This is How We Leave by Joanne Nelson
Memoir, 180 pages
Published August 11, 2020, Vine Leaves Press
Reviewed by Bill Mathis
Throwing out her mother’s empty booze bottles found in the breezeway attic, eating a sandwich at her deathbed, and recalling how well her mother danced only hint at the gamut of emotions and truth so elegantly expressed by Joanne Nelson in her memoir This is How We Leave.
There are many ways to leave relationships: leave a note and walk out; meander away and never return; drink enough that one’s children don’t want to be around them; drink oneself to an early death; or experiment with risky practices trying to kill the pain. The bottom line, however, is that you can never truly leave family. In one manner or another, family is always with you. The times you leave and come back, how you cope with the loss—those missed opportunities—and how you make sense of the leaving is what I gained from this excellent book.
Beautifully written, Joanne Nelson explores her family and herself in scenes written from her life of growing up with an alcoholic mother who, even when physically present wasn’t there; a father who left the family and connected with Joanne through the window of his car parked along the street as she walked to school; and her knowledge of a great-grandfather who abandoned his family.
She contrasts the uncertainty and pain of her homelife with being able to visit her grandparents. Her snuff-dipping and spitting grandfather took her kite flying and played games with her. Her grandmother created a homey, cooking, crafting environment in their modest trailer home. It was a space of peace and certainty.
The book begins with Nelson in her home office describing a photo of her family taken when she was young at her brother’s birthday party. “We stand close together and take our cues from those on the other side of the table, the adults waiting for just one decent shot without all that goofing around so they can eat before the coffee gets cold or the candles burn down the house.”
How long do we take our cues from those on the other side of the table? At what age do we stop?
Joanne ends this scene by writing, “Those bookshelves hold the answers to why I’m down here: the manuscripts recounting stories of escape or return and the mementos that tell their own suspended, yet scripted tales. It’s the dual perspective of the little girl held close by her brothers in a corner of the kitchen, safe behind glowing candles of the woman at her desk in a basement office—the soft hum of the dryer in the background, pictures of her family surrounding her—who just wants to tell about it.”
After reading This is How We Leave, I’m not sure we ever quit taking our cues from those on the other side of the table. But how we leave, why we leave, how we come back to say goodbye—even while eating a sandwich—is critically important. Joanne Nelson goes deep in the gut to reveal truth and honesty like few other authors I’ve read.
I highly recommend this book. 5 Stars.
The reviewer, Bill Mathis, looks forward to traveling again. He resides in Beloit, WI, where he and his partner sidewalk-supervise construction projects. Groundhog Day is no longer his favorite movie. His fourth novel, Revenge is Necessary, won the Chicago Writers Association 2019 First Chapter Award. It publishes in December 2020. firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.billmathiswriteretc.com; https://www.facebook.com/BillMathisWritersEtc/
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