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From Our House

            “What I wanted more than anything was for him to acknowledge his part in the mistakes we had made. Not once, after all the times he had whipped me, after all the screaming, cursing fights, had he told me he was sorry. Always, I was the one who eventually apologized for my behavior” (155).  So Lee Martin writes about his father here in his memoir From Our House. The book is an honest yet oddly gentle uncovering of a childhood marked by violence and anger.

            Martin’s father lost both his hands in a farming accident when Lee was a young child. “I know that all our lives began to curve and change that day in the cornfield when the shucking box on the picker clogged, and my father tried to clear it without first shutting off the tractor,” Martin exlains (1). Martin’s father’s stumps were fitted with metal hooks as prosthetics, and he continued to do all the farm work.

            Martin posits that his father became angry after the accident, and at moments through the book, he supplies another image of his father – the happy, loving man he imagines he might have been before. Perhaps young Martin needed that imaginary father to cling to in the moments when he heard the belt coming off, but it’s also part of Martin’s ability to avoid casting his father as villain. His mother is the saint in the story, no doubt – a patient, religious woman who spends a lot of time seeing the best in the husband and son who fight all the time. Yet, his father is not the devil, not in the way Martin tells the story.

            Instead, Martin allows himself to portray his father as a whole human being. He does this by refusing to let himself off the hook. Just as he always apologized to his father as a young person, in the text he shoulders a good hunk of the responsibility for their tumultuous relationship. On the one hand, I have a hard time seeing him assign blame to his younger self for reacting as he did to a father who exerted such cruel power over him. But on the other hand, there’s something incredibly evolved about a person who can say It’s not just the other person’s fault. He writes it not to be a martyr, but rather with sadness that he and his father could never have a good relationship, due to the forces life exerted on them.

            I met Lee Martin a few months ago and took a seminar from him at a conference. He was a remarkable, gifted teacher, and he rejuvenated my work. I got the sense then that I was in the presence of a strong, thoughtful, and unusual person. Reading his memoir, I realize how right I was.