As I write the story of my grandmother, imagining and then retelling in my own words the stories that I have heard her repeat so many times, what I’m noticing are the gaps.
It’s obvious of course, but somehow I didn’t realize before: when someone retells the same stories over and over, there are other stories that are never told at all. In retelling my grandmother’s history, I realize that there are pieces that I know nothing about.
For example, the story of her first pregnancy. Her mother had been saying novenas for months, praying for a baby. When Nan found out that a baby was on the way, she rushed to tell her. But when she reached the house, her father opened the door. “Your mother’s not here,” he said, “She dropped dead this morning.”
Certain details of this story—Nana’s excitement, the running to her mother’s house, the exact wording that her father used to break the news, dropped dead—I have heard many times. I am certain of them.
But what happened after her father said these words? What did Nana reply? Did she turn around and go home, or did he invite her inside? These are details that I have never heard. Never, until I began constructing the scene, even thought to consider.
In what details does the story lie—in the pieces that people emphasize in their retelling? Or the negative space around them?
Every family has legends—the stories that we know to expect, either hopefully or with dread, at every holiday and gathering. (The time Nan and Pop were traveling in India, and she fell into a waist-deep latrine. Pop was laughing too hard to help her out. When they were 17 and Pop convinced her to play hooky from school—and her mother happened to run into them in downtown Manhattan.) These are the stories we ask for, again and again, even when we know their endings, because they are part of the larger narration of who we are and where we come from, how we see ourselves and where we fit. They are our myths.
But is it sometimes helpful to dig deeper, is it ever helpful to dismantle the myths?
As I craft these stories of my grandmother’s life, making choices as a writer, what are the implications of telling only the pieces that Nana has chosen to remember and relate? Her personality—the way she sees her own life and the story that she tells about herself, to herself and to others—is conveyed more fully by the omissions that she consciously or unconsciously makes. Or should I ask questions that will give the grey area surrounding these events a more substantial shape?
Either way, it’s true that a story is shaped as much by the silence that surrounds it, as it is by the details that find their way to the foreground.