When one of my students (from Africa though studying in Malaysia) read that story she had a confession. She too had been molested as a child but she had never told anyone about it, not even her parents, and she asked me for advice. I felt humbled. This was my story about my parents, about the events that led to their divorce, and yet it had a powerful affect on my student from a whole different culture. By chance, I happened to know this student’s father, and I advised her to talk to her parents. As a parent, I would think they would want to know. I would want to know if anything bad happened to my children so I could be there to help them overcome the pain. I know my mother always had a distrust for men. Nevertheless, as a single mother for several years, she did a remarkable job raising her children.
When my father was in his sixties I asked him to describe what happened that day when he came upon his father, dead. His father was in horse drawn wagon with his two daughters, when lightning killed him. It didn’t harm the children but it knocked down the two horses. My father was in the fields trying to bring in the cows, but the cows refused to budge because of the lightning as if they knew something bad was about to happen. So my father ran down the lane to tell his father about the cows, and that’s where he found his father, lying in the lane, thrown from the wagon. The two horses still lying on the ground. His two elder sisters had already run in the opposite direction to tell their mother what just happened. When my father told me this story he became this frightened ten year old boy again.
When I came home from Malaysia for the first time after having been away for three years, I was already in my early thirties, close to the age of my grandfather when he was killed by lightning. Being so far away from home, I now wanted to hear these family stories from my parents, the good and the bad, while they both were still alive. I spoke to other relatives, too, and more truths came out, truths that left me numb. I wrote them all down in my journal while they were fresh, so I wouldn’t forget.
Other truths made me laugh, like hearing my grandmother on my mother side telling me about her playing basketball in high school and college—this was back in the twenties. She went to college but neither of my parents did. She remarried after my grandfather ran off with a college girl when my mother was a toddler. The second marriage lasted over fifty years. My father, after the divorce, later remarried and is now closing in on his fiftieth anniversary, too.
Sometimes people make bad choices early in their lives. Sometimes tragedies happen. Crimes, too. But these are our lives, and these are our family stories. It’s up to the writer to choose how to write about them. Even the most painful of stories may bring about a happy ending for someone else, like my student who is now happily married and raising her own family back in Africa.
She has also published her first short story, a different family story, that she wrote and work-shopped in my creative writing class. Writing can be the start of the healing process for all of us. It’s therapeutic. What family stories do you have? What stories do you need to write about?
—Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer