when i was in the second grade, we pieced together that my teacher was married to the man who was once married to the woman who had once been engaged to the only man my mother ever seriously dated other than my dad. this goes down in history as The Story of Vicky & The Brass Bed because this man dumped my mother and bought this other woman, vicky, a brass bed. a brass bed in which my second grade teacher, the wife of vicky's ex-husband, now slept. like i said, small town.
so much of my mother's life is known. this is, in part, because like mine, so much of her life has been photographed. she wants to take me to denmark. she says she wants me to see where she was a child. i don't have the heart to tell her i don't really care. that after 28 years of denmark slideshows i feel pretty much like i was a child there with her.
no, no. i don't want denmark. i want what i will never have.
if my mother's family is faulkner, my father's is peyton place. peering into the eyes of the dead uncles and aunts whose portraits have always adorned our laundry room walls, you would never have guessed that. one would not imagine that from the closets of these people-- these staid, stoic scotch-irish eatons-- the skeletons would still be bursting forth.
my father's youth-- his life before us-- is a deep, dark reservoir, dammed up so insistently for all these years that only as we get older, only as i live more and fuck up again, have little leaks begun to work their way through and the stories seeped out.
but it is never enough. sure, he parcels out bits now and then, but he doesn't see that in his reluctance to dwell upon the past, his unrelenting insistence to never look back to the time before he knew God, he is thwarting me-- his daughter, the storyteller-- at every turn.
my father discloses things on an ad hoc basis. i had asked about vietnam time and again but it wasn't until my teenaged cousin came to town and complained about being bored that the photo albums came tumbling forth. there had been photographs all along and i-- the pillager of the family closets, the girl who had played the forrest gump soundtrack five times in a row one trip to chattanooga to create the appropriate mood in which to introduce the question, father bear, why is there a rifle on mummy's shoe rack?-- never knew. my bored cousin gave these albums (my holy grail) a desultory glance and went back to max payne and away the albums went.
i have two reactions to this withholding of a history i believe is rightfully mine.
1) i resent it.
2) i am dying to know more.
my grandma ruth came to memphis when i was five or six. my father sat her down and exhaustively walked her through a family photo album, recording her recollections, which he then transcribed for the ages, typing them up on my mom's smith-corona.
i can't overstate how solemn this process appeared from the outside. my grandmother, my father, the family photos coming together at a communion table of sorts. playing in the other room i was frequently hushed by my mother, who reverently informed me that "the adults" were "reliving olden times," a declaration that cast upon the whole enterprise a pleasing renaissance fair glow promptly dashed when, briefly unchaperoned, i peeked through the slats in the french doors and noted the lack of goblets and lace.
there has always been a part of me that took it for granted that this was the story i was born to tell. that sounds preposterous, i know, and yes, there's jackie and marilyn and blah blah blah, but this was my safety story. the story i could come back to if all else failed. the story of my family, which my father had assiduously collected for me at our kitchen table all those years ago. i fancied that these stories would be handed down to me. that, like the 18 million mexican pots i stand to inherit, they would fall into my hands, dirty and old and of mystifyingly great worth.
and so it might have had the tape not broken and the transcript been lost.
so i am left with what little i have been able to collect. my father's family's story as it has been handed down to me. there is no narrative arc. no beginning and no end. just bits and pieces, scraps here and there. ex-girlfriends. ex-roommates. old wars, family photos, and a gun.
there are hundreds of characters with similar features and no last names.
it is like reading pynchon in braille.
and yet i'm certain somewhere in there lies the answer. the answer to the question i feel continually compelled to ask: what has made me so unlike my mother, so stubborn and fatalistic and fiercely independent and frustratingly rigid and restless, so full of love and yet capable of the most nonchalant cruelty for the sake of a laugh?