It has been a long time since a memoir has brought me such laughter and warmth. Peter Damm, now a resident of Berkeley, California, takes the reader back to his growing up years as the youngest of six children in a strongly Catholic family in rural Flushing, Michigan, where he lived until moving to nearby rural Grand Blanc.
What propels the reader from one chapter to the next is Damm’s ability to draw upon his thinking as a child rather than his voice as a child. Now picture yourself as a youngster entering school with the last name of Damm. Take your time. Now think about how that name sounded coming out of the mouth of the author’s teacher, a Catholic nun. Add to that the heat taken every time he’d admit he was from Flushing. The giggles and snickering are contagious.
The author’s Catholicism is the moral compass of his youth. Bearing that in mind, his remembering what he thought about why Catholics had more children than Methodists or Presbyterians, or how he puzzled over the fact that on the day of his seventh birthday, the church declared he’d reached the age of reason and would forever be accountable for his sins; the very misdeeds committed one day before that had not counted.
Each chapter is a vignette of something of importance, whether it is the animal crackers given as a reward for the dreaded dental appointments or his now-adult understanding of his mother and father. Each event is recorded with an immediacy, remembering as if it was yesterday — like the amazing adventures of Putsy, the cat neither parent wanted, or the fishing outing that lasted until dark. His rural life afforded the author an abiding respect for all living things, especially the wild blueberries, which become the sweet taste of his childhood.
A happy childhood is not necessarily boring or without struggles. Damm’s first encounters with his sexuality, and then working through sinful and not so sinful behavior is just one example. Damm’s is not a chronological memoir. The reader has the feeling of not only reading what he has to say but also hearing him tell us things as they come to him. June bugs have terrorized him from his earliest dreams. We follow with empathy his passage through thoughts of the priesthood versus his maturing interest in girls. Baseball was the “principal way” Peter Damm connected with his father, and the story of the baseball signed and given to him by Jim Coates of the NY Yankees is a story to almost bring a reader, baseball fan or not, to tears.
“Wild Blueberries” is a memoir rich in its landscape of mind and place. Damm takes the reader from his earliest years to those of maturity as he leaves home after college. He doesn’t follow his siblings into medical and legal professions. Instead, he chooses to travel and write, finally settling in Northern California. The memoir closes with the death of his father. He writes from early May until his father’s death from cancer in August. “Wild Blueberries” is a memoir of one son’s appreciation for the abiding richness of his family. We are richer for reading this memoir. – Sunny Solomon