Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz is often quoted as saying, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
I stumbled across this quote recently when reading about the one-woman play based on Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton that opened earlier this year in New York. I chuckled. As I have pursued publishing two books about family members—one about my father who died when I was seven, and the other about my maternal grandfather whom my mother never knew—I have frequently wondered about the propriety or even the dangers of writing about family.
In my case, I did not set out to write a “tell all” book or to reveal any uncomfortable truths about my personal experiences.
In The Last Resort, I essentially let my father do the talking, and I was cautious not to include in the excerpts from his Harvard Forest journal any details that I thought might be construed as too personal or too negative toward those in his orbit. Nonetheless, I did want to reveal just enough to make him feel more fully human to readers.
Next Train Out is, of course, a novel. It is a fictionalized telling of my grandfather’s life. I relied on the facts I had at hand to discern possible motivations or character traits that would lead him to take the actions he did. Some may consider the details of the story scandalous or horrifying. I simply view them as the facts.
Nearly all the people who populate these books are long gone from this earth. That distance gave me some comfort and perhaps the license to share these stories. At the same time, I felt some responsibility for making my representation of the characters as truthful as I could, given the limitations of my knowledge. I would sometimes ask myself, “If Effie Mae’s descendants were to read this book and somehow recognize her in the telling, will they feel I have maligned her memory?” I don’t think so.
There is one character in Next Train Out who is portrayed as a sort of villain, which I don’t believe is truly accurate. But I needed a foil for Lyons, and he was a good choice. I checked with his great-grandsons—my cousins—twice to be sure they would be OK with my fictional representation. They assured me I didn’t need to worry.
Another cousin called recently to say how delighted she was to find her grandfather and other relatives identified by name in the novel. It made the whole story come alive for her. She probably didn’t remember that I had called her late last year to be sure she was OK with my using their real names. During that conversation, she offhandedly shared some physical and personality traits of those family members with me, which I dutifully incorporated into the story.
So it can indeed be dangerous to have a writer in the family. Or in your circle of friends. But, as Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Peggy Cooper, of northern Kentucky, introduces Clearing the Fog readers to Celebrate A Community, soon to be reprinted by Murky Press. More about this exciting project coming soon!
The stars spread across the sky as they do only when you live on a dairy farm acres away from the nearest neighbor. The milking was finished and I walked with my father, hand in his, from the barn to the house. At the sidewalk to the milkhouse, he suddenly paused and sat on his heels, his scratchy bearded cheek against mine, one arm around me holding me close and the other pointing into the sky, guiding my gaze to the Big Dipper. It was there at the end of his finger, the Big Dipper, over the milkhouse. Who knew that there were pictures in the sky made of stars, and over our milkhouse?
When I started this book project, my husband would tease me about “the Center of the Universe,” the little town I was writing about, Fayetteville, in Perry Township, Ohio. He was making fun of my attachment to this little one-stoplight crossroads.
My father lived his entire life on the farm where that milkhouse stands beneath the Big Dipper. My brothers are farmers tilling the same land farmed by five generations of our family. That milkhouse is now on the cover of the book that is filled with photos and memories of the community around that milkhouse, and many of my father’s stories are within the covers of that book.
Who knew that there were pictures in the sky made of stars, and over our milkhouse? Indeed, who knew that Fayetteville and Perry Township really are the Center of the Universe?
Nearly two years ago a friend sent me a review of Michael Chabon’s 2016 novel Moonglow. In the book, Chabon pieces together the remarkable life of his crotchety grandfather, a World War II veteran and a rocket aficionado. One reviewer, Hamilton Cain, in O, The Oprah Magazine, calls it “an exuberant meld of fiction and family history.”
I realized immediately that I needed to read this book. It’s an amazing story of family secrets only revealed when painkillers loosen the grandfather’s inhibitions—and his lips—during the last days of his life. There are phantasmagoric tales of mental illness, war crimes, civilian crimes, the space age, Jewish slums, and Florida retirement communities. And if you’re familiar with Chabon’s work, you know it’s brilliantly written. I highly recommend it.
As I’ve worked on my own novel about a somewhat mysterious grandfather, I’ve frequently returned to the words Chabon wrote in his Author’s Note:
“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.”
One of my chief struggles has stemmed from my desire to reveal all that I have learned about my ancestors and about the times they lived in. I know this is not what the reader of a work of fiction wants. And I have worked assiduously to rein in those tendencies. I recognize that some of my best characters may be the ones I invented whole cloth because I didn’t have the details of their lives available to me. And, of course, all conversations, all motivations, all emotional reactions were fabricated. With no family letters or other personal artifacts, how could I know any of that? I sometimes remind myself that the imagination can be the best conduit for the truth. There’s a reason Chabon’s note ends with the words “due abandon.”
