"It will have to do for now, it will have to do, this mourning book, this long good-bye."
This line from Gayle Greene's memoir, Missing Persons, neatly sums up this fascinating foray into loss, grief, and self-identity. Greene takes the reader on a journey of mourning that is complicated by previous losses and the author's choice not to have any children, which results in the family lineage ending with her. As one of ten siblings and the mother of eight children, I can't begin to imagine what that must feel like. I don't need to imagine mother loss, however; my mother died in 2010.
One thing we have in common; we were both responsible for going through our respective mother's things for answers as to who they were. After my siblings chose what they wanted, I spent much of the winter after my mother's death, going through her things and utilizing her house as a private writing retreat. That slow-paced time was very healing for me. Greene's ritual of spending hours organizing family photos seemed to do the same for her, serving as a way of honoring the family legacy, while finding some comfort for herself. But it is clear that writing the book was truly a way of saying goodbye, not only to her mother, but to the younger brother who'd committed suicide years before, and to her father, who walked out on the family.
Greene doesn't hold back. The emotional pain she shares in these chapters is real and raw, reminiscent of Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking. Missing Persons takes the reader through the first year of mourning, demonstrating how difficult it is to go through a loved one's possessions, and making life-changing decisions about what is left behind, both literally (as in the house she must sell), and figuratively, as the author comes to terms with a less-than satisfying mother-daughter relationship. The family photos really add to the story, and where they are missing, the descriptive language she uses for hairstyles, clothing, and scenery more than makes up for their absence, creating pictures of her fascinating mother, aunt, father, and brother in the reader's mind.
On the first anniversary of her mother's death, Greene writes:
I spend the evening writing, it's better than weeping. I guess lots of people do this, write about a person they've lost because they can't bear to think that person is really gone, that she, in her amazing, absolute uniqueness is absolutely gone. Come back, stay a little. I find the right word and it feels like I've salvaged a piece of them—I can leave it a little, let the pain go into the words, know that it's still there, it will always be there, but I don't have to carry it around all the time.
Readers will be grateful to Greene for sharing pieces of her enigma of a mother in this perceptive memoir. That she ends up sharing a great deal about her mother's sister, the beloved aunt, is no surprise. While in the beginning of the book the author clearly shares her reluctance to "go there" in regards to her brother's suicide, she does, indeed, end up there, mourning a brother, saying goodbye.
"Memoir as repair work, as reparations," she writes. It is clear by book's end, that the writing of it has done some repair work on her own aching heart, while touching the reader's, as well.
Gayle Greene is Professor of Literature and Women's Studies at Scripps College, Claremont California. She has published books on Shakespeare, women writers, and scientific issues, including Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change and The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation.
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