Friday, August 12, 2011


August 12, 2011:

When my brother died I acquired various family papers, including a number of photographs. I already had a box of photographs that I had retrieved from my mother's house years ago when she was developing Alzheimer's. Before she got really bad we had gone over them together, and she had told me as well as she remembered who all the people were and how they were related to us. And now I'm going over them again. There are hundreds of them, strewn all over my little office, piled on the floor, on chairs, balanced on the corners of the plastic tub I keep most of them in, all those that will fit, anyway, and it's overwhelming. So many people, so long gone. Tintypes so dark I can barely make them out. Studio portraits. Infants. Snapshots. My mother and father when they were young. Wedding pictures. Relatives so distant even my mother didn't know who they were. Pictures of my brother taken at regular intervals when he was a child and carefully dated on the back by my father. On and on. Who is going to want these pictures when I die? My children? They haven't said they want them, and I doubt that they do. I am the lone survivor of a tribe, it would seem, the last elder, maintaining the tribal icons.

Something has happened to me, and I don't know quite what it is. While my agent has been trying to sell my proposal on the history of the American dream, even while I continued to work on it, preparing to write more of the book itself, I suddenly stopped everything and began to pour out this memoir, this tribute to my family and to the lost childhoods my brother and I lived in the mid-20th century, to a forgotten past, pour it out, I say, at the rate of a chapter a week. Some dam let go. Some door burst open. This is the sixth attempt at this book. And now, finally, it's working. Why now? I just don't know. But this happens to writers sometimes. Keats wrote most of the works he is remembered by in the course of a single year. Rilke wrote The Duino Elegies, or maybe it was the Sonnets to Orpheus, in a month. I'm not of that caliber but I'm a writer, too, and eruptions like this do sometimes occur. So here I sit, surrounded by the detritus of all those pasts, by the poses, the shyness, the beauty of aunts and great aunts long dead, uncles in their military uniforms, my grandfather looking very corporate, except for the moustache, my father grinning happily about something, maybe about having won the heart of my mother--I don't know. There's so much of it I can barely wade through it to my computer. The only reason I'm writing this blog is because I deliberately took a day off, to slow down, to give what I have to do here time to simmer.

So: the writers' life. It flows beneath the surface sometimes, like meaning itself. It can be ecstatic. It can be very emotional. More than once in the last weeks I've sat here with tears streaming down my face. It is loss, always loss, that we celebrate. Language itself is elegiac, it clutches at things that are already gone. Indeed, I look at pictures of myself in this collection, myself as an infant, as a boy, a teenager, a groom, a father holding his own children, and I barely recognize him. I too am one of these sad lost people. I was so thin once, my hair so black. It is as if I were already dead.