A Possibility of Memoir
You are considering writing a memoir. Who knows why. Because you’re up to your eyelids in memoirs, the thousands of memoirs, published in the last decade or so by people younger than you? by people less captivating or clever than you? Or maybe you just read the Book Review every week and the rise of the creative nonfiction genre itself piqued your interest. Or, more likely, the memoir deluge has given you permission—and the true parts of your life are at least as engaging as that guy’s whose book sold about a zillion copies before he was exposed as having misrepresented the facts? Or, wait. There was more than one of those guys. Pick one. Or pick a woman who fabricated a cool, edgy existence from a pretty comfortable perch. Or, perhaps more honestly—think about it now—you’re simply being directed by your obsessions. And you are your own obsession. Parts of you, you might feel, seem to be disappearing and you need to further explore who you think you might be before you really do vanish. Middle-age, late middle-age, old age, or a youthful narcissism is driving your bus. Listen, you’re me one way or another. You’ve got a ticket. What the hell, why not?
There will be an obstacle, of course. There are always obstacles. Your personal obstacle is an impressively incomplete set of memories. Compared to other people, even those who would never consider writing a memoir, you remember almost nothing. And the recollections you think you do have are in all likelihood peppered with memory’s failings. You can’t remember a single date, except for your birthday and your mother’s birthday, to save yourself. And you have no one who is willing to tell you the truth about what really happened at any given time during any given life phase. The few who would know are dead or are liars. So, with a paucity of credible events—and a rotten imagination to boot—how do you write a memoir? Isn’t a memoir a retelling of what really happened to you?
What happened to you, you know now, in the fifties, sixties, and even the seventies, was dampered (an understatement no one will call you on) by the five basic, ground-into-the-bone tenets of your matriarchal household: One, Don’t tell the neighbors. Two, Don’t ask questions. Three, Don’t get involved in anybody’s business. (This includes not attending funerals. Nobody’s death is your business. The funeral ban, being yet another manifestation of the proscription against attending anyone’s family gatherings even though you’re invited, because—and you are reminded of this constantly—you’d be intruding. It adds up to a small-world logic that includes the prohibition of inviting anyone to your own family events—those three heavily scripted and awesomely horrible holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter—because, if anyone were to accept your invitation, they’d be intruding.) Number four is a compound imperative: Act happy, act grateful. And five: Should you feel anything other than happy and/or grateful, keep it to yourself.
You also are aware that because, until you were an adult and checked out the wider world, your external-to-the-family role models were limited to your way-too-brief classroom observations of your teachers (very well behaved, indeed, except for that one grade school art teacher who, even back then, wore too many petticoats, no hose, and had quite a reputation—as well as a Jaguar XKE). You simply didn’t know what people other than your own did.
You read books, of course: Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis was one of your sixth grade book reports. It was about divorce, and it had a dark green, sticky library binding with the title, all capitals deeply impressed in gummy white, that ran perpendicular to the length of the spine. The pages were yellowed with age even then, and there were lots of them. You looked good carrying that book. You looked like you could handle just about anything. And though divorce never blossomed in your parents’ lives, all the attendant screaming, slamming, and crying disputes and separations had, and that was close enough. The book had been an anomalous addition to the sixth grade reading list, but your teacher had understood, and her name is gone now—you just can’t believe it—but you did know it for a very long time; she was an older, short, squat woman who was very kind to you for some reason you still do not understand and who scared the hell out of all the other students. Her gray hair was pulled tight against her head; her breasts hung over what served as her waist. You loved her. You knew she would keep you safe. And keep you from having any real fun. And you feel sick, ungrateful, and shamed at having forgotten her name.
Apparently, though—and, actually, much to your relief—in your reading you find there’s likely a valid reason for your dearth of recall. You read somewhere—and you wish you could remember where (you so hate it when you do that)—that children who are brought up to do only what they should do have poor memories—not bad you memories in the way you think of bad dreams, but poor memories, memory processes that are faulty, their vaults of recall themselves either sparsely populated or inaccessible. And you were a child who did what you were told. You were too good even for your own good. You were so good you stunk of good and the other kids could smell it on you. You even bored yourself. You were afraid of everything. And you had been drilled since birth on the consequences of being anything other than perfectly present and publicly invisible by a parent so angered by any form of shame that her fury would never in this lifetime be assuaged if you were caught doing something untoward. You knew that you would be reminded of it over and over again (up until you passed on to the next world and into and beyond the world after that should there be one) of the great upset you had caused her; you would be faced, once again, with your own inevitable humiliation and indelible disgrace due to that fact that you had (once again) persecuted your generous parent with your selfish behaviors.
