Hood, Ann. Comfort: A Journey Through Grief
New York: Norton, 2008
When Ann Hood’s five-year-old daughter Grace died suddenly in 2002 from a virulent form of strep, everyone tried to comfort Ann with platitudes like “She’s in a better place” or “Time heals.” But Hood did not find these cliches comforting. And everyone told her to write down what she was experiencing. But this accomplished novelist couldn’t write. She couldn’t even read: “Friends delivered volumes of poetry and books on grief by the dozen. But when I tried to read, letters no longer formed words, and words did not make sentences. Instead, each page held a jumble of letters that meant nothing, no matter how hard I stared” (p. 43).
In desperation Ann Hood turned to knitting:
For me, knitting is like meditation. It is not that my mind numbs or goes blank; in a way, the complete opposite happens. If I stop paying attention, I make a mistake. I confess that I love to knit while cooking shows play on my television. Knitters I know knit to all kinds of music, from classical to show tunes. But as soon as we pick up our needles, we enter that still place. Our attention becomes specific to what is in our hands and the outside world fades away. (p. 49)
“Grief is not linear” (p. 52), Hood tells us. And so writing about grief cannot be linear, either:
Writing about Grace, losing her, loving her, anything at all, is not linear either. Readers want a writer to be able to connect the dots. But these dots don’t connect. One day I think about how knitting saved my life, and I write about that. But how do I connect it to other parts of my grief? Grief doesn’t have a plot. It isn’t smooth. There is no beginning and middle and end. (p. 53)
Comfort therefore is not a chronological narrative of events: first Christmas without Grace, Grace’s sixth birthday, the first anniversary of Grace’s death. Rather, it is a series of interconnected meditations on various themes, many involving seemingly ordinary details of everyday life such as Grace’s favorite foods or her favorite music. But these details are no longer ordinary, suffused as they are with a mother’s memories of her child and the pain of her loss:
Time passes and I am still not through it. Grief isn’t something you get over. You live with it. You go on with it lodged in you. Sometimes I feel like I have swallowed a pile of stones. Grief makes me heavy. It makes me slow. (p. 150)
Writer Alice Sebold found that she could not write fiction until she had written about the reality of the trauma of her own life. She therefore had to write Lucky: A Memoir (1999), about being raped as a college student, before she could turn the experience into fiction in The Lovely Bones (2002). Unlike Sebold, Hood dealt with her trauma first in fiction (The Knitting Circle, 2007) before turning to memoir. In The Knitting Circle the main character learns of the healing power of sharing our stories with others who have had similar experiences and can therefore empathize with us. Perhaps writing her fictional character’s story first finally freed Ann Hood to write her own.
In Old Friend from Far Away, her book about memoir writing, Natalie Goldberg says, “Anchor your inner world with details from the outer. And anchor the outer in a human life of feelings, hopes, desires, loves, and hates. Weave the two together. Integrate them” (p. 202). Ann Hood’s memoir tells of the sweetness of memory encased within the bitter pain of loss. Seldom will you find such an aptly emblematic representation of human emotion that integrates an individual’s inner and outer worlds as this passage:
Not long ago, I was in the supermarket and a small basket of bright orange kumquats caught my eye. I remembered that long-ago trip to Italy when Grace developed a taste for this funny fruit. I could almost picture her in the front seat of my shopping cart, filled with delight at the sight of kumquats. I reached into the basket of fruit and lifted out one perfect kumquat, small and oblong and orange. When I bit into it, tears sprang into my eyes. The fruit’s skin is sour, and it takes time before you find the sweetness hidden inside. (p. 58)
©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown