When someone is missing in our lives, we search for clues to their whereabouts. If it’s your
mother, you try to read hidden messages in old photographs, you peer into the magic crystal ball of hindsight, trying to puzzle out what you did wrong to make her go away, what went amiss in the tracks of history that created such an outcome.
My students are always asking me if they “should” write about a past that they have not
personally experienced. They’re worried about sticking to facts, worried that if they use their imagination, they will be sued, or will break the memoir rules that are etched somewhere on billboards in writing land. Many authors write nonfiction memoir pieces about families whose histories they are left to imagine and piece together from clues. Most people write their memoir to come to a new understanding of their heritage. Many of them, like me, are trying to cobble together a sense of identity by examining their history, by combing through documents, records, and newspaper articles to discover truths that the living people weren’t able to offer. By trying to find objective information about who was who, who lived where, who left when, who lied, how did they lie, and what they lied about, the veil of secrecy and lies can be pulled aside to reveal stories that we need for our own survival.
Sometimes writing a memoir becomes more of a research project than a story. Annie Lamott so aptly advised us to see our first utterances and stories, musings and notes as a “shitty first draft.”
In our first encounter with truth, the past, history remembered and repressed, we create a collage of possibilities, wondering if the images can coalesce into a clear picture.
For me, the mosaic of history is made of distinct cameo shots of memories that stand out in
brilliant relief: my beautiful mother descending from a silver train, the call of the train whistle as it brings her and takes her away. Sepia photographs of a little girl with a brown bob, her brown eyes staring into the camera. My father running to me from the train in the same station, his shoes tappingon the concrete as he runs toward me. At least, I think he ran. I know I did. Cameos of longing. It took me a few years to realize that most of the my time was spent waiting for my parents to visit—363 days or so, while the visit itself was a sliver of time quickly lost, most of it burned up in fights between them and my grandmother who was raising me. Another cameo: my mother shushing me in Chicago when I was twenty years old, “Don’t tell them you’re my daughter,” she says, as if this is a normal statement to make to your child. “They don’t know I have a daughter, and
they’d think I’m old, and of course, I’m not old, not really, not old enough to have a daughter your age, so be quiet.” In shock, I obey, letting the fire of confusion and anger burn down in veins and muscles. It would burn for three decades, through visits where I thought I could win her love, through visits with my children, whom she also denied while she patted their head—on the two visits she saw them in their whole lives. Through my own stubbornness I refused to be discarded like that. If I was good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, a good mother, a good daughter—she’d change her mind and there would be this terrific loving apology and reunion. I waited for it until she died, all the while knowing it would never come, all the while wanting the impossible. For if your mother does not claim you, are you Jung’s said that the unlived lives of the parents manifest in their children. What was I living that mother couldn’t? I knew that my grandmother had left my mother behind, though I didn’t know when.
The rumor was that she’d left mother “as a baby,” but the age of the baby, and the actual circumstances were never revealed. My mother said she didn’t remember. She’d get a wistful, misty expression when I spoke with her about her young childhood—she allowed very brief forays into the dangerous swamp of the past, “I don’t know how old I was. I don’t remember.” She’d pause, and that look would come in her eye and a voice that could be harsh and scary would soften into nearly a whisper: “My mother was so beautiful. I loved it when she came to see me, she wore furs and looked like a movie star.” Pause. “But she didn’t come very often. I missed her so much.”
She’d go back to her knitting, seemingly unaware that her statements of loss also applied to me, that she’d stated what I’d always felt. If I felt like getting a barb in, I’d mention that I felt that way too, but most of the time, I felt so sorry for my mother and her lost childhood, I couldn’t bear to hurt her.
Long before I wrote my memoir, I tried some novelized versions of our family history, going all the way back to the 1850s. To investigate the generational patterns, I went back to the birth of my great-grandmother Blanche, whom I met when she was 80 and I was eight. She’s the one who showed me through the tales she shared tucked beside me on a featherbed during my childhood summers that she was living history, that everything she’d seen and known were part of her, each wrinkle and vein bore remnants of how her living had touched her. She was the one who gave birth to my complicated grandmother, she knew my mother as a little girl long before I was born. She also knew of the stillborn child, a son, born to my grandmother when she was twenty. Blanche carried the ghosts of deep grief and loss, I believe, throughout her life when her young husband of twenty-two died of pneumonia two months after their wedding on New Year’s day, 1894. My grandmother was a seed in her Blanche’s belly, a seed that grew in the garden of grief. Sixty years later I would witness this grief as my grandmother wept every day in the smoky house we lived in.
