Home and Heart Never Far Apart
My father’s name is Wendell Berry and I have been crazy about him for 54 years now. Wendell is married to my mother, Tanya. It is nearly impossible for me to think of one without the other.
It is hard to imagine now that until coming back to live permanently in Henry County in 1964 we had lived in Europe, California and New York City, with stays in Kentucky between those moves. We moved to Lanes Landing, where my parents live now, when I was 7 and my brother, Den, was 3. I can remember seeing the place for the first time but I can only imagine what a great satisfaction it must have been for Daddy to buy a place that he had known all his life and that his mother had loved all of her life.
Daddy was encouraged to seek his fame and fortune elsewhere; in fact, he was told that coming home would ruin his career. I don’t have to imagine, however, the great happiness that was his when he knew that he could come home because I experienced that. When I was away at school, for instance, I don’t think anyone was thinking that I was blowing a shot at a brilliant career by returning home. Coming home was not encouraged by any influential person in my life except my family. And this is where my unending debt begins in my heart and in my memory.
My brother and I grew up with stories, both oral and written. The stories were so compelling to me as a child that I thought, until I was pretty close to adulthood, that I could remember things that happened before I was born. This gave me the sense that I have never lost, of living partly in the past and of loving men and woman that I did not know. I expect, although I can’t know, that many of our stories would have been passed down whether or not we lived in Henry County. But I know that the daily reminders of sight, sounds and smells bring up those stories over and over again and so their power and influence has strengthened in our lives and my brother and I have passed them on to our children.
Even better, our children have heard these stories from their grandfather. If we had not lived here to be reminded and to remember maybe those stories would have been forgotten. If my father and his father had moved away maybe the place would have been lost to me and to my children. Of course, every generation makes its own choices and my children will make theirs but Henry County is a possibility for them with an unbroken line of stories handed down for eight generations.
What I have written so far sounds good and has been good but, as they say, “The devil is in the details.” I was asked once what it was like to be a Berry child. I answered that it was fine except for the constant humiliation. I believe that I went along with my father’s plans for us very agreeably until I was 12 or 13, the age when I think many children realize that their parents need guidance.
Daddy had come home to live and farm. He bought a rocky hillside farm overlooking the Kentucky River. He and my mother have added some acreage over the years and the place has been their home and their fascination ever since.
The old house needed a lot of work. I remember helping plant fruit trees and what must have been the first garden. And then came chickens, hogs, a milk cow, a roan walking horse mare named Gypsy. Work horses would come later. Daddy kept bees, and for many years we raised rabbits for meat. I remember making pear cider with our neighbors and some of those same neighbors getting together to kill hogs.
My mother made butter, yogurt, head cheese (for heavens’ sake), jams and jellies. She canned and froze all summer long. I believe we were raising 85% of what we were eating. I went right along with all of this until I was old enough to have a reputation to protect. That coincided with the addition of a composting privy to the rest of an ever-more-embarrassing way of life.
Unfortunately for me, my father didn’t understand at all that he should, at the very least, not write about these things and should never mention the composting privy to a journalist. I was in a difficult predicament. I never really thought that my father was wrong about anything. In fact, the reasons for the things we did at home were talked about all of the time, and I understood and even honored those reasons. But, to have details about your composting privy reported in the Louisville Courier-Journal was just too much to be borne.
(Daddy once said that he was going to have to put our indoor toilet, the one like normal people had, in the living room floor to get credit for it. We were always reported to have no inside bathroom.) The very public privy opened the floodgates and suddenly I knew how abused I was: no television, no junk food, no trips to amusement parks, and I had to WORK outside in the dirt. And, my father was always protesting something: wars, dams, strip-mining, airports, etc.
Well, to make a long story short, I expect that by the time I left for college there must have been a general sigh of relief. Some of the freshman English classes at the college I attended were reading The Memory of Old Jack, a novel written by my father. I had not read it before I left home. In fact, I had read almost nothing of Daddy’s by then. He read things to us that he was working on and I guess I thought that was plenty. I suppose I experienced positive peer pressure at school because girls in my dorm were reading The Memory of Old Jack. So I read The Memory of Old Jack, myself. That book gave me back my home and it gave me the chance to make amends with my father and then to find out that no amends were necessary.
The Memory of Old Jack is the story of Jack Beechum, a member of “the Port William Membership.” His friends remember him by repeating his words, well known to them all, of commendation and censure. The book ends with this paragraph: “In all their minds his voice lies beneath a silence. And in the hush of it they are aware of something that passed from them and now returns: his stubborn biding with them to the end, his keeping of faith with them who would live after him, and what perhaps none of them has yet thought to call his gentleness, his long gentleness toward them and toward this place where they are at work, they know that his memory holds them in common knowledge and common loss, the like of him will not soon live again in this world, and they will not forget him.” That book made clear to me what I wanted and where I wanted to be. I wanted to remember. The book also terrified me.
A heartbreaking part of Old Jack’s story is his estrangement from his daughter Clara, who, like me, had wanted something else, something better. I called my father when I finished the book and asked, “Am I Clara?” I remember being reassured by the phone call. I still have the letter he wrote me a few days after we talked. He said that he was moved by my question and told me that of course I was not Clara. The letter is long and beautiful and I treasure it because of its kindness, its good sense, its understanding of a flawed young girl. I have now lived in Henry County all of my adult life. I have three wonderful daughters myself, and now a granddaughter.
Trouble has come to me in my life as it does to all and I have made mistakes. The gift that my father gave me so many years ago was the knowledge that I live in his love, and if forgiveness is needed it has already been given. What greater gift could a parent give a child? Daddy has kept alive in my head — even in the worst of times and in the face of awful news — that if we actively choose it over and over everyday, we can indeed live in the world of affection and membership that he honors in his life and his stories.
Mary Berry is the founder of the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky.