telling bad stories, by saying, “The reason you don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread is because some dark-skinned person from another country who doesn’t even speak English stole your job!”
RA: But I don’t have a job.
RA: Do I have to get a job?
SA: Someday, sure. But for now, I think it’s good for you to just go to pre-school.
RA: Because I can get a job later?
SA: Right, that can happen later.
RA: Will things be fair when I grow up?
SA: I don’t know. I hope so. But the only way they are going to get fair is for people to stop telling bad stories. They have to start telling good stories, which are stories that make people feel nicer and more hopeful and more generous. Stories which make you feel like you can understand how someone who looks different from you, or prays to a different God, actually wants the same things as you. Like they want a safe place to live and good schools for their kids to go do and enough to eat and a good doctor to go to if they get sick. That’s what all of us want, right?
RA: Not the doctor. They do shots!
SA: That’s true. But sometimes shots are the only way to help someone who is sick, right? Remember when you and mama got the flu?
RA: We couldn’t fly on the plane to California. We had to come later.
SA: That’s right. You were so sick. But if you get a shot, you don’t get the flu. Good stories can be like that, too. They can be like a shot that keeps us from getting sick, or helps us get better. So a good story is a true story that helps keep us safe, even if it’s a little scary. Like if we want to keep the planet from getting too hot, we have to use less gas. Or if we want to have a government that helps people we have to vote for people who want to solve problems. Or if we want people to have enough to eat and good schools and good jobs, we might have to take a little bit away from the people who have 100,000 chocolate cakes.
RA: Can I have dessert tonight? I never get dessert.
SA: You already had dessert, my love. You had a lollipop.
RA: I did? Really? Is your book over yet?
RA: Yeah, I want to read a different book now. One of my books.
SA: Okay. I don’t blame you. I like your books better than mine, anyway.
RA: So why did you write your dumb book, anyway?
SA: I guess because for writers the stories we write are the ones that get stuck in our heads. Stories that won’t go away unless we write them down. That’s just how it works.
RA: That sounds boring.
SA: It is boring.
RA: I told you so.
Steve Almond is the author of ten books, most recently Bad Stories. His daughter Rosalie has no plans to read the book.
May 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
In the new issue of Brevity, Nicole Cyrus offers up an essay posing as a professional resume, revealing some of what it means to be a black woman “who wants to rock her Afro in business settings.”
Here’s a portion:
- Received positive feedback from colleagues on her brown-bag meetings, despite her refusal to repeat or expand her talk on black hair textures.
- Recovered from chest pains and stomach cramps after she cropped her hair into a pixie, thanks to a mishap with a flatiron.
- Taught black women inside and outside the company how to explain dramatic transformations in their appearance—such as haircuts, use of wigs and hair weaves, and, in extreme cases, headscarves—because of bad relaxers or overheated hair styling tools.
Now by all means, go and read the rest.
May 17, 2018 § 3 Comments
From Lance Larsen’s “Aphorisms for a Lonely Planet,” one of 15 fearless flash essays featured in the freakingly fantastic new issue of Brevity.
When his son fell into a well, San Isidro didn’t pray the deed undone, but asked for the water to rise—and the infant floated up into his arms.
Walking down a narrow Cuzco alley, my teenage daughter leans into me, which means she’s cold or tired or a little scared. Maybe all three. And yet, what father doesn’t hoodwink himself into calling this love and snuggling closer?
Have you visited yet?
May 16, 2018 § Leave a comment
Please pay a visit to our 58th issue, featuring fearless flash from Lance Larsen, Pam Durban, Jill Talbot, Amy Wright, Scott Loring Sanders, Joe Oestreich, Kathryn Nuernberger, Bridget Apfeld, Jennifer Sinor, Nicole Cyrus, Allison Gruber, Marcia Aldrich, Phyllis Reilly, Jamila Osman, and Amy Butcher, alongside brilliant artwork by John Gallaher.
In our Craft section, Wendy Staley Colbert looks at how memoirists can manage the ethical problem of writing about others, Gwendolyn Edwards discusses how writers experiment with speculation and imagination while still upholding the reader-writer contract, and Jennifer Gravely reminds us that all essays will ultimately end in white space.