Glitter and Glue A Memoir by Kelly Corrigan
Memoirs usually come in one of two flavors. The first type are exciting tales told by people who have done extraordinary things or lived extraordinary lives, while the second consists of quieter stories that reflect on the meaning of life’s ordinary moments. Examples from the first category include Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala. Kelly Corrigan’s Glitter and Glue is a shining example of the more reflective category, written by an author who is especially talented at drawing us into her memories and connecting past events with the present.
This is the third memoir from Corrigan, an author whose writing style is frequently described as “relatable.” In this book, she focuses on a period in her life just after college and shares her take on the ordinary dramas we all face–growing up, leaving home, becoming parents and facing the challenges of illness and death. A self-described rebel, Corrigan saves money from a temporary job and embarks on a world tour with her college friend Tracy, ignoring her mother’s advice to enter the job market, buy health insurance and settle down immediately. When she runs low on funds in Australia and needs to earn enough money to continue her travels, she takes a job as a nanny for a widower with two young children and stays with the family for five months. Much to her surprise, she finds herself adopting her mother’s no-nonsense approach to child care even though she had been at odds with her mother for most of her life.
As Corrigan grows up in Philadelphia in the 1970s and ’80s, her charming father, Greenie, is the glitter that adds sparkles to her family, while her no-nonsense mother, Mary, is the glue that holds everything together. The only girl in the family with two older brothers, Corrigan was always Daddy’s girl. Her relationship with her mother was rockier. It was so contentious that Corrigan says, “If you had asked me, after I graduated from college, whose voice I would hear in my head for the rest of my life, I’d have said some combination of my dad’s and my roommate Tracy’s and Jackson Browne’s. I would have continued with ten or twenty or two hundred others before I got to my mom.” Corrigan, who at 24 is sure she knows everything about the world, feels stifled under her mother’s strict rules and is oblivious to the sacrifices her mother makes in the interest of her husband and children.
The Tanner family that Corrigan nannies for has been broken by the loss of mother Ellen to cancer. Father John, a flight attendant who frequently travels for work, is doing his best to care for five-year-old Martin and seven-year-old Milly, but they are all still grieving and there is very little happiness in the house. Initially finding it awkward to be part of a family of strangers, Corrigan soon begins to hear her mother’s voice everywhere, counseling, advising and leading her through foreign territory. “God knows, every day I spend with the Tanners, I feel like I’m opening a tiny flap on one of those advent calendars we used to hang in the kitchen every December 1, except instead of revealing Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, it’s my mother. I can’t see all of her yet, but window by window, she is emerging.”
Over time, Corrigan doesn’t attempt to fill Ellen Tanner’s shoes, but she is able to use her mother’s practical philosophy to bring some order and normality into the Tanner home. Looking back on her world trek in later years, she realizes that the lessons she learned about parenting and motherhood with the Tanner family were far more important than all of her rock climbing and skin diving adventures in Australia.
Corrigan, who is now herself the mother of two young children, has recently had bouts with cancer. She sees parallels between her family and the Tanners and fears that her husband and children will be devastated by her loss. Once again, she turns to her mother for advice about dealing with the future’s uncertainty. She can count on her dad for unquestioning love and affection, but it’s her mother who is her rock. She has made the transition “from my father’s breezy relationship with the world to my mother’s determined navigation of it.” Corrigan has become her family’s glue, while her husband, Edward, has stepped into the glitter role.
This review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention that I listened to the audio version of Glitter and Glue, which is narrated by the author. I highly recommend this version for the bonus feature of hearing Corrigan imitate her parents’ voices. When she mimics her mother, she manages to convey all of the irritation she felt growing up along with the deep affection that has grown in adulthood.