Who Tells the Story?

I am sitting in the middle of our living room with my husband and sister.  The living room is a shambles — piles of articles to store, to give away, to pack.  Empty spaces loom where paintings and photographs used to hang.  Our cat, Lefty, watches us all suspiciously.  We are upsetting him with our tension, our comings and goings, our imminent move.

My sister, Ellen — who originally made this blog title into a plural — is visiting from Gdynia, Poland, where she’s lived for more than three years teaching English.  Who knew we’d be in the turmoil of moving when she originally planned her trip?  Nobody.  She’s stepped into our upheaval and is being patient with our jitters and obsessions.

My husband and I are, jointly and separately, non compos mentis.  All he can talk about is the bidding war for our barbecue pit on Craigslist.  I sit still, like a block of ice, staring in a manner I’m pretty sure would most kindly be termed deranged.  I’m not calm, I’ve taken to telling people; I am catatonic.

Oh, but forget about the house, the furniture, the move, the mortgage, the closings, the logistics.  My sister, three years younger than I, and I have known each other for 58 years.  She and my husband and I have known one another well for a good 40 years.  After that length of time, you almost forget where you end and the other person begins.  Our pasts overlap and intertwine.  Think kudzu.

We talk about our families, of course.  Do you ever get tired of talking about your parents, no matter how old you are, no matter how few parents you have left?  It hasn’t happened to us yet.

We talk about my sister’s and my mother, who was smart and charismatic, fragile and abusive.  Her shifting moods, alternately bright, then vicious,  dominated our childhoods.  Our family seemed to exist to hold her together.  She died in 1997, crippled by Parkinson’s and deeply embittered by her life and family.  One by one, we all disappointed her and broke her heart.  We know this, since she told us frequently.  We failed to love her enough, my sister and I weren’t housewives, I wasn’t religious, my husband and I were liberals.  Everybody failed her.

“Mother’s death freed me,” I said to my husband and sister last night.  They nodded and drank more wine, as if I’d said something inarguable like, This house is a real mess.

“I’ve never thought that before, but it’s true,” I said.

“Of course, it’s true,” my husband said.

I thought about all the years I’d spent agonizing over my mother, feeling overwhelmed with guilt about her, writing her letters I never sent, struggling with therapy.  Then she had died — and that long and excruciating and silent conversation was over.

That was my side of the story.  Hers, if she were here to tell you about it, would have been very different — almost unrecognizably so.  Where does the truth lie?  That’s the question that always haunted me about my mother.  Who am I to have the last word?

We continued to drink wine and tell family stories and ask unanswerable family questions.  I was with the two people who know me best in the world.  Around us, a house and a history were being taken apart, disappearing before our eyes.  Everything goes, nothing lingers.  The family stories from the next generation — would I recognize them when they were told by others?

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about mothers and their dreams

12 comments… add one
  • That’s really interesting to think about because of course we all have our own interpretations of the stories.

  • Donna Link

    “Our pasts overlap and intertwine. Think kudzu.”
    I’m in awe of your writing, Ruth, – both the parts and the whole. The line above reminds me once again of the crisp clarity that grabs me over and over again in your work. Thank you.

  • I wish you a little pocket of peace – somewhere in that move.

    Those conversations about family are like nothing else. It is fascinating, the whole topic of different realities of family members.

  • When I stood at the bedside and watched my mother exhale that last breath, I felt the memory of every story, grievance, slight, wound, betrayal concerning anyone she had ever known was being passed to me as its new caretaker. I saw the whole weighty burden come drifting down from the ceiling, a gray swag of flannel settling ’round my shoulders. My knees almost gave out beneath me. In time, I realized I could remove that mantle from my shoulders, fold it up and stow it on a closet shelf and merely glance at it from time to time. That would be enough to honor that caretaking duty. And remember– minus the weight.

    Regarding what you queried: “The family stories from the next generation — would I recognize them when they were told by others?”
    —-I think you would, though you’ll itch to rise up and put add your
    “corrective” two cents worth.

  • Merr Link

    Your last line is so interesting! I guess it’s true that there are a very limited number of story lines that exist (maybe only 2?!)…it must be in the telling that makes them unique.

  • The last one standing gets the last word. It is temporarily you. Write well and maybe your story wins.

  • I’m a big believer in that everyone has their own story to tell and we’re each convinced of the absolute accuracy of our own version of events.

    And now I’m curious to learn more about your relationship (or lack thereof) with your mother, Ruth.

  • Cheryl Link

    Great story. You are so lucky to have your sister with you. I hope you all are having a wonderful visit.
    I like reading this, I didn’t know her very well, but always interesting to hear about her, and your dad.
    Hope your moving is going good!

  • Terry Buckner Link

    You said what I have thought many, many times in the last few years….I wonder what my children will be saying about me when I am gone…will they know how much I loved them…how they consumed by every thought and action….I doubt it…our price to pay for the joy of having them…I have often said that we never get over our childhood….guess that is universal:)

  • My heart goes out to children who feel responsible for their parent’s unhappiness and their parent’s abusive behavior. Freed at your mother’s death, yes. Do you think the clarity, perceptiveness and power of your writing is a product, in part, of surviving the fire of your mother’s inner torment?

  • Steve Link

    I spent the recent holidays pondering why I had no relationship with a great grandmother who lived until I was 19, but might as well have not been living during my lifetime. What was the family story from that generation?

    The last of her living descendants from the two generations between us is a second cousin, who said by email he didn’t know her or the story, and an aunt by marriage. So I called Aunt Dee, with whom I’d not spoken in a couple of years. Her explanation? “Well, they didn’t visit much. I only met her once during [the 40 years of] my marriage to Bob.”

    They didn’t “visit much?” I guess not.

    I can’t even offer my two cents on the story when there’s no story.

  • The truth keeps changing with each telling, doesn’t it?

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