Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Scraps and Unused Ends #3: Family Stories




This is obviously a companion piece to my previous post; it is something I wrote some time ago, and it seems that my feelings on the matter have changed very little.  

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Family Stories

When I was young, my mother told me of one of her dreams.  I was small, single digits probably, but even now I remember it.  My mother’s dream is one common to parents I think; I have had dreams different but similar since the birth of my own sons.

I wonder sometimes about people’s desire to tell others of their dreams because the stories they tell are invariably boring and inaccurate.  I think of the most dark, private thoughts in my own head and the way they are expressed in dreams sometimes and I wonder if it is a favor that God did us that we are mostly unable to remember them.

In my mother’s dream, she was in a speeding car, in the passenger seat.  On the hood of the car was my brother as a little kid, a toddler probably, hanging on.  No matter what she did, she couldn’t slow the car or reach her son.  In the dream, all there was to do was just watch and will him to hang on, just hang on.

My mother’s dream was a parent’s dream, a dream about fear and about the realization that we are not in control and cannot prevent bad things from happening. 

We used to pass stories, my brother and father and I, we would all take turns telling the same story and when we felt the time was right, we would say “pass” and then the next person would have to take it up from there.  My brother and I as children would tell good stories about ninjas and car races and dinosaurs.  When it got around to my father, no matter what the story, no matter what the setting, no matter what, a recurring character named Mrs. Hawiggins would enter the story and change everything.  “No,” my brother and I would shout, “not Mrs Hawiggins!”  But there was nothing we could do; it was my father’s story to tell and he could tell it as he pleased. 

I hated Mrs. Hawiggins.  I hated giving my story to my brother.  My turn would last until someone made me pass it.  I could just talk and talk and talk.  Doing this, writing, I mean, telling stories, I think maybe this is just part of that, keeping the story going, trying to put off the arrival of Mrs. Hawiggins.       

My mother did me the great disservice of telling me that I could do anything I wanted.  I believed her.  Even now I’m shocked when I try to do something and am unable.  It is usually alright to tell these things to children, that they are capable of anything they set their minds to, because they know better.  They do not really believe you.  I did however; I believed anything anyone ever told me, even the big lies like everything will be alright.

My mother’s dream stayed with me all of these years because of the simplicity of it.  I can see it even today: the windshield, the little fingers clutching the top of the hood, the pale little face locked in a mask of fear, the panic, my mother begging for the driver to slow down, Jesus please, just stop the car.  In my version, it is always dark outside and the interior of the car is lit all green by the dash lights.

If everyone dies in order, I will be the last one to remember my grandmother alive.  After me she will be gone completely.  I remember her being nice to me.  I remember that she baked her own bread, and hated when you pulled off grapes but left the stem attached to the vine.  She used to fish and drink cheap beer.  She had a birdbath in her back yard that leaked, and water wouldn’t stay in it for anytime at all.  When she gave me a bath one time, she put an inch of water in the tub and wouldn’t give me any more.  If it had held water, the birds would have had a deeper bath than I got.  I didn’t like that.  I loved big baths that you could almost swim in.  The water got cold in my grandmother’s bath quickly. 

Sometimes I imagine what it was like on the outside of the car in my mother’s dream, imagine my brother hanging on, hoping that his strength stays long enough, praying to his mother, stop the car, please Mother help me, do something Mother, save me from this, make this not be happening, all the while being dragged off the hood by hands of wind, his tiny shrieks of terror stolen away. 

My family shattered in slow motion when I was a kid and the next thing I knew we were all apart.  We still tell each other stories from thousands of miles away, our voices scratchy and tiny.  We lie to each other and say everything will be alright. 

Our lives are defined by stories because that’s what memories are, that’s what histories are.  Even though I have no recollection of it at all, I know that I killed my brother’s duck when I was two or three.  I know that I tried to glue the cat to the dryer.  Hooked up to a polygraph machine, and with no memory of the event at all, I can say with absolute certainty that I beat my cousin bloody because he said he was Superman.

Maybe if someone reads the stories I make up and the stories, like this one, that were written into my memory by fate or God or whatever, maybe if someone reads them sometime and remembers something, a detail like my Grandma’s leaking old bird bath, or that thing about the grapes, maybe someone will remember her.  Maybe, even if there is a catastrophe, someone will remember me. 

