You’re cringing at the very idea of another memoir. All those horrible childhoods revisited, the perverts and the alcoholics and the bullies and the fanatics and the addicts and the deprivation … it all adds up to enough already. But of course, not everyone is raised in misery, and good childhoods are interesting too. Iowa writer Jeremy Jackson had one, and his lovely new memoir, “I Will Not Leave You Comfortless” (Milkweed Editions), is the antidote to all those others.
“I had a good childhood surrounded by loving family in a beautiful setting. So it was enjoyable for me to remember the good stuff,” he said in a recent interview.
“In many respects, the book is an appreciation of a wonderful childhood. But I had to resist the urge to romanticize it and sort of disappear into the good memories,” said Jackson, who also writes about the sad (but normal) events the occurred the year he turned 11. “As I moved further into the story, I began to empathize more with my 10-year-old self and get caught up in the sadness of that year. I lost three things that year: My grandmother, my older sister going to college, and, essentially, my own childhood.”
The book chronicles these events through the eyes of a kid whose main concerns are about having a cool bike, catching the attention of girls, the animals on his family’s hobby farm, and the activities of his kind older sisters and extended family. He records what it was like to pick blackberries, what his mom and grandma made for dinner, the miracle of watching movies on VHS, how to collect eggs, piano practice, going to the mall with mom, and snow days.
“My 10-year-old self is still there, in a way, stuck in 1983 and 1984, and writing about him was sort of like going back in time and visiting him,” said Jackson. “Part of me wanted to stay there, to comfort him and to enjoy the blessings he enjoyed. But I couldn’t stay there. I realized he was going to be OK, and he was always going to be part of me, but I had to move on.”
The book is quietly, beautifully written and fascinating for its precise detail. Jackson’s own memory is truly impressive, but he also quotes from family journals and other records, creating an almost archaeological study of a Midwestern family.
“My parents kept nearly all of our records from that time,” he said. “Not just things like family journals, but meticulously dated and labeled photographs, school papers, canceled checks, our family calendars, letters, cards, and so forth. I also had access to unusual items like the little notebook that my grandfather carried around while my grandmother was in the hospital and in which he kept the phone numbers of different doctors and took notes about my grandmother’s progress. My parents kept detailed records of their finances, so they show exactly what they bought us for Christmas each year, how much our tuitions were, farm expenses, etc.”
Young-adult fiction and ‘The Cornbread Book’
Jackson’s sensitive understanding of himself at that age no doubt serves him well as a writer of young-adult fiction; he’s written two books under a pseudonym, Alex Bradley. (His “Life at These Speeds” is being turned into a film.)
But perhaps the best tribute he pays his childhood is through his work as a James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author. He has three cookbooks, and “The Cornbread Book: A Love Story With Recipes” has been an oddball hit. Through this little book, he’s ended up judging the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tenn., was followed by a Food Network film crew, and spent time with Japanese cornbread enthusiasts.
“After a Japanese edition of the book was published, a group of Japanese businesspeople and journalists visited me in Iowa City,” he says. “They were on a tour of Iowa investigating the way Americans grew, marketed, and sold corn products. They were delightful and inquisitive and brought me little presents, as is the custom in Japan. All thanks to a little book about cornbread.”
And thanks to a pretty good childhood.