John Grogan’s book, The Longest Trip Home, brought back such vivid memories of my Catholic childhood and Catholic grammar school days that I actually had nightmares again about that time. Why nightmares? Because I hated my Catholic grammar school. I have memories, some poignant, some vivid, but mostly unpleasant. While I loved growing up in a big, noisy Catholic family, and returning to the church later to reclaim and deepen my faith, childhood wasn’t pleasant.
Grogan’s book, however, is more than a memoir about growing up Catholic, vivid though his accounts of sneaking wine in the sacristy with the other altar boys and nuns with stunning aim with a chalkboard eraser are to those of us who experienced similar situations. It is the story of his family of origin and the amazing, deep faith of his parents. It is the story, mostly, of his relationship with his taciturn father, who prefers shaking hands — the “Grogan handshake” he calls it — rather than kissing his sons.
The book begins with the ending, a circular tale following the journey of his father’s last days battling leukemia at age 89, his siblings’ struggles to care for both parents, and Grogan’s ambivalent attitude towards his family of origin, and especially his deep and abiding Catholic roots. He struggles because his wife, Jenny, seems to hate the church. I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, and no hard feelings to Mrs. Grogan, but this is the second memoir I have read by the author and in both books, his wife comes across as a snooty Catholic-hating Protestant who sneers at the “superstitions” of the church. Why she married into a Catholic family is a bit beyond me, and why she won’t open her mind to consider that just for a moment the church may actually be RIGHT about the issues she thinks are so “Medieval” is beyond me. But then again, I took took “the longest trip home”, returning to the faith after leaving and studying with an Eastern guru, so what do I know?
Anyway, about the memoir. I loved it. Grogan is, above all, an excellent story teller. Some of his stories made me laugh out loud, such as his his antics involving a nasty neighbor and a purloined Fourth of July firework, an Easter Vigil mishap as an altar boy, and a few others. However, there’s a flaw in this book. The stories are great, but the stitching together of them into a coherent tale of his relationship with his father and his conflicted emotions about faith is flawed. There are big gaps in the narrative, whole years missing, and we the readers lack the insight into his true struggles with his faith.
There’s too much left out of the book to paint a complete picture, and while we understand the author’s love and respect for his father, the gaps are such that it would have been a better book if Grogan had waited a few years to allow his return to Mass to take hold. I, for one, am curious as to whether his friendship with Mike, an authentic and realistic Catholic priest, helps his return “home” to the Church, or whether his attending Mass to honor his father’s death anniversary is more than just a one-time deal. But we never find out.
Perhaps that’s for his third memoir….
I do recommend this book, and hope you will find a copy. It is worth a read.
I purchased my copy on Amazon.