Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Nine

Part Nine of my memoir, Face. In this excerpt, I continue to remember my dad and what he meant to me.

 

My dad made me feel like I was floating in the warm summer waves of Lake Michigan, placid and enveloping as dusk falls, protected and lifted up and held gently in the lapping waters. Like I had just won the biggest jackpot that exists. Like my world would crumble and splinter into a million pieces if he left me. While Mom was with me through the surgeries, a concrete ghost, he was always in the background, an assurance that comforted and allowed me to dwell in a safe space.

I don’t have any memories of my dad visiting me in the hospital, though I know he did. Perhaps he came in the evenings after work, to spell Mom. Or he might have come in the afternoons. I don’t remember. But I know he came, because the nurses were on a first-name basis with him.

My dad was a member of the Optimist Club for more than fifty years, and when I was little, the club had a Father-Daughter Dinner every year. Dad had three girls, so once every three years I got to be his special “date.” Mom would buy me a fancy dress with a tulle skirt, and sometimes I’d wear gloves and black patent leather shoes with buckles. It was the only time outside of Easter that I got a new dress. After dinner, the men would stand up and sing to us, all the old standards including “Tea for Two,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and show tunes like “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”

I was enthralled, with all those men, and with my dad. At the end of the night, they sang, “Goodnight, ladies! Goodnight, ladies! Goodnight, ladies! We’re going to leave you now.” Which made me feel sad and happy at the same time.

When we are young, certain experiences become concrete in our memories, and this is one of them. I am sitting next to my dad. Long rows of tables are set with dishes and glassware, and everyone seems to know my dad, wants to shake his hand and say hello. I am so proud to be his daughter. No one says it, no one shows it, that his daughter’s face is disfigured, like a wax figure whose face is melted, whose eye is wilted. I am with my dad, who loves me, and those men, who acknowledge through their actions and their unspoken understanding they know: I could be anyone’s child. Thank God for these good men, who held my dad in love and respect, who held me in a place of acceptance – for my dad, and for me.

My dad was the only one who made me feel like Marcia, not the scarred child, but the bright spirit I knew dwelled within. There is a photograph of me taken probably a week or two before the accident. In it I am standing next to my older sister, leaning in toward her with my hands on my hips, smiling as if I had just gotten away with something really naughty. That is the Marcia my dad knew and loved unconditionally. It is the Marcia I lost.

When he died, I felt like someone blasted the rock I stood upon to smithereens, like the world had suddenly turned from safe to perilous, and I didn’t know how to find solid footing.

On the day of his funeral, friends and family gathered at the Catholic parish where Mom and Dad belonged for nearly thirty years. A couple of days earlier Mom and I had met with the parish priest, who said he would do the service though he didn’t really know my dad. I wanted to do the eulogy, and the priest kept trying to dissuade me. Finally I prevailed. But that morning, I wasn’t sure I could stand and talk about him without falling apart. I remember asking him to be with me and give me strength, and when I stood to go up to the lectern to speak, I found a sense of purpose and calm I hadn’t before. I talked about how much he’d meant to me, how much he’d given me, and how grateful I was for him, and for Mom, through all those years of surgeries.

One of the things I found most touching on that morning was all the guys who golfed on Wednesday mornings at Community Golf Course gave up their games to be with us, and Dad.

 

Several years after my dad’s death, I was at a loss to understand my mom’s inexplicable distance. Why was she so quiet? Why did she answer my questions with single-word answers, with shrugs? I wondered what I should have been doing for her, what I was lacking. She was so happy with my sisters and my brother; quiet and strained with me.

Finally, it occurred to me that she might be jealous of my relationship with Dad.

I couldn’t imagine. No mother would feel that way, would she? And if she did, I certainly never saw it. I think about the way she removed herself when I was with Dad, disappeared to knit in the den, or headed upstairs while we watched TV downstairs. Even now as I write this it sounds so inconceivable. But, then – perhaps.

