Where I grew up, in a ranch house built on what had only recently been a potato field, we had no sidewalks or street lights or, at first, storm drains. I remember a bright morning when I stood on our little front lawn and watched a parade of blow-up rafts paddle gaily by. This might have been after a big storm, maybe even a hurricane, flooded the street, and it must have been when I was very small, because the memory has that misty, apocryphal feel to it—did I really see that? Did all our neighbors really have blow-up rafts, and would they have been out there waving and frolicking as their basements flooded?
Everyone’s got untrustworthy memories tucked away, jumbled with dreams and stories other people have told us about ourselves, and liberally laced with yearning for what we wish had happened. For a story-teller, that is a rich good thing. Not that I’ve ever written a scene featuring a cheerful suburban flotilla, but I love thinking about the possibility, which opens out into the possibility of all the other surprising, not to say astonishing, things that go on behind the closed doors of even (or especially) the most staid and solid families.
In our neighborhood, every house was just alike, so that we kids could open any front door and know precisely where to find the bathroom or refrigerator. This was comforting then, though, snob that I’ve become, I’d despise it now. As time went by, people installed bay windows, and added garages, and paneled basements (water-proofing, first), and some cobbled on additions that took up most of their backyards. My father laid a patio and built a cinder block barbecue. We bought a redwood picnic table where we ate our hotdogs and corn. Summer nights, he and my mother sat up late out there, talking and drinking. I remember—I am sure I remember this—perching on tiptoe on our blue toilet, pressing my ear to the screen, straining to hear what they were saying out there in the muggy darkness. I desperately wanted to know what the grown-ups had to say, especially those things I was not meant to hear. The thought of all I didn’t know yet both thrilled me and filled me with a strange, irrepressible dread. It still does.
I recently read Matthew J. Kirby’s remarkable middle grade novel Icefall. At its heart is how young Solveig earns her place as a skald, a poet and story-teller who bears her people’s history. Woven throughout are discussions of what it means to tell a story that is true—really, what truth itself might be. I was reminded of one of my favorite writing quotes, from Jane Yolen, who says that as she revises her fiction she asks herself, “Is it true yet?” Solveig struggles with how to tell a story that honors both the memory of past glory and the reality of present travail. Alric, the master skald, tells her, “The question you must ask is what a story has the power to do. The truth of something you do is very different from the truth of something you know.” At another point, debating whether a story that provided hope and comfort was a sham, they have this exchange:
“And was the comfort real? Was it true?”
“I thought it was.”
“Then the story was true.”
Substitute amazement or fellow feeling or belly laugh or grief for comfort. There you have it.
I could ask my brothers if they remember those rafts. But I’ll probably stick to my own version.