Getting the past right

The loss of my grandmother’s memory was a loss for our entire family. In that mind was a treasure trove of stories – narratives that helped explain how we got to this point, why some of us were stubborn, selfless, artistic, or insane. So there was a sense of urgency when I sat down to interview her youngest sister, my great aunt. A very meticulous woman, she told me to call back when she was done eating her toast and having coffee. Breakfast as a sacrament, to be enjoyed uninterrupted and in silence.

When I did call back, we spent a few hours going through her earliest memories, discussing how her family first arrived from Italy and began building a new life in New York. A classic immigrant story, that I won’t bother to repeat here. When i finally got around to putting together some semblance of a draft, I wanted her to review it. I was surprised by the feedback. She was upset. The details were all wrong. It wasn’t your Uncle Tony that became a petty officer in the war, it was your Uncle Leo. John didn’t leave school, he was the only one of us to graduate. Fuzzy details over which I had assumed artistic license became points of frustration, and I began to realize that perhaps rewriting our family’s story may be more difficult than first thought.

I am no journalist, nor did I ever really aspire to be one. I love writing for the emotional release, the beauty of cadence and the rare validation of a “well-said.” Yet recording a family history was a journalistic endeavor and my realizations were two-fold: 1. When you are writing someone else’s story, it is not for you to decide what is important and what isn’t. The editor-in-chief that won’t let a sentence go to print unless you triple-check sources? She exists for a reason. A good journalist is, in effect, writing the first draft of history – the power to give life to names on the page or wipe locations off the face of your literary planet should not be taken lightly.  2. One’s memories are intensely personal things. If you are to only keep the spirit of ones words, to strip down the story to a naked idea and rebuild it with your own inherent understanding of how the world works,  – then at least have the decency to change the fucking names.

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