I have always looked like my mother. When I was a teenager, the resemblance was so extreme that once, two women — total strangers — stopped us on the sidewalk to demand that we write an essay about our lives as lookalikes.
"For Elle," they suggested. "Or Ladies' Home Journal." We laughed them off, but 15 years later, my mother still tells the story.
In the new collection Apple, Tree: Writers on their Parents, edited by Lise Funderburg, Ann Patchett tells a similar story. Her essay, "Sisters," centers on her mother's beauty, which was so overwhelming during Patchett's childhood that "In restaurants someone would inevitably come to the table to tell us, just in case we didn't know, that my mother was a vision — the most beautiful woman he or she had ever seen." Patchett, in response, "aspired to a look that was clean, well-kempt, invisible." The result? Strangers mistaking her and her mother for sisters — a mistake Patchett turns out to like.
Funderburg offers little narrative structure, letting essays meander rather than grouping them. The result is a relaxed, pleasant reading experience, more like dinner-party conversation than a panel discussion. Should Funderburg want to organize a panel, though, the work would be easy. Whether because she steered contributors to certain themes or because human experiences are more similar than we sometimes think, the essays in Apple, Tree fall squarely into three categories: resemblance, caretaking, and legacy.
The resemblance essays are often the anthology's simplest and sweetest. Patchett's "Sisters" falls into that category, as does Laura van den Berg's description of the psychic-visiting habit she and her mother share. My favorite is "The Nut Doesn't Fall Far from the F***ing Nut Bush," S. Bear Bergman's antic, affectionate tribute to his father. Bergman looks and acts like his dad, and seems thrilled about it. "I have his wide and friendly cheekbones and large head," Bergman writes, "his generous mouth, his mesomorphic broad-shouldered body and his wide, flat feet. I have his sense of humor and his sense of duty, more of both than a lot of people." The essay serves as celebration and tribute of Bergman's father's — and, of course, shows off Bergman's own sense of humor to boot.
The caretaking essays, which mainly center on memory loss, are surprisingly pithy, often handling colossal grief with stoicism and unromantic wit. Lizzie Skurnick, in Apple, Tree's most formally experimental essay, collages her mother's emails with reflections on dementia, daughterhood, and her young son Javi's language acquisition. Mat Johnson, in the only essay funnier than Bergman's, rages against the dementia that has rendered his mother "like herself, but also like she's just slammed back a whole bottle of wine, or time-warped into the mind of herself as a toddler."
Johnson's frank anger is refreshing, as is his insistence on referring to his mother by full name: Pauline K. Johnson. Most parents in this book go by title: "Dad," "Ma," "my folks." The only other named parent in Apple, Tree is Kyoko Mori's abusive, egotistical father, Hiroshi. In "One Man's Poison," Mori writes, "I didn't fear becoming Hiroshi because he was beyond the pale, in a category by himself...I believed it was my mother, not my father, whose legacy required careful navigation." Only in her 40s does Mori start to understand that she adopted his narcissism as a protective strategy from the man himself.
The concept of careful navigation sets the legacy essays — which wrestle with memories about a parent living or dead — apart from the resemblance ones. Self-protection appears frequently in the former, as does the need to study a parent. The best example, I think, is John Freeman's "This Truth about Chaos," in which the "zoom and swerve of my father's anger" turns the adolescent Freeman into a "seismologist of mood," able to detect — and then mitigate — the smallest stirring of trouble. "In other words," he writes, "without realizing it, my father spent a lot of my teenage years molding me perfectly into the shape of a receptive editor." Freeman is now among the most important literary editors working in English; in this essay, his professional success appears as his father's legacy.
In her introduction, Funderburg cites an email Freeman wrote her during the editing process: "'Where one is writing about family, he noted, 'love is in clarity, not sentiment.'" Freeman's honesty exemplifies that idea, but on the whole, Apple, Tree bears it out well. Not one essay veers into sentimentality. Most are quick and chatty, emphasizing voice and anecdote above all. Only Skurnick plays with style in a meaningful way. As a result, the collection can blur together slightly. But individually, the essays are strong and sharp; they will reward the reader who dips in and out, who alternates several books rather than reading one at a time. Apple, Tree is a sweet, smart collection, and — it has to be said — a perfect gift for a parent you love.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati.
A previous version of this review misspelled Lise Funderburg's last name as Funderberg in several instances. In addition, the title of the essay "The Nut Doesn't Fall Far from the F***ing Nut Tree" was given as "The Nut Doesn't Fall Far from the F—king Nut Bush." And the teaser description of the review incorrectly identified Mat Johnson as Mat Bergman.