Lise Funderburg's memoir of the final two years of her father's life is layered with personal, cultural and historical meaning. Against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South, Funderburg relates with eloquent prose the often difficult but always loving relationship with her father.
Born to a white mother and black father, this Philadelphia girl embarked on frequent pilgrimages with her dying father to his birthplace in Jasper County, Georgia, and the small town of Monticello (pronounced Monti-sello), at his request and on a personal quest to understand him and his time and place. The 77-year-old George Funderburg's skin color is referred to in the South as "high yellow," but "up north, most people assume he's white." In Pig Candy, his daughter helps us understand why this was and is still an important distinction. The author of a collection of personal stories reflecting on race (Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk about Race and Identity), she reminds us that some Americans live every day conscious of the pigmentation of their skin.
George Funderburg was an opinionated, determined man who loved to order and purchase items he saw advertised, like the polyester traveler's blazer with hidden pockets he ordered from an ad in The New Yorker. Although he'd left Monticello as a young man, he returned in his late 50's to buy a farm and vacation home outside of town, refusing to live in the house on Colored Folks Hill willed to him by his father, the town's first black physician, because he felt white people would feel uncomfortable coming there. And George did love to host large gatherings.
The centerpiece of the Monticello trips was the pig roast, a huge party George planned and hosted. It required the purchase of a "pig box" and a hundred-pound dressed pig, and the help of his daughters, son-in-law and myriad local characters. Pig candy, says the author, is the "sweet and savory, succulent and crisp" meat resulting when the pig is roasted in the box below suspended coals.
While George lived most of the year near Philadelphia, the Georgia house and ponds were cared for in his absence by Troy Johnson, a fellow retiree. Cattle-farming was rented out to identical forty-eight-year old twins, Albert and Elbert Howard. I enjoyed the author's affectionate portrayal of these characters, so important in her father's life.
Overlaying the lyrical details of her descriptions of the Georgia countryside is the author's struggle with her father's looming death. "Part of me will die when my father dies," she writes. "I will exist less. I've always wrestled with wanting my father to know me even as I struggled to put up a front that would be acceptable to him that would please him, that wouldn't aggravate him or spark his ire. Now I see that when he dies, there is a way in which the world will stop knowing me. There will be an end to a singular place I hold in another person's heart, all the more precious in how constant it's been despite his despotism, his unattainable and shifting standards." This is as clear a description of loss as any I've seen.
Having had a difficult relationship with my own demanding dad, I easily understood why the author cared so much to win his love and understanding. In the end, she gains acceptance of the man her father was, and of her life without him.
Lise Funderburg is a regular contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer and many other publications. She lives in Philadelphia and is a creative writing instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book, Black, White, Other explores the lives of adult children of black-white unions. Visit her website.
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