Tuesday, May 22, 2007

We Were The Mulvaneys

When I first read We Were The Mulvaneys, I thought of how my family had changed over the years, but at that time didn't consider writing a memoir. In the last few years, I've inched closer to writing about my family and upbringing in Houston in a series of essays and reflections on this blog.

I titled my essay We Were The Williamses. The opening paragraph: We Were The Williamses, whatever that meant back then to neighbors in the immediate vicinity of Granny's house, at our Southern Methodist church, and school personnel. We were one of the largest families in the neighborhood. Holidays and birthday parties required planning, mending fences, and swallowing pride. Gatherings were successful when no one stormed out, leaving a trail of hurt feelings and profanity punctuated by a slammed door. During mellow times, the adults gossiped about the exploits of other large families as if there were an official guidebook for families with twenty or more members.

In the same paragraph, I continue: Various family members joked about writing a book to profit from our sordid affairs and history. I don't think anyone would commit to writing a book. The damage would be irreversible and unforgivable. I respect the invisible familial boundaries in writing essays, fiction, or screenplays. The physical and emotional distance between New York and Houston allows me to sort through truth and innuendo.

Update: I think three or four family members are ready to write a memoir with me in the driver's seat as writer and editor. Art imitating life? Be careful what you ask for or threaten?

A lot has changed since I originally wrote the essay in June 2005. Births, deaths, divorces, family members released from prison, while others have been incarcerated.

Maybe the reluctance (ambivalence) is all mine now, because one of my aunts has called me twice in the last week asking if I've mailed a list of family interview/background questions so she can research and report back to me. One of my cousins I originally wanted to spearhead a family tree project several years ago, I'm told, is doing just that.

I'm motivated to record my granny's life on a digital camera, or at least digital voice recorder. She turned ninety this year in February, which means she was born in 1917! I've imagined all sorts of images and sounds through her eyes and ears in the 1920's - 1940's, when she was a child and later a child-bride to my grandfather.

My grandmother reminds me of the matriarch in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabríel Garcia Márquez. Some family members believe Granny will outlive us all as a testament to her will to survive despite everything that has happened in her life. Granny perseveres because she knows nothing else to do. There was a time I thought the family would continue to multiply, never die. I was probably ten years old, and enjoying the reputation of a large family. We were a formidable family. Our numbers inspired awe or envy. Elementary and junior high schoolteachers knew my grandmother by first name, and would visit prior to or soon after disciplining one of the grandchildren. Granny would nod in agreement while a teacher or principal recounted surprise of one of our having misbehaved or sassed.

At some point, we stop being a united family; many things said and done that caused a riff among the ranks. We lost the magic or illusions we once shared. Gone are the silly poses and smiling faces in pictures. We have become strangers over the years, notwithstanding my living on the East Coast, and one cousin in the Army stationed in Germany. I know how time and distance plays with my heart and mind on Sunday afternoons when I call Houston.

Perhaps it is my shared duty to restore the family to its previous place so that we'll once again be The Williamses.

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