A flashlight in the dark

It all began in 1995 at the twenty first birthday party of one of my nephews. My family and several of his friends were seated at long tables in a community hall somewhere in Keysborough, music blaring and the chatter of voices, when the idea first came to me, to write a book. 

Not simply my book but one in which each of my eight siblings could include their own chapter on what it was like growing up in our family, over a twenty-year span, from oldest to youngest. Each providing their own perspective. 

I was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal Dreams, at the time. A 1990 novel in two voices, each speaking in turn, a father, and his daughter. Kingsolver’s is fiction. Mine was to be memoir. The so-called ‘truth’.

After my nephew’s birthday party, aglow with excitement and my inspiration to get this book out into the world, I wrote a series of letters to each of my siblings, one after the other asking whether they’d be happy to write a chapter on our childhood experience. 

All except the sister below me, who delayed a return letter for some time, and the brother above, who told me he was writing himself and did not want to be part of another’s brainchild, at least not then. All others said they were happy to oblige. Some even wrote letters that might have entered my book but in the end – the end that is never the end only a continuation of the days ahead – I gave up on my dream of a book with my siblings and wrote my own instead.  

My own version of events that they could then pick apart, much as my mother’s siblings railed against certain sections of her book, when she insisted this happened like this and they said ‘no it did not’.

They argued over the facts, the time, the events. All the stuff that memoir writing demands we capture as accurately as we can, even as we know memory is a fickle beast and we cannot get to the facts as they once were with any accuracy of detail, only impressions of what it felt like to me then.

Memory is infused with all the experiences we’ve been through since. A rewriteable CD as Timothy once described in the days of rewritable CDs. Not so apt a metaphor these days when we rely on more up to date digital devices to keep our records straight to keep our memories alive even as we distort each memory on re-remembering. Even as we remember times when we remembered earlier times, which is another aspect of our human minds and memoirist tendencies. Remembering remembering. And that first moment when we recognise the frailty of our memories, the way those earliest times are blanked out. The first time someone told you what you did when you were little.

How hilarious or distressing it was like the time you jumped into creek and nearly drowned. The time you leapt off a moving train imagining your mother was there at the door ready to grab you only she had already turned away to put the baby into her pram and the train driver had imagined all passengers were safety off the train and began to move off. 

The way your older brother leapt across the station where he was waiting with the other siblings lined up beside the pram and pushed you across the train carriage as the train sped up. He saved your life the story goes but you have no memory of the event, only of the story when you were told, and you spend a life time imagining it as though it was a memory. 

Memories are like this, pin pricks of light that lead our way back into the murky past, but they can only illuminate so much of the way ahead the rest remains in darkness and can only be retrieved through our imaginations or someone else‘s flashlight pointed into other corners obscured from our view. Or through tricks of the light. 

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