When you think in terms of event, you recognize with telegraphic clarity the turning points that contributed to your feelings about the world and yourself—these in chronological order and spread throughout your first thirty-two years. Of course, there is a front- and backstory to each, but, for now, just the removed-from-their-contexts basics: First, you threatened to call the police. Second, you drowned. Third, your father killed himself and you were complicit. And fourth, you left.
And at the time of the first, you were way too young to realize you’d taken a stand or that you’d remember it later. Regarding the second: you know the year, 1957, only because, for some reason, you are able to visualize the year in white in the upper right-hand corner of the blue-skied cover of the souvenir booklet from DisneyLand your mother purchased on that trip. You have the feeling, though, that you have somehow conflated a photograph of yourself, your fat eight-year-old, dour-faced self in your string-tied sunsuit, in front of Cinderella’s castle—was it her castle? or some other woman’s castle?—with whatever was really on the front cover, probably just the castle itself. And Tinkerbelle. And you’ve forgotten the date of the third, your father’s suicide, if you’d ever remembered it, and you don’t think you did. Your current husband probably remembers the date of the fourth; he’s good like that. You’re not.
Yes, of course somewhere amidst all that growing-up was the whole virginity thing—and, yes, you did have some (virginity, that is)—but losing it was unremarkable. You remember thinking, “Oh.” And there was marriage number one, as well, but in fact, you’re a little vague on that one too, though you do remember a couple of funny stories (funny after the fact, no doubt—no, the thing with the frozen chicken really was funny. How that chicken slid across the linoleum, hit that metal strip where the carpet began, became airborne and walloped him in his own little package of Texas gizzards still seems impossible and, yet, somehow, full of grace).
It’s an interesting idea: after all, what should you remember? And if you should, then what’s the why behind that obligation? Someday you may figure some of that out, but, you feel, at least for now, an obligation to yourself to dig a little deeper into what you do remember on the chance of unearthing a few fragments of things you presently do not.
You know, in the way one knows facts, that your mother would not recognize your life were you to write it down. In your daydream about this—based partially on experience, partially on the imaginative leap that would allow you to show it to her at all—she’d read it and say, “Hey, honey, this is about a girl who lived around here. She’s just about your age. Did you know her?” And to keep the peace you’d have to say “No, Ma. No, I don’t. She doesn’t ring a bell at all.”
After all, your mother has been rewriting your life since you began living it. She’s not evil. She just honestly prefers her version of everything including your life as you should see it for its impact on her own. When she’s feeling particularly in-the-world and generous, she’ll admit that. She, you have understood for a long time, believes fantasy is more practical than reality. And she is a practical woman; she has had to be. You call it her “Betty Boop,” her “Oh! Really?” persona. And she is a master teller-of-tales on at least two matters: one, her victimhood during the Great Depression and her marriage to your father, and two, your life. She’s so good that she believes her own stories.
For example, the day you received your acceptance letter from San Francisco State University—and you were well into your twenties at that point—your mother called her friend from the kitchen phone and said: “Hey, Elsie,” and then without taking a breath, “my daughter was just accepted at Stanford.” And she smiled at you as though you should have been thrilled, the beige receiver pressed against her ear, her head nodding yes, yes, the coiled cord dangling down against her jaw and looping back up again near her elbow. You were still in the kitchen, still had the freshly torn-open envelope and the magical letter in your hand, had not even set it down yet, when she made the call. You were still taking it in. When you asked her why she said Stanford, she said warmly, “Well, you know what I meant.”
