Depar­ture Sto­ries: Bet­ty Crock­er Made Mat­zoh Balls (and oth­er lies) 

  • Review
By – November 28, 2022

Sto­ry­telling isn’t just how we con­struct our iden­ti­ties; sto­ries are our iden­ti­ties,” remarked John Holmes, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Water­loo. In her mem­oir, Depar­ture Sto­ries, Elisa Ber­nick uses Holmes’s asser­tion as an epi­graph, which remains cen­tral as she recounts her trau­mat­ic child­hood grow­ing up Jew­ish and with divorced par­ents in Min­neso­ta in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the root of Bernick’s trou­bles was her moth­er, Arlene, whose abuse and men­tal insta­bil­i­ty stemmed from a lack of finan­cial free­dom in her mar­riage, unhap­pi­ness in her fam­i­ly life, and neg­li­gi­ble career oppor­tu­ni­ties. Arlene’s rage and depres­sion led her to aban­don her chil­dren — leav­ing Elisa, the sec­ond of four, to care for her younger sib­lings at a very young age.

Instead of blam­ing her, Ber­nick holds her mother’s vio­lence up to the his­tor­i­cal moment around her; she illus­trates how anti­semitism in Min­neso­ta and the suf­fo­cat­ing expec­ta­tions for young moth­ers were the cages from which her moth­er spent her whole life try­ing to escape. She details her mother’s strug­gle to rec­on­cile her devo­tion to her Jew­ish faith with her desire to be a white, mid­dle-class, sub­ur­ban woman. Ber­nick recalls the norms dic­tat­ed by Min­neso­ta Nice,” a term indi­cat­ing that it’s impo­lite to acknowl­edge dif­fer­ences in one’s neigh­bors. Assim­i­la­tion, in oth­er words, was the only way.

Being Jew­ish and hav­ing divorced par­ents made Ber­nick a uni­corn of sorts. At a time when divorce was new and the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of Min­neso­ta small, she didn’t know any­one else like her.

Ber­nick has cre­at­ed a hybrid nar­ra­tive in which chap­ters most­ly alter­nate between mem­o­ries and essays, with the occa­sion­al sec­tions that con­sist sole­ly of jokes, recipes, quo­ta­tions, lists, and def­i­n­i­tions. While the cov­er art is a bit quirky, resem­bling a Jew­ish cook­book, Bernick’s sto­ry­telling is ambi­tious and intel­lec­tu­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing. She con­tem­plates real­i­ty and truth as she reflects on inter­views with her par­ents and sib­lings, inte­grat­ing research on trau­ma, mem­o­ry, and the impact of divorce on chil­dren. In the process, she acknowl­edges that it’s pos­si­ble that she has pur­pose­ful­ly for­got­ten or altered cer­tain mem­o­ries in order to cope.

Ulti­mate­ly, Ber­nick is clear about want­i­ng to tell her family’s sto­ry of divorce, abuse, aber­ra­tion, and suf­fer­ing not as a means of sim­ply vent­ing and rag­ing, but as a way to say that things can be dif­fer­ent for the next gen­er­a­tion. Now a hap­py moth­er and wife, she ends the book with an exten­sive appen­dix of select­ed time­lines high­light­ing Jew­ish migra­tion in Min­neso­ta and impor­tant events in her family’s history.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

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