wife/daughter/self: a memoir in essays
- By Beth Kephart
- Forest Avenue Press
- 264 pp.
- Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair
- March 10, 2021
In lyrical prose, a writer explores the many disparate parts that make her who she is.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” So says Joan Didion in her iconic essay “Why I Write.” I found myself thinking of these lines often as I read Beth Kephart’s artful wife/daughter/self, a memoir in essays.
The pieces that make up this book are explorations — explorations of Kephart’s marriage, of her role as daughter, her roles as teacher, mother, woman, writer; explorations in language and form; explorations in looking and thinking, in want and in fear.
The book is divided into three sections, as hinted by Kephart’s title. In section one, her essays invite us to look at her long marriage to a handsome Salvadoran artist. The marriage, from what Kephart is willing to tell us, is not without its bumps, but here, too, is a shared love of making art, of teaching, of one another and their individual creative lives.
At the end of an early essay called “Lily Lake,” Kephart asks Bill, her husband, what he believes is the secret of their marriage. They are kayaking together, and she thinks of him “behind me, pushing against and pushing toward.” He does not answer her immediately, but when he does, it is this he says: “I think it’s the longer you stay…the more you will stay.”
And so it is, we gather from section one, an endeavor shared, this marriage. Still, one can’t help but wonder if some of what Kephart is looking at, what she wants and fears, is left untold. The language in these essays and throughout the book is lovely, metaphorical, and musical, but sometimes a bit cryptic. What isn’t Kephart telling us about her marriage? At times in this section, and in the final one, Kephart’s self-doubt is immense, but what makes it so is difficult to pin down.
Perhaps that is the point.
The book’s second section, “daughter,” explores Kephart’s relationship with her father, particularly when he is aging and sometimes failing. The essays here are the most narrative of the collection, and the open-hearted telling is beautiful and heartbreaking. This is not an easy time for Kephart or her father, a man of logic and numbers who has outlived his wife and moved to a retirement village, where occasional health issues confuse and scare him (and his daughter) and make it necessary for him to enter the assisted-living part of the facility.
Kephart tries to be exactly what her father needs and wants — visiting and bringing him books, sometimes taking him for brief escapes in his beloved Volvo. But there is only so much a person can do at this stage, the stage when a daughter asks a nurse — when her father has difficulty breathing — if he is in danger, and the nurse replies, “Not immediate.”
Kephart comes to an uneasy understanding: “When fighting on behalf of someone you love, the fight must end, the love must be the art of being present.” It is in these moments of Kephart’s presence that her daughter story is best told.
The last section of the collection, “self,” holds the most lyrical and experimental of the pieces. Language play runs through these essays; the structures are often gatherings of like things, as in “Four Times I Became a Teacher,” “Collisions,” and the paired essays, “When He Goes” and “When He Comes Back.” Another essay, “Why I Never Learned to Speak Your Language,” is just one sentence of nine words.
Much of this section reflects on Kephart’s teaching, yet we get a sense that the lessons here are meant for herself. “Write in the present tense,” she coaches herself at the opening of an essay, “and maybe, then, you’ll change it. Change the story. Change yourself. Produce your second coming.” Kephart does come to understand things in new ways, she does make discoveries. But like a good essayist, she is most interested in exploring the questions.
In “Baby Shoes,” she writes, “A collection tells the story of the collector.” Perhaps not every essay in wife/daughter/self is essential to the memoir; Kephart is showing her range here, amassing pieces that depict her concerns and her interests.
In these things collected we come to understand some of her story. wife/daughter/self is a collection of things Kephart — like Joan Didion — is thinking and looking at. What she wants and what she fears. As in the book’s title, Beth Kephart is a wife and a daughter, but her self is much more. She is also, among other things, a teacher, writer, student, woman, artist, worrier, and mother. This is her collection; this is her story.
Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her most recent story collection, Responsible Adults, was a Legacy Series selection by Cornerstone Press. The Temple of Air (stories) was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year; And These Are the Good Times (essays) was a Montaigne Medal finalist.