My father's euphemism for lying when I was a little girl was "telling stories," and since I started telling stories when I was three years old and taught myself how to read, I always felt a certain discomfort for sharing my imagination or even my truth. Add to that my father's penchant for telling me that my reality wasn't real ("I never hit you!"), and, well, things can get a bit murky up in the old noggin sometimes. By the time I was 4, I decided that I could create, but I should never lie. The grown ups around me caught on fairly quickly that I was the weak link whenever any mischief happened. All of my cousins knew to get me out of the room fairly quickly whenever there was a fact finding expedition underway because I would spill every single baked bean from the can. Not because I wanted to get my cousins in trouble, mind you. After all, most of the terrible ideas that caused the most destruction were mine, but because I had learned that telling lies was akin to succumbing to a world that made no sense at all. The odd thing is that many of my stories about myself sound like fiction even when they are not. And now that I am a big girl writer with a compromised memory, I find that knowing and expressing the truth about myself are more important than ever.
My father's family has a memory malady that takes their past bit by bit and wipes it clean. It started with my grandmother, Eleanor. From what I understand, she was a distant woman, sensitive and overwhelmed by a house full of children she couldn't handle. So, one day, she converted to a new religion and decided to leave most of her family behind in the name of God and sadness and ruin. She chose some of her children to take with her, and others to leave behind, left to wonder why they weren't good enough to warrant her love. My father was one of the ones left behind to wait and wonder. Eventually, she returned. She returned, but the threat of abandonment was always there, and the children competed with one another for space, for food, for approval, and most of all, for her love. They grew up brittle and , though they loved each other very much in their own way, they distrusted it. Because it could walk out the door at any minute. Because you had to be something never clearly defined to earn it. The world, in their home and out of it, had a brutality to it that you had to learn to master and make your own.
I don't know all of the stories that filled the days between my grandmother's return to her family and my entering the world, but I lived through some of the consequences of her choices. By the time I knew my grandmother, she was someone else entirely. She was "off" in a way that we had no language for. She was drifting, ephemeral, living in a world where reality and memory had fled long ago. She used to carry a baby doll in her arms and coo and sing and sigh to it. Her voice was high and lilting with a slight quaver. My Aunt Ma, who had no children of her own, cared for her, fed her, bullied her, and loved her. Grandma Eleanor rarely saw me, but when she did, it was magical. She was the person who let me know that I could be whatever I wanted to. She told me stories about the past that she remembered, about a mother who had never wanted her. We played dolls together sometimes, kissing their plastic cheeks and sometimes kissing each others'. And since "dementia" wasn't a word I knew, her retreat into her mind, into her past, and into her imagination seemed magical to me. I wanted to believe in a world of my own making so fervently that it became real.
When Daddy went off to war and Mommy was sick with my baby sister and the walls crawled with cockroaches and Mommy cried every night because she was afraid of the bad people outside of our apartment and sometimes there was not enough food and the laundry was in the basement where it was dark and scary and the stinky men with the bottles in paper bags always said mean things to Mommy that made her flinch whenever we went to the store; when all of that happened, I tried so hard to imagine, to believe my life away. It never worked. And later, when Daddy came back from war and we moved to Texas and he saw enemies that weren't there and we had to hide behind furniture whenever helicopters flew overhead and he started hitting Mommy and then me; later, I tried harder and felt like a complete and utter failure when belief in the impossible did not allow me to fly like Mary Poppins or my faith in God did not protect me from the hands of grown men.
Now, though, as my father's mind is slowly unravelling and he becomes like Grandma -- younger, more like an infant, more fragile every day, I understand that sometimes a curse can be a blessing. Sometimes, no matter how much you want to be cherished and wanted, you are not. And sometimes, no matter how hard you believe in miracles, they do not come true. But mostly, I understand the importance of truth and stories. And because I understand how the parts make a whole, I I do not squander my life with hate.
Stranger Than Fiction