Life Depends upon a Sentence

Mom’s head lay on her pillow underneath my arm. I lay half on my chair, half on her bed as her breath grew fainter. I held her hand until her skin reacted uncomfortably to any touch; then I rested my hand next to hers on top of the sheet.

I don’t read much fiction. Fiction is made-up stories about people who never existed. I walk down shelves of fiction at  bookstores, past thousands of pages of things that never happened. Yes, some are written simply for entertainment: the neighbor’s sister murdered the minister’s child, the invasion of planet Earth failed; someone’s witty butler gets his employer out of a jam. Read them and pass them along to a used bookstore or a jail or the church yearly tag sale.

Non-fiction, such as History or Biography, is an attempt to tell what really happened at some time. The attempt will be flawed, but the author is accountable. “That’s NOT the way it happened,” says the neighbor’s sister; “The Earth was not really invaded by aliens,” says Orson Wells; “My butler was as dumb as a rock,” says the gentleman. So instead writers write fiction. How easy to arrange events to their liking, how unaccountable to anyone!

My mother’s family is a family of storytellers. Thanksgiving dinners were a raucous telling and retelling of stories from decades, lifetimes ago. Or just a few years ago. After my cousin Philip died, at each Thanksgiving dinner someone mentioned how much he’d loved canned cranberry sauce. Then the cranberry sauce became something more than cranberry sauce; we passed Philip’s smile around with the small bowl shimmering with red sauce, plopping the smooth jelly next to the stuffing as another story would begin.

After Mom died, the family had a large dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York. I leaned over and told a story to my end of the table: two of Mom’s sisters and a cousin. I told the story of the time my mother was working late at a Western Union office in Manhattan when a burglar came in demanding money. My  aunts, who must have heard that story a thousand times, listened and laughed yet again. My cousin laughed; she’d never heard the story. She agreed that story showed just what Dorothy was like.

My mother once told me that all my grandmother Kate could remember of her mother, Margaret, was her brushing my grandmother’s hair. And an aunt once said that my grandmother Kate remembered her mother pulling her hair when she got impatient. Those two sentences create two realities, two personalities for Margaret. Because there are few other stories about Margaret, much depends on a sentence.

As Mom’s head was cradled under my arm, I saw in her face all the stories that made up her life, that made up Dorothy. Stories we listened to over again, perhaps noticing how they changed a bit according to the teller; then we told them to others. No one corrected anyone. We listened.

One family member went back through records to find the History of our grandmother’s life, and so much is illuminated. Puzzle pieces slide across the picture finding places to fit. The stories catch fire again. And so the story continues.

This week I borrowed a book by Alice Hoffman and one by Anne Tyler. I will not settle in to read, but sit up straight to read stories that come from somewhere and create us.

Then I will read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien because he said, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

-Dorothy A. [Hackett] Barrett, December 3, 1922 – October 6, 2015

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I Hope They Think I Was Racist

My father, unusually intelligent in most things, thought that suburban living was the pinnacle of civilization, the culmination of centuries of evolution. Though I argued with him, I understood his point of view. My parents and their parents struggled to be able to live in a safe, secure, beautiful place. Leaving behind close family and neighbors, all the things they loved about living in Manhattan, was worth it. In a world with limited knowledge of other cultures, they could not compare Huntington, Connecticut to very many places.

We tend to think that we are the pinnacle of evolution, even more so when it comes to our opinions and attitudes. I hope that when my niece Kate’s grandchildren hear about Aunt Alice, who lived back in 2011, they are SHOCKED by my attitudes.

She lived in a HOUSE when people were sleeping on the street?!”

“She POINTED at Latino people in her classes? How could she insult people that way?”

“She handed a gift to a Thai person with ONE HAND? How racist is that?”

“She lived in a town WITHOUT ONE African-American? Who did she think she was?”

And I feel wonderful relief knowing that they will be upset by things I cannot even imagine now. After they voice their outrage about the attitudes of so-called “good” people in 2011, I hope that Kate takes them to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Connecticut. She’s the one who wrote that racist book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly in 1852.  A woman organized a church trip to Stowe’s house in Connecticut as a way of thinking about Black History Month. Stowe has taken an unfair hit on racism. The fictional Uncle Tom is a different, more complex man than the political image of an “Uncle Tom.” However, there is no denying that reading the 1852 book in 2011 is a different experience.

Stowe revolutionized white people’s view of slavery and African-Americans forever. Certainly not every white person is convinced, but enough to bring U.S. slavery to an end much sooner.

In 1972, my grandmother was shocked that our white neighbor married a man who was black. She was older and living with us in Huntington. She’d gone as far as fourth grade in Ireland before emigrating and started work as a nanny around 1912. Now that she was older and ill, she got to read and rest. She spent hours by the front window, reading, thinking, telling stories, mostly thinking. The only house in sight was across the street where the shocking couple came and went to work, went shopping, and worked in the yard. I was reading in the living room one day when she said, “I guess it’s all right, as long as he treats her right.” It took me a moment to realize who she was talking about. I consider that moment an important milestone in the evolution of race relations. If she could change her view of the world sitting at a window, watching, thinking, wondering, I’m sure I can also. Maybe I can knock off some of the unconscious attitudes I have from that future list of my niece’s grandchildren.