The Story I Was Asked Not to Write
Facts in themselves are as limiting as fences. We don't require them as often as we think. Why carve up the imagination with all those long, straight lines? I can follow a fence for awhile if I must, but inevitably, I hop it, drawn along paths suggested by the contours of the landscape itself. For awhile, things resemble the landscape of my own life, the so-called real world, but then I round a bend. There are subtle shifts in perspective. Certain colors are heightened; others shimmer and fade. A double moon rises in the sky. By its other-worldly light, I see someone who resembles a dear friend, an imagined lover, a neighbor's child – but five drafts later, fifty drafts later, I understand that I am mistaken. This character is a stranger. I have never known, never thought to imagine, anyone like this character before. It is this transcendent moment that amazes me again and again. There is always that point when the sum of the parts becomes larger than the whole.
And yet, I did not, could not, write about my father. No matter how his character might have changed, his situation evolve into an unknown landscape, the word tuberculosis would have had to remain, like a tombstone, like a monument, visible for miles.
All of my novels have begun as an attempt to answer questions, to reconcile contradictions suggested by details –- Chekhov's "little particulars" – dislodged from the lives of people who have mattered most to me. My first novel, Vinegar Hill, evolved out questions that had to do with a very brief period of time in which my family lived in my grandparents' house. It was there that I became keenly aware that my mother and I were not considered family the way that my father and brother were – my mother because she was an Ansay by marriage, me because I'd lose the name (or so it was assumed) when I married. The fierceness of my grandmother's affection for my father and brother, coupled with her chilly distance toward my mother and her absolute indifference to me, only served to underscore the irony of her own situation: she was not family either. Her position as an Ansay was every bit as precarious as our own. And to make matters worse, my grandfather knew something about her: a secret. Whenever she raised her voice to him, he'd threaten to tell.
I never learned what this secret was, but there were several clues. When I was fourteen, my grandmother pulled me into the bathroom by my wrist. There, speaking through tears, she told me that sex was for the sole purpose of bearing children, and that once I passed out of childbearing age, I was free to deny a husband anything more. My grandfather had persisted, but she'd known her rights. She'd gone to the priest – on her mother's advice – and the priest had made my grandfather leave her alone.
And then there was this: she'd been past twenty-five, an old maid by the standards of the day, when she'd married. Her father had approached my grandfather, and the two had negotiated until my grandmother's dowry was sweetened with the promise of good land. My grandfather told me the story several years after my grandmother had died.