"There is for all of us a twilight zone of time, stretching back for a generation or two before we were born, which never quite belongs to the rest of history. Our elders have talked their memories into our memories until we come to possess some sense of a continuity exceeding and traversing our own individual being … Children of small and vocal communities are likely to possess it to a high degree and, if they are imaginative, have the power of incorporating into their own lives a significant span of time before their individual births."
(My apologies for this quote-within-a-quote business, but it's important to give due credit.) Because all of the writers Tóibín mentions are male, and they reconstructed their own childhoods in their writings, I can't say that my experience as a writer is analogous.
But that initial quote really resonated with me. O'Brien is suggesting that the stories told by our elders about their Lives Before Us, and the stories told them by their elders, create a continuity with previous generations: an alternate reality, so to speak. It this sense of connection with past generations that compelled me to write their/my story of the Homestead Strike of 1892.
|Eddie and George W. at the Machine Shop, 1910|
My father told and retold the story of his grandfather's death in the Homestead Works in September of 1892; however, his story was focused on the horrors of the experience. Dad--an actor, drama coach, and playwright--loved drama. The story consisted of two parts: a description of the explosion that resulted in the death of his grandfather and three other men, and the scene at the bedside of the dying patriarch, with his eleven children at his bedside.
|Dad and me, c. 1946|
The first part was sometimes augmented by stories of terrible accidents at the Works. One I recall in particular described the killing of a worker by molten steel spilling into the casting pit. I can't remember if Dad actually witnessed this, but he told it as if he had. The second part he sometimes told without the first. Dad would dramatize the scene, adding specific dialog, sometimes of a serio-comic sort. "Germany stinks," John Paul would say from his deathbed. "Despite all, I'm glad to have come to America and glad to be an American." He would then admonish his children to "stand by America"--a phrase that sounds suspiciously like an exact quote from his father, George W.
I can't help wondering what the story my grandfather Busch told Dad was like. I'm sure it was quite different. Grandpap and Dad had such different temperaments. My father Edward inherited more than his mother's surname, Edwards, from her Welsh ancestors. Eddie was a born teacher and actor, loving to perform for any size audience. His retirement project was to write and publish his memoirs, Full of Sound and Fury, which he passed out to friends, family, and former students.
|Unhappy bat boy, front; George W. fourth from left rear, 1919|
My grandfather, on the other hand, supervised hundreds of workers in the Homestead machine shop. He worked under tremendous pressure much of the time, but always stayed cool and focused. His son was an introvert, emotional and high-strung. One of Dad's stories was how disappointed Grandpap had been when young Eddie had been downright miserable being made to serve as bat boy or water carrier for the many athletic teams the former was involved in. Dad showed me a photo of himself with the Homestead Steel Mechanics' baseball team, 1919 AA champions. Dad pointed out how unhappy he looked and felt when the picture was taken. (Ironically, this photo somehow made its way onto the menus of at least two local restaurants as an image of Good Old Times in Homestead.)
|Ceridwen & Dad, front, at reunion, c. 1979|
It's significant that Ceridwen is the one who sent me the Tóibín article, for it is she who has taken up the torch passed down from Eddie through me. A Goodreads librarian and top reviewer, Ceridwen's reviews are always, as she puts in, "hopelessly personal." She sometimes recounts my stories, other family stories, and stories about her children in her reviews. In her review of Darkness Visible, Ceridwen poignantly expresses the connections she feels with generations past in Homestead. (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/258461711) She recalls the stories and experiences that make up the cluster of emotions she feels about the family legacy--from the singing of Welsh hymns in her childhood to the spreading of my parents' ashes on the banks of the Monongahela River at the Battle site. I can't get through the piece without blubbering--but then again, this is "our" story.
|Ceridwen and me with James Joyce, 1996|
Apparently, it was not for naught that we named Ceridwen after the Welsh goddess of poetic inspiration. (Both she and I like to tell the story of shape-shifting Ceridwen chasing around her shape-shifting offspring, Taliesin, the bard.) After all, she comes from a line of storytellers named, consecutively, after the first U.S. President, a family of hymn-singing Welsh drunkards, and the title character in an 1896 English Gothic novel.
Tóibín might have "killed" his mother in his writings, but Ed, Ceridwen, and I have made our forefathers--and in her case, mother--live.