A writer I know was in her 50s when she discovered that her childhood was a lie. She learned the truth by accident, and the discovery knocked her off kilter, partly because it was traumatic and mostly because the truth came out right as she was starting to reconcile an already complicated personal history by writing.
The new truth was like a betrayal, after all the years she had worked to bring the story she knew into the open, to write honestly about painful experiences, only to learn that key characters weren’t exactly who she’d long thought them to be.
What I remember her saying to me, as we walked together through the Chihuly Glasshouse on a rainy late winter day, is something to the effect of: I can’t figure out how to write about it yet; it’s still too raw. So we shifted gears, talked about the pros and cons of writing about family, of sharing personal stories. We talked about our children and how they, one day, might decide to write stories about us, the way we wrote about our own parents as we reflected on our childhood years.
In the years since that day I’ve watched her fits and starts of writing, noticed how the stories she tells now are all in the present, how her life heads forward. There is a sweetness in these new stories, and I wonder, sometimes, if she decided to put the past to bed, to let that unresolved, untold story just drift into nothingness and disappear.
A man I know is on a long drive with his fifth wife. They’re driving halfway across the country, from south to north, to retrieve an RV and some birdwatching equipment that’s been stuck in storage for almost two years because of the pandemic. Their habitual routine, in the before time, was to fly to Bangor, drive north into Canada, and spend the summer watching, photographing, and documenting birds in the Gaspé Peninsula.
He fell in love with birds in 1952, my friend did, and the passion persisted. For Christmas 1953 he got a pair of German binoculars as a present, and not quite three years later, in the summer of 1956, he packed those binoculars in a rucksack and hitch-hiked from Westchester County to the Gaspé to see what he might find.
His father, a New York banker, told a friend about his son’s grand adventure, and the friend, who happened to be curator of birds at the Museum of Natural History, took an interest in the young man. The story piqued the man’s interest, and he became a mentor to the idealistic teenager who would, decades later, become my dear friend.
Having loved that story for a long time, I asked my friend to let my daughter interview him for a school project, the Great Thanksgiving Listen. I’d long thought of his tale as a great romantic adventure, a coming of age story fit for the big screen.
They sat together on his sofa, my friend and my daughter, while I sipped coffee in the kitchen with my friend’s wife, the one who is with him right now on the long drive north. I could hear the nervousness in my daughter’s voice as she began asking the questions she’d prepared. He is gruff, my friend, which sometimes masks his gentle nature. She was trying to get him to connect the hitch-hiking trip to his environmental work, the effort he started while he was flying international cargo planes.
“I took my Harvard tuition money and went to South America to pay someone to teach me to fly an airplane,” he said, and as I heard him talking I realized I’d never heard him tell this particular part of his history. “I never went back to college, never graduated,” he went on, “and my dad was pretty put out with me. The war had made him hard, and I didn’t make things easier. I never tell that part, but I guess it’s so long ago now that it doesn’t really matter anymore.”
We are driving north on our first family trip in almost a decade. We have always been a bickering bunch, or maybe just bickering adults, so we do not have a good track record of traveling together, we four, all together in one car, all heading to the same destination. But we have put on our best selves for this trip, for a joyful occasion.
I’ve plugged in an audiobook for the drive, knowing that everyone else will likely either sleep or listen to their own entertainment. It’s a mother’s memoir, my book, told with great honesty and humor, seemingly sparing no detail of family struggle and strife that somehow all works out in the end.
This is, in all likelihood, our last family roadtrip. Knowing that we are reaching the end of a section, not just of a chapter, it would be impossible to look in the rearview mirror, see the faces of my sleeping children and not think of our first roadtrip, the first summer we drove to Michigan, all four of us, when we packed the car with little cartons of Goldfish and tiny tote bags (a bright red ladybug the a bright green frog) full of markers, doodle pads, Etch-a-Sketch and Slinkys that rattled while we played the alphabet game.
It would be impossible to whirl by the mile markers and not replay, in my head, the story I tell myself about 20 years of marriage and motherhood, of cooking and love and driving and growth.
The audiobook covers all of the drive to our destination and most of the drive back home. Its narrative timeline comes to an end at the start of the pandemic, and when I hear “Audible hopes you’ve enjoyed this book,” I wonder what the rest of the story will be. Her story; our story; all the stories that aren’t yet finished, that might or might not be worth telling one day.
This post is 27/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.