When word got around that I'd written a memoir called Dead End Gene Pool, about growing up in an over-funded and over-served blueblood family, people wanted to know my family's reaction. The good news is, almost everyone in the book is safely tucked away six feet under; but beware the perils of the first time memoirist: not everyone can be dead! The two or three featured relatives still above ground were not exactly what you'd call enthusiastic. (Think flaming torches and lynch mobs gathering in the gloam.)
Central figure of the book is my mother. One of the first things interviewers ask me is, if she were alive today, what would your mother think of your book? I love this question because it's one I can answer with complete honesty. My mother is a fan of Dead End Gene Pool. I know this because she recently contacted me through Facebook, and I saw it on her profile. You bet I was surprised, but more on that later.
The irony is that I never set out to write a memoir. In fact, that was the farthest thing from my mind; safely ensconced in my new husband's hometown of Portland, Oregon, I was writing a cookbook about the French bistro I'd once owned. However, literary karma stepped in when, seemingly overnight, my family Back East began dropping like flies in a hard frost. And death does have a way of getting you to examine your own navel, so after funeral no. 6 it was gravitational freefall to memoir.
I was fortunate that enough has been written, both publicly and privately, about the Vanderbilts and the Burdens that I was able to do a lot of my research in the public library, on the Internet, and from letters and old journals. In good faith, I did attempt to interview a couple of relatives, but they were either too skittish, or too steeped in alcohol, or other worldly conditions--including actual other worlds, to offer much.
Memory is a tricky thing, anyway. Mine is perfect, of course, but in others it's a fickle, selective, often whimsical thing. Example: When I was writing about my childhood in Washington DC, and our father's suicide, I emailed my older brother to ask what he remembered the night "it" happened. I figured at the very least he would be able to add color to my own graphic recollection, as he'd been seven at the time, and I only six. He emailed back that he would try to help, and although he didn't remember much, he would telephone later. But, he added, do you remember the time our cook and her husband took us to the Martin Luther King rally on the Mall and I got lost?
What? I was at Martin Luther King's rally? I HEARD MLK SAY I HAVE A DREAM!? How could I have forgotten something so important? I tried all the usual recall catalysts: smells, era-appropriate music and television reruns, but watching "Mr. Ed" didn't help, nor did standing over a pan of sizzling bacon--the leit motif of our cook's repertoire. Still, I did my best to dredge it up--uh huh, there was a huge crowd of people, and oh yeah, I was pretty certain I could see the Lincoln Memorial, and people swimming in the Reflecting Pool--or was that the night of my high school graduation? Whatever, I knew I'd get the facts from my brother. I could hardly stand myself, I was so cool; this was even better than seeing Kennedy get shot. But maybe I was there, too!
When my brother called the next day he told me that he'd made the entire story up. He seemed to think that was funny. Plus, he didn't remember anything from the night our father died. Not one thing.
So much for family interviews.
Anyway, family, shmamily I say. I've been trying to get myself a new one since before I grew molars. And for good reason: my lingering immediates are about as responsive as a bed of farm-raised oysters. That's not to say they're not likeable, just distant. I love my brothers, and one of my uncles is incredibly sweet, but I'd pretty much said sayonara when I moved to Portland and married into the family I'd been asking Santa for ever since I gave up my Addams Family obsession.
So as far as potential family brouhaha, I was like Alfred E. Neuman--what me worry?--even after a relative got his hands on some advanced copies of the book and started pony expressing them to everyone on his Christmas card list. Emails and text messages flew like angry hornets, and suddenly (be careful what you wish for) after decades of being largely ignored by my relatives, I was a veritable cause célèbre.
At first there seemed to be general astonishment, as in you wrote a book? Then it was like, you wrote a book about our (sacrosanct) family?? Well we may not be your average hardscrabble panhandle child abusers, or Irish immigrants so poor we have to boil up our shoes for dinner, but we are highly dysfunctional alcoholics, so that definitely makes us contenders for the memoir-worthy club. Plus, at one point we were obscenely rich but oh boy, not anymore. Gone are the five-kilo tins of Petrossian caviar at Christmas; now some of us have to rent out our summer houses during the season just to meet the mortgage. Why we've even been forced to hawk a little Schlumberger through Sotheby's and Christies!
Oh okay, if I'm really being honest with myself I guess I did expect people to get their knickers in a twist. What I didn't expect was that I would feel so rotten about it. I'd lie awake in the wee hours and think, Oh God, I'm a terrible person. Even though they are true, and absolutely crucial to the story, how could I have said those things about my uncle/mother/brother/mother?
But then I'd snap out of it and think, hey, everyone should be grateful I didn't go on about so and so's nurse-enema obsession.
But then, because I used to be quite a good person, I'd tell myself I was loathsome, and really, why did I feel compelled (even though it was integral to the narrative) to put in all that parallel universe-reincarnation stuff about so and so?
But then I'd get all swaggery and say (to the ceiling), You know what? Everyone go pen your own damn stories, cause this one is capital M-I-N-E mine! Try spending ten years chained to a desk full of gum wads at the Lake Oswego library and see what you end up writing about...and no misery memoirs allowed...make it funny...really funny!
Which brings me back to my dead mother contacting me through Facebook. She got in touch with me a few months ago, on a morning when I'd been trading online barbs with an unenthusiastic relative. I texted that I didn't want to play anymore, and that henceforth I would send all communication to my Spam folder. Well the next thing I get is a Facebook message that someone has written on my wall--which, by the way, you can only do if you have a Facebook account yourself--and it's from my mother. Her message: Spam? What's wrong with Spam? I like Spam! And it's true -- she did have a thing for Spam--especially fried Spam. It's also true she's been dead for about twelve years, so after a few minutes of confusion, I was forced to consider (not with a little awe), that someone has been maintaining an account for a deceased woman--one so computer-illiterate she thought Macintosh was a generic nickname for all black Labs residing in New England. This was corroborated with a quick check on her profile. Yup, there she was--and not a bad picture she'd posted either; she's by the ocean, her blonde ponytail whipping up behind her, and she's maybe thirty, and as tan and happy as a hazelnut. According to her info, she's Interested in: Men, and Looking For: Friendship, Dating, and Networking. She's one of 28,389 fans of Spam, and--well look at that! My mother is even a fan of Dead End Gene Pool!
Of course I wish the rest of my family was too, but I understand their reticence. If my book were a novel, perhaps I would have exhibited more sympathy. But it's a memoir, and neither sympathy nor objectivity is the point.
Oh well, they'll all get over it. Or not.
At least I know my mother likes it. She may have been God-awful to me for most of my life, but at last she seems to be really pulling through.
And so are all my in-laws, who have been nothing but hugely supportive. But then I haven't quite finished the book about them.