The Light of the World

You might recall Elizabeth Alexander—she read the poem at President Obama’s first inauguration. This memoir by the prize-winning poet covers a much more private, interior space. It tells the story of her love, marriage and family, and especially the jagged rent in her life caused by her husband’s death.

The first chapter queries where the actual story begins. Is it the beautiful April morning in Hamden, Connecticut when Ficre Ghebreyesus returns to his younger son Simon’s trundle bed, saying, “This is the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in.”? Is it when Ficre ran out of the house to buy three dozen lottery tickets on a hunch, wanting the win the lottery for Elizabeth? Or is it way back in ’61 when two women on opposite sides of the earth become pregnant, one carrying a first-born girl, another carrying a later-born son?

The couple met in a New Haven coffee shop; Ficre came over and introduced himself.  He was a chef who had escaped from war-torn Eritrea, Africa at age sixteen.  He became a refugee in Sudan, Germany, Italy and finally, the States. Torn from his family for many years, he ended up in New Haven and in the 90s began painting.

He later said he would never marry a woman who did not honor and love her parents. Luckily, Elizabeth more than fit that bill.

Ficre loved books, food, art, gardening, and especially, especially family, both his own nuclear family and the extended family of his and his wife’s relatives. When they bought their house in Hamden, he selected it because it reminded him of a compound in Africa, where family members could share food and good times in the house and big yard.

Alexander describes the day of his death and its effect on the family.  She was sure that she got to him before his soul left his body, after he suffered a major heart attack at age fifty.

But this is not a sad or depressing book at all. It’s more than anything a love story and a life-affirming memoir about the blessings of family, and simple life joys, flowers blooming in the spring, the kindnesses of neighbors, a steaming expresso in your hands under a flowering magnolia in the garden.

Compare this to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir of the famous writer's first year of widowhood and the loss of her daughter.