I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Free Press, 2011) is the poignant memoir of Kelle Groom. Her life, as she tells it, is defined by the birth of her son Tommy and his double loss. As a young, unmarried woman, she gives him away for adoption only to learn soon after that he dies from leukemia at the heart-breaking age of two.
The memoir submerges us in Groom’s search for Tommy, and through Tommy, herself. Each short chapter acts as a small eddy as she tries to make sense of the course of her life. The chapters are not chronological. We ebb and flow with Groom from her young adult days of amorphous drunkenness and tragic consequences to her later mature success as a poet with something significant to say and back to her carefree girlish years.
As a girl she moves with her mother, father and brother from the ocean to the desert and back. No matter what happens to her, her parents are unflaggingly present. Groom is especially attached to her maternal grandparents with whom she spends summers on Cape Cod. The title of the book comes from these happier times when she is a bridesmaid in her uncle’s wedding.
My mother drove me to Boston and bought me a beautiful blue dress that touched the floor; I wore the ocean in the shape of a girl.
Her son Tommy is adopted by the sister and brother-in-law of her father. Groom is afraid to ask about him and spends a good part of her life constrained by the silence. The ocean, and water in general, is a recurring theme in her memoir. Groom is “ocean girl,” telling her story in a “quiet, blue voice,” lending all she experiences an “aquatic distance.”
She is raped more than once. She is sent to an alcohol treatment shelter. She works in a health food store, a homeless shelter. She gets counseling. She goes back to college. She almost marries. She meets people who mean something. She writes. She falls in love. She volunteers at a grief center for children where the children teach her what she couldn’t seem to learn for herself.
Underneath the memoir is a mystery. Was Tommy’s death the result of environmental factors? Groom plumbs the facts, the secrets, her own observations. She watches home movies, discovering more about what’s behind what she knows of her relatives and family history.
In I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, Groom wrings from language its touching essence. She forgets herself back to the beginning, and, like a grief-stricken child, she teaches herself to matter in the process. For her, writing the memoir is a way to remember Tommy. Each memory, an epiphany, is like a small poem. And in the end, in Tommy’s celluloid eyes, she finds herself.
The arc of his eyelids are little beds where I rest my eyes.