My parents married in 1948, twenty-somethings full of confidence as the nation was recovering from war and creating a future of possibility. He joined the family business; she had an English degree and was teaching at a local junior high. They settled into a small house – purchased from my dad’s parents − in 1949. Cherie was born in September 1950, followed shortly by Ricky and Robert, the two boys they lost. I was born at Mercy Hospital on Christmas Eve 1955. My brother, Chuck, followed in September 1957, and then my youngest sister, Molly, in September 1960.

Our house had two stories, with white clapboard siding and a long, glass-fronted porch that stretched the length of the house. There was a wooden front door that opened into a small vestibule where winter boots and coats were stored. A stairway to the left and just inside the front door went up to the second story, where we had a bathroom and three bedrooms.

In the front hallway was the little telephone table where my mom was sitting when I was hurt. The living room off to the right stretched almost the entire length of the house and opened at both the front hallway and the dining room, which was between the hallway and the kitchen at the back of the house. Flecked wallpaper in crimson and black lined the dining room walls, and the living room had beige carpeting and equally bland walls. There was a blond console TV against one wall. I watched the assassination of President Kennedy on that TV, and Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, and swooned when the The Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Off the kitchen was a stair that led to the back door on the alley and then down to the basement. It was damp and dark there. Shelves held dozens of canned goods and storage boxes, and there was a washer and dryer against one block wall. A tiny window high above the laundry let in a small bit of natural light, and a bare overhead bulb hung from the ceiling.

I saw my mom cry for the first time in the basement. She was sitting on a small chair among the laundry, and I had crept down the stairs halfway to see where she was. Then I realized she was weeping softly. I don’t know why, but I knew it was because of me, because of all the pain I’d caused her and the family. And I didn’t know how to make it better, to make her happy again. So I just sat there, watching her from the darkened stairs.

I keep coming back to the basement. Monsters and ghosts, and my mother weeping. Once, there was a tornado warning. I was seven or eight. Tornados were not uncommon in Michigan, but this one was serious enough that my dad came home from work. He made us all go down into the basement, Mom, Cherie, me, Chuck and Molly. But he stood near the back steps and stared out the kitchen window. At one point I crept up the stairs, wanting to be near him, worried for him. He admonished me back down to the basement.

So I sat with Mom, anxious and fretting. I am trying to put myself back in that space, trying to remember how she was. I was so worried about Dad, I didn’t notice her demeanor. Perhaps she tried to soothe us. Was she holding Molly on her lap? Was Chuckie clinging to her side? I know I would not be mollified. I was certain Dad would be taken, pulled out the window by the tornado, and I would never see him again.

(Continued here.)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Six

This is Part Six of my memoir, Face. I was hit by a car and severely injured as a child--my left cheek and eyelid were scraped away, and I endured fifteen years of surgeries after. Many years later, as I was getting ready to be married, my dad gives me a folder containing photos that force me to confront a time I had stuffed deeply away...(Read Part Five here.)

Twenty-four years later, as I sat on the concrete floor of a rented storage space and once again leafed through the files, I was instantly transported back to childhood, to when I was five. My hands shook as I sifted through the papers. And then I saw them. The photos. They were close-ups, taken a few months after the accident.

The left side of my face was red and raw, with ridges of skin built up in the middle of the left cheek like the spine of a mountain range. A piece of thick skin bisected the left eye, connecting the top and lower lids. I wondered if my dad had looked at the photos before he gave me the folder. Certainly he had seen them before, but did he consider how it would make me feel to look at them now? Or had he just put them out of his mind and not realized the impact they would have on me? Or perhaps this was his way of giving me back a part of my life that he felt belonged only to me, that I had to be the keeper now, of the story and all its attendant heartaches. Today, I believe he was giving me a gift, the gift of a past that I didn’t want to look at then, didn’t intend to look at ever. In a way, it was a gift of great love. Though I wouldn’t realize it until after he was gone.

As I sat on the concrete floor, I stared at that face, and let the tears come. Great heaving sobs pulled at my lungs and shook my ribcage. It was as if those pictures had the power to hold me hostage—that they had held me hostage for forty-five years. And I was reduced to a quivering, fearful child once again.

A few days later I took the photos out again. I could barely stand to look at them. They represented all the hurt, all the taunts, all the pain I had spent years stuffing away, convinced if I didn’t think about the accident and how it made me look, it couldn’t hurt me anymore.

