I saw my father juggle oranges once. No, that’s a lie, a flat-out impossibility because, as you know, my dad lost his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old. So, of course, I never saw him juggle oranges.
Oh, but how I wish I had. I wish I had a memory of my father juggling oranges, maybe even bouncing one off his bicep. So much of my life with him was lived in anger. How I wish he’d been the jaunty sort who could’ve juggled those oranges and maybe even whistled “Pop Goes the Weasel,” or made his ears wiggle. A happy-go-lucky, har-de-har-har sort of wiseacre who would have kept me laughing. Maybe he would have even played practical jokes and been the sort folks would have wanted to be angry with but wouldn’t quite be able to manage the necessary ire because he would have been so charming and funny.
For writers of memoirs, the way they wish their ancestors might have been is often as revealing about the self as their accounts of how those fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, etc. really were. When we imagine our fantasy versions of our family members, we expose so much about who we are—what we wish for, what we regret, what matters to us, how we’d like to be able to see ourselves. Desmond Tutu once said, You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” Far be it from me to disagree, but face it, no matter how precious family is to us, sometimes those relatives challenge us in ways that make them seem more a curse than a gift. When we write about the difficult times with our families, we sometimes forget to imagine our ancestors the way we wish they might have been. Doing so can not only provide a richer characterization of those ancestors, it can also provide an illuminative perspective into our own characters.
So here’s a brief writing activity designed to do just that:
1. Choose someone with whom you’ve had some difficult times and begin with the line, “I wish I would have seen them. . . .” Fill in the blank with whatever comes to your mind. Obviously it will be something that casts the person in an opposing light to the way you usually think of them. Use this line to start an extended piece of writing in which you create your fantasy version of this person.
2. Pay attention to what you’re feeling and thinking as you write this piece. Then start a new passage with the line, “But the truth is, he/she was a man/woman of. . . .” Fill in the blank with the facts of this person’s life and your assessment of them.
3. “His/Her life was his/hers, but it made my own. . . .” Again fill in the blank and extend the writing toward an investigation into how you think your ancestor influenced the person you are now.
3. Then fill in the blanks in this line: “Perhaps if he/she would have. . . ., we would have had. . . . That’s why I wish for. . . . That’s the secret I carry with me.”
The purpose of this exercise is to imagine a fantasy life for someone with whom you had a complicated relationship. I hope it will allow you to think further about what that relationship meant to you by casting the person into an ideal light and then seeing how you respond to that. In the process, you’ll probably be thinking about this person in a way you may not have previously, and you’ll be thinking more deeply about yourself.