Review of All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer.
Matthew Vollmer's exquisite memoir All of Us Together in the End arrived at my house on Wednesday, and by Friday I had finished reading it and had recommended it to four friends, all with roots in Adventism. Finding my childhood church in a literary—by which I mean secular—space was a satisfying experience for me, made richer by Vollmer's prose, which is tender and precise, never straying into the simplistic. In his memoir, Vollmer writes about his mother's death, his Adventist upbringing, the early days of the pandemic, and the mysterious lights that began flickering in the forest behind his parents' North Carolina home. His Adventist father wonders if they're from the devil.
The memoir begins three months after Vollmer's mother has died and immediately after his father sees the lights in the woods. These lights, we learn, have no scientific explanation, worrying Vollmer's father, who would rather they were grounded in reality. Vollmer, however, is obsessed. "I couldn't shut up about the lights." Vollmer writes, "I went out of my way to tell everyone who'd listen." Over the course of the book, Vollmer visits North Carolina hoping to see the lights himself, asks acquaintances what they think is happening, writes to a geology professor who is also a ghost lights expert, and consults a shaman over Zoom. Over and over, people tell Vollmer that the lights are his mother's spirit communicating with those she loves.
This interpretation, of course, isn't a natural one for Adventists or even a former Adventist, which leads Vollmer into an explanation of what church members believe happens when you die. Vollmer's readers, who may be inclined to throw away Revelation seminar flyers, are not only introduced to Adventist dogma but also to Ellen White's The Great Controversy and a longish quote about the time of trouble. Unlike so many authors I grew up reading, Vollmer isn't trying to trick readers into discovering The Truth. In fact, he's no longer Adventist himself. He writes about Adventist theology and pokes gentle fun at Adventist peculiarities because being raised Adventist is one of the most important things we must know about his childhood.
"I loved growing up Adventist," Vollmer writes. "I loved singing 'Onward Christian Soldiers,' and 'This Little Light of Mine' and 'Only a Boy Named David.' I loved clapping my hands together to mime 'shoot the artillery' and shielding my candle finger so Satan couldn't blow it out . . . I loved eating Worthington meat substitutes like Big Franks and Fri Chik. More than anything else, I loved my Adventist family—grandparents, great grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts. And most of all, I loved my Adventist parents."
To stay in a church whose theology you no longer subscribe to is intellectually dishonest, but to grow out of a religious community that has held your family for generations is complicated. One of Vollmer's uncles sang in The Wedgwood Trio and another uncle-by-marriage is Ted Wilson. Though Vollmer writes that he left Adventism for a litany of reasons, including the denomination's unwillingness to ordain women, he sidesteps Wilson's role in enshrining patriarchal structures within the Adventist Church and his vigorous squashing of dissent. Perhaps Wilson's legacy is too specific to Adventism and so Vollmer merely notes his own resentment toward conservative family members, which he resolves in a generous scene involving a meal of haystacks.
If Adventism is the backdrop to All of Us Together in the End, Vollmer's parents are its focus. We learn early that his father is a good man who cares patiently for Vollmer's mother as her mind disappears into Alzheimer's. He is also witty, adventurous, and can stand a baby on the end of his hand, which he does to great acclaim at parties. "I'd always known I would never be as good a person as my father," Vollmer writes, but it's his mother who animates the memoir.
Her joyful laughter punctuates the narrative in the same way that the mysterious lights flash in the forest. In one of the most memorable passages in the book, Vollmer (exasperated) and his mother (amused) echo laughter back and forth. "My imitation of her laugh gave birth to a different laugh, and I'd reproduce that laugh, and she'd respond with another kind of laugh, and I'd imitate that one . . . until we came full circle and one of us—usually I was the one who surrendered—came to our senses and stopped." When Vollmer asks his mother why she laughs so much, she replies with a question of her own: "Would you rather have a mean mama?"
Yet Vollmer's quirky, cheerful mother is pained about her son's exit from Adventism. When a cousin reports to Vollmer that his mother is terrified about his soul, he thinks it's a joke and tells her over the phone, expecting a familiar hoot. Instead, his mother weeps. Their conversation, in which Vollmer reassures her, informs the book’s title and embodies his mother’s dearest hope. But it is in the conclusion of the memoir that Vollmer finds his own resolution, one that is beautiful and true and a testament both to his parents and to the integrity of his own life journey.
All of Us Together in the End is a book for anyone who enjoys memoir, who lived through the pandemic, who has complicated familial relationships, who has lost a parent, or who is intrigued by paranormal lights. And for those of us who grew up Adventist and have longed to see our experiences reflected back to us with honesty and humor, this book is essential.
Sari Fordham's memoir Wait for God to Notice narrates her childhood in Uganda as the child of Adventist missionaries. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Review, Green Mountains Review, Brevity, Booth, Electric Lit, Brevity, Best of the Net, among others. She is a professor of creative nonfiction at SUNY Oswego and lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter.
Book cover courtesy of Hub City Press.
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