Monday, January 18, 2016

The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield

My fascination with all things morbid is something I trace back to a time when, for some reason that escapes me now but likely had something to do with one or more older siblings being mean to me, I had to sit on the other side of a closed door while they watched "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte." 

When you're an impressionable child and one of your most vivid earliest memories is the sound of a head going thunk-a-tah-thunk-a-tah-thunk-a-tuh down the winding staircase of a tragedy-haunted mansion, you either become a life-long 'fraidy cat or you develop a penchant for exploring the darker sides of life. 

It's telling, too, that among my favorite books as a child, right up there on the list with a lovely collection of illustrated poems and stories called My Brimful Book, was a Reader's Digest special edition coffee table book on prehistoric Native Americans, primarily because it involved quite a lot of human sacrifice. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that I was drawn to this memoir by Kate Mayfield. Morbid curiosity gets me every time. I hate the cold, sterile funeral homes that are part of our landscape now, but there was a time when the undertaker and his family were just as likely to live on a floor above them as anywhere else. This is part of the history of American death that has held great interest to me, and one about which I hoped to learn a great deal more by reading The Undertaker's Daughter.

Mayfield's memoir starts out as oddly sweet and often funny as I'd hoped it would be. Her father was clearly a man she adored, and the two of them had a relationship that hinged good-naturedly on what he knew to be her hero worship of him. As Mayfield draws him for most of the book, he's not so much a Gomez Addams kind of dad as he is a Jim Anderson one. It just happens that what father knows best is how to take care of bodies, both living and dead. 

The memoir takes an abrupt turn when the author drops the thread of her story, and rather inexplicably begins to divulge one ugly secret after another. It ceased to be a quirky tale of a family who never quite fit in and became what felt was the author's determined effort to paint herself in a heroic light against the backdrop of the shortcomings and tragedies of her family. The disconnect Kate began to feel from her family was mirrored by the disconnect I began to feel from her. 

The most beautiful writing Mayfield accomplished was in the ongoing story of Agnes Davis, the eccentric lady in red who befriends Kate and her father. Her mysterious past, her penchant for red, and the hold she holds over the imaginations of people long after her death; well, that could have been story enough.

I honestly think that if all the stories that became this memoir had been written as related essays, I would have been enthusiastic. The Undertaker's Daughter was a People magazine pick, so somebody liked it. 

It just wasn't me. 

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