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Category: Life’s like that

I steal things – no, really I do (pt 2)

I steal things – no, really I do (pt 2)

As a fiction writer, I steal people, their gestures, patterns of speech, their history and stories. Then I dress it up and change it around in any way that suits me and my story. Usually it’s only the folks who recognise a small part of themselves who have any idea that I’m a thief.

As a memoirist I don’t fictionalise people or borrow bits of them, or disguise them. Rather than take a little bit and change it, the idea is that I take all of it and lay it bare. There’s no hiding and no where to hide. Rather than the petty theft of fiction, of small generally unidentifiable gestures, mannerisms and bits of stories, in memoir I’m moving into the Grand Larceny of stealing people and their lives whole. Working on a memoir has me feeling as if I’m moving from a small bit of shoplifting, to The Great Train Robbery.

I talked about it with my Dad. He’s an historian and does a lot of family history work. He tells me that when he researched our extended family, he found all sorts of skeletons in many cupboards. Some were surprising, he said, and others explained things that had never quite made sense in the stories that are passed around and passed down in large extended families and which make up the family’s oral history. So that time in the 1920s that Uncle Whatsit vanished for a while actually wasn’t a sudden business trip, but according to the court records a rather nasty divorce case in which he was the other man. And we can’t be sure how it was that Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other raised three kids in the 1890s after her husband died and quite where she got the money from but it looks like….. well you know what I mean. And that’s just our family.  He tells me that when he’s researched family history for other folks, he’s found all sorts of things that no-one knew about. According to Dad if you go back two or three generations or more most of us have got something hanging from the family tree that has been conveniently forgotten, fictionalised, or changed to make it more acceptable.

Anyway, I thought that he’d be worth a chat. I wanted to know how he made decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. Truth be told – I was hoping for a magic formula, or wand that would help me in the Grand Larceny that writing a memoir entails. His solution wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. He told me that when he found something that may cause distress, be controversial or embarrassing, he consulted the family. If they wanted it published – then he published it. If they would rather it remained secret – or at least not published – then he handed what records he had over to them and didn’t publish that particular part of the history.

I tried translating this into something that would be helpful to me as memoirist. Certainly it’s possible to combine some people, or change some names or physical descriptions, or to leave some people out altogether. But there are some things and some people that won’t work for. I can’t write about my life as an adopted child and then adult without writing about my parents – all four of them. If I change them then it’s no longer a memoir, it’s fiction. I tried to back away from my Grand Larceny and go back into petty theft, and thought “I’ll just write a novel. I’ll write a story about an adopted child, then adult and her four parents and make it all up”. It didn’t work. My four parents kept emerging into my fiction. This was going to be a memoir, whether I wanted it or not.

Back I went to Dad. I’d already asked him how he managed potentially tricky disclosures, but in looking for the easy way out I hadn’t asked him why he managed it in the way that he does.

It’s compassion he said and it all fell into place for me. Compassion for the awful predicament that Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other found herself in as a mother raising children alone in the 1890s, and compassion for her descendants who weren’t concerned for themselves; they just didn’t want anyone to think badly of Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other, who did the best she could with what she had. And while Uncle Whatsit had always been a bit of a rogue, compassion for his wife and surviving children  – now family elders – who  didn’t want to revisit his choices and behaviour that had made their family life so harsh and difficult while they were growing up.  They had been pleased to leave it behind and saw no point in going back there.

Memoirs are, by their very nature, acts of Grand Larceny, but I’ve decided I’m going to try for compassionate theft. If I can bring compassion to the telling of the story and of the actions and decisions that my four parents made,  perhaps then my memoir  will be an act of Grand Compassionate Larceny.


