“Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?” Natasha Trethewey’s mother asks her, from a dreamscape on the other side of death. The answer is yes, for both of them. “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” is a luminous and searing work of prose from the Pulitzer Prize-winning former poet laureate, regarding the pain of losing her mother.
From the outset, the reader knows the “what” of the book: Trethewey’s mother was murdered by Trethewey’s former stepfather in 1985, when Trethewey was only 19 years old. “Why?” is too cruel a question to ask. Nothing could explain such a tragedy. But the “how” is a soul-stirring echo over the arc of her own life, 20th century history, and 200 pages.
Aspects of the book make it a Künstlerroman, the coming of age of an artist. Trethewey is born at the precarious crossroads of our national history. She is a daughter of the South, with a white father and African American mother, a common relation in the Old South, but one that was rendered threatening in the New one of the 1960s. Trethewey’s parents were married and their partnering did not happen, as traditionally required, under the cover of night. As a family, they negotiated and defied the lost cause, Jim Crow, and long lingering resentments after civil rights finally became law.
Trethewey is a witness to the transformations of the 20th century. As she grows, the society is opening up and new possibilities are emerging for Black people, for women, for love, and for aspirations. Trethewey’s mother and grandmother lived these changes, as would she. She writes “I have long held fast to the idea that my story is written in the stars: that there was a pattern in place for me beginning with my birth, a child of an interracial marriage, on Confederate Memorial Day, exactly one hundred years to the day, April 26th, that it was first celebrated in Mississippi. …” But, appropriately, Trethewey refuses a triumphalist narrative. After her parents divorce, she and her mother move into a formerly white, and soon flighted from, neighborhood. Still, professional aspiration and service to the community are a matter of fact pursuits for three generations of Black women who each, in her own way, comes of age along with the nation.
“Big Joe” her stepfather, enters the story. He is a Vietnam veteran. He too is a signifier of the era, and its casualty. His tortured and torturing presence grows, disrupting the intimate space between Trethewey and her mother. In this undoing, Trethewey becomes a witness, and also a writer. With a masterful triple entendre, she “composes” herself as she comes of age: holding herself together, telling her story, and self-creating. Though awe-inspiring, particularly in the moment when she talks back to her stepfather who breaks into her adolescent diary, Trethewey shows no bombast. She simply protects herself, her mother, and her mother’s suffering from spectacle, gently, until the dam breaks, and they along with her younger brother, escape violence and cleave back together.
“For the first time in so many years … my mother and I were growing close again,” Trethewey writes. “This is why, in the scene that comes back to me again and again, she is dancing and I am laughing and clapping along to the song. It is high summer, 1984, Morris Day and the Time on the radio, doing ‘The Bird.’ And finally, my mother is soaring, her winged joy boundless and unfettered.”
It is an elliptical journey of beauty and wounding, but the sequence of events remains clear. After her mother’s death, Trethewey, herself a skeptic when describing a visit with a psychic, refuses the impulse to read dreams and coincidences with spiritual certainty. Instead, she teaches. The minutiae of moments and choices in them have consequences that might be lifesaving or disastrous. And puzzling out which is which, even in hindsight, is nearly impossible and likely self-defeating. But, trauma, Trethewey teaches us, must nevertheless be worked into a narrative for the sake of living. “What matters is the transformative power of metaphor and the stories we tell ourselves about the arc and meaning of our lives,” she writes.
Named for the road upon which they lived, “Memorial Drive” is in fact a road through memory. At the risk of coming across as a selfish reader, I hasten to add that she provides a model for living with woundedness, making something usable out of the myriad details, some beautiful, others anguished. This is a specific daughter’s memoir, but it is also a daughter’s memoir in a collective sense, a way of braiding together a legacy.
The writing is quiet in the way grief often is. Even in the tensest of moments, when Joe ritualistically asserts his plans to kill, she refuses melodrama. The requisite composure, learned over generations of terror experienced by Southern Black women, makes its way into her prose. She is a mirror of her mother, we learn, as quotations from recordings and transcripts that were once part of criminal law fact-finding, are inserted in the text. They hold on. Alongside Trethewey we read the files and uncover the evidence of how the tragedy unfolded. In the process, we learn a great deal from mother and daughter’s forbearance and insistence, even when terrorized, upon dignity. Peering into an archive of her mother’s words that were, in life, unavailable to Trethewey, mother and daughter merge. This is not ventriloquism as much as companionship, loyalty, and love across generations.
In the end, we stand with Trethewey’s grief, feeling it as friends rather than voyeurs. That is perhaps what makes this book both so timely and timeless. The lonely death, the personal tragedy, haunts our daily living now more than ever. Even the sweetest moments of progress seem to always be marked by unimaginable loss. “Memorial Drive” answers the question: How we might manage it.
By Natasha Trethewey
Ecco, 224 pp., $27.99
Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a faculty associate with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Jazz Studies. She is the author of six books, including “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.”