My brother remembers everything. He’s the genius in the family. He’ll ask me, say, what I remember about a family vacation by the beach some fifty years ago, and I’ll stop and ponder and proudly declare that we stayed in a bungalow, and that the bungalow was red, and that the red bungalow had a white pebble lawn, and also—check out my totally wow memory here—on the day we were set to leave our rented red bungalow behind we scrambled for a lost something in the couch pillows—maybe pieces from a Monopoly game.
My brother doesn’t skip a beat. He blinks once. He says, “Actually, it wasn’t Monopoly pieces. It was Bingo chips.”
He gets me every.single.time.
“Wild Game does not pretend to tell the whole story—” Adrienne Brodeur reports in the Author’s Note of her new memoir, continuing: “years have been compressed into sentences, friends and lovers edited out, details scrubbed. Time has scattered particulars. What follows in these pages are recollections, interpretations, and renderings of moments that shaped my life, all subject to perspective, persuasion, and longing. I am aware that others may recall things different and have their own versions of events. I’ve tried to be careful in telling a story that is not mine alone to tell.”
It’s the sort of prefatory commentary we find in countless memoirs now, the fessing up to the customized lens of the tale. Of course, there are many ways, besides an opening confession, to shorten the distance between what we think we know and what others might remember. In Tyler Wetherall’s No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run, for example, the author recounts a childhood with a fugitive father, a succession of disguising family names, and quick escapes from homes and people that will never be seen again. Wetherall, like the rest of us, is not in possession of absolute recall about those years of long ago. She, like Brodeur, shares an opening author’s note: “The scenes and dialogue in this book are reconstructed from my memories and the memories my family has shared with me….”
But Wetherall also demonstrates, within the story itself, just how she has enlisted the help of family in her quest to get her story right. Here she is with her sister, Cait. The author is flipping through old journals in search of facts. She stubs her toe on a detail:
I seldom wrote about the important things happening in our lives, like whether Dad was going to prison and what that would mean for us if he did. I couldn’t write those things then.
Cait hands back the journal. “I didn’t realize how much we knew,” she says.
“No, me neither. That’s the only entry I can find. I was looking for something about my birthday in Saint Lucia. I wanted to start with Dad in the cornfield from the car window—”
“It was a banana field,” Cait interrupts, matter-of-factly.
“Really?” I say as I scan the cornfield in my memories.
“I don’t think they grow corn in Saint Lucia.”
“Are you sure?”
She pauses, as if in thought, and then: “Yes, definitely bananas.”
It may seem like a small detail—corn versus bananas, both things we eat, both of them yellow. But it’s not. Corn versus bananas changes the view, the texture, the tone. The conversation with the sister—presented not as note but as part of the story—also signals this author’s process, measuring her memory against her sister’s memory, leaving the reader with the either and the or.
Sarah M. Broom begins The Yellow House—a memoir, as the flap copy puts it, “about the inexorable pull of home and family, set in a neglected New Orleans neighborhood”—with an aerial view of the piece of land where Broom’s memories live:
From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a minuscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana’s boot. From this vantage point, our address, now mite size, would appear to sit in the Gulf of Mexico. Distance lends perspective, but it can also shade, misinterpret. From these great heights, my brother Carl would not be seen.
Broom is talking about topography, of course, but she’s also talking about memoiristic distance. The farther we get from the thing that we lived, the more distance, purportedly, we’ll have. But also, the farther away, the more we lose sight of the particulars that shape our perspective.
How do we strike the balance between the near and far, the specific and general, the personal and universal? With what color do we draw the lines? Broom is a family historian but also a social one. She’s obsessed with the yellow house, but she’s also, embracingly, obsessed with issues about home. It’s her deep, deep dive into particulars, ironically enough, that make this memoir bigger that Broom herself.
If you’re searching for a new way into your life story, try this: Read again the paragraph above (I highly recommend reading the whole book). Then give yourself a drone’s-eye-view exercise. Rise in your imagination to a sustainable height, and then look down upon a thing you’ve loved. What do you see? What do you learn? How might this be the start of your story?