Lisa Romeo. Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss. Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2018.
Review by Theodora D. Patrona
“Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival” (Rich 35). In these emblematic words, Adrienne Rich condenses the vital role of constant re-examination and re-viewing, a sine-qua-non process for one’s sustenance and nourishment. In her struggle to come to terms with the loss of her father, Lisa Romeo, editor, teacher and author, illuminates her life as a child and young adult in a wonderful debut memoir. Centering around two axes, the painful goodbye to a deceased parent and the separation from a happy childhood and young adulthood in an affluent Italian American family, Romeo does more than share confidences with her readership; she unravels a fascinating life that both entertains and engrosses the readers while it leads them to her new perception of a fatherless life as a mature woman and writer.
As she digs into her past and the complex web of familial ties, the memoirist embarks on a journey down memory lane reassuring of both her truthfulness as well as subjectivity following memoir conventions, “What happened matters and this is a story of what happened. But it is only a story of what happened to me, as best as I can remember, as best as I can tell it so that it makes sense” (xi).
Romeo’s grief urges her to share with her reader her intellectual and emotional quest for comfort through a writing that is powerful just because it is honest and direct: “When I begin writing about my father, not long after he dies, it isn’t because I now claim to know him best. I begin writing about my father because I want to know him better [sic], because I’m hoping that a reunion of sorts might be possible, on the page, in our conversations” (174).
An adept storyteller, Romeo stitches together diverse themes of her life always saturated by the fatherly presence, swiftly moving back and forth in time: the family sojourns in Las Vegas and New Jersey but also around the world, often based on notes the memoirist kept in her diary, the trying period of an ailing parent who lives far away, her relationships with her parents and siblings, her inner thoughts as a daughter, a mother of two boys and wife.
Interestingly, Romeo’s narrative of a fairytale life, with obscene sums spent on horses and riding lessons, luxurious trips and goods, stamps her writing with the recognition and infusion of class identity. Romeo is fully aware of the family’s social ascension from the transatlantic boat to glitz, their nouveaux riches, yet, she acknowledges the happy times and opportunities that this money allowed. In her own words: “I write of my Italian off-the boat-grandparents, our scruffy New Jersey textile factory money, new money. But it was money just the same, and with it my father could buy an American fantasy, family memories, time, days meals, the world” (204).
Certainly, the references to Italian American identity in Romeo’s work revealing its protean face are among its most intriguing elements; the comments on the Italian born grandparents as regards their mentality and lifestyle, black and white photos of pre-war times in the ghetto, her father as padre di famiglia for the extended family, the gradual process of “whitening” in the mid-century; all these contribute in producing an important and complicated image of Italianamericanità in diverse social echelons and time frames.
As a well-written record of ethnic culture, Romeo’s memoir indubitably attracts scholarly attention demanding further examination and discussion. As a tribute to Romeo’s father, Starting with Goodbye produces the fading image of a whole generation of Italian American old timers, loaf of Italian bread in hand, skillfully playing on the reader’s heart strings.