When you were probably about fifty, married (again), and visiting your mother on the West Coast with your best friend from your life on the East Coast, you sat in the adjacent room—the two of them were watching “Golden Girls”—and you heard your mother tell your best friend how difficult it was to find the money to put you through Stanford. Your friend knew the first Stanford story, the one about Elsie—she knows just about everything about you that you know. Later she told you that, when she heard your mother tell her how tough it was, she just nodded dumbfoundedly. What was there to say? You did nothing, when you heard it yourself, but lean your forehead against the wall you were facing and sigh. It’s a fact that you attended SFSU for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. You have the paperwork somewhere. You remember the faces of your instructors and the classes you took. You took out student loans and worked full-time on campus as an assistant to a succession of professors, and as a secretary in the English office where you learned to drink eight-to-twelve cups of coffee in five hours, and as a clerk in the campus library where you were continually being shhhh-ed, and off-campus as a writer’s assistant and a ghost writer of ESL textbooks in a Victorian house on a steep hill on the other side of the city. That writer had an enormous, old black Labrador whom you loved, and whom you walked on those precipitous hills, and whose name you have forgotten—which seems strange because you adore dogs and usually remember their names. The woman-you-worked-for’s last name is gone too, though you remember her first name and that of her husband. You remember their huge, warm kitchen and that, after a couple of years working with her in her tiny upstairs office, you quit when she became pregnant. She was nearly unbearable before she became pregnant, and, although you were always happy to walk the dog, you weren’t doing nappies on babies.
The story comes back around to this, the foundational part of your mother’s stories: there’s always some, often negligible, bit of truth in her inventions. Stanford and San Francisco both start with an s, they’re within fifty miles of each other. So, except for the many reiterations of blatant untruths, it’s an understandable—or at least conceivable—slip. Sort of. And you did live at home most of that time. You attended college, and, it’s true: paying someone’s way through college is grueling. Always that little notch or two of truth in a story’s belt because of which a listener will not discard the speaker’s credibility without deeper examination. When you returned East from that West Coast visit, you laughingly told your boss the story of your mother and your friend and your two now-classic Stanford stories. He looked at you quizzically. He put his hand on your shoulder and asked you, maybe only half-kidding (he had very kindly taken you and your mother to lunch years before on one of her three East Coast trips): “Are you sure you didn’t go to Stanford?”
The Stanford stories are one thing, but, akin to the notches in your mother’s truth-belt, there were also some instances of real shared experience, though bizarre and unlikely, on which you had based a great deal of hope.
You were in bed. It was late. You lived on Flynn Street in Redwood Village. The front door was painted hot pink. You were . . . what? Eight? Nine? Your mother and father were in the front upstairs bedroom in their separate twin beds; the bathroom was between their room and your own--you were in your double bed—and there was one more room, a room designated as your playroom, beyond that. That third room was inaccessible without going through your bedroom. A dead end on the second storey. That night, as on most nights, you were hiding under your covers with the radio on, listening to country western music with the sound turned way, way down. When you heard the front door latch open and click closed again, you figured you must have fallen asleep and not known it. You’d done that before. Your father must have gone out. That must be him coming back in, you thought. So, you pulled your head out from beneath the blankets so you could give him your co-conspirator’s smile, when he poked his head in your room to see you sleeping. You heard the footsteps come up the carpeted staircase that ended in front of the bathroom. but they went the other way, directly into your parents’ room. And there was an odd pause; then the footsteps came back towards you—he remembered you!—through the hall. A man who was not your father, who wore a light-colored trench coat and brimmed hat came into your room. His hands were in his pockets; he stopped, looked around, but clearly you weren’t what he was looking for. You don’t remember his face at all. He stared in your direction from the foot of your bed, but he was looking beyond you, as if you weren’t even there, as if the walls had fallen away. Then he turned—he seemed disappointed and you felt bad for him—and walked on into the playroom. You just lay there in bed, looking in his direction, waiting for him to return. A few minutes later, your mother came into your room. She asked calmly, “Did you hear something?” and you said, “Yes.” Then she said, “Did you see someone?” and you nodded and said, “Yes,” again. It was odd, but you were neither scared nor unnerved though you had never seen that man before, though the circumstances were odd and new. “Tell me what you saw,” your mother said, and you did and when your description fell short of what she wanted to hear, she asked, “What was he wearing?” and you told her. She told you the same man had entered her room, gazed about unseeingly, then turned and walked into yours. She hesitated, then went ahead and checked the playroom; the window was locked; no one was there. She told you to go back to sleep, and, without waking your father, she went downstairs in her nightgown for coffee and a cigarette.
