Note: Last week, while I was on vacation, I wrote an essay about my father, whom I never got a chance to know. His absence in my life left a missing piece in the puzzle of my identity. Also, this essay was the last piece to place in a collection of family memoirs I’ve been writing for the magazine Black Lamb. I’m not going to post my new essay here, because it’s too long, and because I’m saving it for the magazine. However, there’s an elated feeling about finishing the manuscript of a book, which I call “Before I Forget,” even though the book probably will never be published. (I plan to print up a few copies for my family.)
Instead of posting my new essay, I am posting the prologue to the collection, which is also an essay about the importance and sometimes irrelevance of memory in the genre of memoir.
THE KITCHEN FLOOR
The Prologue to “Before I Forget”
My earliest memory is of a green and white checkerboard pattern of linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor in Minneapolis, where I lived until I was two years old. I have remembered that design so often throughout my life that I’m sure it is entirely false.
Every time we remember something, we change it. Memories are photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, all the way back to the first sighting, which we would no longer recognize if we came across it in a magazine.
This flaw of memory is especially acute for us writers, who constantly edit and rewrite, and who at heart believe that a good imagination is far more important than an accurate memory.
So what you’re about to read are the personal and family memories and in some cases fanciful imaginings of a fiction writer. For those of you who were there when any of this happened, please do not feel compelled to correct my memories. I already know they’re inaccurate—just as yours are.
As for historical accuracy, who cares? Nobody’s going to take my word for all this. I just made sure of that. And who cares what the floor in the Minneapolis kitchen looked like?
While I’m at it, here is the Epilogue to “Before I Forget,” and this Epilogue is a dead-accurate, spot-on memory of a scene that never really happened. I made this memory up.
MENDOCINO LAUNDROMATAugust 1992
My wife and I drove up to Mendocino this weekend to celebrate the first birthday of our first grandchild, Hannah Daniel. It is a warm Sunday morning in August, in this quaint little village that looks more like Maine than like Northern California. In fact, picturesque charm has been Mendocino’s undoing: the town crawls with tourists, as if it were some branch office of Disneyland, and Sunday mornings they all spend their E Tickets on Birdland and Brunchtown. But I have found a place to be alone in Mendocino this Sunday morning. While the tourists swarm the bluffs with cameras and binoculars or pour raspberry syrup on yogurt blintzes, and while the locals, including my son and his wife and daughter, go to church, and while my wife sleeps (she and I don’t do church or birds or blintzes), I have hauled the clothes of my clan to the town’s one laundromat. I’m the only one here. Hannah’s parents, Morgan and Vivian, don’t yet have their first washing machine. Susan and I bought them a year’s worth of diaper service when Hannah arrived, but they still bring their clothes to the laundromat. It’s been a while since I’ve used a laundromat, and it feels good to be back, with four full washers chugging away. I sit on a salmon-colored molded plastic chair with a borrowed camcorder on my lap, reading a booklet of instructions. Like every modern cornball fifty-year-old grandpa, I plan to have a movie of my granddaughter eating her first birthday cake, with chocolate all over her face. I wish I could make a movie of all the family stories that haunt me. Stories of the Hannahs in my life (my cousin, my sister, my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and now my granddaughter); of the Neils (my brother, my uncle, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather, and (if you count middle names) dozens more, especially my son Morgan. The Mallons of my mother’s side, the Daniels of my father’s side, including my sons Ben and Morgan, and now this newest of the Daniels, Hannah. Meanwhile, I read the instructions and prepare to practice. My first movie, my maiden film, is a self-portrait. I sit on a salmon-colored molded plastic laundromat chair, my face hidden by a camcorder and framed by the round white window of a drier door which reflects me, and the camcorder lens reflects the reflection. The camcorder instruction manual lies open on an overturned plastic laundry basket before me, and behind me washing machines are lined up like the Rockettes. All around and through my face and head, against a background of black and white speckles, fly the clothes of my family like a dream: my wife’s traveling shorts and tee shirt, my son’s work pants, my daughter-in-law’s long dress, little Hannah’s pink ducky suit, and flights of angels I can’t identify as they whirl through my head: undershirts and undershorts, bikini briefs and bras, handkerchiefs and socks, and towels, towels, towels; and swimming in there with them are a crowd of Hannahs and Neils, Mallons and Daniels, fast-moving pictures of family long gone, far away, and present forever.
IN OTHER NEWS:
Although the official publication date won’t be till next Sunday, November 20, I already have received a box of my new novel, Behind the Redwood Door. It looks great, and I’m thrilled to hold it in my hands.
Announcement: I will be signing books this coming Thursday, November 18, at Northtown Books in Arcata, starting 7 p.m. Those of you within driving distance of Northtown Books already know how to find it. I hope to see you there!
For the rest of you, I invite you to check out my new book’s page on my website: http://www.danielpublishing.com/jmd/redwooddoor.html