book by Janet Burroway
annotation by Wendy Fontaine
The title piece in Janet Burroway’s collection of essays is an imagined discussion between the author and her deceased mother that says as much about how fiction writers strategically choose details and create dialogue as it does about how we, as human beings, process and reprocess our memories to fit the moment.
“I want to put you in a story,” Burroway writes in the opening of “Embalming Mom,” one of sixteen essays in her collection of the same name. “Apparently it’s a matter of some importance.”
The essay takes its place somewhere in the gray space between fiction and nonfiction. It is based on a real memory – Burroway watching her mother iron the puffed sleeves of a cotton dress – but it is thoroughly fictionalized in that the two women never encompassed the same space as the author describes it.
In the piece, Burroway is 45 years old, recently divorced and sitting in the breakfast nook of her childhood home. At first we think she is a grown daughter who has returned to her mother’s home after a bad breakup. As the story develops, we realize it is Burroway’s dramatization of a memory: she is watching her mother, a devoted 35-year-old housewife going through the domestic motion of ironing clothes. Burroway is imaginatively goading her mother into a mock conflict for the sake of a story she wants to write, while her mother is wrestling with an ulcer and admonishing Burroway for being indiscreet, in her life as well as in her fiction.
The author has put herself in a fictitious scene with her mother in an effort to recall and capture her as a character. As the narrative moves through time and place, Burroway sets the stage and creates dialogue between herself and her mother. She chooses the items to place in the scene, such as a fishbowl for an ash tray, and even goes so far as to chide herself when the details of the scene fall short. Burroway revises until it feels authentic. She writes:
She turns again, one eyebrow raised and a mocking smile, “What, then, am I the most unforgettable character you’ve met?” Not like her, neither the eyebrow nor the words, which have the cadence of a British education. I’m the one with the British education. I try again. She turns back like the film run backward…and turns again robotlike, profile gashed with a smile. “Honey, write for the masses. People need to escape. They need to laugh. (39)
The essay is similar to the way we replay personal conversations and experiences of the past and how we try to recast them in a more favorable light. At the end of the piece, Burroway acknowledges that the morticians have done what she was not able to do herself. “Everybody says they have done a splendid job,” she writes. “They have caught her exactly, everybody says.”
As a writer of memoir, I am fascinated by the process of how we recollect. I enjoy reading how other writers stumble across their memories, and how hard they work to pull the fragments of remembrance together to create a more cohesive picture in their mind – and then, of course, how they render that memory to the page. Each of the essays in Burroway’s collection focuses on a certain trigger of memory. Whether it is a photograph, a picture frame or the electrical stove in the first apartment she rented after her first divorce (“the paraphernalia of an ongoing life,” she calls it), Burroway allows these triggers to open the narrative to a time when she was able to make meaning of some aspect of her life. Using objects to activate memory is a good practice not only for memoir writers, but for writers of any genre. Because memories themselves are prone to distortion, the lines between genres are slightly blurred when one writes about memory – as Burroway shows us in her collection of essays.
In “Dad Scattered,” she remembers her father by going through his things – not substantial things like clothes or tools, but the seemingly insignificant things, like tie tacks, old keys and foreign coins. By swapping a photo out of a frame in “Freeze Frame,” she reflects on the ways in which we frame our lives. “We Eat the Earth” is a reminiscent piece about the English garden she never could quite manage. And in “Soldier Son,” she draws distinctions between her two children, who are very different but similar in how passionately they embrace their divergent lifestyles.
I admire Burroway’s expertise at getting under the skin of her subject, and her writing reminds me of what makes an essay great: the ability to connect the small moment (installing a pool in the backyard) to the bigger question (how do we bury our past?). Each of her essays contains an element of doubt, followed by evidence to the reader that she is doing the difficult work of examining her life in order to find meaning in her chosen subject. Therein lies the value of memoir, and Embalming Mom is an example of why readers gravitate to the genre.
As Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and The Story, “truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.” Burroway fully engages with her experiences. Her essays reveal confessions, convey transparencies and offer readers some wonderful surprises.