"In the narrative of my life, which is the look backward rather than forward into the unknown and unstoried future, I emerged from the pool as from a baptismal font—changed, reborn—as if I had been shown what would be my calling even then. This is how the past fits into the narrative of our lives, gives meaning and purpose. Even my mother’s death is redeemed in the story of my calling, made meaningful rather than merely senseless. It is the story I tell myself to survive."
Natasha Trethewey is a poet. A very good one. So good, in fact that she was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2012.
But "Memorial Drive" is not a book of poetry. It is a memoir of her life, written in prose, rather than poetry. Yet even her prose sounds like poetry. In describing a photograph of her grandmother holding Natasha's infant mother in her arms, she writes:
"But the photograph hints, too, at another story. I can see it in the tall grass brushing her ankles, the blades bent as if moved by wind."
Trethewey was born in Mississippi on the 100th celebration of Confederate Memorial Day - a day which celebrates a battle for white supremacy in the south. As the daughter of a white Canadian father and a black southern mother, she grew up experiencing racism firsthand. Interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi at the time of their matrimony!
But this book is less about her early childhood in Mississippi and more about the time after her parents’ divorce, when she and her mother emigrated to Atlanta. She recounts the abuse suffered by her mother at the hands of her stepfather Joel - abuse that ultimately led to the murder of her mother. She refers to this period as her "lost years".
Ms. Trethewey pours out her soul into these writings, recounting memories she had tried to forget.
"You are in the fifth grade the first time you hear your mother begin beaten", she writes.
Memorable parts of the book include:
- Upon discovering that her stepfather had broken the lock on her journal and was reading it, teenage Natasha began addressing journal entries directly to him, letting him know he was abusing her mother.
- The book reprints parts of a journal kept by Natasha's mother in the weeks before she died. The police found it in her briefcase the day of the murder, but Natasha did not read it until 25 years later. It details the abuse she suffered during her second marriage.
- A police report to the police, following Joel's first attempt on the life of his estranged wife.
- An encounter decades after the incident with a policeman who was on the scene. Meeting Ms. Trethewey brought tears to the eyes of the officer.
Brace yourself for an emotional journey - one you will not soon forget.