Years ago a friend told me about her neighbor whom she discovered was leading a double life. He had two houses, two wives, two matching sets of children. I found the story fascinating. Was either woman aware of the other? If not, how did the man explain his frequent absences — at the dinner table, in the bed? How did he manage not to confuse names, birthdays, private jokes? Finally, given the challenges that come with marriage and childrearing, and the time pressures most of us already encounter, why would anyone choose to do it in multiples?
Recently, it’s occurred to me that, in a way, I live like this nameless man, as do a number of my friends. I’m talking about those of us who write. Most days, we straddle two worlds, the one we share with our loved ones and the one inhabited by the people we create or (in the case of memoir writing) recreate, on the page.
For over a year now I’ve been working on a book about my family, particularly my sister, Angie, who was six years older than me. So, it’s the double lives of memoir writers that especially interest me these days — the unique balancing act of residing in our pasts while at the same time trying to stay completely present in our own unfolding lives.
Anaïs Nin (whose bigamy remained unknown to both her husbands until her death) said, “We write to taste life twice.” The desire to do so would make perfect sense if we chose to relive only the moments that were especially delicious. Another helping, please! But memoirists, thankfully, rarely stay there. If we didn’t explore our grief, admit to our mistakes, and ask ourselves hard questions, there’d be no depth to our stories. Nor would we seem particularly real or even likeable to anyone who picked up our books.
The past I’m writing about is not at all an easy place to spend time. For one thing, I have to look at and admit what a spoiled little brat Angie’s little sister could be. More than that, ours is a tragic story. When Angie was 25 and pregnant with her second child, she, her husband, and their infant son were murdered by a couple who was staying with them in their small apartment. Friends of theirs whom I’d met just days before.
Four months later, the killers were found by police through a trail of goods they’d stolen from Angie and Ray, and then sold. These included my brother-in-law’s truck, my sister’s engagement ring, and a rifle that was one of the murder weapons. The couple, now 30 years into their lifelong imprisonment, never admitted their guilt. Thus their motives remain unknown.
I was 19 when Angie and her family were killed. Yet it is only now, when I’m almost twice as old as my sister ever got to be, that I’ve found the courage to explore their story. I’ve uncovered heartbreaking details — that my sister was discovered in a nightie with one slipper on, and that the baby who never got to be born was, as Ray and Angie had hoped, a girl.
Lately, as part of my research, I’ve been reading court transcripts, including graphic testimony from the coroner who performed the autopsies. Here’s an instance where the past and present banged up against each other. After hours of slogging through such excruciating material, I came home to find Ethan lying in wait at the door, his new Nerf gun poised and ready.
Ploof! He pulled the alarming noisy trigger and a soft bullet pinged against my chest. In truth, I’ve never had an especially high tolerance for violent games and toys. But on that particular afternoon, I literally felt assaulted.
“Get that thing away from me,” I demanded, which isn’t my favorite way to greet my child after we’d been apart all day. But right then I felt as though Ethan had chosen to mock the very real violence that had shattered my family. Of course I also knew it was the furthest thing from his mind. He was a boy excited by a new toy, a rarity these days now that he’s a cool teenager.
“Give me a target,” he insisted over and over that evening.
Sighing, I relented. “The center of the microwave,” I suggested. “The top of the living room door. The line between the fridge and freezer.” Ploof. Ploof. Ethan made each mark with frightening accuracy.
“Don’t let David Petraeus know how good you are at this,” I told him.
“Yeah, Ma, we talk all the time.”
I couldn’t help smiling. It was time for me to put my work away anyway. Dinner had to be made and homework overseen. And, as I’d learned the hard way, trial transcripts make for terrible bedtime reading.
The following weekend, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the murders, I held a memorial in a friend’s spacious light-filled loft. My oldest friends attended as did my cousin Liz, but most of my guests, including Ethan and Dan, were from the life I created in my sister’s absence. I told my chosen family small things I alone knew about Angie. She liked the smell of gas stations. Her favorite snack had once been celery with cream cheese. She loved animals and couldn’t resist bringing home stray cats. I relayed how the first time Ray met Angie he asked her to marry him. “Get me a ring,” she told him and he did, the next day. A diamond from the five and dime. I also talked about my nephew, named Ray, like his dad, a quiet, sweet-natured little guy with chubby legs, a funny irresistible smile, and six toes on one of his little feet.
But before I said any of this, I asked Ethan to come up and light four candles for the four souls who were lost on that awful day in 1982. I watched him bring each small flame to life and thought, as I have many times this last year, of how much of Angie is in my boy. He has his aunt’s earnestness, her puckish smile, her teasing humor, and her loyalty. In that moment it became clear to me that the past and present are not in fact dueling for my attention. Rather, they touch and inform each other. I guess this is where the bigamy metaphor falls apart. From what I imagine, that man my friend knew must have put a lot of energy into keeping his two selves separate. Meanwhile, finding the connections between who we are and who we were is at the heart of what we memoirists do.