All of Us Together in the End
- By Matthew Vollmer
- Hub City Press
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by John P. Loonam
- April 11, 2023
A witty, poignant memoir about the importance of family.
I am a skeptic; some might even say a cynic. It’s not that I don’t believe ghosts or extraterrestrials or Yetis are possible; all of it is possible. I just question the evidence I’ve seen so far. Questioning, it seems to me, is a little safer than believing.
In his new memoir, All of Us Together in the End, Virginia Tech professor Matthew Vollmer is trying to believe, though he’s not sure in what. It’s March 2020, and the world is shutting down. He recently lost his mother for what feels like the second time — the first when her personality disappeared into Alzheimer’s, and now again that she has died.
He was brought up a Seventh-day Adventist but left the church in college and feels the veil this has drawn between him and his family. Now, his grieving father has begun to see strange lights flashing among the trees outside his western North Carolina home. The lights have no logical source — they shouldn’t be there — yet Vollmer immediately wants to believe in them and that they’re somehow related to his mother, if only because that’s what his father seems to believe.
The lights provide the author a gateway to exploring the faith he grew up in and his reasons for walking away from it. He gives a brief, neutral history of Seventh-day Adventism and a respectful account of its theology. What he most wants to communicate is that the rigors of religion did not spoil his childhood. In fact, he portrays his youth in glowing terms and makes clear that much of what he loves about his parents — and this book is a full-throated declaration of filial love — is related to their religion.
Vollmer’s mother was enthusiastic, energetic, and so kind that “nearly everything she did…she did for the benefit of someone else.” She remained deeply connected to her faith, never grappling with doubt. Her most fervent wish gives the memoir its title; heaven would be eternity spent with her family, “All of us together in the end.”
Vollmer lives in awe of his father — who is popular, intelligent, selfless, brave, patient, and witty — stating unequivocally that the elder man is a better person than he. Despite his own rejection of religion, Vollmer understands that his father’s belief is part of what makes him unique and wonderful.
After Vollmer sees those mysterious lights himself, he brings in other witnesses, and his quest becomes all-consuming. He argues with his sister — who thinks they’re a sign from Satan — even as he searches well outside religion for explanations. He corresponds with a professor at South Dakota State University who specializes in such phenomena, as well as with members of the International Earthlight Alliance. He soon learns that light sightings are both widespread and widely studied.
Some of the people Vollmer consults feel less qualified than others. There is the Episcopal minister who sees the lights as a call to faith; one of his students, who believes the lights are Mom’s ghost manipulating electric energy; Mimi Lambert, a woman most famous for wrestling comedian Andy Kaufman on “Saturday Night Live”; and Luisa, a New Mexico spiritualist who posits the lights are Dad’s core, the essence of his self, attempting to find expression.
Possibly giving credence to the latter: While Vollmer is contending with all these theories, his father begins a relationship with a new woman, and the lights seem to respond.
Vollmer chronicles the proceedings in lively, crisp prose. Characters are well drawn, and he manages to take it all very seriously in a tone that is nevertheless lighthearted, just short of jocular. There’s a Whitmanesque quality to his spirituality and to his writing style. A lover of lists, Vollmer occasionally strains our patience. To illustrate the lack of Seventh-day Adventist characters in pop culture, for example, he lists eight TV shows with no Seventh-day Adventist characters. And the list of gifts people drop off at his father’s dental office goes on for most of a page.
Throughout the book, Vollmer seems to have anticipated my skepticism — or perhaps he’s just struggling fully with his own. He never tells us what to believe but explores what belief might mean for his father’s happiness. Religious doctrine is set aside as he focuses instead on his mother’s wish — that he simply be with his family. All of Us Together in the End endorses neither Seventh-day Adventism nor New Age spirituality. Rather, it’s a call that we have faith in each other.
John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.