UNCOVERING MORE TRUTH . . .
What does a memoirist do when she uncovers evidence that enhances or even changes what she had considered a finished story? Do you enhance or change the story?
This is a long post, I know, but I need some outside voices to help me with mine.
Many of you have read my story, "Deep Joy" -- the hyperlink will take you to an early draft of the story that was first published on June 2, 2009 in the previous iteration of Sassistas (when I referred to myself as "Flannista"). The draft has undergone many, many revisions since then; most significantly it includes more details and now has a new ending. This latest draft was vetted by my writing group, the Write Wing, and for all intents and purposes, I considered the story complete.
For those of you who haven't read the story or don't have time to read the story, it details my relationship with a girl named Joy when I was a junior in high school. She was a senior, had starred in the senior high production of "Our Town," and loved Sylvia Plath. I was completely smitten. My heart broke when she graduated and I thought I would never see her again. She sent me a letter that my mother intercepted and read aloud at the dinner table (before I had had a chance to read it); a letter that included this sentiment: "Parents are a real bitch. Don't you wish you could kill them sometimes?" Joy also included the Emily Dickinson's poem that begins, "Because I could not stop for death." "Deep Joy" continues:
When my mother finished, she methodically folded the letter and stuffed it back into her pocket. “We’ve been telling Sharie for some time to stop spending so much time alone, thinking those deep thoughts of hers,” she said. “Good thing I check her mail. Seems like she’s not so lonely anymore. She’s found a friend just like herself.”
My father, Lauren, Dawna and Merrie Lee stared at me blankly. Karen hissed, “So when do you plan on killing mom and dad? Better yet, how about yourself?”
I held the edge of the table with both hands. I imagined tossing a bomb into the lasagna casserole pan in the center and then ducking for cover. I thought of quoting some line from "Our Town," but I couldn’t think of any. Then I saw Joy rolling her eyes, and I wished I had never given her my address. That I had never met her. That she was dead.
I didn’t write back to her, and she didn’t write again. I spent the rest of the summer babysitting and watching television. I tried not to think about death. I tried not to miss Joy.
Last week, I discovered two dated letters that prove that I did, in fact, hear from Joy again. Two weeks after the above dinner table confrontation, Sallie Hogg, a high school friend called and asked if she could meet me outside the First National Bank in downtown Slippery Rock. The next morning, Sallie handed me an envelope that had been addressed to her. Inside was a sealed envelope and a note to Sallie:
I realized how strange you’re going to think this is but I can’t write to Sharie’s home address and I did still want to write to her. So, knowing what close friends you are, I am hoping that you will give this letter to her. The whole situation is really strange and, I feel, sad, but there’s nothing I can do about it. At least not right now. So if you would be so kind as to give this to her at school I would be really grateful. Maybe I can return the favor someday. Thank you!
Following is the letter to me delivered by Sallie:
I’m reaching out for you. I want to offer you all the love I have for you. Sharie, was our relationship wrong? Will you write to me? Sharie, I tried to give up but I wouldn’t. Something won’t let me. Did you know I was addicted to you? I didn’t find out until tonight. People would think this is queer, but we understand each other – at least as much as is possible for the time.
Sharie, you’re one of the few real people I know. You’re crazy and I’m crazy and who gives a damn? I do. I don’t want to but I do. Your mother called my house and told me never to come near you. Your mother shook me. What’s wrong? Why don’t you write to me? Can’t you handle this situation? Did you know that God doesn’t even know for sure if he’s real? (That soothes me.)
SHARIE, I AM YOUR FRIEND AND I MISS TALKING WITH YOU.
Sharie, I’m not writing this because I wanted to feel wanted. Well, maybe I am a little. But there’s something . . . did you know I like your name? Sharie – the way Shirley first pronounced it. You’re not Sharie Anderson, you’re just Sharie. Share.
I was too afraid to write back. A month later, another high school friend, Sue Albert, delivered a letter from Joy that said the following:
I thought I didn’t need you but I do. Oh God do I.
I have been submerged for 5 weeks. Where are you? The breeze is blowing in the window again. The sheep have returned to the fold. AMEN, brother, PRAISE GOD.
Sharie, please keep up the communication. . . . for a friend who may go under again at any minute?
And how many masks do you keep in your closet, little girl? I have many, all of which I am trying desperately to get rid of.
I know you read me, Sharie. It’s good.
Maybe each man is God and that’s it. But that’s too sad. I don’t like it that way. It’s futile. Since we don’t know, let’s make something up (like everyone else). Something really good and happy. Write and tell me what you come up with. Please write to me.
