When I was a child I talked to ghosts. His name was Sir Thomas—a distant cousin and actor from the nineteenth century. And my mom told the story of my imaginary friend at every family get-together. She says that Sir Thomas and I would have long and detailed conversations, but I eventually grew out of my imaginary friend and the memory faded. A few years later, my Aunt Anne was writing our family tree and discovered we did in fact have a distant cousin named Thomas who was an English actor in the nineteenth century. So the story goes.
Stories make sense of who we are.
Families gathered in the kitchen, shouting, “Remember when . . . ? Remember when . . . ?” across the table, form a shared identity out of myths and legends. We tell stories about famous ancestors, fighting uncles, and what Grandma was like before she was Grandma. And with each retelling we create the kind of people we are. It doesn’t really matter how true the story is as long as it leaves a crumb of meaning or makes us feel something—when I was a child I talked to ghosts and remembering deepens our family’s love for one another.
Michael Chabon is a master of story. Though considered a “serious literary writer,” Chabon has spent his time since his 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay writing “genre fiction.” In his most recent novel, Moonglow (2016), Michael Chabon enters into the literary memoir genre and captures the meaning-making power of family stories. The novel comprises Chabon recounting and making up stories his grandfather shared from his deathbed. Since first reading Moonglow I’ve kept it with me like a comfort blanket, returning to passages that help make sense of my own family and life.
Make it mean something.
The author writes in a brief note before the story begins, “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refuse to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” At first blush it’s tempting to read Moonglow and be most interested in identifying what is fact and what is fiction. Michael Chabon, by naming the narrator Michael Chabon and the protagonist only some version of “my grandfather,” teases the reader with a fascinating story that may or may not be true.
On a second pass, though, the novel is not nearly as interested in Chabon family trivia as it is with why we tell the family legends we tell.
The narrative of Moonglow leaps wildly from one story to another like a family dinner where your chatty aunt who has had too much boxed wine just has to tell you about all the trouble she and her sisters got into in high school. Jumping from a scene where the grandfather is having a late-in-life fling before falling ill to another where he’s hunting Nazis at the end of World War II the novel lacks linear coherence. For all its jumping around Moonglow is satisfying like the family dinner your favorite cousin comes to.
Throughout the novel Chabon hints at his fascination with family storytelling. Every main character tells a story in some fashion. The narrator’s mother goes through a photo album with him and tells about how she shot her uncle in the eye with an arrow after a brief love affair when she was a teenager. His grandmother plays “The Night Witch” on late night television in the ’50s where she reads Edgar Allan Poe stories on air dressed as a witch. In one scene the narrator recounts his terror of this grandmother as she makes up stories using tarot cards she kept when she escaped a concentration camp and stayed with nuns in France.
Moonglow is dense, but if one scene in the novel could serve as a thesis it would be the moment when Chabon’s grandfather tells his novelist grandson to “make it mean something.” The grandfather is talking about a shame he feels as he takes account of his life. He says, “I’m disappointed in myself. In my life. All my life, everything I tried, I only got halfway there.” The grandfather hopes telling his story will make something of his life.
“[It’s] a pretty good story,” I said. “You have to admit.”
“Yeah?” He crumpled up the Kleenex, having dispatched the solitary tear. “You can have it. I’m giving it to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you. Start with the night I was born. March second, 1915. There was a lunar eclipse that night, you know what that is?”
“When the earth’s shadow falls across the Moon.”
“Very significant. I’m sure it’s a perfect metaphor for something. Start with that.”
“Kind of trite,” I said.
Our Creation Myth
My own grandfather died this morning. We weren’t close. I won’t realize that I’ve been left out of my family’s public mourning on Facebook. Grandpa Welty inherited a sad legacy and passed it on faithfully. It’s a legacy of fathers who aren’t there, a legacy of fathers wondering why their sons never call and sons wondering likewise.
My great-great-grandparents were vaudeville rollerskaters. So the story goes. When my great-grandfather was born they gave him to distant relatives so they could continue their show. The family legend ends with their rollerskating into the cotton candy sunset. The distant relative’s one condition was that my great-grandfather would be a “Welty.” So the story goes.
This is our creation myth, but the details shift with each telling as it’s passed around the table or told from deathbeds. “This is your Uncle Teddy—he’s actually your grandpa’s uncle, my great-uncle. He’s a Peterson, not a Welty,” my dad says, pointing to a stranger in a tattered photo album, on the rare holiday I spent with my him. Our origin story makes sense of our family. It makes meaning. I don’t know if it’s true, the particulars are too strange and the moral too easy, but I tell it anyways. Families share stories with each other to form a shared mythology, identity, and destiny; and they do so with varying degrees of historical accuracy.
Our ghost stories and war stories reveal our character and make sense of our strange love for one another. We tell the same stories every Christmas because the stories are who we are and make us who we are becoming.
So, tonight at bedtime, after I read him Where the Wild Things Are, I’ll ask my son Atticus to tell me a story. He’ll retell the one he made up about a boy who jumps to the moon and goes to a dragon-house to find his mommy and daddy. Every night we share our stories with each other before we say our I love yous, give kisses, and say our prayers. Someday, I’ll tell him the story of how we became Weltys. It’s a pretty good story, I have to admit. He can have it. I’m giving it to him. Perhaps he’ll make it mean something.
Cover image by Jeroen Andel.