When I wrote my first memoir, From Our House, I dramatized pivotal moments in my family’s difficulty following the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands. I wrote about my father’s anger. I wrote about how I was often the target of his rage. Sometimes I deserved it, and sometimes I didn’t. I wrote about the good times, too. My father’s generosity, his love of a good joke, his moments of vulnerability. I also wrote about my mother’s faith and her belief in our goodness. I wrote about her endurance and how it ultimately saved our family. I remember reaching the end of the first draft, a scene describing my father’s baptism. When it was done, I helped him dry off and dress, and then we went to find my mother. She was standing in the foyer of the church: “. . . I knew she was content to wait as long as she might have to, confident that, finally, my father and I would find her there, and, together, we would go home.”
When I wrote that last word, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I had reconstructed a journey that had brought me home. I’d lived it all again, but this time, I’d also been a spectator. I could narrate my participation in the story of my family, but I could also look at it from a slight remove, a reflective position from which I could interrogate my experience. I could think out loud on the page. I could speculate. I could be the interpreter of my life. To do all that, I had to touch the uncomfortable places. I had to be honest. I had to hold myself to account. Above all, I had to do so from a desire for empathy. What had brought us to the painful love we somehow managed? What had made my mother a woman of such strong faith? From where had her devotion come? What was it like for my father in the years after his accident? Was there love in his bluster and rage if only I looked closely enough to find it? What did it mean to him to have a son?
These questions, and many more, drove the writing of this memoir. I wrote not only to document but also to understand. By the time I reached the end of the first draft, I’d lived inside my father’s skin. I’d seen the world from his perspective. I’d done the same with my mother as I attempted to understand how she’d tolerated my father’s anger. I’d also looked at the shaping of my personality through the moments I remembered, the ones I scenically represented on the page. I cried because the writing brought me more deeply into my parents’ lives, and mine as well. I cried because I forgave my father for all the times he lashed out at me. I forgave my mother for allowing his violence. I forgave myself for sometimes provoking it. I cried to release the legacy of anger my father had left me. I cried because I knew how hard we’d fought to finally love one another the way we deserved to be loved.
For the writers of memoir: Are there people in your life who deserve your empathy and understanding? Are you one of those people? What questions haunt you? What moments do you relive over and over? Where does your story start? What sore places will you have to touch in order to tell it? When will you be ready to try to tell the story of your life?