The Archaeology of Fathers

Sometimes I lie in bed between dark and dawn wondering about my own assertions about the way the world is. That is to say—about my own writing.

I describe images, my characters act out a story.

Saying what a story is about is very different from the original storytelling. The latter is about invention, sculpting, spinning the tale—with the hope that the way I tell it will lead to the reader’s suspension of disbelief—to the reader’s willingness to believe what I am saying.

Another part of it has to do with my own need to believe—easier, if the book, on some deeper level, is telling me something about myself. Of course, it is, but how is far from clear. What is the invented Frank Holloway telling me, in my novel Playing for Pancho Villa? In what way are his adventures also therefore mine? Why would I even think or need to tell such a story? To what extent am I re-inventing myself?

The images and sequences I paint (laying down the brush strokes), how do I decide which color and where to lay the stroke? I have few answers for these questions—unless it has to do with all the fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and beyond, that stretch all the way back to the beginning of my line. The mothers and aunts were not silent, and I learned from them. But the fathers were quiet. I want to know about them. Being me may depend on it. But since they were so mute, through disposition or death, whom am I to ask?

Unless it is myself. Telling a story about a father—my grandfather, in this case—is, I suppose, my way of talking with the silent ones. First, re-inventing them—since to my knowledge my grandfather Frank never crossed the Mexican border on his father’s mare.

My brother recently sent me some genealogy records. A customs entry shows that Frank Bennett re-entered the U.S. on a ship from Honduras. Was it my grandfather? My brother assures me it wasn’t. But there is no proof either way.

I read a recent article in the New York Times about soldiers missing in action in WWII, whose remains are never found, and how it haunts family members, some of whom never even knew the missing relative.

Is that who these fathers are? Missing in action? And I am simply one more relative looking for them, lifting the spade—digging where I think they lie? Is this what my storytelling is about?

Leave a Reply