Just like a great movie, there are books that suck you in because the story line is so intriguing you are curious how it is going to end. It might be a novel, and it might be a memoir that showcases all the shit that happened to someone throughout their life. I am a fan of memoirs. While I read about the author, I learn about myself in the process.
I recently finished reading: “Pieces of My Mother” by Melissa Cistaro. A story about an adult woman who takes you through her childhood years while staying at her mother’s bedside as she dies. A mother who was not present in her life, and yet Cistaro has hope that in her mother’s final hours she will finally grab a glimpse of what she was missing all those years.
“A sitter, who is not our mom, comes to live at our house so our dad can go back to work. And when that sitter gets tired of us, a new one arrives. Everyone says that I am too young to remember what’s happened and that children my age simply don’t remember the details. I can’t blame them for saying that. But I am as quiet as a cat, watching everyone and everything.” Page 5-6
That last line was the kicker for me. I am nowhere near quiet now, but as a kid I would hide and listen. I was quiet when I needed to be. Invisible even. In my house you did not even have to be quiet, there was already a lot of noise. I could sit in my bedroom and through the heat vents hear the fighting and yelling coming from my parents room. They thought by having their door shut, we were not privy to their arguments. While I have never had the best hearing it was not hard to find out what words were passed between them. I knew at those moments when to hide and nestle up with a book. No good was ever going to come from being around after those fights.
My mom would often leave the house and get in the car angry. I was always scared that she would never come home. There was some sort of intuition that grew in me in a young age that her anger made her reckless, not enough to hurt someone else, but just enough to maybe not make the best choice. That never happened, but it did not make me feel any less scared. We knew to just leave my dad alone, or else be the next one that got yelled at that day.
I have at times been teased for being a “starer” but I think that happened because I spent so much of my time watching the world. I watched anything and everything. Trying to make sense of a world that often my parents did not know how to explain to me, either because they were just trying to survive and keep food in the house and the lights and heat on, or because they themselves did not have the answers for me. As with Cistaro, writing was my way of processing the world, and I am still doing it today.
“Like my mom, I write to understand myself and lure the voice inside me out of hiding…I want to set the words free, unearth what has been buried for so long…I had to get the memories and stories down on paper, and if I didn’t this history would be lost or—an even worse thought—repeated. Sometimes all I have is instinctual, obsessive need to put pen to paper—to set fire to something inside me that may or may not save me.” Page 285-286
I too feel that fire. To lure my voice, to find it when it feels lost, to document the memories I sometimes do not know were inside me. I am my history. Without my parents around, my writing is what helps me retrace it.
It has been a while since I have read a book that I could not put down — until this past weekend. I read a book titled: “After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir” by Christina McDowell. It is about the Prousalis family and their demise. Think Bernie Madoff. Think scandal. Think fraud. At first when I started to read it I thought this is going to be an annoying book. It will be all about the 1% that had it all and so much more and lost it due to lies and deceit. And it is, but also about so much more.
The book is told by Christina, Tom Prousalis’s daughter. It is her story. It is how she learns about her father and his crimes. He goes to prison for three years after taking a plea deal. They lose everything and she and her sisters and mother must learn how to live. Her mother has never had to pay a bill and Christina realizes that her mother has been taken care of for so long that she does not even know where to begin to pick up the pieces of her life that is now in shambles.
It gets worse. Christina finds out that before heading to prison, her father had taken out multiple credit cards in her name and racked up debt to the tune of $100,000. She believes that he will fix her credit and pay off her debt. He makes her believe on the infrequent calls and letters from prison that he will take care of her. It takes her years to learn who her dad really is, and to truly understand the lies, and deceit, until eventually he literally vanishes from her life.
You might look at her story and think she is a child that had it all. She lived in such extreme wealth, she had things most others did not. Yet, in a lot of ways she was just the victim all along. She did not know about her father, the kind of man he truly was, she knew only what she knew. Her 20’s turned into a period of abuse. She lost the footing of who she was and turned to drugs, alcohol, and sex. Until she had enough. She came clean and searched for the truth. As painful as it was to find. She changed her name, and set up a new identity, free from the past, free from her father.
“After Perfect” was a page turner. It makes you see into the world of the 1%, and those that fall from that world. How they deal with it, how they do not, and in the end they are people just like the rest of us. If you are looking for a book to read (especially a memoir) I highly recommend it.
I remember her two bedroom, one bathroom apartment. Looking back I am horrified that she lived there. Old linoleum and cabinets, even older carpeting, and I will not even start on the yellow bathtub and red carpeting in the bathroom — who puts carpeting in a bathroom, let alone a rental apartment? She lived there for at least ten years if not longer. All of her furniture was given to her by family over the years, and she cherished every piece she owned. Right down to the costume jewelry she owned.
I can remember sitting at her dressing table (that was used as a desk and was never used as a dressing table). There were three drawers on each side, and a narrow, long drawer in the middle. She kept each necklace and bracelet and pair of earrings in their own separate box. You know, the kind that you purchased the jewelry in. She kept the cotton filler intact, and stored each piece in that box, which often told you where the purchase was made. I would often adventure to the table and want to try each piece on and play with alternating the fake pearls with the gaudy earrings. She did not have her ears pierced, they were all clip on earrings (and I thought they hurt horribly) but put them on anyways.
