Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pig Candy

Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home: a memoir
Lise Funderburg (2008, Free Press)

Pig Candy is a memoir about being the daughter of a powerful, frustrating, and beloved man in his last year of life; the story is as common as middle age, and older than King Lear. Lise Funderburg and her sisters have their work cut out for them, tending their father in his passage from being a Force of Nature to being a Frail Old Man. It’s a demanding and exhausting job, as so many of us know.
George Funderburg compounds the difficulty, and gives the story its juice, by keeping two homes, one in Philadelphia, and one on a Georgia farm. In Philadelphia, he is a geriatric cancer patient; in Monticello, Georgia, he’s king of all he surveys, handing out fishing rights, naming his ponds and meadows after favored relatives, and hosting his neighbors at all-day cookouts. It’s easy to see why he prefers Monticello, but right from the first page (“We drive from their suburban retirement community to Philadelphia International Airport, then fly to Georgia, them in business class, me in coach”) the added burden on his daughters is plain.
Funderburg adds depth to her story with some history of the place, including the vexed relations of the races. Her father is black, her mother and stepmother are white, and the past is never past in Jasper County. Although he purchased the farm only twenty years earlier, modeling the house he built there after his Philadelphia retirement place, it represents a homecoming. George grew up as the son of Monticello’s black doctor, who had some social and economic clout, but was also rightly cautious: Doc Funderburg took his bank business to the next town over, because it wouldn’t have done to let his neighbors know too much of his business.
That’s a level of independence, and control, that George Funderburg has been at pains to maintain his whole life. At the same time, because the farm has been primarily a long-distance hobby, he is deeply embroiled in a web of local relationships, with neighbors, tenants, and employees. They are a colorful cast of characters, especially to Lise’s outsider’s eyes, but she does a nice job of depicting them as local, but not yokels. They know things, like how to pickle peaches or roast pecans, that she finds she needs to know.
The whole book is a learning adventure, in fact; oncologists, nurses, and hospice workers also figure in the story of George’s decline. Bedsores and strokes loom as large as the cancer itself. The three daughters have their hands full, practically and emotionally: ”I am always saying goodbye to him now. Each phone call, each visit, each trip down south. Each procedure or complication. I am recording his voice, his quirks, trying to etch them deep into the wax of memory. And yet memory is so faulty, such a poor recording device.”
Common, and heartbreaking, as the story is, Lise Funderburg’s clarity and specificity make it beautiful. She conveys the sweet and salty flavors, not just of food but of places and relationships. She’s working out her acceptance of her father’s passing, but it does not feel self-indulgent, because she’s paying attention. She carries on the family tradition of storytelling: “Key elements include self-deprecation, suspense, and endless marveling at natural or mechanical wonders....We depict each other and ourselves as characters who frequently straddle the line between haplessness and ingenuity, both of which are substantially embellished.”
Aren’t we all such characters, straddling that line? When all we have left are photos and stories, we’ll be glad we paid attention, and we’ll be lucky if we can pay attention like this.

August 2009 email edition

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