Where do these whispers come from? You know, the ones that scamper and gnaw around in our heads. Something someone said, or implied, or an unsettled way they made us feel. That’s what I call the ‘other words’ of a life. The stuff that we haven’t thought up ourselves, but somehow we’re pretty sure that others around us have thought about us.
………..Clear as mud? It’s rather serendipitous that blogger “The Daily Post” asked a question like this 7 days after this post. He called them “Head Turners” I call them “Whispers” (see it at http://wp.me/p23sd-neE)
Think about this one…I recently interviewed author Dan Conway about his interesting book written as an anecdotal/ semi-memoir / love letter to his departed family members. How’s that for genre bending? The premise of the book was fictional~ he awakes in a hospital bed unable to move or speak after hitting a deer on the highway. What happens from there is a series of out of body semi-lucid “visitations” from deceased loved ones as he lies helplessly drifting. These visitors are real people from the author’s life who have passed away. Each encounter has its own filmy purpose as readers experience the message along with Dan, the poor guy in the hospital bed. And each time we all think that maybe we “get it” the apparition fades and we are left to work the rest out on our own. Just like life. Annoying, and yet we can never quite get enough.
I am myself a skilled car buying negotiator. My husband stands back and turns me loose on the unfortunate targeted salesmen. I get this “gift” I am told from my Grandpa George Farmer. One of his many nick names was Wheeler Dealer. So then, the whisper that dusts through my head is this…I’m just like George. Does that mean then, that I am also brash, loud, bossy and generally insufferable and overbearing? Will I live well into my 90’s too? I catch myself wondering those things when I’m around certain cousins and old neighbors. Am I laughing too loud, monopolizing the conversation, appearing restless when others speak? Are they whispering about me and my George-ness?
Another quality of mine that has been attributed to the family gene-pool is my overall coloring. I describe it as a stick of Doublemint chewing gum. My eyes are the mixed shades of green like the wrapper, and my hair color basically matches the gumstick itself. Being a uniquely indescribable non-color,it tends to be much darker when wet than when it’s dry. I get this unusual coloring (and the freckles that come with it) from Kate the Wildcat Whipper’s mom Maggie. Everyone says so. Since Maggie died about 55 years before I came along, I have to assume that I am being told the truth. Apparently I also have her hands and toes. Unfortunately I know very little about her manner and disposition so I am left to assume that if Maggie were living today we would probably be pretty chummy like twins. But since Maggie went to her reward at the age of 37, at least I know that we are differently engineered in at least the longevity way. Who knows? By now, all of the “everyones” who said we were so alike, have all passed on too. Only the whispers remain to speak about my minty fresh eyes.
I enjoyed the perspective of Dan’s book because it is written from just an unusual and different view-point. He is describing himself and his life as if he weren’t exactly on the pages or in the room. He speaks to and about himself as if his whispers we all have romping and knocking around too were suddenly let out to play one day. It’s a fascinating spin and well worth considering especially if you find yourself at an impasse.
Impasse, that dirty, nasty word writers use when they don’t want to admit they’ve hit a wall and are in the early stages of “Writer’s Block”–every author’s most base and crippling fear
We have all had a moment where what we felt about an ancestor stood in the way of what story needed to be conveyed. I wondered if using the “Dan method” would help to free up some of those deadlocked situations? I tried this “what they say when they think I can’t hear them” premise recently and it worked really well. I had tried to write about a certain cousin many times, but just couldn’t find the right words to tell her story. Her mother and my Great Uncle Ed were “involved.” It was one of those scandals that sticks to a few generations.
People and families can be really complicated. We can feel so many different ways about the same person depending on the context. There is the opinion / gut reaction to memories of Uncle Ed when the picture in my head is from my childhood. Then there is the startled surprise of emotion when I found the letter to his mother and learned what the “family secret” was all about. Same man, two very different characters in my head and in my life.
There is the “part of the family” Ed who always ate all of the potato salad. Then there is the “guy who did that Ed” who made a lot of jaws hit the floor in disbelief. I would guess also with near certainty there are probably another couple of “Eds” somewhere in between or off to the side of both those possibilities. They are all arguably the “real” Ed. They are all undeniably my Uncle Ed, who had a fling with his brother’s wife…but still came to Sunday dinners to eat all the potato salad for years afterward.
No one is ever living in only one dimension; having no other “side.” That’s probably my biggest fascination with all this family history stuff. I have always known that I am a different person when I am among my family than I am “in public.” But I think most of us don’t readily accept that others also have this sort of dual set of behavioral standards.
So Uncle Ed’s story makes writing about Nellie a bit tough. She always had a great and generalized dislike of Uncle Ed. I always thought he was hilarious. I liked that he would sit with us at the Children’s table with his long neck beer and his table-side antics. He would mix all of the food on his plate together until we had all sufficiently “ewed” in disgust. Then he would spoon it into his mouth with a great show of disdain for manners. We’d laugh and slap the table with delight, challenging him to “have some more!” Everybody except for Nellie. She would roll her eyes and finish her plate quickly.
Her mother, she once confided to me, said Ed ate like a pig because he was one!
We kids all thought that Nellie and her parents were just a bit more uppity than the rest of us. And so, for years I only knew of the the uppity Nellie who didn’t know a good table show when she saw one. To this day, I don’t believe she ever knew why her mom gave her a dislike of old Ed. I often wonder if she ever knew that I knew…or whether she ever in fact “knew” at all?
… Family stuff…
… People stuff.
I would recommend reading Dan’s book if you are facing a similar conundrum in your story telling. Could the folks involved tell the stories themselves and let you off of the hook? It may be worth a try!
For me, I started with the letter I had found which detailed the transgressions of the affair and near divorce. I also added in that I wondered if that had been the cause of the iced curtain that fell between certain factions of the family at Sunday Dinner. Until my adulthood, I never really noticed that Ed was never in the same end of the house or same general conversation as either Aunt Rita or his brother Uncle James. Finding that letter made it reasonably clear why Uncle Ed sat with the kids and avoided the big people table. He probably wasn’t exactly welcomed. He even, as I recall, always made sure his back was to the adults seated at the big table. We kids assumed that he sat that way to block the view to his plate and the messy but laugh-out-loud funny eating show he put on for us.
I’ll be letting Nellie’s story keep whispering until her parentage will no longer cause pain.
Dan Conway’s book A Communion of Saints is available through Amazon