Years ago, a friend asked me to drive to Durham (NC) to see JR Moehringer do a reading at The Regulator bookshop during his Tender Bar book tour.
I knew nothing about the book going in, but Moehringer was funny and engaging, and the more I listened, the more I saw the broad strokes of my own childhood in his. Strong single mother carrying a heavy load. Absent father (his disappeared; mine died young) shrouded in mystery and fascination and frustration. An explosive relative in and out of our lives (I didn’t learn the term ‘verbally abusive’ until I was much older).
I bought the book, of course, and asked him to sign to my daughter and me, in honor of my mother.
At the time, I was in the middle of a book I needed to finish for my book group, but I put it aside that night and began reading The Tender Bar, recognizing myself over and over again in the first few chapters. When someone has written what seems to be a description of your own young fears and heartaches, it’s a bittersweet thing – on the one hand, relief (misery sort of loves company?); on the other, old sadnesses, drifting back up to the surface.
Soon, I had to stop reading and rush to finish my abandoned book club book. I put The Tender Bar on the ‘to read’ bookshelf, but years went by, and I didn’t finish. In my own single parenthood, I have a terrible track record of skipping around between books, finishing a half or three-quarters of many fine books, always swearing I will finish one day. With this one, it wasn’t a lack of interest that kept me from picking it up again; in fact, I can’t count all the times I recommended The Tender Bar to friends.
Now that I’m reading it again – I went back and started from the beginning in late May – I’ve thought about why it took so long. I can only guess that it had something to do with that familiarity I felt at the bookshop that night; I did see so much of my growing-up story in his beautiful but real and painful passages, and that story isn’t always easy to revisit.
And I was just beginning my own story as a single mother at the point that I tagged along to Moehringer’s reading; I was in the midst of divorcing and was sad to see history repeating itself for the third generation (my mother’s father died when she was only six, so my mother and her mother were on their own, too).
Maybe it was just a little too early; a little too much to take.
But right now, this summer, the story feels … well, I’m afraid all that’s coming to mind after a 105-degree heat wave day is Goldilocks, of all things, so I’ll go there, with apologies: The timing now feels ‘just right.’
Like nothing else, words organized my world, put order to chaos, divided things neatly into black and white. Words even helped me organize my parents. My mother was the printed word – tangible, present, real – while my father was the spoken word – invisible, ephemeral, instantly part of memory. There was something comforting about this rigid symmetry.
~The Tender Bar