It was not that she hated my trying it all on, I think she just wanted to keep everything in its proper place and well I was a fast little one and she could not keep up. I sensed her hesitation and I also always felt like I should not even ask to try it on. It was all fake costume jewelry so what was her hesitation? Today, I am not a fan of costume jewelry. I prefer the one-of-a-kind version, where almost no one has that piece that I do. Maybe the few times I played with her costume jewelry got the desire for it out of my system.
Over the weekend, I finished reading: “What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir” by Abigail Thomas. A memoir where the author is aging and she talks about her husbands, growing old, her kids, and grandkids. This portion made me think of my grandma, her apartment, costume jewelry, and how different she lived than I do today.
“Somehow it is more interesting to find something beat-up and handled than to get it new. My bureau drawers are stuffed with god knows what, and my daughters always go through them when they are here. It is a compulsion. My theory is that they are looking for the secret, the answer, the explanation for everything.” Page 72
Did those drawers hold any secrets or answers? Did I wonder if I would ever have such drawers and if I would allow my grandkids to unearth the treasures to see what they might hold in their eyes of wonder? Maybe.
There is always someone else in our life that has it worse off than we do. No matter what the situation, every life is different and has extremes of good and bad. When you are in a funk, or just cannot understand why you are still in the continuously spinning hamster wheel, just remember that there is someone else in the world that is probably struggling worse than you are, or there is someone who could actually use your help.
I think of that often when I have a bad day. I ask myself questions such as: “Will I care about this situation in a day, week, month, year?” If the answer is no, then I should probably let it go. Or, “Is this really so bad?” Whatever the answer we usually have options to change our life. Sometimes we just do not know which direction to walk or which door to open. I just finished a gut-wrenching memoir titled: “Chanel Bonfire” by Wendy Lawless. It takes you through her life and her experiences with her crazy (yes truly crazy) mother. She and her sister handle their situation differently. Her sister, Robin, fights her mom and reacts. Wendy is the caretaker and the smooth-things-over daughter. The result, she loses herself:
“Talking to him made me realize that I couldn’t talk about my plans or dreams because I didn’t have any. I was amorphous. I had no idea who I was, what I liked or disliked. I had spent so much time as Mother’s warden, and Robbie’s bodyguard, that I had subjugated a large part of myself that was, from lack of tending, small and undeveloped. When I walked into a grocery store, I would walk up and down the aisles, like a robot, aimlessly looking at all the boxes and jars wondering what I should buy. Did I like green beans? Cheerios? Cheddar cheese? I didn’t know. Living my little half-life, I was so used to not thinking for or of myself. I was just going along. Just existing.” page 266
While I did not have a crazy mother (far from it) or childhood that was in any way similar to Lawless I still felt I could relate to her. She goes from socializing with the upper class in London and Paris as a kid, going to some of the top schools, to having her mom lock her in closets and threaten to kill them all. I relate to Wendy because I found that after taking care of my mom for so many years (with my sister) I felt I could relate less and less with my peers, and quietly retreated into a quiet place. Since there was no one that knew at all what it was like to be 12, have a mom who was bedridden, where we had to support her every need, what was the point of talking about it at all? In so many ways it was my little half-childhood. I was just existing.
Lawless’ memoir will remind you how vastly different families live. A similar situation could be happening at your neighbor’s house. Be grateful for the good in your life, and help those that you know might be in similar situations.
There are a few authors that I have read every book they have written, and a few of them I have had the pleasure of seeing in person. Ann Patchett is one of those authors. Her new book: “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” is a book that is not in the usual realm of her writing. It is a compilation of articles she has written over the years, many that were published in magazines. While they are each stories that were written years apart, her writing, story, and life are weaved so well together that they flow so beautifully, you would have thought they were written together on purpose.
You learn about her younger years and the oddity of her childhood, about taking care of her grandma, about her early years of writing, her dogs, her marriages, and the ups and downs of a writer’s life. Her other books are novels, ones that once you open and get into the story, you are a goner. You might as well know that after the first few pages, you’ll be snuggling on the couch for the long haul. Cancel any plans that you have made, you will not want to put any of her novels down.
Patchett does have a memoir “Truth and Beauty” that is about her life with her best friend and author, Lucy Grealy, yet “This is a Story of a Happy Marriage” goes deeper in many more aspects of her life and she communicates many ideas that resonate on marriage, family, and the writing life. This idea particularly stood out to me about openness:
“It’s a wonderful thing to find a great teacher, but we also have to find him or her at a time in life when we’re able to listen to and trust and implement the lessons we are given. The same is true of the books we read. I think that what influences us in literature comes less from what we love and more from what we happen to pick up in moments when we are especially open.” Page 33
This happens so often for me. I gravitate towards a book and I am not sure why, and then as I begin to read and absorb the ideas shared, I gradually, page by page learn a bit more about myself. You know the books that do that for you. The ones with a plethora of highlighted, dog-eared, or post-it note adorned pages all with ideas that you want to remember, cherish, or share with another individual. This book did that for me. Her story and life experience made me think about my life experience and story and I found myself jotting down notes of special moments from my life that I want to put on paper.
I encourage you to read “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” It is slow in the beginning and takes a bit more to get into than her novels, but once you get to know her a bit more I know you will find a few morsels to take away.