Review of Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir
October 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Debra Wilson Frank
When my husband died suddenly at forty-four of an undetected genetic heart defect, I was bereft. Entering the funeral home’s side entrance, I felt myself separate from my body and perch above the door where I could view the whole room, including myself, walking to the front row, dressed in black, blond and thin, ten pounds gone in ten days.
Natasha Trethewey experienced disassociation too, as she stepped through her mother’s apartment door the day after her stepfather, “Big Joe,” a troubled Vietnam vet, murdered her mother. As she writes in her memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, she “felt as though I were watching someone else….”
The thresholds of the funeral home for me, and her mother’s apartment for Trethewey, were metaphoric entrances into lives changed forever—into new versions of ourselves. Trethewey, then a college student, responded with “willed amnesia” and decided to leave Atlanta for good, her memories locked away in “mute avoidance of the past,” while I was midstream in my life, with young children, and found myself revisiting my long-avoided past. My stepfather wasn’t a murderer, but he ruled my mother, who handed over the grocery money for his drugs, and her daughters (I was twelve and my sister, sixteen) for his other appetites. When I escaped into the safety of my father’s home after nearly a year, I put the experience under my mental floorboards. I even stopped writing, something I’d always done as a kid, to ensure nothing seeped out.
When Trethewey moved back to Atlanta three decades after the murder, she found reminders of her mother’s life and death everywhere and realized she needed to face her past. The result is an exquisitely-crafted memoir that reflects her poetic gifts. Trethewey served two terms as United States poet laureate (2012 and 2013), and her collection, Native Guard, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
The book is structured with remarkable symmetry—the opening and closing so well matched, I thought of a palindrome. Trethewey begins with a quote from John Banville in The Sea, “The past beats inside me like a second heart,” and closes with a scene in which her mother (Gwen) allows fifteen-year-old Tasha to take the wheel during a road trip—a prelude to learning to drive—and the author feels her mother’s heart beating so close to her own, it’s as if she has not one, but two hearts. It’s an elegant and touching way for the author to express her love for her mother. The memoir starts and ends with that love.
The bookend of hearts brackets a second set of bookends—a dream Trethewey describes at the beginning and again at the end of the book. Three weeks after her mother’s murder, Trethewey dreams the two are walking around a track, her mother with a bullet hole in her forehead. “Do you know what it’s like to have a wound that doesn’t heal?” Gwen asks.
The dream conflates the murder with a real incident that happens just after Gwen goes to a women’s shelter to escape Big Joe. At a high school football game, Tasha is standing on the track with the other cheerleaders when she sees Big Joe enter the stadium. On a hunch, she smiles and waves at him. Later she learns he’d come to kill her—to punish Gwen. Tasha’s kindness changed his mind. The dream acknowledges what Trethewey resists. If Big Joe had killed her, he would have been locked up, and her mother’s life would have been spared. When Trethewey revisits the dream at the end of the book, she recognizes her own wound that won’t heal—her survivor’s guilt.
Within this frame, Trethewey tells her story, mining her memories for the metaphors that help her make sense of the trauma that haunts her.
In one poignant scene, after Gwen, newly divorced, and Tasha, then six, having moved to Atlanta, the girl watches her mother dress for her job as a cocktail waitress in Underground Atlanta and notices the daffodils she’d picked earlier that day on the dresser. Gwen’s costume includes a belt made of bullets. Looking back, Trethewey wonders if maybe it’s the night her mother meets Big Joe. “. . . her body ringed in the objects of her undoing.” She goes deeper with the metaphor, evoking the myth of Persephone, who is lured by yellow narcissi to her doom in the underworld. Has Trethewey as a little girl supplied the flowers that lead to her mother’s destruction? Survival guilt reaches across time to make it seem that way.
Later, now married to Big Joe, her mother celebrates completing her graduate degree with a party. In a memorable moment, the crowd parts, Soul Train style, and Gwen dances between them. Trethewey recalls that image with another nine years later when mourners part for her mother’s casket to pass between them on its way to the hearse.
Trethewey uses this pattern dramatically in her scenes throughout the memoir, connecting different moments in time, so she doesn’t just narrate events, she embeds her reflection in them.
At the end of the book, when Trethewey revisits the “wound” dream, she writes, “This is how the past fits into the narrative of our lives, gives meaning and purpose…. It’s the story I tell myself to survive.”
As Trethewey did, I had to exhume my past to make sense of my life. The trauma of losing my husband was a second abandonment that plunged me back to the first—and like a toggle switch, I started writing again. I discovered a tougher kid than I remembered, a younger me who might show me how to weather an even worse blow. A story that could show me how to survive.
Debra Wilson Frank holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published in The Rumpus and her work will be included in the anthology, Being Home to be published by Madville Press, in September, 2021. She is writing a memoir about early widowhood and her traumatic childhood. Debra lives in Salt Lake City with her partner and her two adult children.