I lowered myself to the floor. I wanted to be as close to the ground as possible; I feared I might collapse if I wasn’t. I peered at the first photo. It was taken from the front, and that little girl was staring straight at the photographer. Her eyes appeared to be the eyes of an old soul, someone who has suffered and survived. There was something in the eyes of that child, that five-year-old, that was way beyond her years. Way beyond the pain and suffering, beyond the here and now, planted firmly in the Divine. Sure of herself and sure she would survive, no matter what. The second photo, taken from the left side, was entirely different. It was of a small child afraid, terrified of being hurt, of being abandoned to the nurses and doctors once again, of being left in the hands of people who didn’t care, or didn’t seem to. That child’s eyes reflected such a deep sadness, a grief so profound I wanted to hold her, reach out to her across the years and make her safe. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

(Part Seven)

Remembering My Dad...

With my dad and my daughter, Kendall, just two weeks before he died in May 2000.

With my dad and my daughter, Kendall, just two weeks before he died in May 2000.

My dad’s birthday is today. He would have been 90 if cancer had not taken him. In my memoir, Face (see excerpts here), I write that I had a hard time bringing who he was, and what he meant to me, to the page. It was a struggle, and I still don’t feel I did it very successfully. 

Memory is a fluid thing. It moves and undulates and morphs with time. I knew him so well, knew that he loved jelly beans and golf, that his Catholic faith formed him and sustained him, that he loved my mother. That he loved me. That his love is perhaps the reason I was able to overcome the trauma I experienced throughout my childhood. But in the writing, I struggled to explain how very much he meant to me. Recounting the memories I have of him, it felt soon as if I were just reciting a long list, without really bringing him to life.

Perhaps my memory—my psyche—doesn’t want to go there. It’s too painful, just like all the hospitalizations and surgeries.  I couldn’t have determined which hospitalization happened on which date without the notes from my surgeon. Which time was I made to lie naked in a hospital crib under a large oxygen tent? Which time did I awake and believe I was somewhere other than the hospital, which frightened me to the point the nurses had to get permission to lift a corner of one of the bandages on my eyes so I could see? Which time(s) was I made to lie for hours, my arms strapped to the bed, as plasma dripped into my veins?

We strive to create a narrative of our lives that makes sense, and when events don’t make sense, or fall along the story line, we make things up. I am sure I am guilty of that. But the individual events I write about in my memoir are as concrete and vivid as if I were living them today. The memories just as jagged and piercing, just as white-hot with emotion, as if my insides were searing with grief.

I wonder sometimes how long trauma lingers. I spent many years stuffing it into a very deep place, thinking if I did it would no longer hurt me. How wrong I was. Excavating that past has been devastating. Also clarifying, opening—my chest feels cracked open; I am breathing again, but damn it’s painful.

How I miss my dad, and wish he could be here to see his daughter step into her life, finally, authentically. Terrifyingly.

On Memory and Forgiveness

One of the books I read as part of my master’s program in creative writing is Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. While the first half of the book is a history of the documentation of horrors like war – particularly through photography – the last half of the book examines how people respond to horrific images and also discusses how such documentation allows us as a culture and as individuals to remember.

As I’ve discussed in this space before, one of the reasons I am doing the master’s – at mid-life – is to complete a memoir I started several years ago. I wanted the accountability of having to write it to finish the degree, but also I wanted the support and knowledge base that would come with faculty mentoring. I have found both. My mentor, Donald Morrill from the University of Tampa, has suggested a number of books as reference and for contemplation over the past few months, and one that has resonated is Sontag’s.

My memoir, in part, recounts the severe and sustained trauma I suffered as a child, first in a car accident and subsequently through numerous surgeries over fifteen years. How best to help readers understand and connect with the narrative in a way that allows for understanding and empathy without desensitization, which would render the recounting impotent? Sontag says, “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else; they haunt us.”

This presents a difficult problem for the memoirist who wants to relate how trauma affected her without turning her readers away with narrative that serves to horrify rather than inform. How to impart the lessons of the experience? How to engage the reader without repelling her? I have been working to find the deeper message, the layering of meaning upon experience that will allow a reader to access the material without being overwhelmed by the emotion. Time will tell if I am successful. Sontag’s book, at the least, offers the opportunity to be aware of the pitfalls of trying to write about grievous injury.

