I'm trying to track down a set of Russian teacups. Not the cups themselves, but the story of when and how they were given by a Russian matriarch to an American one more than two decades ago. Everyone remembers it differently and the emails go back and forth.
I'm revisiting a lot of stories these days as I put the finishing touches on a book about events in 1989. My primary sources often do not match. They are books written on the same events by myself and my fellow participants, but the cultural and personal points of view made the versions very different even when they were fresh. Now, so many years later, our collective memory is even less reliable. There are holes and reinterpretations, coloring from decades of retelling and forgetting, dreaming and re-editing to fit the evolution of our lives. Archive material exists and fills in the missing gaps, but I am left with a respect and fascination for the power and weakness of memory itself. What we forget is as telling as what we remember; what we choose to write about reveals as much about us as the story itself.
For many years, my mother carried in her heart the story of my father's return from Europe after World War Two. She nursed the romance and the pain of it into one terrific story. How much of it was true and how much polish we will certainly never know. When she died, my father picked up the tale from exactly where she left off and made it his own. The story was unreliable, but that was not the point. It connected them to each other and us to them. Now, with my father gone, the story is ours to carry forward with additions and commentary of our own.
I love this process of unravelling. It gives me an excuse to reconnect with people that I care for and to hear their stories once again - to learn which parts of our remarkable adventure have survived for others and to speculate on why. It's too easy, though, to get flustered by the differences and pass over where and how the stories are the same. As I take respite from my historical plunge, I'm reading Michael Paterniti's The Telling Room, a book ostensibly about a kind of cheese. Really it's about a village, about story-telling and about unreliable and contradictory narrative. And I've been sharing a rich texting dialog with my wise friend Jacqui, one of the characters in and one of the sources for my book. Yesterday she forwarded a new New Yorker piece about the scientific reasons memories are, at best, unreliable. She reminded me that I'm writing a memoir with the opportunity and license to tell what I remember, which is as true as any history can ever be. Maybe truer: a distillation from the heart.
It's good advice. I'm going to forget about when and how the teacups traveled from the Soviet Union to America. It's the story of the gift that counts.