When his father died, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher wasn’t quite two. His mother packed up his father’s belongings, put the boxes in a hall closet, and closed the door. The “man in a box” remained a mystery, hardly mentioned, and making only rare appearances in stories when Fletcher or his siblings inquired. Meanwhile, his young Hispanic mother transformed herself into an artist, scouting the back roads and secondhand shops of New Mexico for relics and unlikely treasures to add to her “little shrines,” or descansos. “Look closely,” she’d say to her son. “Everything tells a story.”
This book is Fletcher’s literary descanso, a piecing together—from moments and objects and words—of a father’s life, of the life lived without that father, and of his own mixed-race identity. Fletcher’s reflections unfold like a collage, offering a rich array of images and stories of life with his single mother, organizing weekend family car trips to explore graveyards and adobe ruins; of growing up on the fault lines of class and culture; of being a father who never had one of his own to learn from. From incidents and observations, Fletcher assembles a beautifully crafted portrait of his family’s unspoken affliction with loss over the decades, a portrait that finally evokes the father at its heart.
"In every family, it seems, there is a tender spot associated with loss—one that is not thoroughly acknowledged but is alluded to in bits and pieces; a photograph with no name, but a date penciled on the back; a story told in answer to a child's questions in careful snippets, with the unaddressed questions left mutely in midair at the end. For author Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, that tender space is occupied by the father he lost when he was not quite two.
In the literary memoir Descanso for My Father, Fletcher crafts a mosaic of poetic, lyrical remembrances of his New Mexican childhood—of dragging an aluminum cot each night into the living room to sleep in, of the five fatherless brothers and sisters trying to make sense of things with the stray animals they befriend, of their artist mother scouring the back roads and 'segundas' of New Mexico, making meaning with the 'little shrines/descansos' she creates. From the bits of stories, his mother's dreams (where his father always knocks to be allowed in) and a road trip to his father's birthplace and childhood home, Fletcher reconstructs his father, and explores how his growing up fatherless might influence his own children's lives. Also explored is the author's mixed race identity- being slammed against a locker by a friend and slapped until his face 'got a little color,' using a straight pin heated orange as a child to tattoo the space between thumb and forefinger with a 'cruzita,' being ignored after college at a job fair for Hispanics until he flips his name tag, and writes his mother's maiden name on it.
Fletcher's memoir evokes a strong and satisfying sense of place and time, the language is richly textured, and the honesty of the writing makes this little gem a fitting tribute to the author's father. It is also a sensitive exploration of the issues of mixed race identity and a family as it grapples with the mystery of loss."
Descanso for My Father is part of the American Lives Series edited by Tobias Wolff. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher will be speaking and signing at the Lodo Tattered Cover on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 7:30 pm.
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