Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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Bequest and BetrayalReview - Bequest and Betrayal
Memoirs of a Parent's Death
by Nancy K. Miller
Indiana University Press, 2000
Review by Margo McPhillips
Mar 5th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 10)

But what does it mean to think about the death of one's parents when there is no generation to follow? What happens to our legacy if there is no next of kin? These are questions that sometimes arise for the first time at the moment of death, when being the end of the line becomes a literal dead end. When a parent dies, you think about the generations. This one has gone, but through the narrative of replacement, the acts of the next generation try to convert the loss into gain. If you are the child-grown up and childless yourself in middle age, as I am-the sense of what happens next is less self-evident.

I, like the author, am the end of my line. Or, as I described myself in my journal before embarking on an extensive bout of family research last spring, "I am the last of an arrogant line of class, wealth, and pretension…" Genealogical charts and pedigree are one way to pass on one's legacy when there is no immediate next of kin. My mother died when I was still a toddler and much of my knowledge about my family's background comes from aunts and uncles and their stories of growing up. This book, the author's writing about she and other writers' experiences grappling with the question of "what happens next" after a parent dies, is another way to tell others who you are and what you hope your life will ultimately come to "mean."

In this book, the author explores how she and other writers came to understand a parent's life and death through their own writing as well as how their writing may have been influenced by their relationship with their parents and their parents writing or lack thereof.

I was enthralled by one of the opening stories of Colette and how her brother found gold-titled, bound leather volumes on top of their father's bookcase after his death; volumes which should have been memoirs but which were instead filled with blank pages. Miller wonders if some of Colette's prodigiousness was to make up for her father's embarrassing lack of any writing at all. This reminded me of the one conversation my father and I had about writing. My father, who died in 1992, offered that he'd tried to write but found he wasn't any good at it and so, gave it up. I hope writing is more a practiced skill than a natural, inherited trait.

"Why write about the dead?" the author asks. "To figure out if they were right."

Bequest & Betrayal explores all aspects of the relationship between parent and child in both an intensely personal and a thought-provoking general fashion. There's some memory, some story that will trigger a similar memory or story in the mind of nearly any reader. I found it a very cleverly written book, a three-tier cake of a book. With this book, Miller wrote a memoir of her own experiences inside an exploration of other writers' personal experiences inside she and other writers' writing experiences. The concept tried to boggle my mind but the actual writing entertained and comforted me.


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