I have an MFA in fiction, which makes me an actual, professional B.S-er. I make stuff up. Worse, I’ve done it for money. Not much money, mind you; creative writing isn’t like trading stocks–but I have exchanged words for lucre on more than one occasion.
And yet, recently, at a friend’s dinner table, when asked to tell the story of my family coming from Mexico to the United States, I edited out certain details. Here’s the thing about stories–and any dictator can tell you it’s so: Stories are not safe. They have claws and fangs and they bite.
When I think of my relatives coming to the United States from Mexico, I always think of my paternal grandfather. His story is the most vivid, and I only know it because of a school assignment. I was supposed to interview someone older than 65, and at the time, the only person who qualified was my great grandmother, who spoke no English. My grandfather agreed to translate. Grandpa wanted me to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher. If my school wanted a story about someone older than 65, then I would get that story.
Things started off tame enough. I don’t remember everyone who was in my grandparents’ house at the time, but a bunch of us were sitting on the plastic covered couches as I rattled off my list of questions. Where were you born, how many siblings did you have, blah blah blah.
The problems started when I began asking questions about my great grandmother as a young woman. She could remember her childhood home perfectly, but when I asked about anything from her teens to early twenties, she claimed she didn’t remember. This included the story about the birth of my grandfather. And how he came to be born as a US citizen. This incensed grandfather. He promptly took over telling the story.
My grandfather wasn’t a particularly nice man. He was a survivor, a fighter. I wasn’t afraid of him because he saved his rough words for adults, but he wasn’t the guy who let you climb all over him either.
Which made it all the more shocking when he began to cry. I like to think that telling his story was cathartic. The words came out so fast that it was hard to write them all down. I will never know. He never referred to his history again in my hearing, and he died five years ago. My dad later told me that he had never heard some of the things grandfather said that day.
As a Sophomore in high school I didn’t really understand the depth of what my grandfather gave to me. The events he talked about were, at that time, almost forty years in the past, but anybody with eyes to see could tell that his story still made him bleed when he thought about it. Even as a teenager, some instinct of family protection made me edit the story into a safer form. And now?
Is this my story to tell? The man quite literally gave it to me. I will tell it to my children because it is a part of who they are. I may even tell it to my friends in certain circumstances. But not at a dinner with acquaintances, curious about my exotic (to Canadians) heritage. It isn’t a comfortable story. And it isn’t just another episode of Game of Thrones, packaged for public consumption.
This story’s fangs bite me too. I didn’t know that until my friend’s dinner party. It’s my story, and I’m not telling it to you.