Truth and family memoir
A courier envelope was waiting on the porch when the Littlest Who and I arrived home after school today. Inside, was the latest issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, with a sweet note from my editor-in-chief clipped to the front, and a sticky flag peeking out from the top. It has been over five years since my work began appearing in GH, and it is always thrilling to open the cover and see my name inside (with such excellent company as Gretchen Rubin, Ellen Gilchrist, Ann Lamott, to drop a few favorite names).
Among the dozen or so pieces of mine, my husband, the boys, my mom, and even friends have appeared as supporting characters. Occasionally, we’ll be sitting in a doctor’s office and I’ll spot a back issue I recognize. If no one else is around, I’ll flip to the page where there’s a photograph of the boys, and show them. They usually respond with a polite “oh, yeah,” and go back to watching cartoons or the fish tank. Being in a magazine is just part of their normal, like reading Dad’s poems in school was part of mine. Neither of us will ever be able to say with certainty how the experience of growing up with writers has shaped us. It just is.
As a mother and a writer, I think about this a lot. Family stories are common to everyone. Story is what holds people together in relationship and community. It’s the fabric that binds our ragtag assortment of individual experiences and personalities into something that makes sense. People have been telling the Story of Us for as long as people have been trying to live together, but it’s usually a communal, oral process, subject to constant input and revision from other family members. Written stories, especially published ones, are weighted with a kind of authority and permanency that isn’t quite fair.
These public stories I write about our family will be part of our family’s historical record, associated with my name for as long as they are circulated or archived. My “Story of Us” will be the canonical version (at least until one of the boys comes out with his own personal blog or memoir). But mine isn’t the only one. Everyone in a family has their own “Story of Us” to tell, one that is no less true or important than any other. Those of us who are called upon to tell our version to a larger audience have a special responsibility to honor those other perspectives, even–and most especially–where they don’t line up with ours.
I don’t share everything I publish with my children, because I don’t want my narration of our experience to overshadow their own. The day is coming when they will have the same access as anyone else to my published writing, but by then I hope they have the maturity to meet it with healthy skepticism. There were promising signs from the Littlest Who when he read my piece in Good Housekeeping today, of which he happens to be the star.
“You got some of it wrong!” he said. “You never said those words.”
“Show me,” I said, and he pointed to some lines that I remember vividly from that day, to my shame. I was glad to learn he doesn’t.
“That’s how I remember it,” I said. “But people remember things differently.”
I bent down and kissed the top of his head.
“It’s a story about how you organized the pantry, and helped me see that my way isn’t the only way. Your have good ideas too, even when they’re different from mine.”
He leapt up and returned to the scene of the story, opening the pantry door wide, and standing in front of it contemplatively.
“What are you doing now?”
“I’ve got more ideas,” he said.
Or something like that.
I’ll know I got it right if he can always tell me when he thinks I got it wrong.