My father used to play baseball in high school, in a semi-pro league back in the thirties and later, after the war, in the 50s. He was a catcher and apparently a good hitter. His batting average for one season was .436--although he writes about striking out against Satchel Paige, the great pitcher from the Negro League.
Each of my siblings and I have a mental image of Dad bending over home plate with a big rip up the seat of his uniform. Whether this is from an old newspaper clipping or from one of his games we might've attended as young children, I don’t know. But the picture doesn’t seem to exist. It makes me wonder if it were a family story, told so many times we collectively imaged it.
Today as I was going through his scrapbook from the earlier baseball days, I found a news clipping about the last game in a series in which the other team had a clean sweep so far. My father’s team held on for ten spirited innings, but finally lost 2-1, although it seems Dad did his best to annoy, confuse, and de-energize the opposing team:
The Cathedral catcher, Chadwick, caused much discussion because of his constant delay of play throughout the game. Twice while on base the fiery backstop, advancing a base on a foul ball, took an unnecessary amount of time in returning to his rightful position. Before going to bat in the eighth he walked out within ten feet of the batter’s box and took off his shoe and stocking, replaced it, tied the other shoe, and to top off the performance tucked in his shirt and pulled up his pants before proceeding to the plate. Finally immaculate, he struck out.
After all that posturing he struck out! For those of you familiar with the famous baseball ballad “Casey at the Bat” this looks like a 1936 replay of a poem written in 1888. And maybe it’s the source of my memory.
Memories morph into images in the retelling. Although the actual account may change, I think what stays true is the emotional meaning the original had for you. That’s the part that memoirists and family storytellers need to explore. Not that I’m suggesting fabrication—verify facts where facts can be verified, but own your side of the story as you remember it.
So what do you do when you remember something but someone else remembers it differently?
1. Tell your version but give your reader an alternative option: Although my sister remembers it this way . . .” Or—The family version is . . . That’s what Rick Bragg did in the excerpt I used last week about his birth:
“I am told it was a hot, damp night in late July 1959, one of those nights when the setting of the sun brings no relief. It might have been the heat, or something she ate—an orange slush and a Giant Dill Pickle—but about the time Charlton Heston laid eyes on that golden calf . . . I elected to emerge.”
2. Use identifying words like perhaps, maybe, it could have been . . . to let your reader know you are filling in gaps or surmising something that may have happened another way.
3. Check facts where they can be checked, ask family members their versions, but in the end own your story—use the memory you have to make the point you want to give away.
1.Write about an event the way you remember it and then ask someone who was involved what their version is. Where do you disagree? Are there “facts” you can verify? If not, does the difference matter to the story you have come to tell?
2. What are your family legends—stories handed down to which you may or may not have memory? How have they influenced you? What about them makes them special to you and yours?