Imagine, if you will, the colour blue. Imagine that you think you know what that colour is, how it looks, what things in the world are blue. Maybe you point to things all the time and in your mind you say “blue”.
And then one day, some says that you are wrong. Maybe they pull out the pantone book and they prove to you what you thought was blue is actually green. You have, your whole life, been pointing to the grass and saying “blue”. You have taught people to call the grass blue, because that’s what you believed it was.
And it’s not a moral thing. You called the grass blue because you believed it was blue. You called it blue because that was what you knew to be true, based on what had been told to you.You had no intent to deceive when you told others that the grass was blue. You thought you were right.
We assume, when we are told as children that the sky is blue and the grass is green, that the adults are telling us truthfully. We assume they know.
We assume our family stories are true.
By true, I do not mean unadorned, drawn scantly, without the texture of nuance and the patina of age. I do not mean the subconscious addenda we add on as lie. I allow for hyperbole, appreciating a good story as much as anyone.
By true, I mean that in the essentials, they are factual.
One of my aunt’s, on my mother’s side, died a few weeks ago. This has been awkward and ungainly sort of thing, mostly because (and I hope that you will forgive my sarcasm here) My mother told everyone that this particular sister died in the twin towers on September 11, 2001.
And it is a hell of a thing when you have to resurrect someone in your mind in order for them to die again twelve an a half years later. There are many sorts of odd verb forms, but not even the most complex form of past imperfect can manage the words to try and describe how this might have worked.
I had dinner with a cousin tonight. I have had many conversations with many cousins in the last few weeks, and it has been a bloody minefield. Starting with the mental resurrection, but examining more closely – well, everything that my mother ever told me.
Family stories are like colours. No one ever consults a colour swatch to learn the colours. In time out of memory, when you and I were children – someone pointed to the sky and called it blue. We tell others stories about who we are, based on what we have been told. This must be so because those stories tell us about where we came from and in the most fundamental of ways, where we come from is part of who we are.
All my life I was told my grandfather was a politician, a lawyer. I was told that my family came from old money, my mother, my aunt’s, my grandmother went to the best of schools. All my life I was told that I came from blue blood, an old Canadian family. Every story my mother told was predicated on this ‘otherness’.
And none of it is true.
And out of those stories that I thought were truth, I am a particular person. I teach my nieces and nephews the right way to set a table, I wear a slip under a skirt, I send thank you letters, I am always a lady because that was who I was raised as, that was what I thought I came from. I tell people those stories to explain who I am. I thought that this part of who I was resulted from where I came from. I thought I was other and out of that other I was taught to be a certain sort of person with a certain set of skills.
And I am not other.
You would think it would be such a small thing. My mother’s lies are legendary. This is the woman who told everyone she was dying when I was 16. You would think I would be used to it by now.
And I confess – this discovery of blue and green, it is not so simple or so easy. It is rather more fundamental than I ever would have thought possible. I thought, when I got that letter from my step mother, I thought I knew what it was to have your foundations rocked.
It turns out I have more to learn. I want to ask my mother’s family – to try and understand what on earth would have made my mother lie like this. What made her lash out and rip and tear the way she does? Were all her siblings like this?
And then there is this – these things have no answer. What could they tell me that would make any difference at all?
Perhaps it is this – in the last week my world has changed in 2 very fundamental ways. One I am talking about tonight, and the other I will tell, perhaps, in the next few days.
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness;