By Julie Morse
In October of 1987, Ray Fletcher visits his wife Renee Candelaria in a dream to forewarn her of their daughter’s doomed marriage. A silent woman since losing Ray to lung cancer in 1964, Renee places her faith in the church – no longer welcoming her husband’s nightly visitations. Renee tells Ray to leave – at which point Ray waits on the porch of their home in rural Albuquerque, hoping to be let in again.
Out of Renee’s five children, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is the only one who chases the memory of his father. Descanso for My Father is a stream of narrative sketches – a non-fiction compilation of essays in which Fletcher – author and son – attempts to remember his father despite not ever knowing him. Before writing Descanso for My Father, Fletcher’s knowledge of Ray was limited only to “seven stories,” disclosed by Renee “again and again with folded hands and a breathy voice until her words became my own and my father became a myth.”
The memoir is a projector, each essay a slide illuminating the history of his mother, father, his children and marriage to his college girlfriend. Some memories are grainy, like the stories passed down from his mother’s childhood. Others – the account of his father’s life – act like kaleidoscopic obituaries. His own life is written with deliberate emotion, infected with the fear of his future.
Fletcher’s essays are dual in nature; at times they read as experimental exposés, and at other times biographical discourses. The essay “White” is a series of brief memories deconstructing Fletcher’s internal conflict with race. Fletcher responds to his own heritage by coloring his memories with ‘white’ words such as ‘cotton’ and ‘flour’, polarizing the Hispanic and Northern European lineage of Renee and Ray, respectively. In “Aspirin,” he depicts his fourteen-year-old self suffering through an allergic reaction to the sun, desperately hoping for a tan. Fletcher longs to identify with the culture he was reared on instead of the skin color he inherited. Other essays have a more concise and narrative format. In “Windows,” Renee paints a mural on the windows of their home to prevent the wandering eyes of neighbors. The essay fiercely depicts Fletcher’s adolescence as an emblem of his mother’s grave eccentricity.
In “Man in a Box”, Fletcher travels to his father’s hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, where he finds his father’s high school yearbook in a local library. The discovery leads him to the cemetery where his aunt, grandfather and grandmother are buried. Fletcher believes that hard facts, photos and stories will eventually serve as a set of replacement memories – yet when he leaves Des Moines, he is both dissatisfied and betrayed by his family’s meager trail of clues.
Before leaving Iowa, Fletcher visits the county archives and learns that his father was an alcoholic with an abusive nature toward his first wife, Eleanor Peterson. Out of his finding manifests a virulent yet daunted man. He calls off the search, knowing that despite the absence of his father “he was just a man, haunted by his own ghosts on a journey to find peace. The shadow I have felt so strongly to be my own.”
Descanso is a dream diary. The writing is aqueous. As memories and events meld into each other the book evolves into a monologue, a script for a one-man show. The memoir is not only Fletcher’s way of compiling his father, but a collage of his own life. If Fletcher intends the book to be an heir loom, a way for his children to remember him the way he wishes he could remember his father, he must draw the curtain on the questions about Ray’s life that have gone unanswered for so long.
The essays marinate well together but do not congeal. The sporadic nature of the memoir does not produce a fluid timeline and the quest for heritage is perhaps too personal. Details are often absent forcing the reader to make assumptions about his siblings and wife; characters who are only briefly explained despite their major roles. The lyrical tone overshadows the book and gives us little space to relate with what could potentially become a descanso of our own.
Fletcher defines the word descanso to mean “manifestation of unexpressed grief”. Family history can be menacing but it does not dictate the future. A comfortable memoir for anyone estranged, Fletcher reminds us that the lives of our parents are rarely maps to our own.
Julie Morse is an avid reader and writer. She can be found at juliemmorse.com