The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1999 (Originally published 1974).
Summary: Old Jack Beechum, the oldest of the Port William membership, spends a September day remembering his life.
This book resonated powerfully with me. It brought to mind my father’s last years after my mother passed. His short term memory was failing even as he grew more frail. Mostly he spent his days remembering what he could, the earlier days of his life, summing up in a sense what his life had meant. From our conversations, these were grace-filled memories, and there was about him a profound sense of thanksgiving. He was already at peace about his life well before we laid him to rest.
As the title of this work suggests, this is also an account of remembering and summing up a life. On one hand, it is a narrative of a single sunny day in September. It is also a day of remembering the most significant events in his life. Early morning, old Jack Beechum stands on the hotel porch where he now lives, listening to the sounds of the men going about their chores and a day of tobacco harvesting. He hears Mat Feltner, a man in his sixties, an anchor of the community, and recalls him as a boy with his father Ben as he hitches up his new mule team. He recalls Ben Feltner, the loan Ben had fronted him, and the mentor he had been in the care of his land when he was bereft of his own parents and starting out.
His wife Ruth occupies many of his memories. Her beauty which led him to pursue her. Her ambitions, which led him both into debt, and a falling out with the tenant of an adjacent farm he bought, Will Wells. Ruth wanted him to be a prosperous landowner with many others working for him. He wanted to care for and lovingly restore the land he had, that his father had so neglected.
He remembers the crucible through which he went. Selling the adjacent farm at a loss, Ruth’s increasing estrangement, and the fire in his barn and more loss and debt, and the years of extra work to own his land free and clear. He goes through a kind of death returning from a fruitless errand for Ruth to get caught in a flood, barely surviving with his team, cutting loose his wagon.
After Ruth’s daughter Clara was born, Ruth insisted they sleep apart. What followed was an affair with the doctor’s widow, Rose McInnis, each meeting the hunger in the other. There came the day when a question from Ruth revealed she knew and he knew “the wound he had given her.” Shortly after, Jack returns from a trip to learn Rose had perished in a fire. All he has left is his land, on which at 48, he had paid off the mortgage–and a renewed sense of his own life:
“That his life was renewed, that he had been driven down to the bedrock of his own place in the world, and his own truth and had stood again, that a profound peace and trust had come to him out of his suffering and his solitude, and that this peace would abide with him to the end of his days–all this he knew in the quiet of his heart and kept to himself.“
He had come through his own valley of the shadow of death. Eventually there is one with whom he shares what he has learned–Mat Feltner, now what he once was to Mat’s father Ben. Pointing to Mat’s land, he says, “That’s all you’ve got, Mat. It’s your only choice. It’s all you can have; whatever you try to gain somewhere else, you’ll lose here.”
Sadly, his own daughter will not understand what Mat and the circle around him–Nathan and Hannah Coulter, Burley Coulter, and the tenant who cares for his farm, Elton Penn–understand. Clara followed her mother’s ways, marrying a banker, who refused an opportunity to buy an adjacent farm, that one day could be joined to Jack’s own. Clara even took dying Ruth, whose last words to Jack are “Bless you, Jack, good-by.” Jack continues as long as he can alone until he moves into the hotel.
Just before dinner on that September day, young Andy Catlett stops by to say good-bye. Andy is headed off to college, yet loves the land as he does. There is a fitting closure here, of love and fealty on Andy’s part, of blessing of the young man. It seems each knows they will not see the other again.
There is exquisite writing throughout here, and none more than in the chapter “Return.” Everything Berry writes reflects love of land, of place, of animals well-cared for, and a community that shares these values. In this work, these become the source of renewal for Old Jack, a kind of “pearl of great price.” The theme of mentors, from one generation to the next, runs through this work. There is a company of men who not only work alongside and impart wisdom, but who affirm one another’s worth and dignity. It is striking how Mat honors Old Jack when he is long past being any “use” even as Jack had honored him. Finally there is the forging of character in Jack, from the proud young man who marries a kind of “trophy” wife only to discover that he cannot live up to her expectations, to the humbled man, reckoning with all his errors, doing what he can to make amends, even with Ruth, and in the process not only becomes himself, but a model to others.
Berry reminds us that unless death comes suddenly, there will come the time of summing up, of remembering. What will we remember, and will we have found the peace that abides to the end of our days? He reminds me that it is never too soon to address oneself to these questions.