Fans of Natasha Trethewey’s poetry might think they’re already acquainted with the story of her mother’s death in 1985 at the hands of the poet’s stepfather. Most of Trethewey’s poetry collections shrewdly explore Gwendolyn Turnbough’s murder and Trethewey’s continual grappling with that grief. However, Trethewey’s seventh book and first memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, is a new examination of the 35-year-old crime. It moves beyond simply recounting this loss to study the ways a mother’s death can shape a daughter’s relationship to memory.
Memorial Drive begins in Trethewey’s birthplace of Gulfport, Mississippi, where she spent her early years doted on by her mother and extended family while Trethewey’s father attended graduate school in New Orleans. After Turnbough’s first divorce, mother and daughter moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where Turnbough met and married Joel Grimmette Jr., an abusive, controlling man who would wreak havoc on his wife and step-daughter. Atlanta is also the place to which the memoir eventually returns when, 20 years later, Trethewey finds herself back at the site of her greatest tragedy and face-to-face with its lingering artifacts.
Like her earlier collections, Memorial Drive is written with a poet’s keen ear for language and Trethewey’s knack for historical detail and retrospection. Using descriptions of photographs, dreamscapes, memories of historical events (such as Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974) and even transcripts of the final phone calls between Turnbough and Grimmette, Trethewey builds a narrative that asks: How does one get intimately close to violence and still survive? Memorial Drive proves that the answer is neither simple nor singular, and memory is only one of the avenues we travel in our quest to remember those we’ve lost. The lives of our departed loved ones take on different weight and meaning as we live on without them.
As Trethewey herself stated in an interview with BookPage, “The memory of my living mother grows every day; it continues to grow.” Memorial Drive is the story of that memory, and of a daughter’s deepening love, which has survived long after her mother’s death.