When my husband and I visited my family in Alabama, my father always took us to see “the prettiest tree in southern Alabama.” It was near Fish River, a lazy, meandering river about ten miles from my parents’ house. The last time we saw it—before my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—we were surprised to find it enclosed by a wire fence. Vandalism. The tree had become an icon to teenagers who wanted to carve their initials and names into the tree. As a result the tree had suffered. It might die. I remember talking to my husband about how predictable and impulsive it was to want to claim, to put your sign on something that is not yours.
When I began to write “Readings” after my husband had requested his foster care files, I thought about that tree. Whereas my father had wanted only to glory in its essence, others had wanted more, and it was this desire to mark what is not yours that hit home. If you’ll allow me the parallel: when you write about another person’s life you are making a mark on their tree. And with that decision come responsibilities about your intent, your interpretations, and the boundaries you establish in the writing. After I read my husband’s foster care files, I knew that I would be recasting them, trying to find within them a deeper story. After all, case studies cry out for interpretation. They are notes. They are without plot. Although my husband had said, “Write whatever you need to write,” did this validate a presentation of shameful details, private conversations, unflattering moments and the very hard decisions that had been made by adults on his behalf? Did this give me license to speculate on both the known and the unknown, to suggest how his early childhood had influenced our lives together? I worried those questions as I began writing the essay. And then I answered yes. To want to know another person’s story is an intimate desire, something that rises up like an ache. I want to know you is the first tremor of love. Love, the thing we write to clarify, to unravel, no matter whether we’re in dixth grade and long only to press hands with the beloved in the hallway or in our sixties and stand reverent at the bedroom door, watching our recovering husbands sleep. I wanted to know my husband’s story, the story that had been silenced, that had lived its life inside records warehoused for over fifty years. He gave permission. To my great relief, the marks I made required no fences or restrictions. Sometimes claiming is growth.