Memoir and the Imagination
My wife Cathy has told me it’s all right if I tell this story. It’s her story of never knowing, until recently, the identity of her biological father. Her mother, a few years before she died, finally, when pressed, gave Cathy the identity of her father. He was deceased, but Cathy had no reason to doubt her mother was telling her the truth. Cathy could recall her mother being in this man’s car when they had an accident during Cathy’s childhood, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that the two of them had a relationship.
Fast forward to these days of DNA tests, and to make a long story short, Cathy found out, through DNA matches, that her mother hadn’t told her the truth. Her actual biological father, it turns out, was a man who had a wife and a family of his own. He carried on an affair with Cathy’s mother for the time it took to have at least three of his children. She gave two of those children up for adoption. Cathy was the one she kept.
Her mother carried her secret with her to the grave, but DNA has now revealed the facts she couldn’t bring herself to admit. Cathy has been reunited with two full-blooded sisters. As an only child, I can only imagine what this must be like for her and her sisters. They went so long without knowing the truth, and now they stand united in the bonds of love they feel for one another. They’ve finally found their way back together despite the deeds of others that separated them. I often think of the miracle of it all. Sometimes Cathy’s phone rings, and when she sees who it is, she says, “It’s my sister.” I can tell how much joy it brings her to say that word. How often, I wonder, did she try to imagine her father into existence? How often did she wonder whether it might be him, or him, or him? The mystery of what we don’t know can lead us to wonder, to ponder, to dream.
So it is for the writer, particularly those of us who tell family stories in our memoirs and personal essays. When it comes to family, there’s always something we don’t know—the origin story of our parents’ relationship, for instance. We might know the facts—where they met, etc.—but how often do we know what they carried in their hearts and minds? How often do we know the interior lives they lived? For instance, what was it like for Cathy’s mother, a white woman in a small Midwestern town, to carry on a long-term affair with a married Black man during the late 1950s and early 1960s? How much did she love him? What did it cost her to try to maintain that love? What did she feel inside, knowing most nights he was with his wife and children? Did it practically break her when she made the choice to give up two children and when ultimately the affair came to an end?
My own parents married later than what was usual. My mother was 41, my father was 38. I imagine they’d all but given up on finding love. I know my father used to stay late at my grandparents’ general store where my mother worked after teaching school during the day, but that’s all I know about their coming together. I can’t keep myself, though, from imagining what my father’s proposal must have been like and whether it took place one of those nights after the store was closed. In one of my essays, I say, “I like to imagine the melancholy call of rain birds, a breeze moving through the branches of the oak trees, the lush white pom-pom blossoms of a snowball bush, and my mother memorizing all this so she could recall it time and time again before she finally said, ‘I’m in love with Roy Martin.’”
If you admit to your readers that you’re using your imagination, you can rely on the intersection between what you know and what you wish you knew to create a situation and an interior life. You can daydream on the page, and in that daydream, you’ll not only be making your family members more vivid, you’ll also be revealing more of your own character because you’ll be the one making the choices, and those choices will expose your heart in a way you might be reluctant to without the safety of the imagination.
Cathy’s biological father has been dead for many years. She still has much she doesn’t know, but at least now she has two sisters with whom to make that journey into the past and on through the present into the future.
I knew Cathy’s mom and she was a very nice person. She just made some wrong choices, which have affected so many people. I’m so happy that Cathy is able to move on and have these relationships with her sisters. I’m also very happy that she has you to love and share her life with. May God bless both of you!! 😊
Mary, I always though Roena was a wonderful person. I loved her dearly. We all have missteps, but they don’t take away from who we are at heart. Blessings on you.
Wow, this is powerful. Thank you (and thank Cathy) for sharing. Memoir writing is difficult when there’s tough stuff, and, especially, when there’s so much we just don’t know and when it’s too late to ask.
Thank you, Linda. It’s the “too late to ask” that’s the killer, but it’s also an invitation to the imagination.
Beautiful,story. Thanks to Jana for sharing❤️
Thank you, Lynn!
Oh! To Cathy for allowing us into this beautiful story – yes – beautiful. I’m so happy for Cathy to have found her sisters. What a gift at this point in life. And, whenever someone finds their roots – however they find them – they feel more rotted themselves. I tell my adult students that your adult kids want to know who you are, more fully, no matter how painful or confusing. The anecdotes, and what you make of those anecdotes, makes them feel more fully themselves. What a gift! Thank for this Lee & Cathy.
Joy, Cathy and one of her sisters have said, in reference to finding the truth about their father, and of course about finding one another, “It changes nothing, and yet it changes everything.” One’s sense of the self can’t help but be affected, yes?
A story with a happy ending is always a good thing. On my 50th birthday, my step-mother told me that my father (her dead husband), was indeed not my biological father at all. We were in a pancake house, my hand stopping in midair, ketchup dripping so slowly. She had a name, one that she thought was my father, a professor at a down south Midwestern university. I know I have a half-brother, a half-sister. My sister (child of both of my parents), said she would try and trace them but I never followed up. You know, my parents never had any stories to divulge, just a snippet or two—-my mother liked lilies of the valley, my father loved chrysanthemums which he spent growing across three states. No birth stories. No childhood stories. I never thought of it—they just were infuriating in their lack of detail. SO. Cathy thank you for sharing. It has a happy ending, though there is tragedy, too. And Lee, your details were so delicate and enduring. Thank you so much. I’ll never know so many details of my messy family. Great, true, endearing.
Virginia, your story is similar to Cathy’s. She was also 50 when she pressed her mother for details. That’s when her mother lied about her biological father. We assume she did that to throw Cathy off the scent. Unfortunately, Cathy’s mother died shortly thereafter. If not for DNA, Cathy never would have found her biological father’s identity. Unfortunately, again, he too is deceased. I understand what you say about the frustration of scarcity of details. Thank you for sharing your story.
I’ve just stumbled upon your books, Lee, and I’m so excited to have found a new author whose works resonate with me. (I used the Look Inside feature.)
The next to the last paragraph in this post really snagged my attention. I’m writing my memoir and find there are scenes I only half-remember, or was only ever told bits and pieces about. You’ve given me what I’ve not been able to give myself: permission to use my imagination and daydream about the parts I’m curious and not sure of.
Thanks for that, and by the way, your covers are gorgeous!
Thanks, Deb. I appreciate your comment. As long as we’re honest with our readers about the fact that we’re using our imagination to fill in the gaps or inquire into the moments we don’t know or can’t remember, we can use speculation to our advantage.