A person spends a lifetime trying not to become like his father only to look up one day and realize he’s become his mother.
Undoubtedly, parents influence us more deeply and irrevocably than any other people in our lives. The apple, after all, doesn’t fall very far from the tree.
This topic is given its rich and thoughtful due in “Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents,” an engrossing anthology of 25 delightfully diverse personal essays.
Edited by Lise Funderburg, “Apple, Tree” includes bestselling authors Ann Patchett, Laura van den Berg, Jane Hamilton, Lauren Grodstein and others. But perhaps the most interesting essays come from somewhat lesser-known but equally thoughtful and original writers.
The authors explore difficult upbringings, beloved parents, absent parents, single parenthood, the ache of aging parents, legacy, regret, duty, fear, anger and love. In a wonderful array of entertaining and very different stories, they reveal their parents’ quirks, their heroism, their hobbies, their secrets, their successes and their failures.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that he was a liar and a cheat,” Kyoko Mori writes of her father in “One Man’s Poison.”
Avi Steinberg, in “Household Idols,” writes about how his mother’s passion for collecting figurines influenced his life — and what that compulsion might really mean.
Mat Johnson’s deeply moving “My Story About My Mother” gives a nuanced portrait of his mother, the “skinny, high-yellow black woman with a volleyball-sized Afro” who is now slipping into paralysis and dementia. In his essay, love and duty are twisted together, and his memories of her as a young, vibrant force of nature help him get through this end-of-life time when she has become a pain in the butt.
“I have to force myself to write her actual name, Pauline K. Johnson,” he writes, “to remind myself that she exists outside of me, although it didn’t feel like that when I was a child.”
That sense of the mystery of parents’ inner selves and private lives infuses many of these pieces. In “Curtains,” Sallie Tisdale realizes that along with the babies and the compromises and the circle skirts and the stoicism, her mother had a life and dreams that had nothing to do with family. “I wonder if I am like my mother,” she writes. “But I don’t know. What was my mother like?”
Lolis Eric Elie’s eloquent essay, “And Niriko Makes Four,” is fierce and wistful as he writes a letter to his late father about the birth of a grandchild his father will never meet. “The best we can do is teach our children to not make the mistakes that we made,” he writes.
This sentiment is echoed by Leland Cheuk in “Self-Made Men.” “My father has always been my lodestar — sort of,” he writes. “I’ve looked at what he’s done in his life and tried to do the opposite.”
“They [mess] you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do,” Philip Larkin wrote in his famous poem “This Be the Verse.” “They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.”
But if those faults can be examined and explored and wrestled into such fascinating and insightful essays as these, they’re well worth the trouble.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune and president of the National Book Critics Circle. 612-673-7302. @StribBooks
Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents
Edited by: Lise Funderburg.Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 213 pages, $24.95.