From Place to Place: Personal Essays
By Judy Ray ©2015
Reviewed by Maryfrances Wagner
Maryfrances Wagner’s books include Salvatore’s Daughter, Red Silk (winner of the Thorpe Menn Book Award), Light Subtracts Itself, Dioramas and the chapbook Pouf. Her poems have appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and textbooks including Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (Penguin Books) and The Dream Book, An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation). She is co-editor of The I-70 Review and co-edited the Whirlybird Anthology of Greater Kansas City Writers.
Judy Ray’s book of personal essays, From Place to Place, is an entertaining, informative, wise, witty, and thought-provoking collection. Ray is a keen observer of her surroundings, and her essays cover experiences over a lifetime. Although each essay stands alone, together they make a memoir of her life.
In “Under (or Beside) the War,” we learn she was born before World War II south of England on a farm. She remembers the sound of planes overhead and “Strangely, a stray bomb sometimes drops in green fields.” One bomb hits a boys’ school about three miles from her and kills twenty-eight boys, the headmaster, and another teacher. Years later, she again remembers more war with rifle shots and machine gun fire in Kampala, Uganda, where she lived with her first husband Tony and gave birth to a child amid chaos and war.
“Naturalization,” the opening essay, describes what it’s like to become a naturalized American citizen after years of living as a permanent resident. For twenty-six years, that status serves her until she realizes laws had changed, and if she steps on Mexican soil “without making the inquiry first,” she would not be permitted to return into the U.S. despite her twenty-six year “permanent resident” status. She “would have been looking for gaps in the fence, kinks in the wire,” and she “would have regretted her procrastination about renewing a card [she] had considered permanent. From here she leads us through the steps of becoming an American citizen. Most of it involves paperwork, but that includes listing all of the countries and addresses where she lived along with the dates. Then, because she leaves the country on a legal matter, she has to start the paperwork over again with the American Embassy in England, and what makes the whole process more challenging is that it takes months to process, and she’s unable to come home until the paperwork is approved. She says, “It didn’t matter that my husband was in America. Or that Uganda, where I had lived for six years was now in a state of emergency with no law and order. . . [or] that I had spent several months on an island of Greece . . . which was now under the Greek military junta.”
It may seem she feels no sense of place, but in the essay “A Sense of Place,” Ray talks about where we feel kinship and connectedness. Even though she has lived in a city for the largest portion of her life before moving to the Arizona desert, her formative years on an English farm give her a connection “to the natural landscape of an area,” among farmlands of hedgerows and oaks, fields of wheat or barley and cattle in pastures. It also gives her a connection to everything around her no matter where she lives or for how long.
Moving is something Judy Ray has done multiple times in her life, but her last major move is after living in the same place for twenty-five years, Kansas City, Missouri. In “Moving as a Trauma Always Underestimated,” she leaves behind the Midwest for the desert of Tucson, Arizona. First, though, she explains the emotional upheaval of trying to move—from house repairs, to listing, to packing. Once the FOR SALE sign goes up in the yard, life changes from the casual to the vigilant. The Rays must keep the house tidy and leave when someone wants to see it. Even though her life has taken her many places, selling the family home was hard for her: “for when I was growing up I did not know anyone who moved. It seemed that people in our village and on the surrounding farms had lived there since their families’ names were entered in the Domesday Book in the eleventh century.” Yet, after all of the de-cluttering and dispensing of possessions, the house sells, and she and David move on to their next phase of life.
“Alice: A Murder and a Knowing” is powerful in a different way. The focus here is the murder of a Chinese couple, students studying chemistry at the local university. Their six-year-old child finds the dead father, and the police find the mother in another room. Ray realizes that she knows the couple and has a sixth sense about who the killer might be. She reports her thoughts to the police, and rather than reveal the results of the investigation, I’ll only quote her final words of the essay:
But I am grateful that my conscious mind knows less than my unconscious. I feel deep sadness for this loss of life, for an orphan’s trauma, for the grief of far-away families. And I feel deep sadness, too, for the lonely depths out of which came this violence.
Being an American citizen also comes with having to serve on jury duty. Ray’s essay, “The Awesome Responsibility of Jury Duty,” not only describes what serving is like, but she shows how the task is a heavy responsibility of deciding guilt or not. Oddly, she knows some of those involved in trying the case, and when the potential jurors are asked if they can be fair and impartial, she says:
Of course we all think we can be. But think of the differences of opinion we have with others outside the courtroom setting, when we as well as our friends or colleagues or government representatives appear to be blind to our own prejudices.
“The Phone Call” is the saddest of the essays—dealing with the death of her husband David’s son in a train wreck. Judy and David are in France at the time but quickly pack up, leaving many of their belongings behind, to depart for Moose Lake, Minnesota where David’s son Sam lives. Her other essays deal with her travels in France, India, Australia, and Uganda, as well as the loss of a dog, her favorite books, marriage to the poet and writer David Ray, and her insights on life from the perspective of someone who has a strong sense of diversity, having lived in so many different cultures.
I read this book slowly. I probably should have finished this review long ago, but I found each essay compelling in different ways, and I liked looking at the world through the author’s eyes. I savored each essay and thought about it before I moved on to the next. Judy Ray includes eight poems, each following a different essay and focusing on the topic of the essay it follows. One I particularly liked was “The Didgeridoo” that follows the essay on Australia. It’s one continuous breath that flows and sounds much like the instrument.
These essays put us in touch with life’s beauties and tragedies and leave us with much to ponder. In each essay I felt myself part of the landscape and action as Ray moved me from place to place.