May 16, 2016KR BlogBlogWriting

In Praise of Older Siblings, Part I: Fact-Checking My Life

I remember it like this: I’m a child, daydreaming in my mother’s minivan as we drive along a winding, mountainous highway in Pennsylvania. One brother is beside me, and the other is in the far back row of seats. We’re traveling to visit our grandmother in her declining coal-mining town, a place that feels perpetually trapped in the past. On the way, we pass the outskirts of another town where enormous piles of coal—whole mountains themselves—tower toward the sky. The coal is slippery-looking and shiny, glinting silver in the sun. I want to climb to the peaked top of that mountain and slide all the way down, sending nuggets of coal shooting off into space in my wake.

A few decades later, I set about writing an author commentary for my story, “Taboo King,” which in part surrounds Centralia, the famed Pennsylvanian ghost town decimated by a long-burning underground coal fire. Centralia isn’t far from my grandmother’s town of Lansford—a fifty-minute drive, Google Maps tells me now—and I planned to address my childhood trips to these coal towns in my commentary. But the moment I began writing, I started to doubt myself. Were there really giant piles of coal sitting out in the open by the road? Were they as big as I remembered? And what about the other details, like the coal room in my great-aunt’s Lansford basement? All these years later, everything about that town and those visits feels hazy and inaccessible.

At times like these, I desperately want to conduct an online search of my past. Why can’t I simply log into some website that has maintained records of my entire life so I can cross-check my memories? I feel so close to those times I gazed out the window as a girl, watching first the green mountains blur past and then the stacks of coal, but I can’t fully find my way back there no matter how I try.

Because no such memory-based search engine exists, I turn to the next best thing: my older brothers.

Hershey Gardens

I sent a message to my brother Craig to see what he remembered of those drives to Lansford. He recalled the actual roads we took—details I could never be bothered with back then, what with all my window-gazing—and he even looked at a topological map to confirm the mountains we drove past. I was still stuck on whether those massive piles of loose coal were real; once pressed, Craig said he remembered those, too. Good enough, I decided. Memory confirmed.

And then there’s my oldest brother, Scott, who caught a mistake in my personal essay, “In the Twelve Years Since You Died,” before it was published in The Sun. I’d written that Scott lived in Maryland at the time of our mother’s death. I was so very sure of this detail, but it turns out I was mistaken. He had moved back to Pennsylvania by then; this was an indisputable fact. Even so, I wasn’t alone in my error—Craig was also convinced that Scott was in Maryland at this time. How could both our memories be so wrong?

Maybe to ask that question is to ask about the nature of memory in the first place, which is a task so massive and incomprehensible that I’m not sure I’m up for it.

Take the night Craig and I sat with our mother in the emergency room just days before she died. We didn’t know yet that she’d be gone in under forty-eight hours. At the time, we were exhausted and hungry and bored. While we waited, Craig pulled out a book. I’m positive this book was Catch-22. I can see the blue cover, the text marching along the top. I remember how he never managed to finish this novel, that once everything unraveled and our mother was dead and gone, he refused to pick up that book again. He will go the rest of his life without reading Catch-22.

All of that is true except for one key detail: today, Craig says the book was 1984. Probably he’s right, but that doesn’t stop me from believing that my memory is the correct one. It was Catch-22. I can still see it so clearly. This is why, I tell myself, I have read 1984 but never Catch-22, if you can believe it. Part of me is still back there with my brother in the emergency room, that novel tainted with the horror what was about to happen to our mother, to us.

*

Many of the stories in my debut collection, Living Arrangements, are rooted in details taken from my past. I resist calling the book “autobiographical,” considering that the events in those stories veer wildly from what happened in my own life, but I can’t deny some of the connections. Now, I call these my young stories, the ones that unfold to show how I was just barely starting to come into my own as a writer.

When Craig read Living Arrangements, he told me it felt like he was reading his childhood.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about that comment—how he could see through the fictional details to the heart of the stories, or maybe to the heart of what I felt as I wrote them. I was honored by what he said, but I also felt something else. Exposed.

Not long ago, I sent Craig a draft of an unpublished personal essay, a piece I’ve shown very few people. At one point in the essay, I recount the events of the night our mother died, which happened to be New Year’s Eve. After reading, Craig sent me the following message:

The details you provide of New Year’s that night, are those entirely true? And I don’t mean to question you, it’s just I have literally no recollection of most of them. It’s not that my memory differs, my memory is just blank. For someone who prides himself in having a really solid memory, I’m sometimes baffled how my memory can be completely devoid of any details . . . It’s so strange how that block of time is just completely gone, like it never happened.

I told him that yes, those details were true. Or as true as they can be, considering they come from a fallible human memory.

We moved on to discuss Catch-22/1984 issue.

“I really thought it was 1984, but who knows,” Craig wrote. “Memory is a mess.”

*

Memory is a mess. Memory is a mistake. Memory is, too often, all that we have left.

I remember other drives to my grandmother’s home in Lansford. Sometimes, my mother and I went together, alone, for a weekend. I’d stretch out in the very back of the minivan and tilt my head to watch the mountains rush past. Between the thick trees, I could see flashes of exposed rock shining like coal. It was coal, or at least I think it was. According to my memory. According to what I now believe.

The drive from our house to my grandmother’s took two hours, which felt like a major journey back then. By the time we finally arrived, everything was changed. The towns were small and gray and old-fashioned. Church bells chimed on the hour. Coal glinted in the corner of my eye. We had crossed a great distance to land in a strange place—a place I would struggle to return to, if only in my memory.

I’m far away from all of that now: the car rides, the coal. I close my eyes and I can see it, but I can’t. I doubt my own recollections. I wonder what I’ve invented over the years, how my mind has worked to fill in the gaps. I have my brothers, who in turn hold their own splintered fragments of the past. They are older, so I tell myself this means they remember more. They are closer to accessing that memory-based search engine I long for. They can answer my questions and tell me what I got wrong, what I got right.

Or else I can just start writing on my own. I can write it all down straight away and convince myself, despite the odds, that every last word has been true.