On Writing About Family

Good Busy

Whoopsie Piggle has not had a new post in over two weeks and this has been for two good reasons. First of all, I have two separate freelance projects that have kept me very busy. In some measure, I credit Whoopsie Piggle for this. Or rather, in the process of writing Whoopsie Piggle, I publicly declared my desire to earn my income by writing. And I have a theory, not so unusual, that you can’t get what you want if you don’t clearly state what that is. I don’t mean general platitudes such as world peace, my children to be happy, to have a successful career, or whatever. The more declarative and precise the intention, the more likely it is to happen. Curiously, however, generalizations seem to manifest just fine in reverse. Tell yourself your life sucks and it’s a fair bet that not only does your life suck; it will continue to suck until you change your thinking.

I’ve been clear for the past six years on what I want in a partner and homelife. But it has taken me longer to clarify my career goals with the same specificity. This is, in part, because I have felt shame for wanting a creative career. Writing, to be a writer, sounds selfish if for no other reason than there are few obvious ways to make money as a writer. Journalism and teaching at colleges were practical considerations for writers in the recent past, but neither option is what it was even ten years ago. Journalism is a field scrambling to respond to an unexpected brush fire, otherwise known as the Internet, which has consumed all aspects of the publishing industry. I am qualified to teach at the college level, but so are multitudes of other writers and with so few jobs available, the unspoken requirements have risen. For the most part, a tenure-track job teaching writing requires not only an MFA but also a published book and preferably a PhD. Maybe someday I’ll have these credentials, but not this year.

So while I’m not yet earning a living wage by writing, what I am earning helps me with the choices I make for my children. Choices like college tuition for Claude, music lessons for Hugo, and private school and tutoring for Jules. When I was a twenty-something, living on a shoestring was not a problem because I was only responsible for myself. Now I am the mother of five children and raising them well is a priority that conditions everything I do. Which is probably why I kept returning to my family, specifically the children, as I thought of a new project in the months prior to launching Whoopsie Piggle. Possibly a book, I had thought. One about the journey the big boys and I have taken over the course of their lives and how we’ve all come to embrace this new dynamic, a new family in fact, with the addition of Max and then Leif and finally, Lyra.

I know several non-fiction writers who purposely avoid writing about their children. To keep their children’s lives sacrosanct from the public, they hang velvet curtains in their stories, blocking all but the fact that their kids exist and sometimes not even that information comes through. I have heard writers say their teenaged children would be mortified to discover themselves as a character in their parent’s work.

Not my kids. I write about how they have shaped me, and my life, as much as I have had any impact on them. I am mindful of what I write and keep as a primary point of reference that my children will one day have careers of their own. Rather than complaining about being creative fodder, for now the boys enjoy reading about themselves. Particularly Hugo. If I have come at all close to accurately capturing his personality, this should surprise nobody.

Who owns memories?

My last essay, “Shattering Patterns,” was about fathers and firstborns—me and my dad, Claude and his father, as well as Claude and me. For though I have long heard faint echoes in my life, writing is the one way I know to find form for the abstract, which was particularly true of that essay. Writing it helped give specificity, once again, to my observations and thoughts. As his mother, I cannot imagine not wanting a close relationship with Claude. On the other hand, I have long worked to overcome the feeling that it was my fault my father and mother were never available for parenting or that they, like Claude’s father, did not want a close relationship with their child. And while writing about Claude’s relationship to his father alongside writing about my own relationship to my father was illuminating for me, I was not so sure Claude would want such a piece published.

“You could have been more revealing,” Claude told me after he read “Shattering Patterns.” “No, really,” he continued when I questioned him. “I wouldn’t have minded if you added a link to my poetry, you know to show that even if I don’t think about my dad, there’s still stuff in there.” As he reformulates more patterns, I see Claude transcending both of his parents in all that he does. Which is as it should be.

What I didn’t expect, but probably should have, was for someone to be upset over a line about my experience. “I never saw your father let you inhale marijuana smoke!” said a clearly upset family member, and I believe this person completely. I explained, however, that I quite viscerally remember breathing in smoke from a paper bag. I also remember talking about it with friends at school when I was still quite young. This is not a flashback memory—it has always been there.

What outsiders may find more shocking is this: I am not troubled by the memory of being given marijuana smoke as a young child. I have not nor would I do the same to my children. Legal antihistamines, however, such as Benadryl, are commonly administered to young children. If all things were equal in terms of legality, I’d be similarly concerned with the use antihistamines as with marijuana. But for now, in most states, they are not legally comparable.

Should I have skipped adding the sentence about marijuana? Was I unnecessarily revealing, particularly when I don’t find the information that shocking? Perhaps. I think too, that 30 to 40 years later, many seem to forget how drug saturated the late sixties and all of the seventies were. While many of my friends’ parents were not smoking pot, several were. And I regularly meet people who recall similar hazy days of partying parents. What might sound shocking today wasn’t so unusual then. A few family friendly movies from that time, films like The Bad News Bears or Little Darlings, give testament to how much times have changed.

