“In my basement office I keep a framed picture of my brothers and me, circa 1967,” writes Joanne Nelson at the opening of her memoir, This is How We Leave: “The three of us stand behind a kitchen table that features a three-tiered birthday cake and Currier & Ives coffee cups centered on matching saucers—enough to indicate the presence of grandparents. The coffee looks freshly poured, an equal amount in each cup and no lipstick smudges on the rims.”
This kind of careful observation of detail and its significance is the hallmark of Nelson’s thoughtfully written memoir, which examines the patterns of her family in which three generations of men left or at least checked out: “Grandpa Eli’s father, Andrew, headed off on a sales trip one day around 1932 and never came back. Some forty years later, shortly before I turned twelve, my father called in sick to work one morning and then ran away. He, at least, left a note.”
Nelson’s linked stories look at those men and her memories of them, as well as her own fears about whether she could form a family of her own and stick with them. When she spends a few days at a retreat center (“a break from family and phones and to-do lists”) she writes: “It surprised me, even frightened me a bit, to realize how much I liked the time alone.” Frightened her, because of course, staying wasn’t the norm in her family.
This is How We Leave unfolds quietly, laying down the details of a childhood with an alcoholic mother, a perfectionist father, grandparents with their daily routines, brothers who struggle with the tension in the family and with their growing need to escape. The picture of people searching for love and happiness without the tools they need to find it is quietly tragic, and also poignant. There is her father trying to reconnect:
During my freshman year in high school, before my mother remarried and we moved away, my dad occasionally parked down the block from the house on 54th Street, waiting in his shiny red car to drive me to school. I remember feeling a stomach-achy rush of fear when I spotted his car. Not because of anything untoward in his relationship with me, but because of how my mother would handle the knowledge of our seeing each other.
As Nelson looks at her memories with an adult’s eyes, what shines through the faults and frailties, the silences and betrayals, is also the magic of ordinary, everyday love. The kind of love that sends her north to visit her alcoholic brother Stephen in his remote cabin as he dies, where she boils the filthy silverware and also pours out corn for the deer he loves to watch. The kind of love that has an exasperated Nelson laughing with her husband as their younger daughter turns from angsty teen to goofy toddler when her first period comes, the love that keeps Nelson attached to her family, imperfect as they all are.
If there’s a message in this quietly honest memoir, it’s that love is possible even in the hardest times, and it may just be what holds us together.