However, I freely confess that the facts have largely dictated the broad strokes of the narrative. After all, I started out wanting to tell the story of my grandfather’s life. And there were some truly eye-popping discoveries that I hope have led to a compelling story line. But at times I allowed myself to get bogged down in details that a general audience will not care about.
With help from my early readers, I have trimmed a good bit of that out. I know I still have a little more that needs to go. It always helps to reread Chabon’s words and remember how critical it is to stick with facts “except when facts [refuse] to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” It is, after all, a work of fiction--“Scout’s honor,” as Chabon defiantly states in the disclaimer for his memoir.
Two years ago, I took an eight-week essay-writing class with the irrepressible Teri Carter. At some point, she alerted us to a call for essays from a North Carolina writer and editor who was putting together a compendium of brief pieces by emerging writers. The theme of the collection was “facing adversity and making do”—more specifically, overcoming challenges as Daniel Boone had done 250 years ago when he was trapped by an early snowstorm in Kentucky during a hunting trip.
At the time, I was accustomed to writing short essays, both for Teri's class and for this blog. I didn’t have an inspiring story to share, one where I had faced danger or personal calamity or had demonstrated unusual courage or forbearance. But I was working through how to construct a novel-length narrative based on my maternal grandfather’s life, and one evening I dashed off a tongue-in-cheek reflection on what I had in common with him.
On a whim, I submitted the essay to the project editor and coordinator, Randell Jones. And then I promptly forgot about it. I devoted the next months to figuring out how to write fiction. Sometime that spring, Jones alerted me that he planned to include my piece in the book Bearing Up.
When I finally received a copy, I read through the other submissions and felt a little sheepish. The best pieces were short stories—something my contribution definitely was not. I ended up being mildly embarrassed by the whole thing. And I once again forgot about it.
Until a few days ago, when I received notice that Jones has now included my essay in the series of podcasts he is releasing. I admit I was surprised. When I rustled up the nerve to listen to his rendition, I liked it. He captured precisely the tone I had hoped to convey.
So I offer you Mr. Randell Jones’ 7-minute reading of “Adieu Encore,” my public admission that my “rapscallion grandfather,” as Jones calls him, and I have much in common.
Submit an essay for the 2020 Personal Story Publishing Project!
Write a personal story (780 words or so, 800 max) about "that Southern thing—living, loving, laughing, loathing, leaving the South. No fiction. You may share a story of someone close to you or an ancestor whose story you know well."
Deadling for submission: December 15, 2019
Click for more information.
Although Lawrenceburg was my parents’ hometown, I don’t have many memories of the place before my family moved there when I was seven. I know we came for visits, despite the arduous two-day drive. Typically, however, we would stay at the rambling farmhouse of my Goodlett cousins in southern Franklin County. As we neared our destination, I would wake up in the back seat of the old Plymouth Valiant, peer out the window at the white board fence loping along the road, and know that we were almost there.
I do remember one fateful trip, however, when we were planning to stay with my McWilliams cousins in Lawrenceburg. That trip was special: we were taking the train. I remember being picked up from school—another oddity, since my sister and I always walked to and from school—before we headed to the train station. Sometime en route, as the train rumbled west, I developed the mumps. I don’t remember too much more about the visit, but I’m sure it was not the family gathering anyone had anticipated.
So Lawrenceburg was still largely a mystery to me when we moved there. One of my early memories was shopping with Joy Mountjoy and Jean Goodlett at The Louisville Store. I remember wandering the aisles of Ben Franklin, awestruck at all the trinkets. I recall hearing about the filming of “The Flim-Flam Man” in town the summer before, disappointed that I had missed all the excitement.
I tagged along with my mother everywhere she went. The Lawrenceburg Bank. Ballard’s Drug Store. Model Market. Her aunt and uncle’s apartment on Jackson Street. That first summer, that’s how I got to know the town.
Recently, members of the Anderson County Historical Society were treated to a montage of film captured by Roy York in the early 1960s: parades through downtown Lawrenceburg, documentation of all the churches and public buildings, the dedication of Beaver Lake. Those of us of a certain age enjoyed catching glimpses of the people and places we remember from that era. It was a long time ago.
Lawrenceburg is a different place now. The 127-Bypass has become a commercial mecca. New neighborhoods have sprouted in every direction. The population has more than quadrupled.
But you still have to stop for the train on North Main Street. The old cemetery is still a beautiful place for a reflective walk. Downtown is once again bustling with places to eat and shop. The churches along Main Street haven’t moved. The courthouse featured in the old movie still stands sentinel.
