Perhaps this book is too modestly titled. True, it does begin as an account of the author’s father and his struggles with failing eyesight, as he falls victim to the hereditary disease of retinitis pigmentosa. In the opening scene he takes the author, a six-year old, for a seemingly harmless ride in the family car. Soon it is revealed that he can barely see the road and almost has a traffic accident.
But the book soon develops another dimension, that of Mary Bonina’s upbringing and her reactions to the events around her. It is extraordinarily understated, as she reveals how she dealt with her father’s encroaching blindness, aided only by juvenile powers of comprehension. In the close-lipped (and close-minded) 50s, they didn’t explain much to children, perhaps thinking they couldn’t handle adult affairs and needed to be shielded. You were expected to concentrate on your schoolwork and not let anything else bother you. But of course everything did. A rather complex portrait arises around her father, involving his denial and gradual acceptance of his affliction. Bonina also reveals what it was like being educated in Catholic schools in working-class Worcester, MA. She relates incidents of nuns locking schoolchildren in closets as discipline and their “shaking down” of their charges for their candy money, allegedly to send to “the missions of Africa.” (Around that time, our parish priest did the same thing, and he drove a Cadillac.)
Don’t be mistaken: this is no Mary McCarthy-style Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Bonina recounts these and other events in her life with a refreshing lack of bitterness or sarcasm. She does portray her mother as angry and sharp-tongued, a formerly middleclass woman rejecting the hand she was dealt in life. But she stays with her father throughout because, as Philip Roth says in I Married a Communist, “that’s what people do.” There are other memorable characters here as well: her conservative Irish grandmother with whom she gets into an imbroglio over watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. (The grandmother hated them because they were English, not because of their music!) Yet soon after she writes how deeply she appreciated her grandmother’s generosity when she was growing up. There’s the crush-worthy history teacher and the insistent boyfriend. I would’ve liked more about her interactions with her siblings, particularly her sister Peg, who also developed retinitis pigmentosa. Alternating with the chapters about her girlhood, Bonina inserts ones about her father’s last years and death, about thirty years later.
This is tour de force of memoir writing-sincere, never maudlin, always intriguing, and occasionally humorous. I liked her attempts to understand adult euphemisms. When her father’s blindness had become too obvious, he was “let go” from his factory job. Young Bonina puzzles over this term, which reminded her of a balloon being let go to drift aimlessly in space. The book is full of such sharply remembered insights.
I don’t know whether Bonina intended it or not, but her cover photo as a young girl is out of focus. The effect is chilling and tugs you into reading her book.