For those of you who can remember the “I love Lucy” television show, you will recall perhaps Lucy’s gift for telling Ricky exactly what she had done during the day. A woman of the 40s and 50s, she had to have an explanation ready for her husband. And, she always did. But Lucy’s explanations, or the stories of her day, were not exactly accurate. There was a story all right, but with the elements of the truth twisted to suit her needs. I always admired this in her; she had a gift for telling the story so that I laughed until I hurt. She was stubborn and true to herself. What other choice did she have? Lucy was, is, my model for the “contrary historian”, a woman telling a story, needing to change it up for her own protection and sometimes just to express her own independence.
My copy of the Oxford Reference Dictionary defines historian as “a writer of history, esp. a critical analyst rather than a compiler” and contrary as “opposed in nature and tendency…perverse, self-willed…mutually opposed.” There you have it: I, by nature, cannot just tell the facts of a story. I must embellish it, often with contrary information. I feel compelled to push the limits of the truth. Perhaps that means that my stories tell another truth; I hope so. H.G. Wells wrote, “The forceps of our mind are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it.
I intend to use this space to discover where this kind of slightly crushed truth telling can take me…and you. I will be an intrepid hiker of the wild, walking blindly into an opening in the dark woods, uncertain of what I will find. In the Celtic tradition, the woods are full of faeries whose intentions appear good, but are really self-serving and often malignant. Wish me luck with the inhabitants of the woods as I wander deep into the darkness and lean my back against a fallen birch or mossy chunk of granite.
* * *
A couple of weeks ago I participated in a Memoir Writing Workshop through the NorthWords festival going on in my town. Cori Howard, the teacher, is the founder of the Momoir Project and had some fine suggestions to make about memoir writing. I didn’t get chance to ask her directly about my contrarian nature, but I did complete a twenty-minute memoir challenge, which I will include here: the task was “Paying Attention”
It is late for her to call, but as I hear her voice, I know that all is not well. I have just settled myself for sleep, my book lying crooked on the bed, my light turned away so as not to disturb my husband sleeping beside me. The phone, of course, has wakened him. Call display told him to pass it on to me, “Your mother,” he whispers.
She is crying and asking at the same time, has the nursing home called? I say, “no.”
“Your father…your father has pneumonia,” she says raggedly, “and the doctor does not think it is survivable. Are we doing the right thing?”
“Mum,” I say, “we’ve talked about this before. He stares at the wall all day. He does not know us. Do you think he would want us to prolong this suffering?”
“No…no. You’re right. We’ll go see him in the morning. Will you come?” She is whispering now.
“Of course, Mum. I will be with you every step of the way.” We say good bye, but now I am awake awake. I turn to my husband and say, “I’ll be back…going to Mum’s next door.”
I wander through the dark house, slip on sandals, and walk down the dark driveway to her house next door. I can see no lights on, but the door is open. I walk quietly through the house, smelling the ever-present sandalwood, a hallmark of all her houses. As I enter her bedroom, I see a tiny light glowing faintly. As I reach her bed, she lifts her arms to me and we embrace; this is the moment we have both feared and welcomed. She feels so frail, so distressed, so needy.
“I’m here Mum. I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
She repeats over and over, “My heart is breaking, my heart is breaking, my heart…”
I wrap my arms around her hoping to hold whatever is left together.
September 30th, 2011.