Years after their parents died, the nine children, now adults, decided to do something extraordinary. They would each write about their childhoods, from earliest memory until they left home for college. There were two stipulations: no subject was off limits, write what you want; and second, no one could read another's story until all the stories were finished.
They did. And, produced a wonderful book: 9 Voices, the Childhood of a Family.
Their stories are organized into chapters. The chapters are sequential, oldest to youngest. They are cumulative, many of the incidents are repeated again and again, each time in a different voice, the events seen and felt in a different manner, Rashomon in a picturesque Northern California town during a time that is now gone with the wind.
Again and again, the narrators lament what has been lost. The freedom of childhood, the freedom of children safe in a society that knew standards and had a collective belief in what was right and wrong. Swimming in a river that now has lifeguarded beaches, swim tokens and signs as to what is allowed everywhere you look. Joyriding around town, a concept that is as foreign to teenagers today as hoop skirts or dowries.
I read a book about an Irish detective a few years ago that had a line in it that has haunted me ever since. A truth that must have been part of the motivation of these nine people, now firmly in middle age, that allowed them to conquer the tyranny of the blank page to fill page after page with memories of laughter, of wild joy, of indescribable emotional pain, of love and loss, of what it is like to live in a maelstrom of a large family filled simultaneously with teenagers and babies as America radically changed, and as they slowly but surely spread their wings and flew away.
"The body moves on, the mind circles the things of the past."
Alone, writing about their childhoods, each of the authors must have been haunted by what the past was telling them. You can read it here and there, as they lament not really knowing their father. Or, as they attempt to reconcile their feelings for their mother, a larger-than-life personality, who held their whole world together, the scenes of anger and love clash again and again.
As you go from childhood to childhood, the book grows and becomes more complex and you find yourself going back in time to earlier chapters to see what one of the older children wrote when the author of the chapter you are reading was born.
All the chapters describe a home filled with music, loud, rambunctious, rowdy, not a place for the weak. A home that caused me to think of my childhood and own home as being colorless, mannered, and boring in comparison.
More than anything, unique to this book, it is, to a man, a glimpse into the lives of girls. Despite being the son of a mother, the brother to a sister, the husband to a wife, the father of a daughter, until I read 9 Voices, I had no idea of what I had lived next to all of my life. The incredible sensitivity of young girls. Everything: every nuance of emotion, every careless word, the offhand comment, the missed concert, the tone of voice of a tired father home from work, is felt and remembered. A classmate's comment about a new hairstyle or criticism of a body type shapes how they feel about themselves for the rest of their lives.
It is both wonderful to learn, and painful to know.
If I have ever caused such pain, I profoundly ask for forgiveness.
The girls, in their chapters, circle the same events, the same stages of life. School, concerts, church, boys, their mother, their hopes, the rivalries with their sisters, the trip to the East Coast, the faked robbery at the summer cabin. Again, Rashomon, by way of Our Town, by way of a book that becomes an important historical document of post-war America just before it began loathing itself during Vietnam.
I haven't mentioned the brothers. Maybe because they're guys. I know the type. Their chapters are completely different than their sisters'. Same events, but lightly covered, no lasting scars from comments, many scars from lovingly recounted fights and feats of derring-do. I would bet that few graduate sociology studies could approach the clarity and truth of the male/female conundrum as does this book effortlessly.
The parents met because of the war. So many parents of that time did. My Baptist father from Ocilla, Georgia would never have met my Irish Catholic mother from Brooklyn if the Japanese hadn't bombed Pearl Harbor. I wouldn't be here. Neither would the Wilson's.
The much-loved but remote father, a highly respected doctor, a professional musician, a veteran of Guadalcanal, described by all as an ache in their hearts: he was there, but not there, because of his work. It was interesting that there isn't a single story in any chapter about his military service. He came from the generation that didn't speak of the war and died before he got old enough to, like many combat veterans, begin to circle the things of the past and tell his kids about it all.
The mother. Their mother. She dominates each chapter. She dominates their lives, then, and perhaps now. As you read each child's description of the love/hate relationship they had with their mother, she eludes a stranger's ability to know her. The dad we know, he's like most dads of those times. But, the mom is fierce and distant to the reader, and is not described often in terms of gentleness or caring. You get the sense that she was too busy with raising nine children to be gentle with any of them. And, even as the older ones became teenagers and required less of her time, she was still dealing with babies. I couldn't get a handle on her as a human being, or even as a mother. She was an authority figure, a fierce defender of all of her children against any outsider, a good wife, a former professional singer who met her husband in a nightclub where he was playing drums for the group she fronted.
But, we never hear her sing in 9 Voices. Until the end.
The dad dies when he's just 65, perhaps before they could measure how wonderful he and his wife were. Before the challenges of raising their own families granted perspective on it all. But, the mother passes away after grandchildren, and after some of the rancor has been traded for deepening respect.
After her death, the children discover a tape she has made for them months before. In it, knowing that she is dying, and as the absolute epitome of what all mothers are at their core, she apologizes for not being around to help celebrate Christmas with them again.
Christmases they have shared together for all of the children's lives.
At this exact point, the book becomes a classic, a book that should be made into a movie. A book that will stay with you for a while.
Knowing that the tape will not be heard until after her death, she sings to her children. You hear her voice for the first time. She sings a song that allows you know her. She sings to them, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
I had to stop reading. It was so moving. Something inchoate, something about families, something universal, some tearing off of the scab of memory, happened as I heard her sing to her children:
"Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow, Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true"
It's a wonderful, unusual book, and you should read it.
The video below is dedicated to their mom, my mom, and families everywhere:
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