A former friend from high school who was doing some “Swedish death cleaning” sent me a scan of a letter I wrote her from France in 1971. It begins: “We are now in Fecamp, and it’s so wonderful being here I know I’ll never forget it.” I go on in the letter to describe my visit in vivid detail.
I don’t remember any of that.
I know I backpacked in Europe for two months when I was 19 and met up with my boyfriend half way through, but I don’t remember visiting Fecamp with him. Later in the letter I say, “It was very strange being there, because I remembered being there before when I was 12 – but it was more like a story someone had told me than something I had actually experienced.”
I do remember that earlier visit: My grandmother took me and my cousin John to England and Scotland and then to France, where we joined up with my aunt and her three daughters in Fecamp.
I do have a travel journal from that 1964 trip to spark my memory, except that I wrote down things I don’t remember and didn’t write down the things I do remember.
We apparently visited the Tower of London, Selfridges, and Hampton Court when we were in London. That’s news to me. I named the towns we visited on the bus tour we took, but I have no recollection of them.
I remember much better what I didn’t dare write down. I was certain my grandmother or my cousin would snoop in the journal and I really didn’t want them to know. So I described two people on our tour bus as “dear, dear ladies” when I know they actually seemed creepy to me. One of them had a skin tag on her face I was sure was going to fall off any moment.
I didn’t write anything at all from Fecamp, where I was much less supervised and could sneak red wine and wallow in 12-year-old despair to my heart’s content. I do remember that, all too well, though it was a pretty town with a nice pebbly beach and we were staying in a lovely big house. I was incredibly lonely, and my parents were at the peak of their bitter fights about me, but being in my grandmother’s care was not an escape. It was a torment. I remember that much.
But I also remember how nice the beach was, and I remember the pastries someone sold in a shack nearby, and that the old house we were renting in Fecamp had an actual moat. I remember my cousin Sarah practicing Bartok on the piano. I remember the scent of Bain de Soleil, which didn’t have any sunblock in it but smelled like oranges.
I have been thinking lately about writing a short memoir. It would be a little gift to my kid and my grandchild. But I would like it to be at least moderately truthful. I have an autobiography my mother wrote with the help of a volunteer in her last year or two in the retirement community. Some of it is undoubtedly accurate. The bits I was present for are warped and sometimes wrong, so I don’t know how much I can trust it.
I realize this is pretty normal. My husband and I, for instance, used to have intense arguments about events we had experienced together. We were both quite sure we were right and the other person was wrong. He’s gone now, so I guess I win? But I have a recording of him telling his life story, thank goodness, even though I actually disagree with a few things he says about his later life.
Everything I know about memory tells me that when you read about someone’s life in a memoir, you are reading a reconstruction or even a partial fabrication, made of whatever the writer decided to retain.
Unlike many people, I’ve kept a diary of some sort off and on since that summer, so if I want to write a memoir, I could actually check to see if I’m telling the truth. Unless, of course, I was lying in the diary, which is always possible. I don’t remember, off hand, if I lied in my diary any time except the summer of 1964.
But whatever I choose to write, it will be more like a story I have told myself than something I have actually experienced.