The only things that are important in life are the things you remember ~ Jean Renoir
Last weekend my friend, fellow writer, and amazing editor Connie and I attended a discussion on memoir with Dani Shapiro, Andre Dubus, and Ann Hood. It was held at the beautiful Providence Athenaeum and was an inspiring literary afternoon.
The following night, back home in Vermont, one of Rich’s older brothers, Tom, called to tell us he was driving north from South Carolina and needed directions to our new house. He was only twenty miles away, down the road in Brattleboro.
Tom is famous for dropping in unexpectedly. He would sneak up through the backyard at our house in New Hampshire and knock on the deck door, shouting “Hallooo!”, scaring the shit out of me. But in his defense, we didn’t have doorbells and we still don’t have them at our house in Vermont.
Our kitchen is in the process of a slow moving renovation. The china hutch and various other items are crowded into the guest room. That night we were without a stove. Luckily, I had defrosted four burgers we could cook on the outdoor grill. I threw together a salad, microwaved leftover brown rice, and opened a bottle of wine.
We showed Tom around the property and shared stories about how we discovered the house, the reconstruction of the collapsing foundation, and the ingenuity of the former owner Mr. Compoletero, whom we affectionately refer to as Compo.
Rich has an annoying habit of interrupting me when he thinks I’m not telling a story accurately. He remembers things differently and almost always thinks his version of the story is the correct one. He was annoying me that night, so when dinner was ready I told him I wanted to share two stories from the literary discussion I had attended the day before.
“And please don’t interrupt, “ I told him. “It’s fascinating and it’s something you need to think about.”
The first story regarding the personal nature of memory and its inadequacies was shared by Dani Shapiro, the author of the newly released memoir Hourglass: Time. Memory. Marriage.
Years ago her parents had been in a terrible car accident. Her father didn’t survive. The first time she wrote about the real life event it was included in a work of fiction. She described the phone call she received, the clothes she was wearing, the hospital room where she sat by her mother’s bedside. Her father had passed away and his body was in another room. When her uncle arrived he asked, “Where is your father?”
Ms. Shapiro had been estranged from her parents at the time of the accident. She was raised an Orthodox Jew and religious tradition requires someone stay beside the deceased from the time they pass away until they are buried. Her immediate reaction was that she had failed her father once again.
Years later Shapiro wrote a memoir, Slow Motion, about that time in her life. She rewrote the story of the accident without referring back to her earlier writing. When she had finished, she compared the two versions. Everything was the same; the clothes she was wearing, the hospital room, the phone call. The only thing that was different was that it was her stepsister who arrived at the hospital and asked where their father was. Shapiro’s reaction was exactly the same. She felt she had once again failed her father by leaving him alone.
James Salter once said, “We know that most great novels and stories come not from things that are entirely invented, but from perfect knowledge and close observation. To say they are made up is an injustice in describing them. I sometimes say that I don’t make up anything—obviously, that’s not true. But I am usually uninterested in writers who say that everything comes out of the imagination. I would rather be in a room with someone who is telling me the story of his life, which may be exaggerated and even have lies in it, but I want to hear the true story, essentially.”
Shapiro has never asked her stepsister which version was true. She can’t explain why she remembered it one way and years later another. From my perspective, she seemed to be saying the important take away for her was that she had failed her father. That is the essential truth she remembers. That is her story.
Andre Dubus, the author of House of Sand and Fog, then shared a story of the night he hosted a dinner party for two sisters. At the end of the evening, while he was washing the dishes, he overhead the sisters discussing their memories of their father. Always the writer, Dubus stopped cleaning to eavesdrop on the conversation.
One of the sisters complained about how their father never loved them. The other sister disagreed. Andre knew their Dad. He was a man who ran his own business, worked 60-70 hours a week, sent his daughters to private high schools and good colleges. Why would he have done those things if he didn’t love his daughters? But one daughter saw it differently. She remembered the dinners he missed, the school activities he never attended, the hours spent away from home.
