When Steven Harvey was in his thirties, his grandmother gave him letters his own mother had written between 1945 and 1960. It wasn’t until Steve turned 61 that he began to read the letters of his mother, who had committed suicide April 6, 1961, when Steve was eleven.
Most of Steve’s memories of his mother were obliterated in her death, though some survived–dark, haunting memories that connected him only to the fact that she was gone, a shadow in his past. “Her suicide exploded in my life like the flash of a camera at close range, darkening everything around me and casting me into blindness, and when the light returned she was gone. She did not fade, or slowly walk away, or whisper goodbye. She was there and then she was not, and there was no getting her back. Ever.”
Except there are these letters. “And then, when I was old enough to absorb the blows, I sat down with the letters, boxes of them, and attending to her voice over the course of several weeks, my memories, lying like ashes in me, were sparked. … The letters unburied our past together.”
Steve’s memoir maneuvers through these letters, his own memories of his childhood, and what he knows now, decades later, about his family. Intertwined are excerpts from The Book of Knowledge, “ten hefty volumes bound in maroon leather each filled with questions from ‘The Department of Wonder,'” which his parents had bought when Steve was three. The excerpts and their interaction with Steve’s mother’s life and death resonate together, unfolding the power of knowledge to bring understanding to the world while leaving space for the awe and wonder that keep the world precariously balanced. It is through exploring both the written recording of his mother’s voice and the excerpts of The Book of Knowledge that Steve is able to discover his mother.
This memoir is a kind of resurrection, far more than just a suicide story. It is an effort to know someone deeply, and any time we seek to truly know someone, we almost can’t help but find compassion, love, empathy, and intimacy with that person, discovering the ways we are similar, the ways we differ, and the powerful influence we have on each other.
While reading one particular letter, a memory returns to Steve of making animal shadows on the wall with his parents. Steve tries it again, decades later:
“Sometimes I forget that my mother gave me more than this handful of shadows I carry around in my genetic predisposition to dreams and nightmares, but this little trick of wings on the wall reminds me that the debt for much of who I am now runs deep in my childhood. I raise my hands so that the shadow will ascend the wall, but when I lift them to eye level it is my own hands I see, not the shadows, with thumbs linked, though the shadow brought them to light for me, and the wonder is that they are her hands, alive now in mine.”
The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is not just a suicide story. It is a story of the power of knowledge to amplify wonder. It is a story of pursuing, and finding, love, where only shadows were thought to dwell. It is a beautiful story.