Where the Bones are: Frank Writing About Family – a guest post by Sandy Kleven

My aunt is telling lies about our family. She has already finished a book of lies, a second is underway and she plans a third. She says she is doing it for those who come after, to share with her descendents the story of her life. She does not plan to publish her work. With the first memoir, ten copies were printed, secured with spiral binding and given to her sisters and their children. My aunt is a revisionist. She makes everyone look good.

Some of the stories can make you weep. You feel the mood of Seattle, in the 1930’s and 40’s – so much walking, so much war. It’s an intimate family story, with the cooking, the holidays and history’s impact on the family. One of the chapters tells about the first telephone, another about the first radio. One chapter is about my birth — gotta love a book like that – except for the bold omissions and the calculated revision of family history.

I love this story about my grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant who fished in the Bering Sea every summer. When, during the depression, there was no money for fuel oil, he found a way to heat the house — one day at a time. At the time, houses still had wood cooking stoves in the kitchen which made wood heat an option when fuel ran out.

My grandfather pushed a wooden wheelbarrow down to the beach to get wood. I didn’t know the distance but, with the magic of a search engine, I can see his journey and pinpoint the distance at five miles, round trip — through the business section, past the locks, past Ray’s Boathouse, to Ballard Beach. There, he loaded driftwood into the wheelbarrow and tied the towering load with ropes. Through the chill of winter, he wheeled back to the house on 61st Street. One load burned in a day. He went back the next. When I think of him doing this, I imagine the strain of it and the humiliation of announcing in the streets that this effort was necessary. I got the idea that I might make a movie about it and let the great grandsons repeat the trip in a relay. I may. I hope it’s a true story.

In an impressive and long effort, my aunt has documented our rich heritage. But it is a white wash. That my grandmother was the best mother in the whole world? Probably not. The effusive description brings to mind a little girl with a fistful of flowers for her mama, a girl who would never say a harsh word. I think she is involved in an act of deliverance, perhaps, to redeem the past and make it right. To give a better past to those who come after.

Consider this example: My mother got married at fifteen, pregnant with me. My dad was seventeen. It was a major crisis for both families. They married in a church that neither family attended because of the shame involved. My mother was so shaken by all of this that when she got the terrible news that a favorite uncle had been killed in the Pacific, she was relieved because he would never find out that she was pregnant.

My aunt tells the same story like this.

As time went on, Betty was seeing Milt more and more… This was the beginning of something serious … The day came when Betty and Milt, came to the folks and said they wanted to be married. Everyone seemed to know it was inevitable and gave their permission. On July 1, 1944, Betty and Milt were married in the little Lutheran church on the corner, just they and their witnesses. After the ceremony, I was waiting outside the church. I watched them as they returned to our house. My sister was radiant and more beautiful than she had ever been… To my surprise Betty was going to have a baby. (Ballard’s Child).

I have spent many hours enjoying, loving (!), the spin that my aunt is putting on our family history. But the sweetness begins to get to me. It reminds me of the histories that local churches write about themselves — sanitized, heartwarming, insincere, wishful thinking or, better, wistful thinking. You know nothing really exciting is going to happen – you sense the limits right at the start. The gritty parts are unseemly or improper. But effective writing has to get to the harsh words, to the snot on the pillow when a heart is broken. Without the bass notes, the story is superficial and sentiment is the strongest emotion.

I talked to my aunt about this. “Why aren’t you telling the truth?” I asked. “Why are you leaving out the bad parts?” It turns out that this had come up in her writing class, too. She said that she is getting closer to writing that is more frank, that doesn’t white wash. It isn’t easy.

Accepting the fact that truth telling – about one’s family – does not come easy to anyone, I respect the intensity of feeling that attaches to this issue. Name an emotions and you can find it, bubbling in a simultaneous soup with guilt predominating.

I suggested to my aunt that she might start by writing about the issue itself, that she write about the struggle with truth in memoir, but I don’t think she can objectify it. She does not yet see that more nuanced writing could meet her unspoken purpose of making the past appetizing, delicious.

What’s the point, anyway, about writing a hard hitting expose about the people you love? That can’t be the goal. But to write about how events took place through your own eyes -– sticking with humility in the telling — this path has promise. Or to tell your recollections with balance, as a journalist might, remembering that a huge chunk of your history occurred behind doors closed to you. Research for what you do not know has promise, too – through interview – and public records. Take comfort in the fact that, with the passage of time, those who would have been hurt or incensed care less, don’t remember, or have passed on. At sixty-five, I feel far less muzzled than I was at thirty-five. I have also discovered that one’s family, in general, does not read what I write, unless I put it in their hand and I need to do that less.

I am a poet. I write about my mother. I have celebrated her in poetry. As she nears the end of her life, and her health suffers, I write about the anticipated anguish of losing her. I do not want her to read these poems. I have stopped writing for her eye. She sent me a letter a few months ago, her writing shaky from Parkinson’s. After her signature, she scrawled a final line. “After I go, promise me you won’t write bad things about me.”

My husband told me to call her right away to put her mind at ease. I did call her and I reminded her that she used to say, “I don’t care what you write about me, as long as it makes money.”

Then, I sent her Velma Wallis’ book, Raising Ourselves, and marked the place where Wallis’ mother gives her daughter permission to write honestly about her childhood. I am sensitive to my mother’s need but if we were to have a long, deep, talk about it, my mother and I might discover that what I consider her finest moments are on the list of items she would delete.

In a way that makes me feel unkind, I will make no promises about my future writing. I am not writing for my family. I am looking for my own truth. I am writing for the future. I want to have been a witness to the little glimpse of reality that I was given. It makes the best story.

4 thoughts on “Where the Bones are: Frank Writing About Family – a guest post by Sandy Kleven”

  1. Very insightful about family memoirs. But what if the truth would really hurt people who are still alive? Things they can't change now. I have had to leave things out for that reason. I don't see how I can write just for myself.
    I do believe the anecdote about the grandfather with the wheelbarrow full of driftwood. But everyone was in bad shape so it wasn't so shameful to my mother, who had an understanding of what was happening politically and economically. During this time my folks were on Queen Anne Hill. They stood at the back of the grocery store and waited for the grocer to come out with the wilted fresh stuff he was going to throw in the garbage, and she was able to deal with that.I believe my father (Norwegian immigrant) was shamed from the experiences they went thru because he had no socio-political understanding and blamed himself too much for having no job.

  2. Sandy,

    I love your take on the 'spin' that your aunt put on your family's stories. I agree with you: "But effective writing has to get to the harsh words, to the snot on the pillow when a heart is broken. Without the bass notes, the story is superficial and sentiment is the strongest emotion."

    I, too, deal with those same issues: writing about the bones of family. I've been talking to my mother regarding writing about the UFO cult she started in Wrangell, Alaska. Strange subject, strange stuff. She said, "Somebody should be making money off the story." My mother self-published a book about the cult and she did the same thing, made it seem matter-of-fact and left out the details, all the good stuff. So with my poetry on the same subject, I created a character that could go deep into the life of the cult; and I fictionalized the accounts related to real events, like the time my mother and her friends blew up Mt. St. Helens—nothing compares to good non-fiction, a real 'snot-on-the-pillow' heart-retching story.

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