What David, and Mandy and John did next

What David, and Mandy and John did next

My cousin David  was a quiet man. At family gatherings there was always a hug for me from him and a smile and a “how have you been?” But unlike his brothers, David wasn’t big on conversation and he was the kind of fellow who would be standing to one side, with a few other blokes, beer in hand, talking about whatever it is that blokes talk about.  His brother Stan and I have loud, noisy conversations about just about anything, often challenging each others beliefs and politics and then laughing. His brother Richard is the absolute best fellow to have MC any family occasion and is an ebullient, outgoing man, with a razor sharp wit and a deep compassion for those around him. He played Father Christmas to his nieces for years. Even after the girls knew that it was really Uncle Richard under the beard they pretended that they didn’t because they loved his version of Santa so much. Amongst his more outgoing brothers, David was the quiet one.

In my family cousins become brothers and nephews are more like sons. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, and the only girl of my generation. Whatever the reason, David and Richard and Stan are the cousins who should have been my brothers.

I haven’t seen as much of David over the last few years as either of us would have liked. Work commitments kept me in Australia and when I was in New Zealand David had moved away  from the South where the rest of the family lives to just outside Christchurch and our visits didn’t often coincide. Instead, I relied on my mother, Stan and Richard as the family grapevine to keep David and I up to date with each other.

David liked things with engines. He rode his Very Fast Motorbike between Christchurch and the family farm. My first ride in a jet boat was with David at the wheel. I have never seen the banks of the Shotover River at quite so close range, nor have it pass by me so quickly. He spent a year working at the base in the Antarctic, fixing things and kitchen handing. His eye/hand coordination was a sight  to behold. One Christmas David and Stan set up the clay pigeon machine at the farm and we took turns taking aim and firing. Whilst I was gloriously unsuccessful and can assure you that not a single clay pigeon came close to being harmed by me that day, David was shooting the tiny targets in the air two and three at a time. He played cricket for the local side, and when he took a year off and travelled overseas, he made a living playing county cricket in England. When he came home he had the opportunity to play professionally and become a prospective New Zealand Test player (my cousin the Black Cap!), but decided that he didn’t want the travelling lifestyle of a professional sportsman because it isn’t so conducive to having a family.

Instead he flew helicopters. It seemed a good combination for David – something with an engine that required really good eye/hand coordination. He did it well, his business grew. So did his family and he gave me more cousins in his sons and daughter.

Then the phone call came and I was flying to New Zealand, to David’s funeral. He’d been working one day, flying his chopper and spraying crops for a local farmer and something happened. David was dead, his chopper a mess on the ground.

Don’t do this.

Don’t try this at home.

If there is any way that you can avoid needing to have a funeral for your 48 year old cousin-who-is-like-a-brother then do it. Because the alternative is a truly terrible thing.

Mandy and John live a few doors down from us. They’re good neighbours and good folks. They began planning their wedding just over two years ago. That was before Mandy got her diagnosis. It’s no understatement to say that stage IV bowel cancer can mess up all sorts of plans and the wedding kept being put off. John and Mandy were waiting for the gap in cancer  treatments that has never come.

Hold on you say – where do they fit in this story? Stick with me here. If you’ve made it this far, there’s only a few more paragraphs until it all comes together and makes sense. 

Last weekend people from all over town, and across the region pulled together and pulled off a glorious wedding for Mandy and John. People who’d never met them and weren’t likely to, donated time and the myriad of things that come together to create a wedding celebration. There were a few points across the week when it looked like Mandy might not make it to Wedding Day, so Plan B was held quietly in waiting in the background: a celebrant, photographer, makeup and hair, and a wedding cake baker who each reckoned that with 45 minutes notice they could pull their part in a bedside ceremony together. But Mandy and John didn’t need Plan B; Mandy’s determination and the skill and care of the palliative care nurses and doctors got her home, and to her wedding, for the weekend.

Amongst all the memories and photos it’s John’s face while they were exchanging vows that stays with me.  He was totally and absolutely beaming and looking at Mandy with so much love. “Well duh” you say – it’s a wedding, he’s the groom – he’s supposed to. That’s how the deal works. Well yes it is – but I think John would have been entitled to shed at least the odd tear or two. It would be understandable if there had been tears for a life about to be shortened, and a marriage that won’t be shared into old age.  He never did. Instead he looked at his new wife with all the love that any one person can possibly have and let it shine through on her.

