Filling in the Memoir Holes
April 18, 2016 § 8 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
For the past few months, I have been entrenched in writing a memoir about my marriage. As an American married to a Frenchman living in Israel, I am writing to reckon with how I have traveled so far from my homeland and my youth, what I have given up, and why I agreed to live in a country I both admire and fear.
Digging in the past and trying to conjure up the scenes from twenty-four, twenty-five and twenty-six years ago have left me wondering if I can master this task. Gaping holes somewhere between the size of a Cheerio’s center and an SUV’s tire need filling.
In the midst of writing, I awakened to an email from my mother. While I had been sleeping in Raanana, she had been sifting through seven decades of personal possessions and memorabilia in my home town of Piedmont, California. My letters—circa 1987 when I graduated from college onward when I moved to Paris then Israel—had surfaced. Did I want them?
I emailed back immediately: YES.
When, during a recent family visit to Manhattan, my mother handed me a manila envelope marked in her slanted scrawl, a cross between cursive and script: Jen’s letters pre-’93, I peeked, and saw red-white-and-blue airmail envelopes and flimsy celestial blue aerogrammes.
The idea of becoming reacquainted with my younger self thrilled me. I remembered how my husband Philippe and I had met through a mutual friend in the hills outside of Jerusalem on a student retreat but not what I was feeling about sojourning in Israel. I remembered how after a one-month courtship he asked me to move in with him but not if or when I had decided to defer graduate school in Manhattan that fall.
Upon my return home, despite excruciating jet lag, I settled into bed with my letters. One by one, I opened them; pages and pages of lightweight sheets of paper fell into my hands. Over the next few days, unable to focus on my manuscript, I dumped my goldmine onto the living room carpet. Postcards from London, Chamonix and Frankfurt; a 50th birthday card to him and then her; and annual father’s and mother’s day cards slid onto the floor.
Dear Mom and Dad, 12/12/89
… Living and making my life here, raising a family here, I objectively think there’s more good than bad. Family is a strong unit. No doubt it’s a difficult and stressful existence, combined with the political problems, but I must admit, it’s very meaningful. Me, the not-so-Zionist of all, feels this… You just can’t live a daily life without processing what goes on around and I’ve always had a tendency to be like that.”
I had arrived in Israel nine months earlier with no intention of staying. When and how had I made such a leap?
I spent hours opening, reading, folding, arranging. On the outside of envelopes or aerogrammes, I noted the main theme: loving Israeli life, engagement, MA program in Haifa, First Gulf War preparation. Then I organized them chronologically and stacked them in piles according to year. I rubber banded each pile, laid them out year by year and snapped a picture on my cellphone. Title: my treasure trove.
That night, when I crawled into bed, I told Philippe how confessional my letters were. I had shared way too much with my parents about my romantic life and realized our kids, who communicate with yup’s and yeah’s or a thumbs up to indicate they’re fine or a frowny face for a bad day, will never share with us the same way.
When my present day self has been asked why I first came to this country in 1989, why I stayed, why we left in 1994 and what brought us back in 2011, I have always slanted the details in such a way that made me seem somewhat unhappy and wholly ambivalent.
But when I re-met my twenty-three-year-old self I realized I had to change my storyline. Because she wrote: “I feel great here….Something has fallen into place and removed me even further from the States-grad school mind frame…” Then, she thrived on learning Hebrew in ulpan (now I mostly speak English); on spending time with her only sibling who immigrated here after college (we seldom see each other, but that’s a different story); on living abroad in a foreign culture (how I pine for the American hello-can-I-help-you refrain). “This is a country where one can make change and contribute. There is a sense of need here…” (Still true.)
I might not be able to turn back time, but I can learn from the me of my past. First she can fill in the midlife-related blanks, and then, maybe, she can show me how to see the place where I live with my family through less judgmental, softer eyes. So that I can recreate scenes and write my memoir with clarity and honesty.
An MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Jennifer Lang resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Her essays have been published in Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, the South Loop Review, The Indian River Review and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first memoir about staying in a complex marriage.
Just wondering if you sleep at night… Thank *you,* Jennifer
On Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 3:18 PM, BREVITYs Nonfiction Blog wrote:
> Dinty W. Moore posted: ” By Jennifer Lang For the past few months, I have > been entrenched in writing a memoir about my marriage. As an American > married to a Frenchman living in Israel, I am writing to reckon with how I > have traveled so far from my homeland and my youth, wh” >
I relate to your words. I am an Australian who lived many years in Israel because of a German refugee Jewish mother who had married an Australian soldier in wartime. She could never stay away from Israel and dragged us back over the years multiple times to live long periods of time without my father. I eventually married an American and am now living in Florida. My only sibling lives in Jerusalem and my mother just passed away but lived many years in Tel-Aviv after she divorced my father. Israel calls the courageous but my resentments to family behaviors pushed me away. (A memoir to be written…) I often wonder also how “I have traveled so far from my homeland” of Australia.
There are no answers, only questions. Kaye Linden
I wholly relate to this right now as I recently read through all my old journals for the memoir I’m trying to write. Memory distorts itself so much over time…the journals helped clarify some things, and remind me of other experiences I had forgotten. Of course there was also a lot in there I’d rather not revisit, but we’ve all got that baggage. I can also relate to the feelings of ambivalence you express…as mine is also a Jewish/Holocaust 2nd gen/Israel related story. Thanks for sharing your experience.
It seems to me that the difference between a diary and a memoir is the time that passes between events and recording . Yes, immediately writing letters to your mom was a true picture of what you saw in your younger years but perhaps without the oversight you have now. Distance often offers perspective that journaling misses
This is fascinating!! Always looking back through the lens of our present day thinking
It’s fascinating to relive our lives through memory. I actually just saw the musical Fun Home on Broadway last night and it was riveting on so many levels, but one that truly resonated with me was the memory. I am also engulfed in memory-driven writing (365 project of memoir-based essays) and our brains are the most challenging to unravel. I think Disney’s ‘Inside Out’ helped me understand the biology behind it a bit more. It’s also interesting to see what we choose to remember versus what our brains try so hard to forget. Great work; keep it up.
What a gift those letters and postcards were! I’m so glad to hear you are pursuing the memoir, I recall that snowy night we talked about it in Montpelier. Selfishly I love the journal you saved and wrote about for my anthology. And selfishly your memoir will be about the road I did not take by not staying in Israel and what a read that will be for me. Marriage is complicated at best, and your story is layered with culture and history and family dynamics. Looking forward to this.