In these novelized versions of our family story, I saw and felt the farm life of the women, the wood cook stove, the labor of gardening, baking, laundry boiled in a pot in the yard, the pump run by the windmill, the endless winds, floods, snows, dead animals and butchering, “putting up” the garden bounty, making bread, the endlessness of the work, the bitter taste of children who died, husbands who never came home, the rough hands, gnarled like Blanche’s. I saw Blanche being born in 1873— three years before Custer’s Last Stand—to a family who wanted a son, girls were second best, girls were… tolerated, courted briefly. Men ran things, but the women drove the team of horses that made the family a cohesive whole. They used a horse whip in those days against rebellious youth, belts and the back of the hand to children who should “be seen and not heard.” Grit your teeth, move forward no matter what were the rules, don’t look back. Don’t think, don’t get to smart for your britches. Rules for I researched old Sears catalogues to learn what women were wearing, the kind of stove you could buy, the implements of the kitchen and the barn. I listened to all the stories of great-aunts, great-greats, uncles and cousins. I read history of the nineteenth century, about pioneers and settlers, about the Gold Rush and the mountain trappers, about Kit Carson ad Jim Bridger, about the open plains and the grass so high that men on horses could not see over it. The way that soldiers went crazy if they were out on the plains too long. The wind and the emptiness undid them.
All this folded into the imagined story of my family. I wrote about the birth of Lulu, my grandmother, how it was for her to pass her father by as he left the earth as she quickened in her mother’s womb. I wanted to understand my grandmother as a helpless, vulnerable child to balance out the controlling, angry and depressed woman who rescued me when I had nowhere to go, but who also hit me, screamed at me, and made the later part of my childhood a smoky, frightening hell. I didn’t know then that she was mentally ill. As I wrote, I came to know the young girl who grew up without her father in a patriarchal world that she didn’t fit into. That girl still lived in my grandmother when she traveled the ocean on ships, when she read Shakespeare and urged me to read, to draw, and learn music. She was not just a product of the plains farm women, she had other visions that she never fulfilled, and she intended that somehow these visions would live on. As much as her urgings for me to play piano and cello were often harsh and unkind, I now know that the young girl who would run through the corn and feel the connection between raw nature and love and the blue sky and greater things beyond the farm had seeded me with enough culture to become a therapist, writer, and painter. That’s what I learned from writing the imagined stories.
There was a price for this gift, and my grandmother paid it until she died. To reach her dream of greater things—those ships and jobs in Chicago, fancy cafes and feather boas, she had to leave my mother behind in Iowa. After years of research I learned that my mother was seven years old when her mother left her, and I was nearly seven when Gram took me in—a full circle across three generations.
The whole story of what happened between them is too long to recount, except to say that what was broken was never repaired, and I was the only witness. Thus, my interest in the long view about families and how the patterns unravel through succeeding generations.
A memoir can serve so many functions—it can be a working document for discovery of hidden reaches of the psyche, it can reveal more than we could guess about what was lost and what we have found to balance the ledger. Each page can be like the breadcrumbs of Hansel and Gretel, leading us back home. For me, using my imagination to fill in the stories was a way to glue together so many missing pieces, and it gave me compassion for the women whose irrational reactions had so haunted my young life. I could see them as young, clear eyed, and hopeful, with no clue to the ultimate tragedies they would encounter. But that’s what innocence is—it is who we were “before.” The memoir can take us wherever we want to go, and riding the winds of our imagination can be the way to freedom.
I feel that all memoirists should be allowed, nay, invited to foray into realms of imagination as they write. For all we know, the cells of our bodies are whispering ancient truths to us, they carry the deep knowing of blood and generations. If we are quiet, we hear the whistle of the train far away, we sense the sepia toned history as it trickles across our conscious mind from deep within our bodies.
What we might feel is “fiction” might be truth more than we can ever prove. This is what writing invites of us—to become translators of experience, to be witnesses and artists. And in so doing, we find the missing parts of ourselves. We tell the lost tales, and are found.