I recently finished reading Wendell Berry’s novel, The Memory of Old Jack. It’s another installment in his series of fictional stories of fictional people of a fictional town called Port William, Kentucky. But I rarely encounter characters and places as real as the characters and places in this Port William series. Many years ago, my friend Bob Phillips recommended another book from the same collection: Jayber Crow. And I read another one last summer: Hannah Coulter. I’ve shared my love of these stories with my friends Mark and Stephanie. And they recently bought the whole collection. After reading The Memory of Old Jack, Mark suggested that I should read it. He even loaned me their personal copy.
Mark knew what he was doing when he handed me that book. But I didn’t fully appreciate it. Now I see, though. This book provided me with a powerful story that coincides with some powerful dynamics at play in my own life right now.
The title “The Memory of Old Jack” is a clever play on words. I didn’t notice it until about a quarter of the way into the book, but that phrase can be understood as either Old Jack’s memory of other things, or, the memory of Old Jack that remains with others who knew him throughout different phases of his life. It’s a brilliant twist of phrase. Better still, though, the book develops these themes of love, loss, legacy, and memory in ways that go far beyond the title.
The Memory of Old Jack is a very sad story, actually. Still beautiful, in ways that happy stories actually cannot replicate. Still with glimpses of hope and joy and meaning, along the way. But it’s heavy. “Young Jack” was a farmer with bright prospects. He had high hopes for marriage and fatherhood and prosperity. But at every turn, he experienced disappointment and the disintegration of his prospects. He kept figuring out ways to carry on. And he even experienced some element of prosperity. But when he started dealing with dementia, late in life, Old Jack had space to go back and process the disappointment. He let others do the farming, while he lived in a fog of resting and retreating to the village barbershop, or the store in town, or the dinner table.
Old Jack’s emotional processing was invisible to the outside world. But there seemed to be a sifting and settling, over time, that was made visible to us as readers. And it struck me as highly credible. Not contrived. It matched with experiences that I’ve been noticing in my family. Namely, my Dad. He was diagnosed with Parkinon’s Disease in 2014. And unfortunately, he has started to experience more and more dementia over the course of the last year. But it’s not a linear process. The “real Dave” seems to drift in and out. My Dad has good days and bad days. And sometimes, the bad days seem to entail elements of reliving and reworking his past. Still, I’m somehow comforted to think that his brain might be working things out on a certain level. Even if I can’t see it or understand it.
The ending of The Memory of Old Jack brings everything together in a powerful way. Not just describing the death of the old farmer. But especially the way in which others remember him. We must each grieve in our own ways. But we can also grieve together. And I appreciate the way that The Memory of Old Jack exemplifies this.