Tallying a Life
What Happens Next?: Matters of Life and Death
(University of Iowa Press, 2013)
Can we ever really leave the past behind? While writer and English professor Douglas Bauer may have left his home state of Iowa when he moved out east, where he teaches, he never really left the small farm town where he grew up. In his bittersweet new memoir, written as a series of nine essays, Bauer’s past—and his parents’ past and his grandparents’ past—is always there, sneaking up on him when he isn’t looking, helping him understand where he is today.
We live in a time in which everyone who does something of minor importance writes a memoir, and Bauer’s reverential approach to his personal history and the people in it is refreshing. In terms of action, nothing much happens. People break bones, go into the hospital, drive long distances across bare expanses of countryside, drink Iowa wine, mash potatoes, and discuss the price of October corn. But no one’s life is exciting all the time, and Bauer elegantly illustrates why the daily minutiae matter. For instance, we better understand Bauer’s mother and her relationship to her in-laws, which is difficult on the surface, when we learn that Bauer’s grandfather thanks her for “another delicious dinner” after each meal.
‘You’re welcome, Dad,’ she said. I hear her voice in this passing of pleasantries as undefended and warm. Years later, when we talked about the difficulties of this period of her life, she said that she loved him, too, her father-in-law; that she felt he was a kind and lovely man.
Bauer and his mother, and the connections he draws between their lives, form the emotional center of the memoir. The book opens as Bauer is preparing to undergo routine cataracts surgery in Boston; at the same time, his mother is also in the hospital with a broken hip, her life slipping away. Bauer imagines them “twinned in the moment, half a continent apart, by our IVs and our breathing tubes as we lay in our raised beds.” But later, he learns that she died without a breathing tube, and Bauer realizes, “we’d not been allied except as a contrivance, through the unseemly ease of my imagination. I would need to think on our history, hard and patiently, before it could be more than heavy-handed metaphor to say that I’d begun to see the world clearly on the day, in the hour, my mother died.”
The individual essays and book overall feel like they’re flowing in a circle—one moment Bauer is narrating events 50 years in the past, then he’s back in the present, then he returns to the past—and along the way he has successfully tied everyone’s story back to his own and his mother’s. Occasionally, though, these connections do feel heavy-handed. A lovely essay about accompanying food writer M.F.K. Fisher on a culinary research trip to New Orleans ends with forced ties to Bauer’s mother. Everything does not need to connect to everything else for the essay collection to work.
The book’s anchor is the longest essay, “What Was Served,” set at the family farmhouse where Bauer’s mother toiled in the kitchen to make dinner and supper (the latter a quaint term for what Bauer calls “the only slightly less ambitious evening meal”) for her husband and father-in-law while they tended the fields. It wasn’t a life that she necessarily asked for; before she married Bauer’s father she lived on her own and worked as a schoolteacher. But once she married and Bauer’s father left the service, his parents invited them to come take over the farm. While the men plow the fields, Bauer’s mother makes roast pork with mashed potatoes and brown gravy, or beef and homemade egg noodles, or potato salad. Her food is “marvelous” and “damned good.” But it isn’t the act of eating that Bauer recalls with tenderness, it’s seeing her work, work that Bauer considers “the harder and more manual labor.”
Food also serves as a way for Bauer to better understand himself and the place he came from. While in New Orleans with Fisher as a young man, the two spent a morning meandering through the French Quarter, slurping oysters and sipping the best rendition of a Ramos Gin Fizz they’d ever had. What Bauer deemed an important moment in his life Fisher merely called “breakfast.” “Of her gifts to me that week, this most explicit suggestion of permission—that life, if we let it, allows us to discover what we’re hungry for and when we’re hungry for it—is the one that stays most vivid,” Bauer writes.
Years after that trip, Bauer reads a New York Times story about wine being made in Iowa. He pays a visit to the winery, which is “less than ten miles from the corn and soybean farm” where he was raised. Aside from a sojourn in Sonoma wine country, since leaving Iowa, Bauer has resided entirely in cities, including Chicago and Boston. He sought out urban centers, he explains, “for the chance to take some of their energy, to feel myself inside the pattern, the splendid shifts and tumbling of their kaleidoscopic life.” But he wonders what would have happened if vineyards started cropping up in Iowa sooner, before his family left farming, and if his father actually liked wine. He dismisses the idea as a revisionist history, but muses over his secret wish that he had the “skills and sensibility of the place where I began.”
As Bauer revisits his past and his parents’ lives, he wonders, “what happens next?” The only answer is that while we can’t know what happens next, we do know that we’re building on everything we’ve done and everyone who came before us. In these quiet essays, Bauer proves that it’s the little things we do—eating oysters, making meals, spending time with family and friends—that add up to a life.
AMY CAVANAUGH writes about food, travel, and culture from her home base of Chicago.