Veteran Road Warriors

Then: A photo of the boys (ages 13, 10 & 7) and me, taken by a stranger, in 2007.

Then: A photo of the boys (ages 13, 10 & 7) and me, taken by a stranger, in 2007.

I stated that there are two good reasons why Whoopsie Piggle has been back-burnered this past two weeks. Besides good work writing, we went on our first vacation in nearly two years. In four days, we packed in a trip like the boys and I used to regularly take: in a vehicle filled with food and audiotapes, we headed out for a National Park, this time Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.

“Hugo just can’t stop picking a fight with you, can he?” said Max the night before we left. It was true. Hugo had been in rare form for two days. As I cleaned the kitchen after dinner that evening, Hugo launched into me like a district attorney, pointedly telling me he remained disappointed by his sixteenth birthday, which was the day after Thanksgiving.

“I don’t ever want to spend my birthday in the car for eight hours again!” he said, referring to the fact that on the day he turned sixteen, we had driven home from Northern Michigan, where we’d spent Thanksgiving with the children’s grandparents. We also stopped at the Toledo Museum of Art and saw a marvelous Edouard Manet exhibit and took everyone to dinner at the restaurant of Hugo’s choosing. That weekend, I drove Hugo to Guitar Center and bought him a pricey recording device he had long lusted after. I had waited until after his birthday to buy it during the post-Thanksgiving sale, which Hugo had agreed to at the time.

“What are you talking about?” I asked him, “We came home on your birthday because you had to work the next day! None of us wanted to leave early, we did it for you.”

“Never mind,” he said in a way that indicated he wanted me to do anything but. Sure enough, half an hour later, he appeared in our bedroom as Max and I were going to bed. “I’m not mad about my birthday, I just didn’t want to spend it in the car!”

I again tried, but got nowhere with Hugo. Finally, Max said to him, “Okay, that’s over, Hugo. So what do you want us to do now?”

“Just promise we won’t travel on my birthday ever again,” he said. We promised and he left our room.

“He’s sleep deprived,” said Max as he turned out the light. He was right. Earlier that week, Hugo had gone to New York City for three days with a school group and after arriving back in Akron on a bus at 7:30 in the morning, he had to turn around and go to work both days before we left for Kentucky.

Our family today (minus collegiate Claude), also photographed by a stranger.

Our family today (minus collegiate Claude), also photographed by a stranger.

A day into our trip, Hugo was a different person. On our way down, we’d listened to The Old Man and the Sea, which was assigned spring break reading for his English class. Just for Hugo, we’d packed two dozen, hard-boiled eggs. In cold weather that threatened rain, Hugo delighted in making egg salad on the side of a concrete retaining wall at a rest stop. Because he has always loved them so, egg salad and deviled eggs were the first dishes Hugo learned to make himself. That night in the national park hotel, Hugo had a persistent cough and the only medicine I had brought that would help was Benadryl. I gave him one tablet and he fell asleep by 8:30 while listening to Max read to Jules. So did I. The next two days, as we toured Mammoth Caves and hiked on trails in the park, Hugo was no longer a disgruntled teen. He was as impressed with the enormous cave chambers as any of us and equally as effusive in saying so. Often while hugging us.

Fully Functional

I write about my family. In part, because the quotidian amazes me. A little baby that I carried all over Boston became a boy who couldn’t read until the third grade when he was diagnosed with, and began the long process of remediation for, severe dyslexia. He now writes poetry and papers that floor me. Another boy, one who is brilliant at anything he attempts from academics to sports to music, has also challenged me since before his birth as a ten-pounder who got stuck with shoulder dystocia on the way out of the womb. That boy has grown up in the past year and now works hard at everything he does. He also makes me laugh every day. And my peace-maker child, the one I most feared would suffer long term consequences from the divorce is now, at nearly thirteen years old, becoming appropriately mouthy. I cannot express how relieved I am that he is. Then came Leif and Lyra, whom I think are the luckiest little kids I know, precisely because they have three adoring big brothers. We are like our own little village of five raising the two youngest children of the family.

I regularly turn to Max and say, “Everyone’s in a good place. Look at the boys, look at the babies, look at us.” Sure, dysfunctional families are fascinating to read about and I have enough of dysfunction in my personal story to write volumes of the dreck. But dysfunctional backgrounds are not generational sentences.

Life is long. Life is short. And, yes, life is good. Especially when you show up for everything—the fun, the challenges and all the messy stuff.

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One Response to On Writing About Family

  1. samantha says:

    Catching up on my Whoopsie Piggle. 🙂 It’s a must on a Saturday morning. Thanks Holly!!!

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