Thursday, May 8, 2014

Fisher to be followed by Jong

Mother's Day is a few "sleeps" away. I'm already thinking what I can send my co-mothers this Sunday or Saturday night, depending on how fast I can get the combining of meaningful words and images finished.

Meanwhile, my partner just handed his Mother's Day gift to me in advance but not before asking, "Have you read this yet?" This being Erica Jong's Inventing Memory, billed as a novel of mothers and daughters. It now tops my summer reading list. I suspect that after Jong's ground-breaking '70s novels (remember the zipless f_ck?) Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life, this 1997 novel may be more modest. I hope to be proven otherwise.

Two days ago, I reluctantly closed the last page of Among Friends, M.F.K. Fisher's memoir of her childhood in a community of Quakers in Whittier, California, early in the 20th century. She referred to her parents as Rex and Edith, not Father or Mother or Papa or Mama. It gave me pause--what shall I call my own parents when I buckle down to write my own memories of them as a young couple shepherding eight children?

The educated Edith was often depicted as half-lying on a couch with a book in hand or upstairs in the master bedroom, most probably nursing waves of nausea from another pregnancy. The only time she cut a figure in the kitchen was when she'd sometimes bake a cake. She was the Kennedy family's "arbiter of culture" since she had some kind of education in Europe that enabled her to know the score of Handel's Messiah or play Chopin's nocturnes. Rex was a hard-nosed newspaperman who fancied himself an outdoors man, too.

What awed me most was how the author was able to extract in minute detail her earliest memories, sometimes going as far back as age four or younger. Every person mentioned emerged in full form. One formed an idea how someone smelled, how he/she dressed. If this were fiction, they were well fleshed out.

I know Fisher more as a food writer (not a restaurant reviewer or one who listed down recipes but a memoirist, a writer of long essays that gave one a sense of place, a sense of Aix-en-Provence or of Marseille, France, as though one were there experiencing those places with her and her daughters). There are broad hints in the latter part of Among Friends about the origin of the sensitivity of her palate, how the world came to her through it.

She wrote of life in the family's ranch where her friends and her "ate almost anything that we could put in our mouths without being burned or stung, and swallowed everything that our bodies would not reject. It was a good education for my palate."
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