A parent lost and found: A review of Descanso for My Father: Fragments of a Life

  • Roadside descanso, New Mexico.

    Alexandria King

Descanso for My Father: Fragments of a Life
By Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
147 pages, softcover:
University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

When Colorado writer Harrison Candelaria Fletcher was almost 2 years old, his father, a pharmacist, died, leaving behind a wife and five children. His mother, who was 29 years younger than her husband, grew up in a Hispanic farming village on the Rio Grande, 'a block away from his Route 66 drug store.' 'Following the advice of a child psychologist,' Candelaria Fletcher writes, his mother 'gradually erased his presence from our Albuquerque home,' stowing his few remaining belongings in a closet.

Ever since then, Candelaria Fletcher has been searching for the parent he barely knew, using his skills as an investigative journalist to follow his father across the country. Descanso for My Father is the eloquent result of his quest, a collage of essays crafted with precision and grace. Together, they provide a full portrait of his father, Ray, and detail how his loss shaped his son's life -- a life that was marked by the boy's own struggle to find his place as a pale-skinned biracial child.

Candelaria Fletcher's essays consist of short sections -- each set apart by numbers, titles or symbols -- that capture one unique, distilled image or incident, as vividly as snapshots. Like the pieces of a puzzle, they come together to create a complete and emotionally complex picture.

Candelaria Fletcher sees his art as the legacy of his Mexican-American mother. (To respect her privacy, he doesn't name her or his siblings.) She taught him to 'look closely … everything tells a story.' Five years after her husband's funeral, he writes, 'my mother transformed herself. The bookish housewife who baked peanut butter cookies after school had become an artist who protested against the Vietnam War and pinned 'Nixon No!' buttons to our grammar school lapels.' She welcomed stray animals into the house, and encouraged her children to scour the landscape for discarded objects, which she then assembled into works of art, inspired by the roadside memorials called descansos, 'the Spanish word for resting place.'

Descanso for My Father is laced with stories about people encountering ghosts. Candelaria Fletcher may not be clairvoyant, but he conjures up the spirits of his ancestors in this unusual and moving book.

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