A former farm boy, sailor, teacher, and student counselor reflects on a satisfyingly textured life in this charming if digressive memoir by Winder (A Son is Given: A Mother’s Testament, 2016).
The memoir opens in the dead of night, dockside on Lake Erie. The author, 19 at the time, “felt the dankness in the air, I also smelled the fresh breezes off the lake.” This observance of nature is the driving force of the memoir. Winder recalls his early years on the family farm (his father, a Pennsylvania railroad man, bought the land using compensation money following a serious injury). This chapter includes 25 short, evocative, loosely connected anecdotes about farm life, like a breathtakingly tender tale about Winder’s connection with a fledgling dove. This recollection, which is little over one hundred words, ends movingly: “I learned from that pet bird why the dove is a symbol of peace.” Winder uses the same approach to recall his school and college years, his time as a teacher in rural New Jersey and New York, and his work as a counselor in the early 1970s at Queensborough Community College in New York City. His anecdotes are always entertaining and emotionally engaging, yet they’re undersized with little writerly effort to tie them together. For example, in a later chapter titled “Close to Nature,” Winder remembers an encounter with a manatee: “He was one of the ugliest animals I’ve ever seen. His skin was like sandpaper and not very conducive to petting….However, it was a wonderful experience to have contact with an animal in the wild.” The description unfolds in the space of a paragraph before the author moves his attention to sharks: “Pilots flying over the area told stories of sighting schools of hammerhead sharks numbering in the hundreds.” These passages beg further elaboration and embellishment. Such as it is, the memoir feels choppy and digressive. Punctuation with photographs and article clippings throughout adds a scrapbook feel. This does not, however, prevent the reader from falling for Winder’s positive and meditative approach to nature.
Full of remarkable observations that get short shrift.