My mother, Phyllis Carson Johnson Troth, wrote travelogues, loose-leaf notebooks fat with descriptions of the trips she’d taken with my father. She read them to us sometimes. “Read me from your journal,” Dad would say, after dinner, and so, instead of watching tv, she’d get one out. Then for half an hour, we’d relive a trip or two. Mom was funny, and the more delightful because she didn’t know. She made up kooky nicknames for everyone, made up songs for children’s chores–like taking nasty liquid vitamins shoveled at us on a spoon, or picking up our toys—so she wouldn’t have to nag. She simply sang the song.
Once she went to NYC with my father on a business trip. Before she left, she wrote down all the words to the songs for the sitter. The sitter’s name was Mrs. Marthen.
Mrs. Marthen didn’t sing.
There was another journal, too. One I didn’t know about until she died. I found it in her desk and with trepidation opened it. I’ve never read my brother Tom’s. He was an artist, a musician, who died at 35. I keep his journal sealed up in a box in the basement now—as if he’s the bedrock I need to live on top. I hear him speaking from the grave when I’m afraid, like with the writing thing, that today it won’t click in, it won’t start to sing. I hear him say oh-so-familiar words: “Erda (a nickname out of Wagner), if something happened once, it can happen again.” He meant good things. Like inspiration.
But Tom, I argue back, to the box down on his shelf. It’s not just good things that repeat. Bad things happen, too. People die. You did. Then Dad. Mom waited longer, before she closed the door. What about our sister Anne? All my conscious life she’s lived in a box, down the basement on a shelf. But I was grown before I found that box. It had no label—unusual for Mom. (Picture spices lined up in their little metal cans, like a bookshelf A to Zed.) One day, unwittingly, I opened it. Mom was standing there, but seemed to have forgotten. There she was. My sister Anne in many different baby poses. Thank you, Olan Mills.
Except for all the years I’d longed to meet her, in my mind she looked like me. In the box was someone else. Someone I didn’t know.
In Mom’s other journal–the one hidden in her desk—she obsessed. On brother Tom. Page after page, there it was, Tom did this, Tom did that. She’d write about some episode, and then would come the pain of non-acknowledgement. He had trouble, I recall, learning to subtract. One day at noon as we were eating lunch, Mom explained that the difference between the bottom number and ten could be subtracted from the bottom number to get the answer. [17-9= 8; 10-9=1; 9-1=8] Tom was thrilled. So, back to school he went, with an apple for the teacher. More poignant was her memory of a day his piano teacher picked him up. They were off to play piano in a concerto contest. Mom described her anguish as she watched him disappearing into his teacher’s car without turning round to wave good-bye.
Mom longed for validation.
Did I always wave good-bye? I was such a good girl, always looking after Mom. My reward was to be journal-worthy of a single anecdote. Mom had gone to some class (she went to lots of classes) where the teacher asked what other person each student would most like to be. When Mom asked me that, I wonder that I didn’t name Margot Fonteyn or Carla Fracci, my favorite ballerinas. Instead, I named a certain friend my age. She’s happy with herself, I said. She doesn’t always need that something out of reach.
Years have passed, and I have not become that friend. I still long for things I can’t have. Then when they come (because that happens sometimes too)—say publication of a certain story—why can’t I look? I put it on the coffee table. Walk around it. Scan the cover. But the story? I can’t look. I can’t change it now. I can’t fix unseen mistakes. I don’t want to know that the printed story doesn’t measure up to the vision in my head.
Would I stop living if I got the things I think I want? Perhaps it’s dread of something unexpected popping up. I think of how I cried each night the month before my second book came out. “I thought you wanted this,” my husband soothed. “I do,” I said. “But I feel so exposed. Why not just take off all my clothes?” That book is fiction, mind you. My children are my husband’s. I have never bought a nun’s bed, stolen a dog, or risked rape by a juvenile delinquent. I’m not Catholic, am anti-gun, and have never met a crazy shaman.
So, where’s the risk?
Every fiction writer (and biographer and journalist) makes choices all the time–what to include, what to leave out. Those choices form a map of the writer’s psyche. Why did Rosie, Everett, and Valley come to live in my mind? Jung theorized that every person in your dream is you. And what is fiction but a waking dream?
Publication of that book felt different than I’d thought. I longed for validation. Instead I felt undressed.
So much longing, unfulfilled.
What do you long for? (And to the point of fiction writing, the subject of this blog—what about your characters? Will their longings be fulfilled? Will what they get be what they thought they wanted?)
Think of this: If fulfilled, that longing, what might you lose? Some ideal, that still needs to BE, untouched by the world?
Perhaps its name is hope? Or maybe heaven?
So says my head. My heart I can’t control.