Another time, your father was taking an afternoon nap; your mother was doing whatever mothers in the fifties did downstairs, so it must have been a Saturday. She worked during the week. You were in your playroom doing whatever an only child like yourself would do; most likely you were in the closet with the door closed talking to an imaginary person on the telephone you had drawn on the wall with a pencil. A pay phone. You heard your mother come upstairs and go into her bedroom. Then, way too quickly, you heard her footsteps in your bedroom and then in the playroom. You threw the closet door open before she could catch you talking to no one, and she took your hand and, serious but not alarmed, said “Come with me.” She led you into her bedroom and pointed to your father. He was curled up, facing the wall, on top of the faded green chenille bedspread, sleeping in his gray work clothes. Above him was a roiling cloud of green and yellow light. It was punctuated with sparkling pinpoints of brighter yellow light and was hovering there, maybe three or four feet above him. It was just about the length of his curled body. Your mother said, “Do you see it?” and you answered, “Yes.” The two of you stood a moment longer, then your mother took your shoulders in her hands and turned you back towards your own room and the two of you went about your business.
Throughout the years, during two rare moments of apparent camaraderie, your mother and you talked about those two instances. Wasn’t it odd? Why weren’t we frightened? Did you ever see anything like that again? You had that experience in common. You thought that was kind of cool.
Now your mother is ninety-seven. She is not in the least senile. You think she may have been in her seventies when she told you, “No. Neither of those things ever happened.”
Your life perceptions are very often made up of: there’s this and then there’s that. Sometimes when you look at these pairings of experience, they appear to be examples of those trick-the-eye-and-mind drawings: You’re a duck, no you’re a rabbit; you’re a young lady, no you’re an old hag; you’re a vase, no you’re two people kissing. If a life at all, then a sort of life in dualities. But in an odd way, the experience is rather like the strange man in your room and the green cloud above your father: you don’t question it—you question very little, in fact, as a rule. There’s not a lot of tension between the two versions; they just are. The this and the that are just givens.
Action, you’ve come to understand, isn’t always the immediately observable kind—because what happens to you may be internal, a reaction or product of what, however apparently forgotten, may have engaged you on the outside at some point. It’s an internal action called change. Change often has to stew. Perhaps the catalyst fades; you don’t believe that kind of alteration does.
You think of yourself, not as a poet or a novelist or even a writer-of-essays—writing books is something you do, not who you are—but as the accretion, the resulting aggregate of your experiences, internal and external, and of your neuroses and humors, of your psychological bangs and baggage, of your triumphs however small, of your interest in remembered events in terms of and through their accuracies and their perjuries. Your discoveries come through the act of articulation. In the process of exploring through writing who you might be, you’re likely to discover, as well, some forgotten things that may make you smile, and, equally as likely, some things you don’t want to know. You’ll add them to those you already recognize and accept or have difficulty with—another of those dualities. You’re a duck, you’re a rabbit. A young woman, an old hag. You’re like him; you’re like her. Your sixth grade teacher’s name was Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy. How could you have forgotten that? You’ll have to trust that your memoir can be made as mutable as a life and as the varied perceptions of a life, that who you find you are is what happened to you, and that you’re allowed to write about it whatever the conventions of a given genre may be. This is your life, you’ll be saying to your reader. This is one draft of your life.
Renee Ashley is the author of five books of poetry, Salt, Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, The Various Reasons of Light, The Revisionist’s Dream, and Basic Heart -2008 Winner X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press and Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea, Winner of the Subito Book Prize, Subito Press, University of Colorado—Boulder, and two chapbooks, The Museum of Lost Wings and The Verbs of Desiring, as well as a novel, Someplace Like This. A portion of her poem, "First Book of the Moon," from The Revisionist's Dream is engraved in a permanent installation at New York's Penn Station. Renée is poetry editor at The Literary Review and on the faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s two low-residency graduate programs, the MFA in Creative Writing and the MA in Creative Writing and Literature for Educators.