What It Means to Be Alive

Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss, by Anne Panning

Stillhouse Press, 2018
243 pages, paperback, $16.00


Cover of Anne Panning's Dragonfly Notes


Grief takes many shapes and can change as we live through it. For author Anne Panning, grief takes the shape of a discarded Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book, found on a neighborhood street, evoking the memory of her mother. This is where Panning’s new memoir, Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss, begins. “Grief is so private that it’s hard to take it out into the world,” Panning observes as she mourns her mother’s death. The recipient of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her collection Super America and a Best American Essays Notable nonfiction writer five times over, Panning can capture the essence of human experience. Panning’s essays are known for being fine-tuned and attenuated to the intensity of a moment, built out of vivid and uncomfortable truths. In Dragonfly Notes, Panning collects and uses these vignettes to craft a longer story about family, regret, and the loss of her mother.


Growing up poor in Arlington, Minnesota, the oldest daughter in a family of four siblings, with an addicted father and a loving mother, Panning manages to capture what it is to question where home is and what it means to leave one’s place of origin for good. Panning faces her own family criticism, quoting her brother: “‘Everything has to be such a drama for you,’” he expresses, “‘Isn’t anything just normal, or whatever for you?’” In this moment, Panning addresses a central aim of this book, which is to probe her family history in order to understand the loss of her mother. Her memoir answers her brother’s question easily, adeptly: No.


There is a symbolic mechanism that brings the memoir together, the “segmentation” of its structure, as Panning may call it, or the quilting together of titled sections that form the larger whole. Sections are not in chronological order, revealing Panning’s ability to shift into new time and geographical place naturally, as though she is having a conversation with us. Panning, like her mother, collects things throughout the memoir, and it is notable that the book, like her mother’s acts of accumulating fabric for making Panning’s childhood wardrobe, is carefully sewn from its sections.


Early on, in a section called “Good Girl,” Panning wonders what made her mother stay with Panning’s father. Barb met Lowell when she was in high school, and, as Panning notes, he was already an alcoholic then. Panning lets herself ask questions to her mother that she will never get answers to. This series of questions starts to open the door to what the memoir investigates: How does abuse happen in a family, and how do we get out of it? What does it mean to stay, and what does it mean to leave?


There is a dynamic relationship between Panning’s unflinching approach to her past and her lyricism in describing her parents’ home. Of the distressed Victorian her parents owned, she describes “the upstairs bathroom that our mother had made cozy by wallpapering the sloped wall over the tub in a tiny floral print, painting the vanity and chair a soft, strawberry pink, and glazing flower patterns on the side of the claw-foot tub. It still smelled like her Caress soap.”


Then, in a section titled “Hijacked,” Panning’s anger appears. After Panning introduces her family to her fiancé, whom she identifies as the healthiest relationship she has ever had, her mother asks her to reconsider the wedding. Panning remembers her mother saying through the phone line, “‘I mean, it’s not like he abuses you or anything, but he seems to sort of dictate how thing go in an abusive way.’” Panning, fierce as ever, responds with vehemence in the exchange, telling her mother, “‘You wouldn’t know a good relationship if it hit you in the face!’” And she goes on. What makes these moments so real is how vulnerable and honest Panning is.


The memoir finds its center in a Minnesota hospital with all of Panning’s siblings, waiting after the last of a series of incomplete and failed surgeries her mother has endured. With her mother on life support, Panning circles scenes with humor (eating Harry Potter Jelly Belly jelly beans with her siblings) and ends them with emotional heft (her father’s inability to stop the alarm going off on his wristwatch while getting very bad news). Throughout this section, the strengths of Panning’s writing are revealed: We can hear the potato chip bag crinkle under the weight of her father’s mindless snacking, we can see Panning trying to sing to her vacant mother in her hospital bed.


As the memoir ends, Panning must face her ordinary life. It’s almost as if she doesn’t want to let go, because doing so fades the memories of her mother. In mourning, Panning puts her energy into the writing workshop she’s teaching at SUNY Brockport, where I myself took classes with her (not the one she recounts). In a nonfiction class I took with her, she guided us to figure out the point of an essay by asking “So what?” At the end of her memoir, she asks, “I have parasailed in Malaysia—so what?” Her memoir easily answers the so-what question, and, in fact, there are many answers to that question in this powerful, necessary nonfiction work. Because this memoir will help readers feel hope if they are in abusive relationships. Because this memoir will help people grieve. Because this memoir will teach readers that it’s okay to be as raw and as vulnerable as you can be, as long as you are being honest. This memoir gives to its readers a sense of what forgiveness, grief, and living fully, all at once, can mean to a person. This memoir needs to be read as a vital voice in nonfiction, a voice that empowers, challenges, and gives comfort to those experiencing what it means to be alive.