Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I Got No Papers Show You What I Am

By Kevin Guilfoile

I have told the story many, many times.

I was thirteen and my mother and father and I were having dinner at home with Ken and Emmy Smith, a retired couple who had lived in our house for several decades before selling it to my parents and downsizing to a nearby apartment. Ken and Emmy wouldn't have topped nine feet standing on each other's shoulders, but their eccentricity was big and tall. Ken was a former New York sportswriter and he had a warehouse of anecdotes about famous athletes he'd known.

At one point during the evening he told a story about the night, decades before, he brought Joe Dimaggio back to the house--this house, my house--for dinner. I was enthralled. He went on about what a terrific fellow the Yankee Clipper was and the witty conversation they had that evening around the very table at which we were sitting.

After a while, Emmy said, "What was the name of that nice girl he brought with him? The blond one who helped me with the dishes?"

Ken shoved a forkful of meat loaf into his mouth and said, "Marilyn."

Now two things are funny about that story. One, that Emmy didn't seem to know who Marilyn Monroe was, and two, that Ken didn't think her presence in his home was important enough to mention earlier. Whenever I told it I added a third element--the hormonal shock and awe that is visited upon a boy in the flush of puberty when a bunch of grown-ups force him to imagine Marilyn Monroe washing dishes in his kitchen. That's the memoir-y part, and it's what gives me license to pass along the tale.

Last Saturday I was unpacking boxes in our new house and I came across an essay my father wrote years ago in which he tells that same story. My dad's version is exactly the same as mine in every detail except one.

I wasn't there. I couldn't have been there. No way in hell was I there when Ken Smith told that story. My father hadn't even been there. Another sportswriter who knew Ken and Emmy told dad he had heard it when he was over at the house for lunch. Years before my family even bought the place.

Obviously, I had listened to my dad tell it and over the years I added details--thirteen years old, meat loaf--that probably leaked in from dinners we actually did have with Ken and Emmy. I had been remembering the story (vividly) instead of the actual event. Nevertheless I have told it so many times that I felt a real jolt when I discovered it wasn't true. The anecdote might be true (if you knew Ken and Emmy you'd believe it, even third hand), but the memoir part is not. My license to tell that story is lost because the listener's connection to that event--my presence when it happened and the subsequent rush of hormones--is a lie. Fiction. I had subconsciously inserted myself into a good story so I could have an excuse to tell it.

Such is the stuff of every memoir scandal.

This discovery happened at the same time I was reading an actual memoir, Writing In an Age of Silence by The Outfit's own Sara Paretsky. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know Sara had just published this book until someone pointed it out to me in a store last week, but I'm very glad to have read it. It's really part memoir and part rant (instead of rant the jacket copy calls it part meditation, but if this is the way Sara "meditates" remind me to bring Kevlar to her yoga class). It's also a beautiful and honest discourse on memory, childhood, family, writing, feminism, social justice, and free speech. It contains some of the loveliest footnotes ever, including this one: "For the interested reader, my brother became a Dominican priest. He taught in Rome for many years but currently works in New York. Daniel, two years younger than I, is a veterinarian in northern Wisconsin. Jonathan, nine years younger, is a Kansas lawyer, a magician, an astronomer. He and Nicolas, the youngest, used to play table tennis together in a room in our basement that had once been a hiding place on the Underground Railroad..." Seriously Sara, the magical, ping-pong-playing astronomer/lawyer with a priest and a vet for brothers needs a book of his own. Or maybe a series.

I don't suspect I'll ever write a memoir. Especially now that it won't include a scene in which Marilyn Monroe washes dishes in my kitchen. That was some of my best stuff.


Steve Malley said...

Beautifully written post. My family were keen oral storytellers, and I also grew up with fantastic dinner table stories which didn't always turn out to be strictly true. I felt that one!

Claire said...

Wonderful post. This also reminds me of family stories. I always have a hard time knowing if things I remember are true memories or planted ones. Either way, they add up to who I am.

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