The news from the world of publishers and sellers of books isn’t encouraging. Memoirs don’t sell. If it is shelved under the BISAC subject heading of “memoir,” you’re not going to grow up to be John Grisham–even if you’re John Grisham. Remember A Painted House? Neither do most people.
Why would anyone care that John Fahey was born in Northern England to a mother who was unmarried and a father who beat him or that Dawn Lerman’s father, across an ocean in Chicago and New York, controlled his whole family as he dragged his sometimes 400-pound frame through the latest diets?
Why would I, whose father was a tall, quiet, handsome man who died of a heart attack when I was sixteen, feel any kinship with either Lerman’s father and his struggles with weight or with Fahey’s father who was a violent alcoholic?
Dawn Lerman is a slender and healthy young woman who writes for the New York Times Well Blog.
A blog about her grandmother, “Beauty”, begins:
“Throughout my childhood, my father was extremely fat, and my family life was ruled by his obsession with finding new ways to lose weight.”
Her memoir is filled with recipes.
John Fahey had a successful and groundbreaking career as a Ph.D. chemist in university classrooms and in the laboratories of major pharmaceutical companies.
In Survival, like the optimist he says he is, John Fahey describes, with great determination, a small moment of blessing in the chaos of his childhood.
“As a toddler I do remember some good times. The day when I asked my father what he was doing in the garden. . .and he told me he was planting lettuce and I in my innocence was puzzled at how he could be planting letters.”
Why would anyone outside the circle of immediate family and friends have the slightest interest in this young woman, now a successful journalist, or in Mr. Fahey, a retired scientist whose perennial garden, claiming an increasingly large percentage of his nearly four acres in the hills of Tennessee, is the envy of everyone who sees it?
What are the qualities that turn the personal reminiscences of a John Fahey or a Dawn Lerman–of someone whose face does not appear either on the morning news or on the back of my cereal box–into a story we all want to read?
Why are these two strangers of any interest to me at all?
What do they have in common?
And how does the genre of memoir pull them together?
John Fahey didn’t grow up to be John Grisham. He grew up to be a successful scientist and, in recent years, a man devoted to healthy living, building, in his personal life, on the foundation of the longevity studies that inspired his professional achievements. erinpharm.org. It was these studies that convinced him that the reversal of certain conditions was possible and that set him on the path of wellness he walks today.
Seeds and soil.
Making a life, one recipe, one seed at a time. Digging up one row for planting. Preparing one dish for one holiday. The small realities of daily life make up the meaning.
Dawn’s memory strikes a familiar chord in mine, rings a faint bell, as I read,
“I never thought my paternal grandmother, Bubbe Mary, liked me very much, even though every time I saw her, two or three times a year, she would hold out her arms, saying, ‘Who loves you the most in the whole world? Who loves you the most in the whole world?’ I always wanted to respond, ‘Not you!'”
And in Survival, the small jewels of personal history are much more effective than the larger context Fahey tries to establish with references to George Orwell and two world wars. That framework is interesting; it lends perspective. But I can find those details laid out in a history text. Not so, this moment from a life-from John Fahey’s life, and from mine:
“And it was there I heard of Thomas Wade, my grandmother’s grandfather. . .one of the Catholic farmers in Connaught allowed to own his own land by the English. It had been in his family for generations and had a water wheel mill which ground grain into flour.”
With that brief description, we swell with the pride of the small boy, sent to live with his Irish grandparents for an “idyllic” few years, discovering in their stories that he belongs to someone.
Dawn writes about nutrition, and her memoir includes recipes of which Dr. Fahey would approve.
Today, Dawn’s father is a trim 250 pounds and a vegan.
And every recipe in My Fat Dad is nestled in a small family story. The recipe for Aunt Jeannie’s Apple Strudel exists in the context of an afternoon’s cooking turned into an emergency sleep-over in a snow storm. The sub-title of My Fat Dad is A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family With Recipes.
“With each foot of snow that fell, we made another batch of cookies–round cookies, oval cookies, bow-shaped cookies, cookies with anise extract, cookies with almond extract, and cookies flavored with fresh orange juice when we ran out of vanilla. What started out as a one-night sleepover, when my parents and grandparents were in the hospital, turned into a three-day bake-a-thon with Aunt Jeannie.”
John’s title is, at the same time, harsher and more clearly defined–Survival: From Broken Childhood to Ph.D.
Here are two memoirs that could hardly seem more different. A young woman, living in the city, a man in his seventies whose arms are often covered with the soil of his acres in the Tennessee hills. Yet they have in common fathers whose personalities and obsessions informed all life around them, and who could suck the air out of a room just by walking into it.
And we all have fathers.
As I was researching the Roper family, and had gathered quite a bit of information on Captain Jack Roper, as his family called him, I asked one of his great-great-granddaughters what she thought about him, how she would describe him. She paused for a good long time and then said, quietly, “The word ‘tyrant’ comes to mind.”
Yet here was the man who paid for every charitable project his wife suggested.
We all have fathers.
This New Year, buy a copy of Looking for Lydia; Looking for God for someone you love.
Buy one for your father.