“NASHVILLE — In the box of old photos I found after my mother’s death, there’s a picture of me taken on Thanksgiving Day 1983, in the fall of my senior year of college. I’m lying on the sofa reading James Agee’s letters to Father Flye. I don’t know why the photo exists — we were not a family who documented ordinary moments. Our pictures centered on people gathered around birthday cakes and Christmas trees. Film wasn’t wasted on someone who has no idea a picture is being taken. Certainly not on someone who isn’t even smiling.
I remember that day, not because it was documented in a photograph but because I ran into my Shakespeare professor outside the liberal arts building on Monday morning, and he asked me how I’d spent the break. “All I did was eat and sleep and read James Agee,” I told him. “That sounds like the perfect Thanksgiving,” he said.
The author at home in 1983.
Maybe I remember that conversation because it startled me. It had not felt like the perfect Thanksgiving. My great-grandmother, the quiet, steady, patient anchor of the entire extended family, was missing. She’d broken her hip the year before, at 96, and then pneumonia — “the old folks’ friend,” my great-grandfather, a country doctor, called it — had taken hold. Mother Ollie was still herself right until up until the day she fell, and I suppose that’s what my great-grandfather must have meant by “friend”: that there are fates worse than death for the very aged. But a year later, the empty place at the table still felt like a rebuke. As with every death before or since, I could not get over the shock. How can love not be enough to save someone so deeply loved?” . . .