The death of a parent is one of adulthood’s most common rites of passage, the fellowship of grief a club most of us join sooner or later. And, of course, there’s nothing new in writing about losing a parent. When Sarah McColl began a graduate creative writing program, she took to calling her workshop “the dead mother parade,” and her brother teased her by asking whether she was really in graduate school or just a “two-year grief program.”
Still, even a well-worn topic can become the occasion for stunningly original writing, and such is the case with McColl’s exquisite memoir, “Joy Enough.” The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, a line of which serves as an epigraph to the book, McColl’s first. “The mere sense of living is joy enough,” Dickinson wrote, and the pages in this brief volume celebrate, with wonder but never sentimentality, the life of McColl’s mother, a woman thoroughly in love with life and expert at finding and cultivating joy.
McColl describes a childhood of mostly happy chaos, growing up the third of four children in a family led by Allison, her fiercely loving mother, and somewhat a distant father. She’s old enough now to understand the problems her mother faced when her brood was young, including “a tony town of Joneses she didn’t care to keep up with, and even with all those kids, the same dogged loneliness.” When the marriage crumbled, Allison moved the clan from Dallas to her own native Massachusetts. Their new house is cramped and unlovely; even with Allison’s trademark red geraniums on the windowsill, Sarah writes, “shame crept into our lives like algae bloom on a bay.”
“God was not everywhere, but she was.”
The children grow up, Allison remarries, Sarah falls in love, gets married, faces the end of her own marriage. But this isn’t a book powered by plot. Instead, McColl’s gift is in distilling a lifetime — the relationships, hopes nurtured then dashed, joys still sought, even at life’s end — into vignettes of great beauty, ordinary moments held up for loving examination. Love and sex figure prominently. When her mother enjoys a flirtation with the laconic cowboy type who drove their moving van to a new life, she ponders her girlish response to the erotic: “My Barbie was having sex with Ken, but this was different,” McColl writes. “I was in on a secret I had wanted to know, and now I wanted to unknow it.” As an adult, she thinks, “if I, too, am quick to fall in love, and I am, it is because of her. See: guileless; also: open, unguarded. It occurs to me loving this way may not be smart for a grown woman.”
As McColl’s own marriage wobbles, she learns that the cancer her mother had earlier survived has returned. She spends time caring for Allison, who eats less and sleeps more. “I was watching her body waste its way off the earth, a witness to the very simple process of disintegration,” McColl writes. “How could a thing be in the process of dying when I had never seen anything more alive?” She soaks up everything her mother knows, about gardening, about life, because “[w]hat I didn’t learn would die with her.”
“There is no reward in the end, my mother said of parenting. The only reward, ever, is ongoing; it must be the day itself,” McColl writes. “Joy Enough” is a slim book that feels expansive, both in its ideas and its spirit. The pleasure is in the closely observed, deeply felt moments between mother and daughter. If the book has a misstep, it’s in a section introducing friends and describing a group vacation — not because the writing here is anything less than lovely, but because our attention doesn’t want to leave the duo of Allison and Sarah. Even after Allison’s inevitable death, she remains a powerful, central character. “When the sun shone, I tilted my face up to it and closed my eyes,” McColl writes. “God was not everywhere, but she was.”
The book begins, slyly enough, with a literary question: “I loved my mother, and she died. Is that a story?” It turns out that the answer is yes, and if the mother is anything like Allison, you will want to read it, and to know her.
“Joy Enough: A Memoir”
Liveright, pp. 176, $21.95