catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 16 :: 2007.09.07 — 2007.09.21


When I was born

When I was born, nearly three weeks after my mom’s due date, my grandma was in aerobics class with my then twelve-year-old aunt.  There was a windowed balcony above the room.  My grandpa stood on the other side of the window and gestured as though he were cradling a baby and she knew.  The first grandchild had arrived.

This is probably the story I’ve heard most often in my life.  It’s not just a story about me.  It’s a story about the relationship between my grandparents and their children and grandchildren.  It’s a story about the culture of the late 70s and early 80s, with its aerobics craze and its willingness to be patient with dawdling babies.  My grandma no longer does aerobics, but I am still persistently late.

“I don’t know anyone your age who has as many books as you do,” said my grandma recently when she and my grandpa came to visit our home.  This visit was their first to our house in Grand Rapids, where they’d both gone to college.  We drove past the house on Bemis where my grandma had boarded.  And the house on Fuller where my grandpa’s roommate was sternly reprimanded for accidentally walking in on the landlord’s daughter in the bathroom (why hadn’t she locked the door?).  We drove past the old campus and then on to the new, where I now work and where we took a brief tour of the buildings that had been built since my uncle, aunt and mother attended.  A contractor by trade, my grandpa was particularly interested in taking time to gaze over the new arena plans and construction site.  We continued to wander in and out of each other’s worlds and memories with a trip to my and my husband’s favorite Grand Rapids restaurant for dinner, the two of us trying to instill as much appreciation for the green building and locally produced food as my grandparents no doubt desired us to feel for the paths they walked in the city as teen-agers.

And like the story of my birth, this story isn’t just about a visit with my grandparents.  It’s about the migration of an ethno-religious community out of the city and the value that same community has historically placed on education.  It may also be about how one person’s hope and another’s despair might find a home in the same symbol.

We do have a lot of books, probably evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction.  I can’t get enough of novels.  Or films.  And sometimes, I feel guilty for the amount of time I spend on fictional stories when I could be gathering the stories of my family—because who else will do that?  My aging family members are not writers of letters, or keepers of journals, and so there’s little left to do but take the time to talk and remember and record.  In a way, investing my time in fiction is safer.  The stories are already recorded, assigned telling and hearing value by some vaguely democratic method, organized with clear themes and resolutions.  They wait for me in a bag or on the shelf, until I have time to return to that bookmarked page or start over from the beginning.  Sure, paperback volumes and even DVDs won’t last forever, but 99 percent of them will certainly outlast every single currently living individual in some form or another.  If I give in to the desire to capture my family’s stories—and my own—there are not the limitless possibilities of imagination, but all sorts of finitudes.  Subjects are dying as I write.  Or forgetting.  Or running out of time to engage in the long process of conversation that leads to the revelation of secrets once thought worth guarding to the grave.

And yet I’m also aware of the need to be cautious of the idolatry of fact.  Perhaps the lack of a rich fictional life would leave me hearing the stories my grandparents have to tell, but not comprehending their significance or realizing how lovely and important the smallest details can be.  Perhaps without an awareness of repetition as a literary device, I’d simply be bored with aerobics class…grandpa in the window…baby born.  Perhaps without a practiced imagination I’d be less concerned with certain other stories of birth and death and resurrection.  Fiction and non-fiction, the factual and the imagined, seem to be in circular, symbiotic relationship with one another, like oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Tucked in the corner of our shelves of books, close enough to breathe life into my novels, is a small cluster of my journals.  I’m not meticulous about recording the details of my life—I have to hope that what I don’t include says as much as what I do include. The most recent volume that keeps its place in whatever bag I’m carrying with me is filling very slowly, with conference notes and scraps of poetry right next to the addresses of the houses where my grandparents lived as courting college students.  I always write with future generations in mind, wondering whether the journals will provide a momentous discovery for one who really needs to know me or merely a curiosity for an obsessive collector of handwritten bits.  Perhaps the worst-case scenario is that they be lost or burned or trashed.  But I have to believe somehow that the most beautiful stories in our lives will not die with us, and that maybe, in fact, all of it is too important to simply disappear.  Maybe there’s a future in which the line between fact and fiction dissolves and we discover that each detail is both absorbed and elevated as part of one big story after all—a big story captured as completely in a simple drawing as it is in the eternal telling of all our tales to one another, tall and short, fiction and fact, tame and wild.  And I have a feeling that the grand resolution of it all will both shock and satisfy.

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