“Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” By: Natasha Trethewey

Jan 25, 2021

 

Credit Amazon

“Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” 

Author: Natasha Trethewey 

Publisher: Ecco New York 

2020 

Pages: 213 

Price: $27.99 (Hardcover) 

Former U.S. Poet Laureate’s Memoir of Murder, Grief, and Buried Emotions 

Natasha Trethewey, known primarily as a poet, won the Pulitzer Prize for her third volume of poetry, “Native Guard,” in 2006 and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2012 to 2014. 

She has a previous volume of nonfiction, essays mainly about Mississippi and Hurricane Katrina, but this is her first book of memoir. 

Memoir, as opposed to autobiography, is usually more narrowly focused and not meant to be a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave story or highly detailed. And “Memorial Drive” is not.  

There is no discussion of Trethewey’s years of college study, her teaching career, her several books of poetry or her many honors. 

This gigantic absence is the most unusual feature of the book—Trethewey’s revelation that she had in fact repressed, buried, avoided a large chunk of her life in a kind of “willed amnesia,” “mute avoidance of my past” caused, understandably enough, by the murder of her mother. 

On June 5, 1985, Trethewey’s ex-stepfather shot and killed her mother Gwendolyn in Atlanta, Georgia.  

Then, after nearly 30 years, Trethewey returned to the scenes of her life in Atlanta and set about learning what she could about her mother’s death. 

The early chapters tell of her childhood in Gulfport, Mississippi, a childhood that was both stressful and secure. 

Her father, a white Canadian from Nova Scotia, had met and fallen in love with Trethewey’s mother at college in Kentucky. They married and in 1966, Natasha was born on April 26, Confederate Memorial Day—you can’t make these things up. The little family lived with her mother in the black community, which was warm and supportive. 

Marriage between the races, however, was still illegal in Mississippi. Jim Crow cruelties and the perpetual threats of violence were all around. She writes they “met with a great deal of hostility most places we went.” In fact, the KKK burned a cross in their driveway. 

In what may be of special interest to students of poetry, during these early years, Trethewey writes of her exposure to, her immersion in figurative language from her black family and in the language of myth, at the knee of her father, an avid reader and student of literature. 

Then and later, she has dramatic dreams, which she remembers and which become one of the resources of the poet. 

Her parents’ marriage began to unravel. Her father was away for work a lot, then away in ’67 and ’68 serving in the Royal Canadian Navy, then in New Orleans in graduate school. He would become a writer and English professor. 

After the divorce, in late 1972 Natasha and her mother moved to Atlanta where Gwendolyn first worked as a waitress, then earned a master’s in social work. 

Life in Atlanta could be lonely but turned to nightmare when her mother married Joel Grimmette, who was cold and cruel to Natasha from the start. He was distant, not sexually abusive but psychologically abusive. Little Natasha was afraid he would take her somewhere and put her out, abandon her, but she could not get herself to tell her mother. 

Writing her feelings became a release and refuge. Joel broke the lock and read her diary. 

Joel beat Gwendolyn often and severely, for some nine years. The marriage had to end. Then, as is often the case, he became deadly dangerous. 

Trethewey has obtained a transcript of phone conversations from June 3 and 4, 1985. Grimmette is clearly a menace, blaming, pleading and spouting threats we see as both clichéd and terrifying: It was YOUR fault. Take me back one more time. I’m changed. I can’t live without you. If I can’t have you no one else will. 

And more specifically, “I spent two years in Vietnam. I can explode anything….I could fix your air conditioner where it will blow up on you tonight.” 

In her investigations, Trethewey learns Joel, wishing to cause pain to Gwen, went with a pistol to the field where Natasha was cheerleading, to kill her, but changed his mind. 

This is altogether a harrowing and painful story, in some elements, all too familiar, and in others genuinely unique. It took real courage for Trethewey to immerse herself voluntarily in this pain. The reader is better for it and hopes the writing enables her to recapture emotionally the many years she “lost” and helps with what she describes as “the wound that never heals.”  

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.