Lyrical reflections on the relentless cycle of birth and death by Nashville-based New York Times contributing opinion writer Renkl.
In this unusual and poignant memoir, the author, editor of the online literary journal Chapter 16, alternates in short chapters between her current life as a happily married mother of grown children living in Nashville, Tennessee, and her years growing up in rural Alabama surrounded by a loving extended family. Her narrative metaphor becomes the miraculous order of nature, especially the lives of wild birds she observes from her home office as they devote their brief lives to making nests for and feeding the young only to be, in many cases, fodder for larger prey that must nourish their own fledglings. Renkl’s mother, Olivia, was born in lower Alabama in 1931; married a Catholic man—“my grandfather had never laid eyes on a Catholic before he met his future son-in-law”—and gave birth to the author in 1961. Renkl was so anticipated and adored by the family that in pictures, “they are looking at me as if I were the sun, as if they had been cold every day of their lives until now.” As a child, the author remembers her mother often despondent, stricken by postpartum depression. The family moved to Birmingham in 1968, during the turbulent civil rights era, yet Renkl was sheltered from the greater troubles within the bosom of her family. In 1984, the author attempted a semester of graduate school in Philadelphia, but she was so traumatized by the noise and dislocation that she quickly returned to the South and attended school in South Carolina. Renkl describes the deaths of many of her elders (and her sometimes-onerous role as their late-life caretaker), but the strength of her narrative is in the descriptions of nature in all its glory and cruelty; she vividly captures “the splendor of decay.” Interspersed with the chapters are appealing nature illustrations by the author’s brother.
A series of redolent snapshots and memories that seem to halt time.