Sandra R. O'Briant
Family Traditions: Writing Real Life into Fiction
Start with a personal tragedy, something that haunts your relationships. It helps if you have a colorful family chock-full of sociopaths, if not outright felons. It’s better if you don’t quite understand the impact the event(s) had on you. You’re solving the mystery of yourself. As with all revelation, denial helps to build tension, but beware of the unreliable narrator.
To demonstrate, I’ll take two incidents from my life. I was fifteen when in a rage I attacked my mother. I don’t remember what we were fighting about but she tried to yank my phone out of the wall. Her back was to me when I wrapped my arms around her and bit into the soft skin of her shoulder blade.
My anger seemed inexplicable to everyone, including me. Years later, my mother and I had the following conversation:
"What I don't understand is why you didn't tell me about it."
"Lots of kids don't tell, Mom."
"But you knew to stay away from him."
"I was a kid. Grandpa made it a game. Maybe I didn't say anything because you'd told me to stay away.”
"You knew to stay away from him. You even grabbed a broom once and chased him out of the house. Remember?"
"Are you sure it was me? He touched all the cousins, too. You told me that."
"Are you saying it's my fault?"
"You knew better than to be around him when he was drinking.
"We lived in the same house, Mom. You were working or asleep."
"So you're blaming me? Calling me a bad mother? You could have run."
"You're blaming me for what your father did.”
"You knew better."
"I was a child alone. He was an adult who took advantage. He was the bad one."
"My father was a good man. He took care of mother when she was crippled. He took care of me since I was five. He worked hard. He let us live with him."
"He was a good man who molested me. He did it to other children. You said he did it to Jerry."
"I got Jerry out."
"Too late. Maybe if Grandpa hadn't molested him, he wouldn't have grown up gay and died of AIDs. If you want to connect the dots, Grandpa murdered him!"
"My father was a good man and I loved him. You will never get me to say otherwise. He took care of me. He always took care of me."
"Since you were five?"
"A little girl, with your mother in a wheelchair, he took care of you."
"Yes. He loved me. He said he wouldn't hurt me."
"He touched you?"
"He fed me, and bathed me, and helped me dress. He wanted me to be happy, to feel good."
"Because your mother wasn’t available? He was everything to you. And you were everything to him."
"Did he touch you down there, too?"
End of conversation with my mom; beginning of revelation. I felt pity for the little girl she’d been, but her knowledge of his nature was the hidden lava flow that fueled my rage. Two real life events coalesced into one to produce the following:
Nellie sits for the photo in the kitchen where the overhead light is best. A paisley print swirls across her dress in bold notes of purple and red and stops mid-thigh. It’s low in front, but completely covers the flaming scar on her back. She smiles with perfect little teeth framed in a symmetrical face. Her nose is aquiline and tips down at the end accenting her exotic look. Her eyes are heavily lined in black. She's forty and looks thirty.
Lydia is taking the picture. She's sixteen and looking forward to borrowing the dress. It'll be smoky from the restaurant where her mother works. Her childhood story is a scratch-n-sniff, her mother's menthol cigarettes the minty top note to what lays beneath their lives – the sweet, earthy scent from her grandpa's pipe and the smell of his skin.
Their lives are peaceful now. They never talk about the scar, about what happened when Lydia told. Grandpa had stopped with her when she turned twelve and she was worried he'd start on her little brother. He never hurt her. It was a tickling game when she was little, and later it was affection. At big family gatherings – Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas – the aunts and uncles would laugh and smoke and drink around the table while their kids ran around the house. Grandpa would sit quietly in his easy chair in the dimly-lit living room. Little hands would be placed on the satiny knob that protruded from his unzipped pants. The cousins made it their safe zone; you couldn’t be tagged while touching it. They laughed and ran off and returned to play the game. Grandpa puffed on his pipe, serene as Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree. He never forced anyone.
In the time of the psychedelic dress, when Lydia told, Nellie called her daughter crazy. When Lydia was only seven, she'd told her to stay away from Grandpa when he was drinking. She'd warned her daughter. She'd protected her. If Lydia had disobeyed it must have been because she wanted it. Lydia reached for the phone to call her father, far away and uninvolved. Nellie grabbed the phone and tried to pull the wires from the wall. Her back was turned to her daughter. Lydia wrapped her arms around her mother and bit hard on the fleshy part of the skin over the shoulder blade. Grandpa pulled her off. He was always there.
Nellie is so photogenic, so beautiful, but the scar remains. Hidden. An almost secret. A lover asks her if it's a love bite, another wants to know if it's devil worship. She says no, but the answer to both questions is yes.
Sandra R. O'Briant said she’d never marry nor have children. She’s been married to the same man for a quarter century, but still keeps in touch with her now very old former lovers. The ones still living. Her sons refuse to read anything she writes for fear it will be about sex. She often wonders where she went wrong.
In Posse: Potentially, might be . . .