I’m heading back to Lawrenceburg tomorrow for the Anderson Public Library Book Fest. I hope to chat with some current residents. Perhaps I’ll see some old friends. As I did the research for The Last Resort, I probably learned more about the area’s people and history than I had in the 10 years I lived there. There’s still much to discover, of course. But I know Pud Goodlett and Bobby Cole are happy that the little logbook of their adventures along Salt River has led me to a better understanding of their hometown.
After my great-aunt Mary McWilliams suffered her final stroke, she was lying in a hospital bed, largely unresponsive. I approached her bedside with some trepidation. I was 17. I had something important to tell her.
“Mamaw,” I said, “I’ve decided to go to Centre College.”
She smiled. She did not respond verbally. She did not open her eyes. But she heard me, and she was pleased that I had finally decided to follow her to her alma mater.
At the time, I wasn’t particularly happy about that decision. I had wanted to go far, far away from Kentucky, far away from Lawrenceburg. I had never quite found my footing in my parents’ hometown after being dislocated from Baltimore shortly after my father died. I was still largely alien to my classmates. But I was set to graduate from Anderson County High School in a couple of months, and I had finally accepted my mother’s arguments for going to a school 30 miles away rather than one hundreds of miles away. Knowing that Mamaw approved made the choice a little more palatable. I was happy that I had shared some news in her final days that made her happy.
It sometimes seems ironic to me now that I am spending so much time digging into my ancestors’ stories and learning about Lawrenceburg’s history. I had hoped I had gotten away for good when I went on to graduate school in North Carolina. But I unexpectedly ended up back in Kentucky, and somehow I have never left.
So now I am looking forward to joining over 30 other authors at the Anderson Public Library’s First Annual Book Fest on Saturday, October 19. It feels a bit like a homecoming. As I’ve traveled to various communities in the last two years sharing the story of Pud and Bobby down on Salt River, I’ve begun to feel pride in my Anderson County roots. Under my cousin Sandy Goodlett’s patient tutelage, I’ve learned how widespread my ties to the county are.
It seems appropriate that this event will be at the beautiful, recently renovated Anderson Public Library. Adjacent to the library’s front door is a portrait of Ann McWilliams, Mary McWilliams’ daughter-in-law, who dedicated a decades-long career to improving the viability of that local institution and making it a proud testament to the community’s curiosity and love of reading. Mary McWilliams’ sister, Nell—my grandmother—worked at the old Carnegie library on Woodford Street, which is now the Anderson County Tourism Office and History Museum.
Growing up, I spent many hours in both buildings. My mother made sure of that. For me, the library was always a welcoming place that offered spellbinding riches: all the books you could read. For free. Now, of course, libraries offer so much more.
I hope you’ll make plans to stop by Saturday, October 19, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and say hello. It’s an honor to be there to represent the story of an Anderson County native and chat with my Anderson County family.
A few months after my father died, after we had moved from Baltimore and settled in our new home in Kentucky, I woke up late one evening in a panic. I thought I was going to die. I was certain of it. I don’t remember if I had a sensation that my heart was failing me, or if I just had a sense of dread.
I was eight years old.
I remember sitting with my mother on her bed as she called the doctor. I don’t recall if I was crying. I expect I was frightened. I know my mother must have felt a sense of panic and helplessness.
Thankfully, our doctor at the time, George Gilbert, was not only a small-town doctor (who later made regular house calls to soothe my troublesome earaches with shots of penicillin), he had also been a classmate of my father’s. He had known both my parents well.
After briefly explaining the situation to him, my mother handed the phone to me. I listened as he tried to reassure me that everything was OK. I don’t think I believed him. But I understood even then that death was inevitable, and if it was my time, it was my time.
This long-repressed scene played out again in my mind as I heard details of the Inspector General’s report relating to the harm done to small children who were separated from their parents upon arriving at our southern border. One child reported, “I can’t feel my heart.” Another said, “every heartbeat hurts.” These were explained as physical manifestations of the emotional pain the separation had caused the children.
One story in particular stuck with me.
“A 7- or 8-year-old boy was separated from his father, without any explanation as to why the separation occurred. The child was under the delusion that his father had been killed and believed that he would also be killed. This child ultimately required emergency psychiatric care to address his mental health distress.”
I suppose it makes sense that young children who identify with their parents might expect that their parent’s fate could be their own. If parents can’t protect themselves from some harm—arrest, separation, death—how can they protect their children from these same terrors?
