Joy Enough: A Memoir

Do you like to read memoirs? How about autobiographies? What’s the difference, anyway? I think a memoir is more personal, a self-examination but not necessarily a life story whereas an autobiography is a retelling of a life, start to finish. Let’s see what google says:

A memoir is a nonfiction narrative in which the author shares their memories from a specific time period…An autobiography is a factual and historical account of one’s entire life from beginning to end.

Neither genre is my usual but I started 2023 with two memoirs, a fact I find interesting. I wonder if there’s a reason why or some deeper meaning.

Sarah McColl, the author of Joy Enough, is equally interested in the why of things. She published her memoir in January 2019 after going through a period of time where she lost her mother to illness and her husband to divorce. Here’s how I came to choose her memoir as my first read of the year:

Way back in the early days of the internet McColl had a blog called Pink of Perfection. She posted recipes and stories from her life and I remember liking her voice and attitude. One of her recipes – Spicy, Sweet & Salty Rosemary Nuts – is in my recipe box and I’ve made it almost every year since I first tried it. Link to the recipe below!

When I brought the recipe card out in December I wondered what she was up to (her blog had disappeared years ago). I found out she wrote a book and decided to give it a try. The verdict: I still like her voice and her attitude.

McColl’s memoir is an exploration of herself reflected against her mother, Allison. Her marriage is unraveling at the same time as cancer begins to take her mother. Each chapter is filled with short stories and snippets of memories that give the reader glimpses of these two women and their intertwined lives.

McColl’s writing is as good as I remember: calm and knowing, wise and wry, funny and quietly self-deprecating. She’s introspective but not a navel-gazer. It’s more of a matter-of-fact type of self-appraisal.

Allison, as described by her daughter, is tough and savvy. When her marriage falls apart she takes her kids cross-country to begin anew. It’s through a combination of courage and resolve that she manages the move and establishes their new life.

It must be hard to be a mom, working a 24/7 job without breaks. McColl remembers a moment when she saw her mother as a girl not as a mother or a wife. Just herself. It brought up memories I have of my own mother where I was able to see the girl within. I remember her describing being a young woman working in NYC in the 1950s: wearing white gloves, going to weekly hair appointments, eating lunch at the Automat. Not yet a wife or mother, just herself.

McColl’s calm, easy voice and her style of writing in short chunks works well with subjects so personal. Some passages surprised me but I guess if you’re not going to tell the whole truth in a memoir why write it at all? It takes a certain type of courage to write so openly of yourself .

Some of the best parts of Joy Enough come from Allison – her motherly advice is brilliant. For example, at one point her daughter emails some information about a new potential cancer treatment. Allison’s reply:

It makes me very sad to think of my precious, luscious daughter reading about drug therapies. Pursue happiness, pleasure, and sensual delight! Cook, ride your bike, pick out your spring clothes. Just live harder! That is the medicine.

McColl, too, is tuned into moments of pleasure and sensual delight. She’s all senses, noticing the beauty in the mundane and ordinary. A telling moment is in Hawaii with her husband. They’re describing their favorite parts of the day and he was all about the big things – the fire dancers and the Kailua beach landscape. McColl’s are much different, and smaller. His perfect beach was too perfect for her. She said the beauty of Kailua was “like an impenetrable wall… I looked for a break in the landscape…something set askew.”

McColl’s favorite moments were lying on the stiff grass in her wet swimsuit after paddle boarding and the quiet of a temple they visited. She wonders aloud what it means that their special moments are so different. He says, obviously you like small moments while I like the big ones. Yes, she says, but what does that mean?

Another lovely passage describes her first memory: after a day at the pool, “sun-weary’, sitting in her bedroom window and looking out at the golden sunlight on the brick houses…”It is the first time I can recall…being within the envelope of my own skin. My senses surrounded my consciousness, vibrating like an electric fence.”

McColl feels everything. and she gets it from her mother. Here’s Allison encouraging her daughter to get more men in her life – both friends and flirtations. “And you should try to smile at a man in the street every day,” she added, like homework.” Life is a banquet to Allison but she’s a realist. “Enough talk,” she tells her daughter at one point,

“To become the kind of woman you want to be you have to take the kind of actions that woman would take.”

Are quietly funny people the funniest? When McColl drily mentions that she inherited know-it-all from her mother while her husband inherited long-suffering from his father I laughed out loud. Despite the sad circumstances of death and divorce, Joy Enough delivers just enough laughter and joy to keep you from existential despair.

McColl included three quotes to open her memoir and the title comes from this one. It’s a perfect fit; she and her mother and Emily are sensual sisters, squeezing joy out of the ordinary.

The mere sense of living is joy enough.

Emily Dickinson

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