Honor among truth tellers

Shirley temple in Curly top on an iphone
True.

Memory and truth are weird. The truth of a memory is weighted by the event and by the teller, given our own capacity to record facts and our own sense of what’s important about those facts. But when the story is told, its truth is weighed by a listener who has no way to judge the facts, except by their own set of memories.

Someone else’s story can seem too pat to me, like in the song at a concert last night where three events in the singer’s life all neatly signified the same bit of wisdom that was summed up in the throat-lumping chorus. I scoffed when it was over, but Dave said he liked its unpredictability. “Are you kidding? First the guy, then the boat, then the road of life?”

“Oh, not the words, I’m talking about the musical structure.” And when the same singer sang another song later that evening, I absolutely bought it and got progressively more teary-eyed every time the chorus came around. Same story structure, three concentric circles of significant events, and I have no idea what the musical structure was, but those events seemed somehow truer to me. So they paid off in tears.

This month marks two years since my mom died. I’ve been writing a story about her for This Much Is True, whose November show happens to fall this year on that anniversary, Tuesday the 8th. I want to tell the story as truthfully as I can, but of course I also want it to be compelling and funny and complete. So I write what’s in my head, and put it aside, and then look at it later to see what feels true or not true. Today I dug out some journals from the months before my mom died, looking for a couple of facts I hoped I’d written down at the time. I found some decent notes, and also an entry from several days before she died. I’d asked what her favorite memory was, and this is what she said.

I went to see Curly Top with my mom at the Marlborough Theatre. It was never like that, just the two of us. But this time, no Marie, no Ralph, nobody but me and my mom. And we saw Curly Top, and it was Christmas time. The theatre was in a Jewish neighborhood at that time, Madison and Crawford, now Pulaski, and when we came out, you know how we always have colored lights? Well, they had all blue lights on their trees and in all these apartment windows. All blue, and the snow was falling so gently, and it was just so beautiful. Just me and my mom.

I didn’t think about it much at the time, just wrote it down as quick as I could, to catch the words and save them for later. Coming across them now, hunting for details about the guy at the cemetery who told me I couldn’t bury my mom the way she wanted to be buried, I’m first of all impressed that I had the presence of mind to ask her questions like this. I didn’t do it enough. And second, I wonder if this is why she always bought Shirley Temple paraphernalia, even though she never seemed to be much of a fan. And third, I wonder if the snow really was gently falling. Could it really have been that perfect?

But if it’s your very favorite memory that you tell at the end of your life, and the snow wasn’t actually falling at the time, do you get the snow thrown in for free, like a Clinique gift with purchase? And also, if she hadn’t mentioned the snow, would my imagination have thrown it in anyway? Yes, because where there’s Christmas in old Chicago, with blue lights sparkling in all the storefronts and apartment building windows, and a little girl is walking with a mom who rarely has time for her alone like she does right now, there simply has to be snow. And it’s got to be falling gently.