My grandfather died while I was reading This Never Happened. He was a traditional man—he liked sitting on front porches and he believed “Sure” was an unacceptable answer to a question because every question deserved a “Yes” or a “No.” During every holiday get-together, the matriarch of the family, his aunt and my great-great aunt, always led us in prayer. Every Christmas, he gave every family member a single two-dollar bill with the year written in red scrawl. I’m sorry to say I’ve misplaced many of these bills.
As I read This Never Happened, I needed to know more about my family. This memoir is equal parts excavation and love letter to family. It uncovers a litany of truths that have scaffolded onto each other since the early 1900s. We enter this memoir with your desire to know, an urgency to find what anchors you to this earth, to find some semblance of connection and order in such a private family—a family that shops to pass time, to avoid conversation and relating to one another.
In your memoir, your mother says, “If you have any questions, now is the time to ask,” and had I been given the same symbol of offering, I would have reacted the same. I would have been confused and bewildered and a little uncertain. But I too would have felt somewhat anointed as the recipient of something so rare, so delicious. My family finds solace in secrets—I know of their existence, have heard whispers during family get-togethers, but have yet to reveal their truths. This memoir explores a woman mining photographs and letters for truth, and through this excavation, we learn which truths family members choose to share and which truths they choose to keep hidden. Sometimes, even when we crave to know more about the people who brought us into the world, we may never know who they really are. Some questions are simply unanswerable.
When your mother dies, you find her old writings: “What I have are a six-hundred-page novel (unpublished), dozens of newspaper columns, at least thirty short stories (unpublished), poetry, and countless notes with future projects.” I wonder if these unpublished works were her truths, the questions she sought. I wonder which passions kept my grandfather awake at night.
My grandfather was the editor of his newspaper in Campbellsville, Kentucky in the ‘60s after serving in the Navy. I found a photograph of him sitting at a desk in the newsroom next to a typewriter, and when I look at this photograph and try to identify the features of my grandfather that I might recognize, I wonder what he was typing. I wonder why, after all these years, we rarely talked about writing or editing—a passion we clearly shared but rarely discussed.
Throughout This Never Happened, we see the artifacts that build a life: love letters and receipts, resumes and parking tickets, arrest warrants and wills. One of these love letters is the heart of a chapter titled “Before She Was Married, My Mother Was Loved by a Man Named Wally & Had a Chance for a Different Life, Maybe the One She Really Wanted,” and I thought of my own burning questions: My grandparents were each other’s only marriages, but who have they loved? I’m left with my own predilection as I consider the people I’ve loved, but left—the people who have both angered me and helped me evolve.
We always wonder who our parents and grandparents were. We wonder who they are. We think we’d do everything differently than they did, but then we wonder if we really would. I find comfort when you say, “Maybe it’s better to just tell the whole damn truth to your kids, your side of what has always got to be a complex story. Or maybe the fantast relationship I had with my father gave me some of what I needed to build myself a life. Who the fuck knows.” And honestly, who really does? We try. Maybe that’s what matters.
We crave answers to questions—so much so that I see a reflection of my own wants when you say, “When I was a child I believed that when you die, at that very moment of your death, you are somehow infused with every single answer to every single question.” When I was a child, I had a constant desire that never left—the need to know. Even now, I tend to be more direct than maybe necessary: at work, with friends, and especially in relationships. I share “the need to fill in all the blank spaces and get some answers.” I’ve lived without them for too long. And yet, when I think of those in my life who prefer secrecy, I honor that desire too.
When my grandfather died, my family surrounded my grandmother. My grandfather didn’t have a will, everything was under his name, and we needed to put the pieces together. We needed to help. We scoured their home for anything that might help, and we found dozens of old oatmeal and coffee containers filled with coins: pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and silver. Even gold. He was a traditional man. Thank you for your excavation, for your burning desire. Thank you for bringing me closer to my own excavation. Thank you for writing This Never Happened.