“I cannot get over how high-maintenance Tess is,” said Danni. “Sherri was so EASY. She never gave me a moment’s trouble. If anything, she was TOO good; I used to worry about that.”
My fork froze halfway to its destination, and I met Sheila’s eyes across the table. We both started to laugh, and then stopped abruptly. It was clear that Danni wasn’t kidding.
“Wait,” I said. “I remember when Sherri was four and you told her she was in big trouble, and she said, ‘Good! Trouble is my middle name! Trouble is where I WANT to be!'”
“Well,” said Danni, “that must have been one of the few times she sassed me back.”
Sheila coughed. “How about the time you and I had to pick her up after the nail polish incident at the drug store?”
Danni got a little huffy. “THAT,” she said, “was a case of the wrong friends. Once she got in with nicer girls, that phase faded away.”
We busied ourselves with our food. Sheila and I both love Sherri–in fact, we’re honorary aunts–but one of the many things we love about her is her spunkiness. Too good, she is not, nor, ever, has she been.
It is true, though, that Tess, Danni’s late-thirties surprise baby, is an energetic little diva. She’s a lot like Sherri, in fact.
Now that Sherri is in college, studying hard and doing well, Danni has re-written the story.
It’s one of the things we do in families: we create our own truths. We see what we want to see; we hide what we don’t like. Or maybe, we accept the unwanted detail, we acknowledge it–but we don’t think it’s anyone else’s business. We create a facade to share with the outside world, and keep our true story to ourselves.
Maybe it’s true that every family, to differing degrees, has its own secrets.
That’s an underpinning of Annie Barrows’ The Truth According to Us, a wonderful story of unconventional women in West Virgina, 1938. Layla is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy senator. Her improvident behavior earns her an ouster–her daddy has determined Layla will take a job with the Federal Writers’ Project,–and let’s just see how she likes working for a living.
Layla balks to no avail (the first part of the book contains her epistolary attempts to escape her fate) and winds up living with the Romeyns in Macedonia. There she learns to know pretty Jottie, who never married, but has clear title to ‘head of family’; twins Minerva and Mae, who did marry but found it too hard to live apart (they stay in the homestead all week and weekend with their hubbies), twelve year old Willa, and Willa’s little sister, Bird.
And in and out, mysterious and seductive, there is Felix, the older brother with the mysterious other life. Felix is Willa and Bird’s father.
The Romeyns have built their lives upon a story they’ve all agreed to believe. Layla, as she delves into the history of Macedonia and turns up details that affect her hosts, is just one of the elements that roil up the muddy past. As I read, I come to suspect who is guilty, who was at fault. And I’m right–but there are surprising resolutions in store.
I was left pondering the ways that families protect and shield their members, how they insist on a certain truth even when those looking in from outside see another truth entirely. And I picked up Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, and found, as I began to read the story of the Whitshanks, that Tyler addresses the very same thing. Just dipping into the book, I am caught by the perceptions, the avoidances, and the firm agreement on seeing only what they choose to see, that the Whitshanks also employ.
It makes me wonder about the truths I tell myself, about the stories we family members unfold and twirl at holidays, the interpretations we give to behaviors that others might call bizarre or mean or just plain wrong. I might just spend some time with family mythology and see if I can view it through a different lens. And then, ask myself: is giving up the myth a better thing, or is there reason to keep believing?
Annie Barrows, of course, is the creator of Ivy and Bean, a magical series my youngest granddaughter loves. And she wrote another example of epistolary lit, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, with her aunt Mary Ann Shaffer. A bio I read online said that it had been Mary Ann’s dream to write a bestseller; she didn’t live to see the reality, but she certainly made it come true.
I wonder what stories Annie and Mary Ann’s families tell about themselves?
I was struck, in my online research, at how much the two women, aunt and niece and lovely writers both, resemble each other. Do you agree? From open internet sources, here are their photos:
I wish you great joy in your book this week, my friends!