That’s How it Happened

Photo of beach in Cape may, NJ

A decade ago, I decided to write a book. On a warm beach in Cape May, New Jersey, I sat under a blue and white striped beach umbrella, listened to the crash of the waves and imagined writing a memoir. Not my own, but one of a favorite uncle.

I remember my uncle when he was a young man — daring, dashing, fun. When I was six, he pulled up from a trip to Guatemala with a straw bag brimming with native dolls for me. Growing up, my sister and I tore into his packages under the Christmas tree filled with anticipation. Where did he find treasures that no one else would have dreamed of buying us — the rhinestone bracelet, the toy stove, a hot pink pullover? I can’t remember when I learned he was gay, but by the time I had a crush on his handsome lover I knew. They were more than just friends, but that wasn’t something people talked about in the 1950s. I lamented that my mother refused to take me along when she drove to San Francisco to be his hostess several times a year. Where she wore fancy dresses to fill in for the wife he lacked, having lost his, so the story went, along with his infant son in a tragic car crash. Family members argued about whether or not the story was true. He laughed the doubters off with impunity and an impish grin.

By the 1970s with close relations he was guardedly open about his homosexuality. In public he remained the handsome widower. His curly blond hair, infectious laugh, and dapper dress made him quite the man about town. Like many gay men, he clung to the closet. As tragedies unfolded, he plunged into downward spirals fueled by illness, desperation and alcoholism. Along the way he abandoned Christianity, Unitarianism, and Buddhism. Late in life he frequented a mosque but decided that at 81 he was too old to learn Arabic, a necessity in his view for understanding Islam. After his final spiritual expedition, he settled back into his Unity School of Christianity comfort zone and exhibited new zeal for telling people how he lost his wife.

In the congregate care facility, his final home, he cut a striking figure. Tall and well dressed, with a full head of thick white hair, he strolled the grounds, a huge grey tabby cat draped over one shoulder. Erudite and well read, he charmed the ladies. They whispered about what a gentleman he was. Even after he died.

On his desk near the front door of his apartment, he displayed a picture of his late wife and son. Staff, residents and friends recounted to me in vivid detail what a tragic life he’d had. They retold his story as if her death had been yesterday, not fifty years ago. Before he died, that dead wife shocked him, recognized him on the street in a university town far from where they’d grown up. Recounting their chance meeting, he snatched her photo from his desk, held it out and rolled his eyes.”Oh, now I’m going to have to be careful!” He laughed, elbowed me and slipped her photo back into place.

Clearing his apartment, I came across keepsakes and photos that piqued my curiosity. For years afterwards, in quiet moments I mulled over his peculiar life. I didn’t find all the answers to the questions that haunted me in the letters, photos and genealogical research that he’d left in well labeled folders, cookie tins and a safe deposit box.

This was stuff of a memoir, but I’d never written one. In the summer of 2006, I enrolled in the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, the oldest open writers’ conference in the country, in hopes I would learn how to tackle the project. The advice I got was to write his story as fiction.

At the first California Writers’ Club meeting I attended, the speaker, Camille Minichino, asked people to share what kept them from finishing their work. She called on me.

“I’ve written a lot of nonfiction, but I don’t know how to write fiction.”

“If you can write, you can write fiction,” Camille said.

No equivocation, no caveats, no stern advice to enroll in an MFA program. I liked her authoritative voice, the way she handled a crowd. At the break, I asked her where I could learn the craft of fiction. She suggested I might like a class she taught. I did and confess that it took me close to a year to stop saying, “but that’s how it really happened.” It took even longer to stop thinking it.

The novel I’ve drafted bears little resemblance to the shreds of memory and conjecture that propelled me to write it. It isn’t a memoir, but truly a work of fiction. That’s how it really happened.

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