I Will Not Leave Your Comfortless: A Memoir, by Jeremy Jackson; Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed Editions, 2012; 224 pages; $24 (hardcover)
To say Jeremy Jackson’s memoir “I Will Not Leave You Comfortless” is about loss of innocence is to say nothing unusual. Try finding a memoir that doesn’t have a similar theme at its core.
What is unusual is that in Jackson’s hands, what has often been treated in literature — or at least in reviews of it — as a heavily freighted life passage becomes what all of us who reach adulthood have to go through. Losing innocence is simply about growing up and leaving behind a certain view of the world, whether you want to or not.
It happened for Jackson between his 10th and 11th birthdays, while he lived his ordinary life as the cherished (but not coddled) young brother of two teenage sisters, the well-loved son of well-partnered parents, the valued grandson of grandparents who lived in the same rural, central Missouri community as his family. Jackson was popular — not bullied — in school. His parents were neither homeless nor alcoholic. He grew up surrounded by friends and cousins; by rolling, grassy land that produced blackberries in abundance in summer; by a dog, cats, cows and horses.
In Jackson’s 11th year, he dumped one girl and pined for another, for whom he bought red heart earrings he couldn’t find the courage to give her; his oldest sister graduated from high school and left for college in the East; and his beloved grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. While all of these can be painful and most were for him, none are extraordinary occurrences in anyone’s life, nor does Jackson claim that personally.
Aided by an astounding treasure trove of family documents (his family’s daily calendars with every dental appointment, track meet and piano recital noted; his grandmother’s journals; dozens of meticulously dated and labeled photographs; a recording of his grandmother’s funeral; a sister’s journal; notes girls at school had written him; the notepad that sat at his grandmother’s hospital bedside for months; and his parents’ excellent memories, to name only a few), Jackson re-creates an important year in his family’s life from the point of view of his fourth-grade self.
I was relieved to discover that Jackson had these resources available to him because it was hard for me initially to buy the detail he includes — such as the meditation, verbatim and entire, from his grandmother’s funeral — as being true nonfiction.
Though Jackson is the author of three cookbooks, as well as two young adult novels under the name Alex Bradley (one of them, Life at These Speeds, is being turned into a movie), this was my first encounter with him.
It made me want to read more of his work. He has a poet’s touch with words — simple, lyrical, evocative.
It may be because Russellville, Mo., is not so far from Versailles, an area that cradled many of my ancestors, or simply because it’s close enough to south-central Kansas – I could smell the mulberries crushed underfoot and the sweet steam of the cinnamon roll Grandma heated in the toaster oven just for Jeremy, hear the ever-increasing volume of an approaching late-spring storm. When Jackson describes his grandparents’ home, it could be the one in Harper County where my grandparents once lived.
The book’s title comes from one of the Scriptures read at Jackson’s grandmother’s funeral. In the King James Version of the Bible, John 14:18 records Jesus’ words as “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.”
The year of Jeremy Jackson’s life on which he meditates in “I Will Not Leave You Comfortless” marked his transition from the perfect happiness of childhood to the much more complex reality of adulthood. It records, as well, the abiding comfort that remains – family, home and love.