One of these days I’m going to write that story…

I say this every time my mother or one of her sisters gets around to the Blackberry Wine Story.  I’ve taken to calling them kitchen stories, these snippets about the Harris and Woodward women that make up my maternal line. They’re not the stories we tell at parties in mixed company, but the ones that get murmured over baking Christmas cookies or the basting of Thanksgiving turkey. They are female mythology handed down like recipes, like mason jars turning blue with age, like the table cloth that’s so ugly and dated it’s cool again.

I can’t seem to tell this story to my satisfaction, maybe because I’m still honing my skills and the words just aren’t right yet, or maybe I haven’t gotten what I need from it yet so it haunts me.  The telling is difficult because I wasn’t there. As a writer of creative nonfiction I feel an obligation to the truth but all I have is the story as myth, as family history.  I’ve tried it as fiction, as a stage play, and (to date) in half a dozen different essay forms. I don’t want these women I come from to feel like an invention.  It’s the blood of them, the heart and the breath and the laughter I’m always trying to write.

For a while only stolen female moments hovered at the edges of my stories, but lately, as it has in my real life, even the furniture is showing up in other places, returning to the edges of things and slipping in while my attention is elsewhere.  I don’t know how to tell these kitchen stories without context, or how much context they need anymore, but they’re the stories I keep telling.

This is the latest version of the Blackberry Wine Story which I wrote as the introduction to an essay about writing. I’d like to get this to a place where it stands alone, without too much explaining, but (as you can see from all this introduction) I’m still not entirely sure how to frame it.

Three women sit around a gold-flecked Formica pedestal table with aluminum flashing. The yellow and white kitchen is spotless. The countertops and cupboard faces shine; the black and white checked linoleum has been dutifully waxed. There are no men in the house. They are disappeared in to their workdays at the railroad, the steel plant, or in the case of my great-uncle Carl, on the golf course with friends. For these few hours female laughter is unrestrained. The women breathe deep, relax, allow the children to clatter in and out of swinging screen doors into the summer sun.

Eva is presiding over lunch with her daughters—my grandmother Vivian, the faithful daughter, the one who stayed close to home. It is her four children that hover at the screen doors, swing from the cherry trees, dare their two California cousins to perform the forbidden act of wading out into the Provo river canal. Vivian’s sister Lillian is visiting. Lil ran off to California with her high-finance husband. She left her Mormon faith to support her husband’s much more lucrative communion with the Crystal Cathedral. She doesn’t own one homemade shirt-waist cut from Woolworth’s Calico. She wears pedal pushers and open-toed sandals. She and Carl drove in from California in the white Cadillac. She brought with her fresh strawberries and a jug of Mogen David Blackberry wine.

When my aunt Judy, Vivian’s oldest daughter gets home from beauty school she can hear them laughing from the sidewalk. She finds the kitchen counters strewn with flour, the tin of bacon grease kept by the stove is up-ended on the floor.  Cold coffee is splashed in the kitchen sink. My great-grandmother Eva is standing barefoot on a yellow vinyl kitchen chair, using a broom to swipe at the sticky globs of biscuit dough Viv and Lil keep throwing toward the ceiling. Vivan’s youngest, my mother Bonnie has collected the biscuits that didn’t stick. She plays with them, patting them into animal shapes not suitable for baking. The wine is gone except for the remnants in juice glasses, tipped and dripping into the flour on the kitchen table.

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4 Responses to One of these days I’m going to write that story…

  1. brownc67 says:

    Michelle, I loved when you wrote, “I don’t want these women I come from to feel like an invention. It’s the blood of them, the heart and the breath and the laughter I’m always trying to write.” Studying creative non-fiction is new to me, and what I’ve learned so far has made me wonder if I’m really an artist – if I really want to turn experience into artifact, as Brenda has talked about. I suppose I’m feeling lately like there were some stories I wanted to or could tell (that I don’t think are merely just journaling – I think they could be useful to others in some way, too) but now am hesitating to try to make those stories into artifact, a word that Brenda writes in “The Case Against Bravery” is cousin to “artificial.” But, I suppose every time we tell a story we, in some way, make it less true.

    This is of course what leads us into the “truth” debate. I used to side pretty heavily with Tim O’Brien and How To Tell A True War Story, but I’ve begun to feel less comfortable with that idea, or at least, I’m not sure that’s what I’m interested in writing anymore. Especially because, I think like you, I want to acknowledge and appreciate the women in my family for who they were, at the same time I want to say something about why I chose not to live the way they did. They were real people. Do I want to turn their lives into artifact?

    I love the phrase “stolen female moments.” I wonder if you could write this story as part of an essay that would deal with that theme. But if you want it to stand alone, I could see it as more of a short story told from the point of view of one of the people there, or maybe you could have a sort of framing narrative of a time when you were told this story. Have you tried any of those forms?

  2. brownc67 says:

    Make that Brenda’s “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction” 🙂

  3. LeAnne says:

    Michelle, I’d like to add to what Chanel said about the possibility of telling this story from the POV of one of the women – so far, Lil fascinates me the most in her flight and return, her similarity and difference within this clan. Whatever forms you choose, I’d love to learn more about her and what the changes she made did to her relationships with the other women.

    I’d also like to add to one of your comments, Chanel. “But, I suppose every time we tell a story we, in some way, make it less true.” I think this can be the case, but I also think it’s possible that every time we tell a story, we make that version the firmest truth available. I wonder if this is especially true when others agree on the details and tell it the same way you do. It seems like current nonfiction debates often bring up the discrepancies between remembered events – kind of like in the “Silence” story. Two people may be in the same place but tell entirely different stories about it. But what about when two people remember the same thing, the same details, the same outcome? There can be joy in that communion, confirmation that the memory is “real” – and an incentive to perpetuate that version into the future.

    Thanks for the conversation 🙂

  4. What a good conversation! Thanks for the beautiful post, Michelle; I second the lines that Chanel quoted: so authentic.

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