By Marion Winik
This is an excerpt from the introduction to The Baltimore Book of the Dead (Counterpoint.)
During the spring of 2007, in the dark days towards the end of our marriage, my second husband and I managed to get ourselves invited to a small house party on the South Coast of Jamaica, held over the weekend of the Calabash Festival, a major annual literary event with writers from all over the Caribbean and the world. I had just begun writing The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, the predecessor to this book.
The first morning, all the guests went up the road to Jake’s, the resort where the festival is held, in our hosts’ van. We heard readings, paged through books on sale, sipped frozen drinks. The group went home for lunch, planning to return in the afternoon, but storm clouds massed and broke and no one wanted to go back in the pouring rain.
Since we were skipping the evening program at the festival, I suggested that after dinner I could fill in with a reading from the collection I was working on. The pieces were short, and very new — I was eager to get people’s reactions.
The first one I read was about my father; the second was called “The Realtor,” about the spunky Texas woman who had sold my house years back. The short piece had several scenes, one in Venice, one in her backyard, one in her bedroom when she was dying of cancer. I had barely finished it when one of the women at the table blurted, Please, I’m on vacation. I don’t want to hear this depressing stuff. She jumped up with her hand over her mouth and fled to her room.
I wanted to go to her, but my hostess thought I should not. Well, then, I said, why don’t I just continue. My hostess didn’t think much of that idea, either. I reluctantly put aside my laptop. A debate ensued among the remaining guests about just how depressing the pieces really were, and whether the topic of death had any proper place at the dinner table.
I suggested that, at least from my perspective, our lives are so full of dead people that any sane way of living involves constant remembrance. My days and my thoughts are shaped almost as much by people who are no longer here as those who are. That to cast this remembrance as depressing is to deprive ourselves of our history, our context, and even one of our pleasures, if a bittersweet one.
Death is the subtext of life, there is no way around it. It is the foundation of life’s meaning and value. It is the ultimate game-changer, the shift in perspective that puts everything in its place, yet it is a part of our story we know little about and have little control over.
So at the very least, it’s interesting.
On the other hand, as far as death at the dinner table goes, some respectful space must be made for grief. Grief is socially awkward, if not all-out anti-social, difficult to accommodate even in one-on-one conversations. Even now, when I mention that I was widowed in my first marriage, or that my first baby was stillborn, I see people’s faces fall, and I rush to explain that it was a long, long time ago and it was very sad but I am fine now. I really am. But I am also trying to spare them the awkwardness of having to come up with some appropriate, or more likely inappropriate, response, perhaps making some well-intentioned but doomed attempt to help me get over it, possibly by implying that it was God’s will.
Which brings me back to the time when I was not fine, after those deaths and others as well, and there I find part of my motivation for writing these books, for dwelling so long in the graveyard, for finding a way to talk about it.
In times of intense grief, I have tried all the usual methods of escape—distraction, compensation, intoxication; therapies and treatments and antidotes for body and soul. I once had a massage from a woman named Chaka that unleashed a hurricane of tears. Ultimately, instead of attempting to flee from the pain of loss, I decided to spend time with it, to linger, to let these thoughts and feelings bloom inside me into something else.
Why do we build memorials, decorate gravesites, set up shrines, stitch an AIDS quilt, paint three murals for Freddie Gray, what are these ghostly white bicycles woven with flowers on Charles and Roland Avenues? These are places to put our grief, places outside ourselves. And when you make a memorial object with your own hands, some of the anguish dissolves into what you are making. You are returned from the world of the dead to the world of the living.
After that trip to Jamaica, 2007 went straight downhill. The marriage was almost over, and in September my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Every time I went to visit her, we would talk about different people I wanted to include in the book; there was so much I didn’t know. Meanwhile, it started to be obvious that she could soon become one of its characters. Hell, no, I thought, quickly completing and turning in the manuscript of The Glen Rock Book of the Dead so she would not be in it, as if this would have mystical power to keep her alive.
Ten years later, this sequel — written in Baltimore — begins with her, and adds people who died between 2008 and 2017. To read the rest of the introduction and the sixty-one portraits that follow, pick up a copy of The Baltimore Book of the Dead from your local bookseller or corporate megalith. More information at marionwinik.com.