Last fall I got the chance to meet Wendell Berry, which is for me what meeting Chesterton would be like for Matt. Next to C.S. Lewis there isn’t a writer in the world who has been more of a gift to my soul than Berry.
Eventually I got to the front of the line and handed him my copies of Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter to sign. He signed the first–my favorite novel and the best novel of the past 25 years, in my opinion–and then, as I gave him the second, I told him that my wife and I had read Hannah as part of our pre-marital counseling. “Huh,” Wendell replied. “Did it help any?” I assured him that it did and then asked if I could get a picture with him. “As long as you don’t mind if I keep signing while you take it,” he said. And so my pastor’s wife took the picture shown at right.
What happened shortly after that, however, was the best part of the weekend. Wendell was on a panel discussion with his daughter Mary. So the speaker introduced them, brought them both out, and Mary introduced their talk. She then asked her dad–daddy, she called him–the first question. When Wendell spoke, he began his response by saying–forgive my memory, I’m paraphrasing–“I want everyone to know, first of all, that this is my daughter Mary and I am very proud of her. Her mother and I have had the privilege of raising her and now for these past 30 years knowing her as a friend and neighbor. We are very proud of her.” That moment more than anything else I can think of is why I so admire Berry and appreciate him. I share that story as a preface to this marvelous piece written by Mary about the experience of growing up with Wendell as her father.
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.
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.