The miserable winter weather we’re having here in Ohio has reminded me of the snowy night in 1965, when my parents and I had to make the five-hour drive from our suburban Chicago home to the downstate hospital where my grandmother was dying. We’d left our farm and our extended family behind in order for my mother to take a teaching position in Oak Forest, Illinois, a move she later confided to me that she thought unnecessary, a move that had been solely my father’s idea. I’m not sure we ever felt like we belonged in Chicagoland. On that February night, in 1965, we had to make our way back home. That became one of the moments I wanted to include in my first memoir, From Our House.
I structured that memoir with a narrative arc that used geography as an organizing principle. The narrative broke down nicely into three distinct sections: my early childhood on our farm in southeastern Illinois and the event that led to our leaving for Oak Forest; our years in Oak Forest and our poor attempts to fit in before deciding to move back downstate; our return to southeastern Illinois and the life we finally accepted there. Beginning, middle, end.
Beneath that narrative arc, though, was the complicated story of the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands, the anger he brought into our home and the difficulties between us, and our eventual reconciliation.
Memoirs are not only about what happened; they’re also about the complications between people and how they rub up against one another. I decided to let each chapter of From Our House feature a single event that provided a turning point in my family’s story. The chapter that opens with the drive we made on that snowy night uses my grandmother’s death for its narrative center, but it also uses that event as a catalyst for a shift in my relationship with my father. The event, then, is working on the level of plot as well as characterization.
I was nine years old in February, 1965, and once we arrived at the hospital downstate and found out that my father’s mother, my Grandma Martin, had passed, we stayed with and my aunt and uncle while funeral arrangements were made. On the morning of the funeral, I found myself stricken with an inexpressible sadness. I refused to get out of bed. My uncle tried to coax me, but still I refused. Finally, my father came into the room, and I braced myself for his anger, which was the custom between us. He surprised me by lying down on the bed with me. The pressure of a plot event often causes someone to act out of character. That person, then, becomes more alive to us, more complicated. The newness that we see in him or her demands our response.
While my father and I were lying on the bed, a rooster on my uncle’s farm began to crow even though it was well past daybreak:
“Hear that?” my father said. “Mr. Rooster’s all mixed up. He must have slept through the dawn. He must have been an old lazy bones. Now he’s too late.”
I heard my father’s voice break, and it startled me. I pulled my head out from under my pillow and saw him lying on his back, his eyes closed, his hooks clasped on top of his stomach. “When I died,” he had said, as we had left my grandma’s wake, “everyone will come just to see if they bury me with these hooks.” It was, perhaps, the first time I understood that my father, so much older than my friends’ fathers, might die while I was young. And though he was the man who whipped me, he was my father, and freedom from him would carry with it an everlasting guilt, a regret that we hadn’t found a way to love each other more.
It was impossible for me to snuggle in close to him, because of his hooks, but I moved as close as I could and felt the heat from his body.
“We have to go,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer. In a while, he would ask me if I was ready, and we would rise and go to the funeral home. But for the moment, we lay there, the two of us alone, while the rooster crowed again and my father said, “Good morning,” as if we were just then waking to a new day.
When we write a memoir, we might want to first think about what’s unresolved. For me, it was my father’s accident and how that affected our relationship. Then we might identify a particular time period in which this unresolved thing was most relevant. I knew my memoir would begin with my father’s accident and anger and end with his baptism when I was sixteen years old. Once we have that basic framework, we can start recalling the events that brought about turning points in the relationship most central to the book.
Two arcs, then: one of plot and one of characterization. In memoir, what happens always presses up against the people involved. We reveal ourselves and others through our responses to the events of our lives. Sometimes the events are large as was the case with my grandmother’s death, but sometimes within those large moments we find the smaller moments that still resonate even though years have passed. I wouldn’t get out of bed. My father lay down beside me and allowed himself to be vulnerable. I had to respond.