A friend who is an accomplished memoir writer suggested I write about my parents, whose complicated, ambivalent, and sometimes violent relationship went on for decades after they divorced. One might see my brother and me as victims of their parenting. They often became too tied up in their conflict to notice what it was doing to us.
I filed away my friend’s suggestion, telling myself that memoir is unnecessarily constraining. Unlike the fiction writer, the memoirist has to tell the truth – whatever that is. (Some people seem to know. I wish I did.) Instead I would write a novel based on my childhood. That way I could take what I wanted and leave the rest.
A few days ago I stumbled upon a truer reason for not penning a childhood memoir. Remembering parts of the past scares the shit out of me. I was in the garage looking for photos of my brother to send to his son. These were packed away with dozens of letters that our family wrote to one another over the years. Holding those bundles of musty envelopes, I was seized by intense anxiety, as if they contained letters from an IRS auditor, and quickly stuffed them back in the mouse-proof storage container.
Then I came to my brother’s trunk. He used it to carry his belongings when he worked in oil exploration in the 1970s. After his death in 1987 my mother kept it, and after her death in 2003 it came to me. The trunk is covered with stickers he collected during his travels. The largest of these, adorning the front, asks Have You Hugged Your Driller Today? Among the contents of Steve’s trunk I found long underwear for protection against the mountain cold, photos of his children, copies of tax returns for 1982, a dogeared paperback of Carlos Castaneda’s Tales of Power, a tube of lip balm, a book of matches, and more letters, including this one from our father.
Note the part about Dad being unable to help Steve because of his dire financial situation and his hope things will improve in a couple of years once I graduate from college. At that time I was attending an expensive private liberal arts college. Though my tuition and much of my board were covered by a scholarship, Dad had to shell out a fair amount of money. He paid my bill at the college bookstore, and sometimes I added to his burden by charging extra cartons of cigarettes and selling them to friends at a discount so I would have money to buy drugs.
Maybe I should have left the letter and read Tales of Power instead.