Virginia author Matthew Vollmer’s memoir “All of Us Together in the End” is a tender and poignant study on grief set against the emergence of the COVID pandemic and ensuing lockdown.
In early 2020, flashing lights began appearing in the woods outside his father’s rural North Carolina home shortly after Vollmer’s mother died. Curious if the mysterious light is in some way connected to her, he sets out to explain the source of this phenomena while unraveling the stringent beliefs of his Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) family, who reject the possibility.
How do you mourn the perfect mother? One of the first short stories Vollmer wrote as a child was about a kid who’s convinced his parents are alien robots. “If there was something truly robotic about my parents,” he writes in this memoir, “it was that they were utterly predictable.”
Vollmer lays the groundwork for his stable and happy childhood, establishing his formative years were filled with laughter, the gospel and a pointed emphasis on health. At times he craved “more human” parents, a mom and dad who didn’t subscribe to every precept of SDA without question, folks who had disagreements — even once. Eventually their perceived perfectionism alienates Vollmer, who seeks spiritual guidance outside of Adventism.
It hits the family with an unexpected punch when his mom, Sandra, a joyous and energetic woman who devoted her life to her family and faith, develops dementia in her 60s. She is a vibrant “dynamo” with nonstop vitality, a vegetarian who avoids intoxicants and exercises regularly in adherence with the strict dietary and lifestyle mandates of Adventism. Simply put, Sandra is supposed to outlive them all. Yet after a decade of decline, she dies before her 74th birthday and leaves a void in their lives.
Vollmer has fallen away from the denomination as an adult but takes the time to gently unpeel the inner workings of the religious order that defined his youth, offering greater context for who his parents are as people. Refreshingly absent of an agenda either promoting or condemning the order, he provides an overview of the origins and theology of SDA and explains why it’s impossible for his father to believe his mother’s spirit is the source of the light: Adventists do not believe in ghosts; they believe in mental illness or the devil. Case closed.
Nevertheless, the light appears three months after Sandra’s death. Vollmer’s quest to understand the cause shapes his grief journey into a beautiful exploration of spirituality and the eternal bonds of maternal love. The light itself is “a single bright dot of light that would sometimes dim slightly,” intermittently blinking while remaining fixed. Sometimes it was there, sometimes it wasn’t. His father Jim begins to suspect it’s demonic, sending Vollmer on a path to disprove those suspicions. Ultimately this exploration carries him through the mourning process, which he would have otherwise spent mostly isolated during lockdown.
Before delving into the metaphysical, Vollmer exhausts the possibility of a tangible explanation. He stumbles across The International Earthlight Alliance, a scientific nonprofit that chalks it up to magnetic fields. Google leads him to a geography professor who wrote a book on “ghost lights,” but science doesn’t offer a concrete answer. Searching for a biblical solution, he finds 263 references to light and delves into eight specific scriptures before spending significant time exploring the spiritual realm.
Vollmer consults neighbors, former students, a shamanic psychotherapist, an Episcopalian rector, anyone who will dialogue with him about his mother and the light — and if they could possibly be connected. He also looks inward during this journey to excavate his attachment to his mother and feelings of inadequacy.
Relying heavily on cataloging as a world-building mechanism, Vollmer’s book opens with a list of the seven terms that were trending on Twitter pre-pandemic. He details the nine things he passes while on a five-minute drive, the eight obscure items he purchases in a panic during the early days of lockdown, and 10 random things his mother didn’t like — ending with Willie Nelson’s braids. Initially his chronicling reads like a laundry list and the technique jumps out as repetitive, but that repetition comes together and ultimately conveys not just the physical environment but the emotional mood quite well.
Sometimes his lists are concise, such as the nine items he was deprived of (Dungeons & Dragons, caffeine, TV, etc.) while attending high school at an SDA boarding school in Georgia. And sometimes Vollmer’s lists are emotive and lyrical, such as when he breaks down the superior character his father possesses in contrast to his own “antagonistic and rude” tendencies.
Chronicling the reasons his father is better than him, Vollmer begins with, “I’d not be as patient or skilled … Never be able to mimic his quick or improvisational wit, would never learn how to affectionately antagonize with jokey insults” before he zeros in on his father’s specific achievements that stimulate Vollmer’s feelings of inadequacy: riding a motorcycle with reckless exactness, holding an opossum by the tail or catching a rainbow trout barehanded. The result is a detailed yet comprehensive picture of Jim as not just a father but a person. This technique is utilized generously throughout Vollmer’s memoir with surprising success.
As Vollmer processes through his grief and begins to move forward without his mother, the light becomes a metaphorical symbol granting access to the legacy of her love she spent a lifetime infusing into the known world around him. His initial question may remain unanswered, but by the end of his narrative, Matthew Vollmer discovers more important things than if the light is scientific or supernatural.
“All of Us Together in the End”
by Matthew Vollmer
Hub City Press
256 pages, $16.95
About the Author
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