Our parents, our selves

Everywhere I turn, it seems, there’s someone sharing a list of the best books of 2019.

My list would be awfully short — I’ve read only 5 books so far this year. But one of them was especially memorable, and even writing about it now several months later, I’m still struggling to find the right words for my takeaways.

But if I were to recommend a single book to my friends, it would be this one: “Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents.”

It’s not a novel with a single narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of essays, knitted together from 25 diverse writers across the country, and focused on the idea that each of us carries a trait we’ve inherited from a parent. You know the old adage, right? “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Think about it. Are you a planner or a procrastinator? A heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentalist? Or a reserved introvert? Someone driven by ambition? Or someone perpetually lacking self-esteem? In what way, like it or not, are you like your mother or father?

In this collection, each of the writers reflects on how an inherited characteristic or quality of a parent has affected the lives they lead today and how, in many cases, it has shifted their relationship to that parent. In some instances, it’s caused them to rethink their sense of self.

The variety of viewpoints makes for fascinating reading. Each essayist tackles a different topic — such as race, dementia, personal independence, unrealized hopes — from an individual perspective that reflects differences in age, gender, sexual orientation and geography.

Several of the essayists reside in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., while others live in the Midwest and the South. Three, I’m happy to say, are from Oregon. (More on them later.)

***

“Apple, Tree” was conceived of and edited by Lise Funderburg, a writer, editor and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In the introduction, she reflects on the influence of her father, a black man, born in 1926, who grew up in rural Georgia, where his own father was known as “the town’s nigger doctor” and their neighborhood was called Colored Folks Hill.

Lise Funderburg

It was early September when I heard Funderburg speak at a promotional event at Broadway Books, my neighborhood bookstore. The book had just come out and she was ecstatic about “what we can learn from thoughtful people who are beautiful writers.”

Three of the writers, all from Portland, were there to read from their essays:

Kate Carroll de Gutes, author of two memoirs, winner of an Oregon Book Award, and generous contibutor to my 2019 Voices of August guest blog project.

Mat Johnson, a professor at the University of Oregon who is a novelist and a recipient of the American Book Award.

Sallie Tisdale, author of nine books, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and an instructor in the writing program at Portland State University.

Each of their pieces is outstanding. Kate’s, in particular, resonated with me in her description of her ailing mother as someone who was inclined to live in the past. (Just like my mother, I thought.)

Inevitably, some essays shine brighter than others. But as a whole, the book is both engaging and provocative. One of the criteria I weigh most heavily in judging a book is whether it enriches my thinking, either by teaching me something about a culture or way of life or presenting me with a new way of looking at something I thought I already knew.

“Apple, Tree” does all that. And the best thing of all? As a reader, you’re left to contemplate the influences of your own parents and try to puzzle out if the way you are is based partly — or largely — on the way they were.

More than three months later, I’m still wrestling with that.

My mom, who died in 2013 just a day short of her 86th birthday, was an outspoken woman who could be the life of the party but also quick to anger. As I wrote after her death: “She was feisty, strong-minded, stubborn, resourceful, independent and fiercely devoted to her three kids and extended family. “

My dad, who died in 2017 at age 91, was more reserved. You might call him the strong, silent type — a blue-collar guy who dealt with life on an even keel, keeping his thoughts and emotions to himself. “He was a man of few words but a man of strong words,” a fellow veteran said at his burial. “He was always concerned about others. He was a man of his word. If he said he’d be there, he was there.”

I suppose I would compare myself to my dad more than my mom. I’ve always felt more comfortable in the role of observer than participant. But in recent years I think I’ve evolved into something of an “extroverted introvert” — someone who can speak with confidence in public settings, but yet who also needs solitude and quiet time to reflect and contemplate.

I wish I weren’t quick to anger, but I recognize that tendency and hope to do something about it in the new year. Seems pretty certain to land on my list of new year’s resolutions.

Best to cut things off right here, but with a nod of thanks to Lise Funderburg and her stable of writers for taking a great idea and executing at a high level. Reading that collection of essays was truly one of the year’s highlights for me.

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