I am still amazed when I wake up each morning. I have always expected to share my father’s fate. But I’m old now. I’ve outlived him by 16 years. I did not succumb prematurely.
Nonetheless, this is a tiny trauma I have carried throughout my life as a result of losing a parent unexpectedly at a young age—at the same age as the boy separated from his dad. Yet I knew what happened to my father. I had a loving mother who cared for me in a secure home. I cannot imagine the lifelong repercussions and insecurities this young boy might face.
For me, this is a reminder that all this country is doing in the name of “policy” is personal. Our separating families at the border affects all of us. Our denying climate change and rolling back common-sense regulations affects all of us. Our refusal to restrict widespread access to military-style weapons affects all of us. We will feel the pain of the Central American refugees, the residents of low-lying coastal communities, and the families who have had loved ones slaughtered. We all share common humanity. We all respond to loss and fear the same way.
I had promised that I would not revisit my “father loss” theme again so soon, but circumstances keep pushing me back to that well. If that early experience is what connects me to the world at large, then its value—and its pain—is a privilege that I need to share.
When I was in second grade, I vividly remember coming home and declaring to my mother that I intended to marry my classmate David Oldham. He was handsome, smart, and debonair (or at least that’s how I recall him more than 50 years later).
My mother frowned. Always the pragmatist, never the romantic, she said, “But you can’t marry David, Sallie. He’s colored.”
I was outraged. I was defiant. I thought my mother was just trying to deny me the wedded bliss that I imagined. But it was Baltimore in 1966. Loving v. Virginia wouldn’t be decided until 1967. Mother knew best.
The following spring I watched as the city bused black children from their inner-city homes to P.S. 212, my school in northeast Baltimore. Even at seven years old I could feel their terror. They couldn’t sit comfortably in their seats. Their wide eyes darted around the room. They didn’t speak.
I was gone shortly after that—before the end of the school year and before the Baltimore riots—whisked away to my own foreign world in Kentucky. I did not go easily. I hid in my bedroom closet, hoping my mother would leave me behind so I could stay near my friends.
These memories have come back recently as the nation has flirted with another conversation about busing. We’re talking again about reparations. And this month we’re acknowledging the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves being brought to our shores.
As I’ve dug into my family history over the past few years, I’ve discovered evidence that the ancestors of at least three of my four grandparents owned slaves. They all lived in Kentucky or Virginia or Tennessee. Most of the families had come to this land from Great Britain well before we had gained our independence. I don’t know that any of my ancestors were sizable landowners, but they evidently elected to use slave labor to keep the household or small farm running.
At first, I was shocked. Then I felt resigned. Those of us whose families have been here longest may have the most to explain. While everyone in this country benefited from slave labor, we are the ones who claimed ownership of other human beings. We are the ones who were here to grumble and complain as each new ethnic group came to this country fleeing famine or religious persecution or genocide. Or arrived here simply seeking a better life.
Today we malign the immigrants who knock on our door looking for refuge, for work, for a future. We blame the ills of this country on the “huddled masses” who come here seeking hope, while we quietly benefit from the work only they are willing to do.
But perhaps it’s not recent immigrants, but those of us whose ancestors arrived here earliest who carry the biggest burden. We’re the ones who now need to demonstrate what we can offer this country. How we can make it whole. How we can repay the gifts we’ve received. That’s our public charge.
I'm thinking it’s time to close the chapter on reminiscences about my dad. Compiling The Last Resort provided a tiny window into his thoughts as he hung out with Bobby and the others at their Salt River camp. By poring over the journal that he kept while working at Harvard Forest, I learned that he struggled with the same sorts of issues we all do as we launch a career. I discovered his sense of humor and his wry take on the world. The project allowed me to presumptuously call strangers and initiate conversations about their own memories of Pud. Amazingly, it prompted others to reach out to me and share their stories. What a journey it has been.
I’m not saying I won’t write about him again, but I worry that this little habit of mine has become outrageously self-indulgent. I recall the first time a reader of The Last Resort approached me and said, “I loved your book. But you know it’s really about a little girl searching for her father.” I was so embarrassed. That was not at all what I had intended. But that was, of course, exactly what I had delivered.
Occasionally, however, a chance comment from a family member or a former colleague of my father’s reveals another truth. Pud’s premature death at age 44 shattered lives.
Of course, we can start with my mother’s. I only knew her as a somewhat withdrawn, perhaps depressed, but deeply intelligent woman who evidently struggled to find her equilibrium after my father’s death. Others, however, tell stories of her being the life of the party. Photos of her as a young adult reveal a gaiety I rarely saw. Like many widows and widowers, she never fully recovered.
