Of Love, Loss and Life

I agree with Ann Patchett, this book does have “the makings of an American classic.” Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl centers on “kinship, the way human beings are connected to each other and to the natural world” as she says in a recent interview. In short lyrical essays, Renkl writes of family, love and the grief that follows loss. The books is a soulful look at life around us- the simple ordinary things that only become meaningful when we slow down to truly notice and appreciate. It is a memoir in a sense that Renkl threads her mother’s story through her own story, like a beautiful tapestry of love, mental illness and the grief that follows her death. She recounts the dreams she had following her mother’s death, one of which her mother looks in Renkl’s hall closet and says,” ‘But why would you take all my nice wooden hangers?’…’Because you died, Mom…You were dead’. ‘Oh’, she said. ‘ That’s’ OK, then.’ ” Renkl writes that though loved ones die, on that very same day other people are celebrating- “Someone was hearing, ‘Its benign.’ Someone was saying, ‘It’s a boy!’ Someone was throwing out her arms and crying, ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’- the world goes on every day.”

One of my favorite vignettes is about the 4th generation family Dr. Van Fleet rose planted in 1910. Each generation takes a cutting from this rose bush to their new house when they marry. Renkl plants her roses in Nashville, and unfortunately the bush dies of rose rosette virus. She writes, “Having no choice, we cut it down and dug up as many of the roots as possible, heartsick. All my beloved elders were gone, and the roses I had hoped to pass along to my children were gone now too.” She writes that later, a potted cutting survives, “ three years later, at age 107, it bloomed.” I love the intentionality and sentimentality of this family!

Another great story that we all can relate too is playing with her great-grandmother’s rings and hands during church as a child. I can relate to how Renkl talks of taking her elder’s hand “in my own and pat it smooth, running my finger across its impossible softness, marveling at the way it ripples under my finger, as yielding as water. My great-grandmother’s skin is an echo of her old Bible, the pages tissue-thin, the corners worn to soft felt.” I too played with my own grandmother’s beautifully manicured hands while waiting on the sermon to end. I have the same puffy veins now on the back of my hands, and I am reminded of her every time I rub lotion on my hands. Remember the song, “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers? We probably all have memories of our elder’s hands.

Renkl writes of the natural world- birds in her backyard, the changing seasons, the cicadas and the bees. Of her childhood, she insightfully says, “I am a creature of piney woods and folded terrain, of birdsong and running creeks and a thousand shades of green, of forgiving soil that yields with each footfall. That hot land is a part of me, as fundamental to my shaping as a family member, and I would have remembered its precise features with an ache of homesickness even if I had never seen it again.” It’s not surprising that poetry is her first love, and her words will touch your heart.

This book will nourish your heart and soul, and it would make a thoughtful gift to a friend who is experiencing one of life’s many struggles.

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