My family’s letters are most remarkable for what they don’t say, the information that has purposefully been left out. They’re like the photos of my ancestors in their stiff Sunday clothes; not even between the lines is there any hint that the writers’ lives were messy or complex.
Our pasts are museums. We’re their curators. If there ever was unhinged grief or wild desperation among my ancestors — and there must have been; they had their share of nervous breakdowns and bouts with the bottle — it never was committed to paper. I can’t blame my kinfolk for editing their storyline. Marcy and Jake can balance the history I strive to create for my father against their own reminiscences. It’s different with my mom, who died before they were born. I got to conjure her from whole cloth. I edited out of her story what embarrassed me when she was alive — her South Philly loudness, the sour-onion scent of her hands — and kept only the good parts: her beauty, how she could put anyone at ease, her uncanny bodysurfing ability. The result was a grandmother Marcy and Jake admire — and don’t know at all.
My parents and their parents treasured privacy, the right to construct one’s own story. Actual artifacts were rare enough that you could lop a wayward wife or unsavory uncle right off the family tree. Now, we put our shame on show to the world, let cameras capture our addict children, cheating spouses, drunken selves. The rush of content onto TV, blogs, YouTube, has overwhelmed our filters — Can’t stop the flood, might as well dive in! We only complain when the memoir’s fake, when the degradation turns out not to be true.
It’s hard for an archivist to relinquish control. If my (eventual) grandchildren Google me, will they find columns I wrote about their parents? Jezebel.com’s Hingston haters? The romance novels? How weird would it be to read your grandma writing about throbbing manhoods? I should have thought of all this 25 years ago, when I wrote that first book. Why would I have, though? The past used to be set in stone. It was agreed upon, permanent.
To Marcy and Jake, nothing’s permanent — not triumph, not disgrace, not identity. That’s the lesson they’ve learned from their brave new world: Nothing lasts, nothing endures. Amy’s in rehab again! Britney bounces back! Something different and brighter and faster comes along and changes everything. It’s the opposite of what I grew up believing: that the past was somehow truer and more righteous than the future would be.
That edited past gave us heroes we couldn’t live up to, relations who were remote strangers, family histories we couldn’t glean any real lessons from. The more angles there are, the less any one picture means. Maybe that’s why I never sorted through the photos in the Kodak envelopes. Why not hold onto the outtakes, and not just the perfect portrait? There are worse things than finding out your grandma knew about oral sex.
Marcy doesn’t respect me less because I’ve told her about my bad boyfriends, those psychedelic mushrooms, that unplanned pregnancy. Her knowledge of my mistakes has freed her to admit her own to me, kept me in the loop of her life as she turned into a woman — and keeps her calling me on her cell to say nothing much at all.
Technology isn’t dehumanizing us; it’s fleshing us out, plumping us up. Making us more human, more knowable, to one another and to future generations. I’ll take that any day over perfectly posed ancestors who don’t look like me from any angle. Go on and Google me, kids. I guarantee: It will embarrass you more than it embarrasses me.