Natasha Tretheway on Finding Gratitude this Thanksgiving
Among the most vivid memories of my childhood are days I spent in New Orleans, riding the St. Charles Avenue streetcar with my mother or walking through the Garden District with my father. Back then, my father was a graduate student studying poetry and English literature, and on Saturday mornings when he was busy writing, my mother and I would head downtown to Canal Street. We'd board the streetcar near Audubon Park, and I'd sit beside the window, feeling the warm air on my face and looking at the elegant houses set back among dark green shrubs and white hydrangeas. My mother would read from a novel she'd carried (in my recollections, it is always Updike, Baldwin, or Roth), lifting her gaze only when the car slowed. She'd point to her favorite houses then, and I'd marvel at the grand columns and wide verandas, the graceful wrought iron and flickering gas lamps. This was the city of my mother's birth, and already I'd begun to love the beauty of its architecture, its verdant gardens.
My father loved it, too, and the names of plants and trees were poetry to him. For as long as I can remember, he'd wanted me to know the many native and transplanted species found there. In the afternoons, when he was done with work, we'd take long walks through the park and up on the levee along the Mississippi River. Each time we passed a different species, he'd call it out, reminding me of the name: catalpa, live oak, crepe myrtle, sycamore. I'd sing them back to him, reveling in the sounds. We'd collect leaves so I would remember each one, along with a few wildflowers for my mother. These afternoons comprised some of my earliest lessons in poetry: that there is music in language, the names of things, that one must look closely at the world, gathering the gifts of experience—those things that one might need to keep to shore up against an uncertain future.
I did not know then all the losses that were to come. Looking back now, I can see that these were days of wonder for me, days of my parents' fleeting happiness and my unquestioning belief that my life would always be just as it was then. Years later, when they divorced and my mother and I moved to Atlanta, I'd go back to New Orleans every summer to visit my father. By then, I was old enough to spend hours in the library while he worked in his campus office. I'd lie on the floor between the stacks, reading until the afternoon heat abated, losing myself in the stories, the worlds I found in books. In the evenings, we'd ride the streetcar down to the Quarter for dinner, and I'd find myself daydreaming of being a writer, like my father, and imagining a life filled with books in a beautiful place I loved.
The power of place is that it connects us to our pasts and, often, to our dreams of the future. The places we've known hold within them traces of our emotional geography, an inner landscape, associated with particular moments of our lives. Atlanta, the place to which I'd moved with my mother, came to hold for me a feeling of trauma and loss. In 1985, when I was 19, she was murdered there, and from that time on I wanted nothing but to leave it behind, to distance myself from a past I wished to forget. Going back to New Orleans to visit my father after my mother was gone connected me to a different past—to the days of my early childhood, the happy triptych of mother, father, and child set against a backdrop of lush flora, of architectural beauty, the musicality of language and the pleasures of books.
Since I was a child, my father had been telling me that I needed to be a writer: "because you have something important to say," he said again and again. It was my mother's death that hurt me into poetry. Writing became a way for me to grapple with loss, to transform it into art—a triumph of the imagination over despair. Of loss, novelist Pat Conroy wrote, "There is no teacher more discriminating or transforming."
Over the years there would be many more losses, and the transformations they engendered. My father died in 2014. The night he passed, it rained so hard I dreamed my home had washed away, past all the neighbors' houses and down the street toward what seemed to be the Gulf of Mexico, the landscape of my childhood—even though I was far from there in hilly, landlocked Atlanta. It was a steady rain, and as I tossed in my bed, I could hear a roar like that of an ocean held inside a shell. For hours it seemed that I was hearing that sound even in my sleep, as if a door had opened onto a new landscape, which now held my mother and my father. Of course, it was a place that existed only in memory, and only in remembering could I find it again.
The dream had spoken to me the truth of my life then. With my father now dead, all my ancestors were gone. I was unmoored, seemingly adrift. But the dream was also a sign of what was to come: that I could untether myself from the place where my mother was killed, the trauma of my life there, and fasten myself somewhere else, one of joy and recollection and new beginnings.
Not long ago, I found that place. Last year, my husband and I were moving from Atlanta to accept faculty positions at Northwestern University. When we pulled up on a tree-lined street in front of a house our Realtor wanted us to see, I fell in love with its Neoclassical architecture. The house, built in 1897, recalled for me my childhood in New Orleans: the grand columns of St. Charles Avenue, the wide verandas on the first and second floors, and (at the top) a tiny stained glass window inset with the fleur-de-lis, a symbol long associated with my mother's birthplace. Entering the house for the first time, I felt that I had walked into a monument to my past, a place that could hold the memory of both my parents, overlaid with the palimpsest of new memories we would make there.
When we moved in, I set up my study near the fleur-de-lis window and flanked my writing desk with a few sacred objects: photographs of my parents, my father's old Martin guitar, a set of globe bookends my mother had given me.
We'd been living there for only six months when a fire broke out. It was ten o'clock in the morning on Thanksgiving Day 2017, and all of our family members, visiting for the holiday, were just beginning to gather downstairs. The fire started in the library we were renovating to hold my father's extensive collection of books and spread quickly to the rest of the house, traveling up two flights of stairs—first to my husband's study and then to mine on the top floor. The firefighters stopped it there. We were fortunate that we all made it out safely.
When I am asked about what we lost, I am grateful to be able to say that nothing irreplaceable burned, none of those sacred objects: old photographs, an urn holding my father's ashes, his guitar, the globe bookends, our manuscripts and our libraries. The books were packed so tightly on the shelves that no air could get between them to nurture the flames. And the house, my newfound site of recollection connecting me to the happy landscape of my past, suffered no exterior damage and is being restored. And though it now holds a memory of the trauma of fire, the larger narrative it embodies is one of happiness, of resilience, of finding home and making of it a new story.
One of my favorite poets, Charles Wright, wrote these lines: "Grief is a floating barge-boat,/ who knows where it's going to moor?" I know joy works that way, too, and (if we are lucky) one day we'll find that we are moored to it. For that, I am thankful.
Born in Gulfport, Mississippi, Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007. She is the author of Monument: Poems New & Selected