When faced with the inevitable – that I must write a memoir (the “must” propelled by an inner transmission that just wouldn’t shut off) – I did what I’m sure others have – questioned my sanity. How could I, who perfected the art of invisibility, write a book that would expose me? I comforted myself by telling myself no one would have to see the finished product if I deemed it inadequate. After all, I thought I was already not-good-enough – I didn’t finish college, much less got that coveted MFA that seems to be de rigueur for any real writer. So – maybe I could write and still have it not be my story.
I thought maybe the beginning should be my father’s account – how he found his way to a tropical island after a decade of hazardous engineering jobs. I could write how he was seduced by a curve of beach, by the promise of paradise after too many dangerous assignments building dams high in South American mountains. Or how he sweated in submarines below the Pacific’s surface, repairing electrical systems damaged by Japanese war planes.
Maybe it ought to be my mother’s tale, the one about a young schoolteacher who’d never left home and was herself seduced by the tall man with wavy brown hair, a crooked smile, and brown eyes that pulled her right into his dreams. I could chronicle how she found herself at the rail of a ship that trudged its way to South America – her “honeymoon” of two lonely years in the cold Peruvian Andes with llamas for company and the haunting mourn of a Quechua flute slicing through the thin air. I could describe her descent to sea-level with two small children and a different loneliness on a tropical island, and how she began her own sentence of submission.
Or it’s my sister’s story – the one she couldn’t tell, wouldn’t tell – the one with too many secrets. She, the blue-eyed, yellow-haired child – was a cypher who learned to disappear into her own skin, into silence far too young. But I never had her consent to break open the doors she kept locked, so how could I betray her by writing her story?
In the end I had to face reality. The memoir needed to be told by the only voice I knew – the one that faded in and out like the transmissions on the old Zenith Transoceanic radio, my faint link to an outside world. My own account was twined with my family’s, like a river whose origins are different but cleave together as one. Our multiple stories bled into each other, some caught up in eddies, but all finally pooling at a sand bar by the ocean’s edge. I’d need to pry apart our separate channels until my river became a torrent of words, slicing its singular way forward in its search for truth – secrets be damned.