The family of my father’s sister, twelve years his senior and his legal guardian for a time after his own father’s death when he was 10, tell me how she grieved his death almost like she had lost her own child. My father’s older brother, with whom he was very close, rallied to my family’s aid immediately after my father’s death. Then my uncle went into a dark spiral, taking his large family on a heart-wrenching journey before his own death six short years later.
Not having any sons of his own, my dad was particularly fond of his nephews. We have evidence of that. Pud writes letters to Davy after being drafted into the Army. He takes numerous photos of Davy and Sandy as toddlers. He takes Mac and Charley under his wing. He beams with pride as Bob’s music career takes off. He invites any who will join him to Camp Last Resort.
Just recently, at Harvard Forest, we were shown a handsome “Memorial Album” of photos that his Harvard Forest colleagues compiled after his unexpected death in 1967. He was respected as a scientist and cherished as a friend.
Before stopping by Harvard Forest, I attended the memorial service for Ann Denny, the wife of one of my father’s good friends and regular collaborators, Charlie Denny. The Dennys’ three daughters were particularly fond of both my parents, having spent a summer with them in Coudersport, Penn., as the botanist and the geologist conducted their first collaborative research. Their stories of my father’s role in their lives and in their parents’ lives are precious to me.
In 2006, I visited Reds Wolman, the man who had finally snagged my father from Harvard Forest and lured him to Johns Hopkins, where Reds would become a legendary professor. Nearly 40 years after my father’s death, Reds’ face was stricken when he declared that my father’s untimely demise had robbed him of his best friend.
I am, of course, leaving out dozens of others whose lives were affected by my father’s death. His graduate students, who were depending on him to guide them to a doctorate. His childhood friends like George McWilliams, Lin Morgan Mountjoy, and Bobby Cole. His extensive clan of cousins. Our neighbors in Baltimore.
If you’re like I am, you don’t expect to leave much of a ripple behind. You don’t think you’ve done anything extraordinary. But take just a moment to consider the repercussions of this one life that began in a small town in rural Kentucky. Although it was a life cut short, take heed of the ripples emanating from that weighted hook cast endlessly into the slow-moving river.
In loving memory of Dr. William S. Bryant (November 9, 1943 - August 5, 2019).
The Last Resort never would have been published without Bill Bryant.
Shortly after his article about John C. Goodlett appeared in the Kentucky Journal of the Academy of Science in 2006, Billy—as I had always heard him called—got word to me that he would be talking about the paper at a meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society. Since I was working in Lexington at the time, I contacted Bobby Cole, my dad’s good friend and fellow architect of Camp Last Resort, and offered to take him to the meeting.
When we arrived, I saw that at least one more of my dad’s Lawrenceburg High School classmates was there: W. J. Smith. It was a remarkable evening of two generations sharing stories and reminiscences. I was astonished that, more than 40 years after his death, my dad’s contributions to the scientific community had prompted both Bill’s article and this hometown gathering.
They’re all gone now—Bobby, W. J., George Jr., Lin Morgan, Rinky, John Allen, Jody—and now Bill Bryant is gone, too.
Before the article was published, I had had no idea that Bill was working on it, no idea that he had been talking to my dad’s old colleagues (Reds Wolman, Alan Strahler, and Sherry Olson, for example). I now understand that Bill had discovered the very correspondence between my father and his Harvard Forest mentor, Hugh Raup, that I reviewed in detail just last month.
In short, I had no idea that there was still any interest in my father or his work. But what I learned was that Bill knew more about my father than I did.
Twice he led me out to my dad’s old camp on Salt River. I had never been there before. It had evidently never occurred to anyone else in those 40 years that I might like to see the place that was so special—almost sacred—to my father.
A few years later, as I worked on the book, Bill patiently reviewed various sections for accuracy. He encouraged me. He believed what I was doing had value.
He also nudged me to include more about my mother in the book. I remember Bill visiting our home in the 1970s, talking with my mother, going over materials related to my dad’s work. I didn’t fully understand then what his interest was. But he was obviously taken with my mother’s intelligence, her courage, and her struggles to raise two daughters alone.
In the end, though, I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate more of her story into The Last Resort. I promised Bill I had another project dedicated to her. It pains me that he’ll never get to read the novel I wrote about her father. Bill loved reading fiction and he loved history. I think he would have been interested in my telling of this Kentucky tale.
I feel, in a way, that I’ve lost another family member—yet one more of the few remaining connections to my father. Just as I wrote recently that I wish I could have walked the woods with Pud and gleaned a thing or two from all that he knew about its inhabitants, so I wish I could have walked the woods one more time with Bill.