Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the former Poet Laureate of the US as well as Mississippi where she was born.  Now a professor at Northwestern, she has published five collections of poetry as well as a book of non-fiction pieces.

This book is her attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death on June 5, 1985.  No spoiler alert is needed when I tell you that her mother died from a gunshot wound inflicted by her divorced husband since Trethewey tells the reader that in her prologue.  The book has two sections, a delightful rendering of her upbringing in North Gulfport, Mississippi where she is surrounded by three generations of loving relatives, poor but happy. They certainly experienced racism and Jim Crow, but managed to build solid, happy lives.  Her mother marries a white man who she fell in love with at college, and their only child, Trethewey soon learns the realities of being Black in Jim Crow South.

Then her parents divorce, her mother moves to Atlanta for work, and she remarries Joel, a Vietnam vet with obvious  PTSD who quickly begins a cycle of domestic violence.  It’s painful and difficult to read the details of this tragic relationship, especially when Tretheway includes the actual police reports and taped phone conversations when Joel threatened her mother.

Only 19 when her mother was murdered, it’s taken Tretheway the last 30 years to come to terms with those memories.  The result is a painful saga, written with her characteristic vivid language and beautiful phrasing.  Memorial Drive is the name of the road where they lived in Atlanta not far from Stone Mountain, the Mt. Rushmore of the confederacy, completed in 1972.  The role of racism, police indifference, lack of options to treat PTSD and intervene effectively in domestic abuse, and other realities of life in the south 35 years ago are the realities in this tragic tale.

I recommend the book, a Notable Book of the New York Times and the winner of a number of awards, but it’s not an easy read.