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Of sliding doors and jigsaw puzzles

Of sliding doors and jigsaw puzzles

When I walk to buy sandwiches for lunch the air is sharp and promises snow. Today in Southern New Zealand it’s one of those blue sky sunny days that are so clear that I’m certain I can see all the way to Antarctica. The McDonalds a few blocks away declares in bold yellow letters immediately under its golden arches that it’s the southern most Maccas in the world, and today I have no difficulty believing it.

But it’s warm in my mother’s lounge room.  We sit in big red leather recliner chairs, our feet up, with sandwiches and good coffee in takeaway cups from the cafe down the road. On this visit we’ve discovered a shared guilty pleasure and so the Crime channel on cable shows just enough murder and misery.

For 27 years I’ve sat in my mother’s lounge room. That’s close enough to half of my life. Now we sit in companionable silence, with novels open and the occasional comment about the the crime that unfolds each half hour. With every visit I make from Australia to my mother’s home the TV gets louder. She has hearing aids; expensive hidden ones that that irritate her ears and take some getting used to. She has other health priorities at the moment and instead the hearing aids remain in the drawer and the TV is turned up loud.

These are the sliding door moments for me. There was a movie, and when the lead character got on a train she split into two: the person who got on the train, and the person who missed the train and had the doors slide shut in her face. Both of these version of her went about their lives which grew increasingly different, all because of that sliding door on the train.

I grew up with another family, another mother and that was my life for the first 29 years of my life. My first set of sliding doors grew out of my adoption at 3 days old.  My mother and my adoptive mother shared a gynaecologist and so the arrangement was made: my mother couldn’t keep me and my adoptive mother and father wanted a child.

But what if someone else had adopted me? What if the gynaecologist had offered me to someone else? Maybe my adoptive parents missed an appointment, or said something that he didn’t like or approve of. I could have ended up anywhere, with anyone. Who would I be? Would I be me? ‘Me’ seemed tenuous, and fragile.

Growing up I had to believe that nurture was a greater influence than nature. Even though I struggled to understand my adoptive family and parents, and they struggled to understand me I was afraid of even considering that I was shaped by anything or anyone other than them. I wanted so badly to belong that I wanted to believe I was shaped and ‘Me’ was created by the environment and world that I shared with my adoptive family. I dared not even think that maybe I wasn’t a product of my adopted family and the world that they gave me. Look like someone? Sure. I knew that somewhere there must be people that looked like me. But be like someone else somewhere else? My grip on Me was fragile enough as it was.

I didn’t know this. Not in any sensible way. What I did know was the sure feeling that my family, my life and world was a fluke. I could have wound up anywhere and I didn’t know who I’d be if that had happened. I didn’t dare go any further than that.

The Sliding Doors really hotted up after I met my mother. What if she had kept me? What if she and my father had married? My already shaky concept of Me felt like it had been taken apart and all the pieces laid out on a table, like a jigsaw waiting to be put together. Who would I be?

For a long time – for years – while I gradually found ways to put those jigsaw pieces together I felt that there was another Me. I’d catch a glimpse of her when I visited my mother. She was always just out of my vision, that other Me, the one who had been kept, who hadn’t been given away, who had grown up with my mother and family. Unlike me, she knew who she was, had never had any doubts of where she fitted in the world. Our shared sliding door happened at my birth, and she’d gone about her very different life.

My therapist told me that she was concerned that I seemed to be disassembling myself and I had to agree. I knew that there wasn’t another Me out there living the life that I might have had, had the fluke of my upbringing taken a different course, had my mother kept me, had my parents married. I knew that all my pieces were out on the table and I didn’t know how to put them back together again.

But I did and eventually the pieces reassembled themselves in a new shape. It became a shape with edges and a sense of who Me might be. It’s only very occasionally that I see the other Me, just off to one side, going about her sliding door life. Rather than wondering if my different life would have been a life where I fitted somewhere, just like she does, now, sitting in my mother’s lounge room, I wonder if she has it as good as me.





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.