Natasha Trethewey was the US Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2013; this book is a memoir that tells of her connection with her mother who was killed when Trethewey was 19. Gwendolyn Grimmette was killed by her second ex-husband (not Trethewey’s father). For the ten years Joel Grimmette was in their lives, he beat her mother and though he tormented Trethewey, there was no mention of physical abuse of her.
The story of Gwendolyn and her extended family in Gulfport, Mississippi and her marriage to a Canadian white man when that was still illegal in Mississippi is an appealing one, full of warmth and happy if fraught times. Natasha was born in 1966, a year before the Loving v. Virginia case, and when she was an infant, the Klan burned a cross in the driveway of her family’s house. Despite the fears, there was joy and love, and wonderful stories of her great aunt Sugar who returned to Mississippi after 25 years in Chicago. Sugar took her fishing at the pier in Gulfport most weekends, giving her great lessons in patience.
Her father began to spend more time away from the family in New Orleans where he completed his PhD and he eventually moved to Hollins College in Virginia where he wrote poetry and taught for nearly 30 years. Though I surmise her connection to her father was important, this memoir is devoted to her mother, recognizing her beauty and strength. Gwendolyn and Natasha moved to Atlanta so she could find a good job. Unfortunately she met Joel Grimmette there.
I believe that describing an incident recounted at the end of the book is not a spoiler, because she told the story in an interview that I read before reading the book. After her mother was killed, Natasha left the area for many years, but had taken a job at Emory and was living near where her mother was killed. One evening in 2005 she and her husband were approached by a man asking an odd question about whether he’d seen them nearby. When they said no, the man went back to the table where he sat with his wife. Two drinks were delivered as an apology for bothering them. Natasha went to their table to introduce herself. Within a few moments he realized who she is and began to weep and his wife explained he was the first policeman on the scene when her mother was shot. Bob told her that the courthouse would soon purge the records of her mother’s case and he offered to give her the records.
In the twenty years between the murder and her encounter with Bob, she says, “All those years I thought that I had been running away from my past I had, in fact, been working my way steadily back to it.” What she learned from reading those records was unbearable for her and she avoided it as long as she could.
I have focused on the facts in this poet’s life; I recommend that you read the book to live in her skin for a time and to read prose written by a poet.
Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive, HarperCollins, 2020, 211 pages. Available at the public library.