Dubus noted the difference between fact and truth. The facts reveal that a father worked hard to give his daughters a better life, but one of his daughter’s truth was that he was never there to share the things she wanted and needed from her father. The moments she felt represented love.
In Richard Ford’s memoir, Between Us, a story about his parents, he writes this: “I can recognize now that life is short and has inadequacies, that once again it requires crucial avoidances as well as filling-ins to be acceptable. Most everything but love goes away.”
But even love is open to interpretation if we consider the story Dubus shared. In the age of alternate facts and fake news how do we interpret this? Why do we remember some things and not others? How can siblings grow up together and have completely different childhood memories?
I don’t think Rich understood the story I told at dinner was related to him. I went on to tell another story that he interrupted with one of his own “facts”. Tom was clearly listening. He said, “Dad always used to do that to Mom. One night Uncle “So and So” (I have already forgotten which uncle) said, “Let her tell the story, Dick.”
I recently wrote a blog on my first Mother’s Day without my mother. I had to dig deep to come up with memories of her before Alzheimer’s and illness erased the mother I once knew. There were also the years my parents lived in Florida. I too had moved away from home shortly after graduating from college and I wasn’t as close to my parents as my siblings were. Long ago childhood memories were lost in the fog of time and distance.
The other day I heard the news of Gregg Allman’s passing. It shook me up. The Allman Brothers Band are very much a part of the soundtrack to the chapters of my life titled My Marriage.
Rich and I met at a bar, the Tam O’Shanter, across the street from my apartment in Boston. An Allman Brothers cover band was playing that night. Years later we eloped. Four months after we got hitched, we had a party in the backyard of our old house built in 1728 along the Squamscott River in New Hampshire. We danced to Revival. I was two months pregnant with my oldest daughter.
Years before, when we were first dating, we saw Gregg play at the Paradise in Boston. It was during a time in his career when he was in a slump. He was playing small clubs. There was no rock ’n roll tour bus. At the end of the night he and Dangerous Dan Toler exited out the front door along with their fans and climbed into a Ford Pinto. That little story ended up in my novel Life is All This. My main character Sam Ryder’s internet moniker is @MidnightRyder. His motto is “trying to make a living and doing the best I can.”
I’m sharing this story because it’s another example of the elasticity of time and memory. Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I am thinking.” Dani Shapiro says that when writing she focuses on “the soft, pulsing thing that is true.”
Often when I write a blog it rambles and circles back and forth, searching for the truth and coming to some sort of conclusion I never expected. I’m thinking out loud.
Late that night, I shared my Gregg Allman memories on Facebook and when I read it to Rich the next morning, he said, “It wasn’t a Pinto. It was a Plymouth Duster. There is no way Gregg Allman could fit into a Pinto.”
“Well yes, I remember it being difficult. Dangerous Dan got in the backseat. Gregg rode shotgun and bumped his head climbing into the Pinto. He had to twist those long legs of his like a pretzel.”
We’ve had this argument before but this was the first time I heard this particular make and model.
“It was a Plymouth Duster. And it was tan,” Rich insisted.
Marriage is a series of compromises. Essentially, its success is based on the shared takeaways. For Rich and I it is the love of music, cooking and sharing meals, (as James Salter once noted, “life is meals”), travel, and adventure. We are risk takers and comfortable with change. Restless souls who get bored easily. But I suppose if you asked him, he might say something different.
One thing I am sure about. The make and model never change when I tell the story. The car Gregg Allman drove off in that long ago night on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston was a Pinto.
A Blue Pinto.
“For it is, always is, however we may say it was.” – Thomas Mann
Suggested Memoir Reading:
Richard Ford: Between Us
Dani Shapiro: Hourglass
Andre Dubus: Townie
James Salter: Burning the Days
Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking
Jeanette Walls: The Glass Castle (see my post on how this related to a day on the road in Battle Mountain, NV and my own particular imperfections)