She writes: “Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead…. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.”

What an interesting idea, that to make peace is to forget. Memory serves us in ways we do not suspect. Making peace is connected to remembering and forgiving. I’m not sure it requires forgetting, though once you forgive, there is no longer a need to remember. And perhaps that is what Sontag means.

Discovering a Vanished Life

This week I finished another of the 10 books I am reading this spring for my master's degree program.

Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories is a collection of previously published essays on memory and autobiography. Delving deeply into what memoir is and what it isn’t, Hampl leads the reader through thoughtful essays focused on her own experiences as a younger woman reading Whitman, on her acquaintance with a woman who came to the United States during World War II who carried a terrible secret she could not tell, through meditations on Sylvia Plath, Simone Weil and St. Augustine’s Confessions. But the most compelling, it seems to me, are Hampl’s own meditations that book-end the collection: “Memory and Imagination,” at the beginning, and the final two essays, “The Need to Say It” and “Other People’s Secrets.” These three essays reveal insights into memory and writing memoir that I found engrossing and instructive for my own writing.

In fact, “Memory and Imagination” turned out to be a powerful catalyst for me in terms of discovering what my own memoir is about. Hampl says, “…I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know.”  She talks about how a first draft can be the key to understanding the real story, the story that reveals meaning. “We carry our wounds and perhaps even worse, our capacity to wound, forward with us. If we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us – to write the first draft and then return for the second draft – we are doing the work of memory.”

She describes how she realizes the first draft of a memory about her first piano lesson is most likely about her father. I have struggled for several months to write about a trauma I suffered as a child. Suddenly it occurred to me that my story is about my relationship with my mother, a difficult relationship that was forged and cauterized in that moment of trauma.

Later, in “The Need to Say It,” Hampl says, “…(M)emoir is not about the past. As I understand it, memoir is not about nostalgia. Its double root is in despair and protest (which, at first, seem no more kissing cousins than memory and imagination). …

“Out of dread of ruin and disintegration emerges a protest which becomes history when it is written from the choral voice of a nation, and memoir when it is written from a personal voice. The dry twigs left of a vanished life, whatever its fullness once was, are rubbed together until they catch fire. Until they make something. Until they make a story.”

Now I am about the task, to make a story – a raging fire – of a vanished life. Thanks to Hampl, I finally have a framework from which to fan the flames.

Memoir: Not just a 'recital of events'

Tomorrow my second packet of writing and book annotations is due to my graduate school professor. Yikes! Earlier this week I was feeling energized and confident I could get another 10 pages written (for a total of 20 due). Today, I am struggling to piece together what seems a jumbled mass of images, memories, snippets of dialogue and characters.

I am writing about a childhood trauma – a car accident that nearly killed me when I was 5 – and trying to link it to decisions I made as an adult that turned out to be not so great. But going back to that time has proved difficult, if not painful. Trying to mine those memories for insights that will connect with others is the challenge. How did my experience affect my family? How I related to others? What others expected of me? How to weave all those pieces together?

In The Situation and the Story, the Art of Personal Essay, Vivian Gornick writes: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

So, then, what have I come to say? I thought I knew, but every time I try to grasp it and write it down, it wisps away like a dandelion seed carried on the wind. It feels as if it’s there, under a sheet of thin ice, just out of reach. So, here I sit today, writing scenes, preparing dialogue, opening my veins. But I can’t seem to bring it forth.

Gornick, again: “The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom – or rather the movement toward it – that counts.”

Aha! The “movement toward it.” That opens up the possibility, the potential, of connection. What did enduring 17 surgeries from ages 5 to 19 have to do with who I became? How has my adult insight at middle-age changed my understanding of those experiences, and how can I write that so that others can relate to it?

“…(M)emoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription,” Gornick says. “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Trust in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”

Now, I’m moving toward it.

What is your experience in writing memoir? How did you approach it so that it did not become, as Gornick says, simply “a recital of actual events”?