“My mother cried forty-three-year-old tears when she found out she was pregnant with me,” writes Julia Pandl, the youngest of nine children, in Memoir of the Sunday Brunch. She writes a feel-good memoir about growing up in a crowded family where everyone is required to work at the family restaurant — especially at the busy (and dreaded) Sunday buffet. Pandl’s father, George, owned and operated one of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s favorite eateries. While the memoir’s title suggests that Sunday brunch is the primary story, Pandl only spends a few chapters here. Her book elaborates on memories of growing up amidst the sensibilities of her parents: her father’s frugality and work ethic and her mother’s passivity and Catholicism.
The first part of her memoir focuses on childhood and teen years, while the second part changes tone, and documents, sometimes non-chronologically, the deaths of her elderly parents when Pandl is in her 30s. Pandl constructs a folksy bravura that endorses Midwestern American values. Her bio states that she “moonlights” as a stand-up comedian and so PG-rated jokes about vomit and flatulence, with the occasional f-bomb, punctuate her memoir. She writes with a wry, tongue-in-cheek style that coats her anecdotes with sweetness (e.g., “watching George come unglued on a Sunday morning was like sitting next to a silent church fart”). This is a common way to deal with events that are otherwise abusive and tragic.
For example, she writes about various injuries in humorous tones: her brother slicing off the tip of his finger, and the time he clamped both her hands in a vice in the basement and then left her there. She describes a bleeding gash from jumping on her parent’s bed as “about the size and color of a plum.” Of course, all of these wounds occur when there is no adult supervision around. As Pandl describes it, “that’s how the chaos was managed in our family: the next oldest kid took care of the younger one. It was a perfectly acceptable arrangement.”
She describes how her older sister registers her for school: “My mother couldn’t bear the thought of bringing yet another kid to… school.” Her memoir skates across all the dysfunction, coating it in a kind of syrup. It’s all “perfectly acceptable,” but there is still that lurking chaos that comes from accepting, not questioning her parent’s values.
She places her parents in “the Greatest Generation”, Tom Brokaw’s millennial catch-all term that basically meant “parents of boomers”. In the national argument, these types are respected despite their conservative, if not wacky values and mores. Pandl finds her father charming and heroic, despite his tendency to serve the family cheese and meat “with a little age on it” to avoid wasting any food. George serves her an old steak after he has sautéed it in onions and mushrooms to mask the smell: “it was like chewing the gauze off a festering open wound.” Of course, we all accept our family “as-is”. But in Pandl’s memoir, there are no moments when she moves past the personal to offer a critical perspective.
Details about her mother’s experience, she eventually loses a foot to diabetes, haunt the memoir’s background: her tears, her nine pregnancies and labors, one lasting four days, and her various aches and pains, which become severe by the end of her life. Pandl focuses on her mother’s religion, and the faith that takes her to the Cathedral of St. Paul though she is suffering from back pain with a dearth of painkillers. Pandl describes the look on her mother’s face: “Her eyes… had a pristine sparkle like a snow-covered lake on a sunny winter day.” Pandl wants to find the panacea to replace the more obvious tragic nature of her mother’s life. Like the Catholicism that obviously forbade birth control, mandating nine children, too many for her mother to bear taking the youngest to school.
In the second part of the book, by far the strongest, Pandl’s tone changes as she focuses on her parent’s health challenges and recounts in detail, their deaths. Here the book becomes a memoir of care-giving, a timely topic for boomers who, in the last decade, nursed “the Greatest Generation” on their collective deathbeds. Pandl turns lyrical and repetitive, writing chapters that feel like prose poems, and that attempt to get at the irrational cold leftovers of grief. As she details the play-by-play of her father’s last days, she weaves in quotidian notes from his daily medical chart: medications, meals. “Let’s face it,” she remarks near the end, “grief can get a little boring.” Pandl’s memoir is not boring, though she sometimes repeats anecdotes and details that she’s already gone over, the same way her own father repeats certain phrases, “rise and shine, daylight in the swamps!” and “what do you think they did in the covered-wagon days?”
Memoir of the Sunday Brunch is about a lot more than Sunday brunch. It’s highly readable and while amusing, it’s also shocking, as most memoirs usually have to be to raise the story above boring. Pandl’s memoir presents ideas about “normal” Midwestern American existence. At one point, she describes accepting how she and her siblings become like their parents, buying pants with an elastic waistband, a seemingly inevitable turn. The memoir insists on this kind of acceptance, often using the metaphor of food. Pandl explains, “food was sacred… eventually food taught us the basics: how to entertain, how to clean up after ourselves, how to behave. It worked. That’s as simply as I can put it. Rotten, fresh, messy, pretty—it didn’t matter: my family came together around food”.
Somehow she also learned that “putting it simply” is a positive. I’m not accepting that value, the virtue of simplicity, quite yet.