Ode to My Family
As wide-eyed children, our parents can do no wrong. In adolescence, we struggle with the epiphany that our parents may not know the answers after all. In adulthood, we carve out our own lives, determined to make better decisions than our parents did. After Ruth McLaughlin’s rough childhood living on her parents’ farm in rural Montana, she feels compelled to break free and move as far away as possible. But despite the painful fact that her parents only provided their children with the bare minimum on the struggling farm, McLaughlin still feels emotionally tied to the harsh life she once lived with her family. In Bound Like Grass: A Memoir from the Western High Plains, McLaughlin comes to terms with her threadbare childhood and the parents who were unable to offer her more.
The first part of Ruth McLaughlin’s debut memoir details her childhood growing up on the farm built by her Swedish grandfather and passed down to her parents. McLaughlin’s recollections are bittersweet, but usually more bitter than sweet. Her stories capture a sense of childlike magic and love for her family’s traditions, but are laced with a desire for more. Her mother’s flat but delicious pancakes are part pancake mix and part regular flour to save money. For lunch and dinner, all year round, the family eats meager helpings of the same three foods: “Mashed potatoes, canned vegetables and processed meat.” Although the family’s desire to live off of the land in seclusion may conjure up images of Little House on the Prairie, her parents’ desire to pinch every penny leaves the author and her siblings feeling hungry, lonely and inadequate—nothing like the warm, united Ingalls family.
Even the memoir’s most amusing chapter is rife with struggle. As a schoolgirl, McLaughlin recalls her desire to fit in with her more affluent classmates. Knowing she would never be allowed to get her hair cut at a real hairdresser, she gives herself a popular hairstyle with her father’s straight razor. Her classmates are fooled into thinking the haircut is an expensive purchase from town, but McLaughlin hides her bandaged fingers, cut and bloody from the razor.
The author writes with sobering honesty about her two sisters, Rosemary and Ginny, who were born with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, respectively. McLaughlin’s parents, who seem almost embarrassed by their children, ignore Rosemary and Ginny until they become too difficult to take care of and are institutionalized. But rather than blaming her own lack of compassion for her two sisters on the example set by her parents, McLaughlin confesses her own guilt for not visiting her sisters more often and being more patient with them. Both Rosemary and Ginny died in young adulthood, before McLaughlin was able to realize that her parents did not have to define her own relationship with her sisters.
If the first half of the memoir is a somber recollection of McLaughlin’s unsatisfying childhood, the second half is a downright heartbreaking account of losing the farm she never realized she would miss. The author is unable to emotionally detach herself from the family like her brother Dwight, who moved to California and almost never returned to visit. Instead, McLaughlin gives her aging parents the care, nurturing and support that they were never able to give her. “We weren’t a family of touchers,” McLaughlin writes. “No hugs, kisses, tucks goodnight.” When her mother suffers a stroke and enters a rehabilitation program before her death, McLaughlin visits her daily, offering more physical affection than her stiff, shy mother had ever shown her children in their entire lives.
Although McLaughlin’s narrative is incredibly well-written and engaging, her painful story is like going to six funerals. Before I could feel the satisfying closure of one tragic event, another equally painful struggle waited in the next chapter. One night I stayed up until five in the morning, reading and sobbing as I mourned the future, worrying about the inevitable loss of everyone I love. It’s safe to say this memoir won’t be on a list of beach reads anytime soon.
Like the unrelenting winters on the Montana farm, Bound Like Grass is a bleak struggle from start to finish. McLaughlin’s parents work day and night to keep the farm alive, but they never feel confident enough to live comfortably. They never bask in their hard work or take a much-needed vacation. Even when McLaughlin’s brother Dwight makes a rare visit and attempts to take the family out for a moderately priced meal, her parents are unable to enjoy it. “Dad ordered a hamburger steak, the cheapest meal,” the author writes. “Mother inquired of Dwight if she could have her usual bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Dwight acquiesced but told me he felt like his hard-earned money was wasted; he’d wanted the family to just once feel worthy of a good meal.”
The glimmer of hope in Bound Like Grass is the promise of a better life for McLaughlin and her family. As an adult, the author describes her life as the one she’s always wanted. She and her husband Mike shower their well-fed, lighthearted children with hugs. McLaughlin realizes the difficult role her parents played to create the transition between the life of her hardworking grandfather and her fulfilled children. “My subdued parents, who were adequate to each day’s chores but without ambition, and who adequately fed and clothed their children, but little more—were a generation trapped between adventurous parents and discontented children,” McLaughlin writes. “My generation left to prepare the way.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.