I drafted this essay in 1991, a year before our youngest child was born. I leave it frozen in the present tense, to more sharply evoke those dawning realities of craft resonating with life.
Last night I spent an hour shuffling through the dozens of rejections I’ve collected from various editors to whom I have sent my essays. Today, my ego cushioned by an acceptance, I can read them with some perspective, even appreciation for the occasional encouraging word scrawled in ink by some overworked editor. One journal sends back kindly but patronizing notes, explaining just what they mean by non-fiction. What they mean, it turns out, is literary criticism. Good luck with my stories, they add. If these were, indeed, stories—by which they mean fiction—both the writing and the effort to publish might be less challenging. But the essay, dancing with truth as it does, is a different matter. Why, I wonder, does the prospect of writing fiction alarm me more than courting the elusive, sometimes precarious, truth?
Our children, at their respective ages of six and three, struggle daily to separate truth from the mires of myth, fantasy, and dream. My son dreams that his bed, of which he’s fond, spit at him. For two days afterwards tears spring to his eyes at the recollection of that dream. He just can’t figure out why his bed would do such a thing. And yet, the dragon with a box on its back which he and his day-care buddy Ryan saw out his window in the midst of another dream the other night, he quickly determined to be not real. But that he saw Ryan in his room, in the dark of night, he just can’t make sense of. Ryan is real, after all.
My daughter plies us with questions this whole Christmas holiday. Santa is very definitely real, and she clings to the truth of him—elves, reindeer, and all. The hamster he brought her runs on its squeaky treadmill just behind me, as I sit typing in the cold darkness of two A.M. (both of us nocturnal creatures, it seems). And Dasher certainly is real, a warm and noisy bundle of evidence attesting to the truth of Santa.
Baby Jesus—one more piece in the puzzle—meshes nicely with her set of beliefs as Santa’s grandchild. The angels, like the reindeer, are more troublesome to fit into her scheme of things. She’s never seen the likes of either of them.
More-real-than-angels but less-real-than-Santa, dragons and dinosaurs belong together. Witches and ghosts and fairies, like unicorns, are probably untrue, she’s figured out. With the new year, the new cycle of seasons and traditions, she’ll be faced with reassessing her reality and redefining her world. She’ll continue to question us about ours, judiciously, as she’s ready. And—good big sister that she is—she’ll keep pace with her brother’s vision, adjusting what she shares to match his readiness to discover.
Writing these personal essays makes me feel like my kids must feel as they struggle to sort fact from fancy, and to embrace the whole bundle of truths into some scheme that conforms to the circumstances surrounding them. The challenge dwarfs me: to write the truth that fits with the truths of others. I’m always surprised by how it scares me to share the essays I draft—especially with readers whose truths touch mine. I cringe at the reactions I expect: This is nothing like what happened; that’s not what I meant at all. One friend returned a particular essay with a post-it note asking: “Did this really happen?” Considering the question, and rereading the essay, I wasn’t sure how to answer her. I believe that it did; or perhaps something very like it happened. Or maybe that child whom I’d invoked never did exist quite as I perceive her. But she’s all I have.
When I attend to the child I remember being, two distinct memories of sorting out reality emerge. The first is a solitary recollection, its context having fallen away over the intervening years. Standing on the whitewashed porch of our parish convent, I was waiting for Sister Theresa, who sat checking my catechism homework. I don’t think I meant to, but I found myself drawn to the slight separation between her black veil and the white habit that wrapped around her face. Horrified, I realized that she had hair and—far worse—that I’d seen it. Too ashamed to confess, I lived with that sin, waiting for God’s vengeance to descend. Nothing ever happened—beyond the slightest loss of faith, a gentle descent from which I never did fully recover.
The other is a recurring memory from my fifth year. It features one of the neighbour kids who lived with an aunt, I think, in a small white house on the far corner of a field adjacent to our home. His name was Robert and he was famous among the rest of us, mainly because he once fell out of a car and broke his head open. My mother immortalized that event for us. “Don’t lean against that door or you’ll fall out and break your head open, just like Robert Payson,” we’d hear at least once a week. Picture a watermelon thrown down on pavement, and you’ll have the image of Robert Payson’s head that we shared. I don’t expect my mother ever realized what we imagined, but she’d probably have used the warning anyway. The idea of a kid tumbling out the door of a moving family wagon, packed four to a seat, might just demand such recourse.
The consequence my mother didn’t likely anticipate was that Robert had our respect. A year or two older than me, he impressed me as tough, a little scary even. Once, he told me that if I were to put cold baked beans down the hole to the furnace in our cellar, a Leprechaun would come to me. I remember having lots of questions (How many beans? Down which hole? How often? When would he show up?). But I kept them all to myself, not wanting to appear as young and naive as I suspected myself to be.
I have not the vaguest idea why that little boy would have told me such a thing, but I have vivid memories of squirreling away small amounts of baked beans—from church suppers, Saturday dinners, Wednesday school lunches—wherever we customarily ate them. I’d hide them in my pockets, wrapped in a napkin, until I could manage a minute alone in our cellar, when I’d push them down into whatever cavities I could find in whatever pipes and ducts looked like parts of our furnace. I remember thinking that the idea of a Leprechaun was strange—never mind one beckoned by hidden beans. But then, Leprechauns were Irish. And the Irish, I knew, were as real as we Italians—but different. No one ever found me out, but neither did my Leprechaun ever materialize. I waited forever, it seems to me now.
I believe that I was more naive, and more removed from the conversation of older family members, than my own children are. For whatever reasons, I never shared my fantasy: I just held to it secretly, until the longing faded away. The cost of not sorting it out may have been some sense of disillusion; not to mention small deposits of desiccated baked beans in the furnace of my childhood home.
Maybe it’s too little, and probably too late, but I like to think of setting these memories down on paper as an assertion of my own sense of what’s true. Yet sorting out what’s true really doesn’t become all that much easier. The redefining and reassessing that I watch my kids struggle with looks very much the same as the challenge confronting any of us, we writers of personal essays, as we select and sort and weave the shreds of memory and the strands of perception that constitute the stories we tell.