Memoir has become the new “black” in publishing, hasn’t it? Seems everyone and their uncle has a life story worth telling, a perspective they feel the world needs to know. We have memoirs about life as drug addict or schizophrenic, about growing up with abusive parents, about growing up Mormon or Buddhist. Memoirs about our pets – cats, dogs, pot-bellied pigs. But don’t get me wrong – I’m something of a memoir-aholic. I’m fascinated with people’s lives and what they make of them.
But a memoir must inspire me to reflect on my own life, strike a compassionate chord, illuminate some aspect of life in general that is meaningful. I believe every persons story can touch us, can teach us, and a good memoir does all that in an entertaining and insightful way. Doris Kearns Goodwin, noted biographer, writes that “every now and then a memoir is so well written that readers are able to find elements of their own life story in the chronicle of the writer’s life.”
So when TLC Book Tours offered me the opportunity to read and review John Grogan’s memoir, The Longest Trip Home (newly released in paperback, and just in time for holiday stocking-stuffing), I was ecstatic. Grogan’s previous memoir (Marley and Me) made his name, and for good reason. I came to The Longest Trip Home with high expectations. Let me assure you, I was not the least bit disappointed.
Grogan’s memoir is especially refreshing because it’s about a happy, normal, childhood. No abusive or alcoholic parents, no incestuous relationships, no shameful secrets hiding in the closet. As Grogan puts it, “Life was safe and warm and good. I had parents who loved God and each other and us. I had two brothers and a sister to play and run and fight with. I had a house and toys and my own beer carton in which I could carry anything I wanted. It was a dreamy, wondrous time.”
I admit it – I’m a sucker for happy families. Like Grogan, I was lucky enough to have one. And, oddly enough, he and I were growing up within a stone’s throw of each other here in southeastern Michigan in the 1960’s. So it was even more fun reading his story, and being very familiar with the places and times he wrote about. He took me back to a particularly idyllic period in my life, and it was like balm to my sore spirit.
Grogan, the youngest of four children, was definitely the “Marley” in his family, and he has no qualms about sharing exploits that range from being expelled as an altar boy for quaffing the last of the Communion wine to blasting out his neighbor’s picture window with firecrackers. His good Catholic parents are sometimes at their wit’s end, but young John knows he will always have their undying support. And so it is with especial poignancy that he writes of the one conflict he has with his family – his inability to embrace their Catholic faith with the deep devotion and committment his parents, particularly his father, demand. Even far into his adulthood, Grogan continued to portray the role of practicing Catholic, until one day he finally faces his parents with the truth.
“Tell us the truth,” Mom interjected. “Do you still go to church?”
I looked at her for a long moment. Studied her face, the face I had lied to so many times over so many years. “No,” I said. “Not for a long, long time.”
My mother acted as if she had taken a hit to the chest, knocking the wind out of her. She rested one hand on the chair back and stared out the window as if studying something far off on the interstate. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know that.”
We stood in a circle, saying nothing. “Look, I need to get going,” I said. I was opening the door when Dad’s voice boomed after me.
I froze, then turned back. As I did he threw himself against me and buried his face in my shoulder, locking me in grip so tight it was as if he would never let go. I felt him shaking, his chest lurching against me. The man I had never seen shed a tear, my Rock of Gibraltar, was crying in my arms.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, unsure if it was loud enough for them to hear. I was sorry, nor for my actions, not for failing to embrace those beliefs my parents embraced. But sorry for how much pain I had caused them. Sorry for the years of deception and now for the sucker punch of revelations that had so quickly shredded, like shrapnel to the heart, all they had allowed themselves to believe for so long. Sorry for the gaping rift our religious differences had torn in the fabric of an otherwise loving family.
Grogan has a gift for bringing feelings to life on the page. He did it with Marley, his four-legged hero, and he does it superbly with his family. In writing so honestly and frankly about his relationship with his parents, and with such affectionate humor about his own formative years, Grogan invites the reader directly into the bosom of his family.
The Longest Trip Home is a wonderful, affirmative tale about the power of family and love.
It is memoir-able indeed.