In my mother’s dream, she never said who was behind the wheel, if there was anybody there or just an empty steering wheel turning by itself in the dark, lit green by the dash lights as the car and all its passengers are blasted into the night. 

Or maybe it was that ender of all stories, the notorious Mrs. Hawiggins.

RP 4-19-08

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This one is almost entirely true, as far as truth goes.  My mother did once tell me of that dream, my Grandma did have a leaky birdbath.  Mrs. Hawiggins is true too; my dad even spoke of her very recently.

I am not sure why it should be so, but I really like this one.  It makes me feel happy and sad and hopeful all at once.  

Do me a favor and remember, OK?  

Because all we have are stories.  All we are is a mess of stories, all piled on top of each other.

Still Writing, 

RP     

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Made of Stories

There is a story in my family about how, when I was three or so, I tried to glue the cat to the dryer.  Everyone could tell you about it, because, in my family at least, that is part of our history.  The story of How Ralph Tried to Glue The Cat to the Dryer is a classic.  But I don't remember that happening, not in any real way.  I have no idea whether it was Elmer's glue or rubber cement, I don't know if the cat was Siamese or tabby, I don't know if I was even slightly successful in my attempt or if we just ended up with a pissed-off sticky cat.  I do not remember anything at all.  I suspect, however, if I were to take a polygraph, and I was unprepared for the question, I would be able to say with certainly that yes, I did attempt to glue the cat to the dryer, sir, yes, that happened.  And this is the thing: it doesn't matter really if I did or didn't.  It is just a thing that everyone in my family knows to be true whether it happened as anyone remembers it or not.

We are made of stories, our decisions are based on these stories, our goddamn lives are framed around these stories.  Our memories are stories, barely better than lies, that we tell ourselves. 

I write sometimes about child abuse and domestic violence, about addiction and self harm.  I write about abusive husbands and cheaters and selfish, distant addicts.  Our stories are what we know, what we are afraid of.

While there is a element of experience that I have with all of these things in my memory, I write them because I can control things.  In my writing, I can make the right decisions.  In my stories, my characters can walk away with some scars, but also some resolution, maybe some insight. 

I received neither of those gifts from my own experiences, just madness and confusion.

Recently, my father and I got to talking about regret.  He told me he (like all parents ever, I suspect) wished that he could have done things differently, that he had a lifetime of things that he wished he could change.  I asked him if he didn't like who I was.  I asked him if he would change me, change the man I have become.  He loves me, he said, of course not.  I told him, sorry, you can't have it both ways; either you like who I became with the decisions that you made, or you can wish that I was different.

I'm glad for all the things that happened, the terrible and wondrous, the terrifying adults, the hugs, the cold, the fighting, the fear, the warmth, and the cake and the smiles and the singing, and the joy.

Should I be recording these things?  I do not know.  I do not know if any of this is true.  All I have is me, and my fallible memory to tell myself stories that help explain why I am so scared all the time.
 
I just wrote a letter in which I remembered my brother making me oatmeal before we went to school.  He had to catch a bus, I did not.  I was in first or second grade, maybe six or seven years old.  I remember him making me two packets, which was all we had, and keeping none for himself.  I remember thinking that he would go hungry, until lunch at least; we got free lunch at school.  I sometimes hang on to this as an example of what we do for family, we give and give and keep nothing for ourselves.  I do not know if this really happened or if it is something I made up.

These are some of the stories I tell myself:

I had a difficult childhood.  We were poor, and people weren't always available for guidance.

I had a girlfriend once.  I loved her, and she broke my heart into a million tiny pieces.  Maybe I did the same to her.

I should have left with my brother when he came to tell me he was driving to California.  I didn't go with him because I was, and still am, a coward.

I still am, in many ways, self destructive.  I do not think I deserve all that I have been blessed with, my wife and family, this beautiful useless talent, this warmth, and sometimes wonder if I am just going to destroy everything because I don't think myself worth all this love.

I am scared that I am a monster hidden behind an affable mask.

I am terrified that I will ruin everything.

I don't know if any of this means anything.  I don't know if any of this is worthwhile, but it is all I have.

Stories are all any of us have.  We drape our lives around this frame of memories, we hurt each other, we love each other and all the tears and joy that we have pour forth from the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. 

Truth has very little to do with who we have become.

Still Writing,

RP