People talk about ‘being in the moment’ and there are memes all over Facebook telling us to live each moment, and my response is usually something along the lines of ‘yeah, yeah’ and to keep scrolling. But John and Mandy really were. They were each completely there. They weren’t thinking about what would come tomorrow and next week, or the random unfairness of terminal illness. They were with each other and living each moment.

After David died I realised that there was no point in waiting for the perfect time for anything. The perfect time might or might not come and even if it did come, there was no telling when that would be. I realised that if I didn’t do the things that were important to me now, when was I going to do them? And although we didn’t need to say it at David’s funeral, I didn’t want anyone saying at mine (a long time in the future!) “you know she was always going to get around to doing such-and-such and she just never found the time”.  Mandy and John have shown me that being right there when I’m doing ‘it’ (what ever ‘it’ may be) can bring more joy and love and happiness than I’ve thought possible.

I’ve made changes to how I live and the work that I do – and now sometimes don’t do. I know my cousin-like-a-brother Stan has too. We’ve talked about it over a few scotches beside the fire and then laughed, because if David’s someplace where he can hear us, we’re pretty sure that he’s calling us a pair of wankers and laughing at us. Conversations about how one lives one’s life were never really David’s thing.

When the time comes, if I leave behind some small thing of me, that leaves friends or family or the neighbour down the street considering the ways in which they live their life, then I know I’ll have lived my life well. Just like David, and Mandy and John.


Changing Memories

Changing Memories

Memories are set – right? We have a memory of an event or a conversation and that’s the way it was. Unlike Back to the Future, we can’t go back and change the past, no matter how much we might like to.

So that party you were at, 20-something years ago, will always be that party where you drank too much, and your friend Lynne who knows everything had to bundle you into a taxi and take you home, stopping only to wait while you threw up in the gutter somewhere on Hoodle Street. And the Ex who treated you so badly will forever be an evil nasty person – right?

There are heaps of articles about how memories are created, and how our brain makes and stores and memories. Google ‘how are memories made’ and the the list is almost endless (About 9,630,000 results, according to the search page) The Smithsonian Institute has a interesting article on it. If you get really hooked on understanding brain function and memory, The National Centre for Biotechnology Information gets detailed with different types of explicit and implicit memory.

So back to where I started – once all that brain chemistry and neurological stuff in our brains have done their thing, memories are made. I assumed that once created, there were memories that I could call on and remember and other things that aren’t so easy to recall, and in that way were ‘forgotten’.

The very nature of writing a memoir is  – arguably – about taking memories and and putting them together in such a way that they’ll be interesting to others. The others might be family, friends, the local cricket club, or for an agent, publisher and wider audience.

It should be easy, shouldn’t it. If you’ve got a story to tell, it should be as simple as writing it down, deciding what bits go in and what bits to leave out and if it’s chronological order or perhaps ordered by themes and then you have it. A Memoir.

That was what I thought. I thought that writing a memoir would be easy. I would draw on my memories and knock them into some sort of shape so as to be readable and engaging. Instead what I’ve found is that writing a memoir is an intense and interesting exercise in the changing nature of memory.

In remembering, I find the memory rarely changes. The people, the place, who said what to who. The details largely remain the same. Sometimes, I recall small details that I had ‘forgotten’ – events immediately before or after, things that lead up to the main thing.

However, I find that I’m reinterpreting my life through writing about it. When Socrates talked about the unexamined life and the repercussions of living that way he was referring to a life lived ethically. I find that I am writing – and living – a very different sort of examined life. In looking at and writing about memories, I am examining my life. Despite more than a few visits to therapists and psychologists I’ve never looked at much of my life in this way. The facts remain the same – but I find new layers of interpretation. I’m seeing myself differently – not necessarily ‘better’ or ‘worse’ but differently.

I didn’t think that writing a memoir would change the memories. And yet, somehow, it has.