Again, I was too afraid to write back. The current draft of "Deep Joy" doesn't not include or make reference to these two subsequent letters from Joy. I had forgotten about them . . . even though I saved them in a file I discovered last week. This is the current ending for "Deep Joy" -- what happened after Joy's second and last letter to me (again letters I did not know about when I wrote this):
Two days before school was to begin, my mother came to the dinner table with the Butler Eagle. “There’s an article on the front page today that I think we all should hear,” she announced. She opened the paper and began to read:
High school valedictorian involved in fatal crash . . . Joy [xxxxx], valedictorian of the 1970 . . . driver of the car which killed Mr. and Mrs. . . . of Harrisville . . . Miss [xxxxx] is in critical condition . . . cause of the crash remains undetermined . . . Miss [xxxxx] was to have entered Princeton University . . . pursue a seminary education . . . funeral arrangements . . .
My mother’s words whirled outside me like startled birds. I didn’t want them to settle. I wanted to bat them away.
“What do you suppose caused the crash?” my mother asked all of us, folding the paper and setting it on top of her fork. Nobody said anything. She continued, “I think Joy was lost in those deep thoughts of hers and wasn’t paying attention to the road. I’ve always said that deep thoughts will get you nowhere. What do you think, Sharie? Has that ever happened to you?”
“No,” I replied. I pictured Joy sitting still in the Our Town cemetery scene.
“Better be careful when you drive, okay?” said my mother as she served herself lasagna.
“Okay.” I pictured myself in the middle of a pasture, a bullet hole through my head.
News of Joy’s accident followed me to school. Gruesome details were murmured over lunch trays. More were whispered during study hall. I was asked if I had seen her. No, I hadn’t. No, I don’t think she was drinking. No, I don’t think her father will have to sell his farm to pay for a lawsuit. No, I don’t know if she was paralyzed. Besides, she’s not my friend. Why are you asking me? Leave me alone.
But Joy’s voice and my vow to her haunted me. I had to see her. A friend who lived near her father’s farm told me one day that Joy had finally come home from the hospital. I was afraid to drive so I asked my friend to take me to her. Joy’s mother greeted me at the door, and whispered that even though Joy was sleeping, I could come in, but could not stay long.
Rays from a fierce afternoon sun spotlighted a hospital bed in the middle of the living room. Lying on top was Joy in a body cast. All I could see were her eyes, nose, part of her mouth, and the fingers on her hands. They were covered with scabs. On one side of the bed was an IV stand, on the other a chair with a Bible open to the Psalms. I stood three feet away, paralyzed. I was afraid to say anything to her, afraid to touch her, afraid that any connection would unleash a torrent of deep thoughts that would get me nowhere.
I never saw Joy again. Years later I heard that she had graduated from seminary and was pastoring a church in New Jersey. I wondered what she looked like, if she was confined to a wheelchair. If she was happy.
I contacted several friends to see if they knew Joy’s address or phone number. I wanted to let her know how grateful I was that she was alive and how heartbroken I had been when she almost died and I hadn’t been there. I wanted her to know that I loved Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson and that I occasionally read the Psalms. I wanted to tell her that I had learned that yes, deep thoughts can sometimes paralyze you, but that my mother had been wrong. Deep thoughts could get you somewhere. Deep thoughts could help you to be ready for whatever was ahead.
Decades later, I found Joy on Facebook. Her “About” overview revealed that she was married and had two children, but no other details. She had posted no profile or cover photo. I sent her a Facebook message, reminding her who I was and how much I wanted to know how she was doing. She did not respond. I contacted other high school friends, and surprisingly, one of them had Joy’s current phone number. I called the number, listened to the automated voice message and said, “This is Sharon, Sharon Anderson, your Sharon from high school. I tried to connect with you on Facebook, but maybe you didn’t get that message. I would very much like to know how you’re doing.” I left my contact information, hoping to hear from her. But I never did.
WHAT DO I DO?
- Do the two subsequent letters from Joy enhance or detract from the story?
- Should I not make reference to these newly discovered letters because they reinforce my difficulty with finding empathy for my mother which is one of my struggles with Black Rectangles? My mother called and threatened one of my friends. I knew about one other time she did this, but not this one. This was the first time. What kind of mother does that?
- Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir writes, "For the more haunted among us, only looking back at the past can permit it finally to become past." My mother reading Joy's first letter to me marked the beginning of her consistently opening my mail and/or reading my journals. After I graduated from high school, I used the mailing address of a Slippery Rock University professor to get my mail. I often babysat his kids. How do I respond to a sibling who always seems to indirectly imply that I shouldn't focus on the past?
- What else don't I remember? How much more shit is going to emerge? Is what I don't know fueling the fear that dictates so much of my life?