August 3, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Joanne Furio
I once had a roommate who was an artist. She claimed that de Kooning himself had once seen her work and proclaimed her a genius. Despite such praise, she wanted more. “You should write about us!” she told me one night, in front of a group of friends who were all artists. I happened to be stoned at the time, so it was not cool that she was pressuring me during my weekend chill-out time. I fumbled a few responses, but she pressed on, in front of that speechless group of friends who pitied me because a) they didn’t want to discuss business, either, on a Saturday night b) they knew how annoying my roommate could be with her self-promotion schemes and c) they all knew at the time (and I didn’t) that my monthly $500 for a room in her run-down two-bedroom farmhouse apartment was not contributing to the rent, but paying it in its entirety. Once I discovered this I moved out, and ultimately forgave her. She would eventually be forced out of the apartment by new owners and had to move back to her parent’s house. She died young and undiscovered.
One day I noticed the preciseness of a bob on a woman I had recently befriended and interrupted our conversation with, “Who cuts your hair?” A gay man in the next town. I contacted him and we hit it off immediately. When he found out I was a writer, he started sketching out his life in dramatic form, revealing more details with each salon visit. His older sister had died tragically and he had gallantly stepped in to take full guardianship of her children. That was in the early ’80s, when the idea of gay parenting was beyond most people’s comprehension. So, yes, this was a great story, maybe even a salable one. But I had my own tales to tell and with two children and a part-time magazine job, barely the time to write them. Exasperated by my blasé response, he blurted out while washing my hair, “You should write my story!” He delivered this with a toothpaste commercial smile, and I admit to being dazzled, but his insistence caused something in our relationship to change. It wasn’t until I moved away that I had an excuse to make the cut.
P.S.: I no longer wear a bob.
“You should write about Mom,” my father says one morning over coffee at his condo. I told him I had indeed started writing about my mother’s Alzheimer’s and the effect it was having on our family. By then my mother was in a nursing home, a terrible decision my father had to make. Little did I know then, I would not see my father for the next year and a half. COVID prevented me from returning to New York twice a year, from spending part of every day of my two-week visit at the nursing home, ten minutes away from my father’s condo. A year later my mother died from the virus because she didn’t like wearing a mask. When I returned to New York after my mother’s death, my father asked: “Aren’t you writing something? A novel?”
The one person I have written about in my father’s family was his aunt, a woman who was institutionalized for life after having a nervous breakdown at age 40 in 1940. Through my interviews with the remaining family, I discovered that this great aunt’s death did not end the way my father thought it had. My father’s other paternal aunt and her daughters did have a wake with an open casket and a funeral, but did not invite my father’s family. My father and his sister had believed for years that their aunt had died alone in an institution and was buried without ceremony. When I told my older sister the news, she said, “Don’t write about that.” But I am the daughter who does not listen. When my father read the published essay, he said that I had written a nice tribute to his aunt and mentioned nothing about the funeral.
Recently I wrote about being seven and watching a woman, the mother of one of my friends, have a nervous breakdown on the altar, in the middle of mass. She imagined that the handsome new priest was Jesus incarnate. I remember the scene clearly and that my sister was sitting next to me, but some of the minor details of that seminal event remain sketchy. So I did what any writer of creative nonfiction would do: I filled in the blanks to the best of my ability. When it was published in a literary journal, I sent a link to my sister. At first, she did not respond. Finally, she read the piece. “It’s good,” she said, “but that’s not what I remembered.”
Joanne Furio is a Berkeley-based writer who likes to come up with her own subject matter. Her essays, journalism and author interviews have appeared in publications that include The New York Times, Believer, The Evening Street Review and Cumberland River Review and on the websites Juked, Panoply and Catapult. She teaches writing at Holy Names University in Oakland and is a regular contributor to the digital news platform Berkeleyside.