My dad doesn’t read my blog; he doesn’t do much on the computer other than occasional emails. But I wanted him to know of The Bottle of Whiskey, so I called him and, after the usual catching up on his health, a few jokes, and a couple of the same old stories, I read it to him.
It wasn’t easy. My dad is judgmental and mildly critical and I wasn’t sure how he would react to this short memoir in which he was the main character.
But I wanted him to hear it, because in this story he is portrayed as a hero.
So, I took a deep breath and began reading. I read slowly enough that he could take it all in, but fast enough that he wouldn’t give up on it, get lost or tired of listening before I got to the end. Besides the pacing, I had to manage my breathing. It’s always been hard for me to read something over the phone. I can’t maintain my usual, involuntary breathing pattern. I think I forget to breathe. Then I have to force myself to breathe and my rhythm gets all messed up.
When I got to the end of the story, he said, “Well, that’s a dream.”
The story was mostly memoir, mostly from my memory of a time when I was eight years old. I knew it wasn’t all true; there was no way it could be. I was recounting something that happened nearly 40 years earlier, when I was a small child, barely of the age of remembering. And I hadn’t asked any questions, hadn’t done any fact checking.
“First of all, it was 80 acres. Not 24. And half of it was leased from the Indians. We had a five-year lease.”
“Oh yeah, 80 acres, that’s right.” I had written 24. “The ranch was 80 acres and the farm was 24.”
“And, second, we never met any Indians down there. Not at night. Not when we were all in the truck.”
“Really? Well, I know you met some Indians down there some time. I remember the story.”
“You weren’t there. It was Roxy.” My older sister.
“Are you sure? Because it’s really vivid in my mind. I must have heard you talking about it or heard the story a few times over the years.”
“And, Jesus, if anyone ever pointed guns at me, I wouldn’t have offered them a bottle of whiskey. I would have killed the assholes. But, I liked your story. I like how you write. It was a good story.”
It was a good story. I’ll take that, coming from my dad.
A few weeks later, I called him again to visit. I had mailed the story to him after reading it over the phone. I knew he would enjoy reading it and that he’d read it over and over. He probably had his red pen out, making notes of all my mis-memories.
We weren’t on the phone but a couple of minutes before he started talking about the story. “It wasn’t Jennings Road we turned on to get to the ranch and that wasn’t the Jennings’ place. It was the Youngs.”
“Oh yeah, I remember now that you mention it! Bill Young. Yep, it was Bill Young’s place that reeked of silage. And who had the dog that chased us every time we drove by? I can’t remember that guy’s name, but I’d know it if I heard it.”
“I don’t remember either. But we’d go down to the end of that road there and there was Delfelder Hall.”
“Delfelder Hall! I can picture it. What’d they ever use that building for anyway?”
“Oh, just meetings out there. For the ranching community. And right past that was Leo Wambolt’s place.”
“That’s it! Leo Wambolt! He had the collie that always bit our tires as we went by. And is this right? If we didn’t turn right to get to our ranch, just kept going straight, we’d get to the sugar beets, right?”
“Yes. There was a sugar beet dump there for a while.”
I could picture the huge pile of sugar beets. “Why were they piled up there anyway?” I ask my dad.
“That’s where they loaded them on the train.”
We exchanged several more stories and memories about the ranch, which we had from the time I was six to about ten, at which time we moved to a farm that was much closer to town. As we talked, my dad seemed to relax and realize that I was a young girl at the time, that it was impossible for my memories to be accurate.
My dad is an amazing source of rich memories and amusing chronicles—not just of what actually happened but because of the funny ways he tells them, the vivid details and rough and somewhat inappropriate language he uses to recount the days at our ranch.
I could spend hours listening to him and I could take notes and I could incorporate more truth into my story called The Bottle of Whiskey. And I could write many more stories about the ranch and then several tales about things that happened at the farm over the years, too.
But if I did it that way, they would be his stories.
And what I want to write is my stories. Like The Bottle of Whiskey. My stories might not be all true, but they represent what I recall, how I remember our times at the ranch, what it was like from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl, a little girl who, on that night, felt safe tucked next to her dad in the crowded cab of the old Ford truck, a little girl who watched a silent film, a scary movie, through the windshield, in which her father starred, in which he saved the day and saved his family. I want to write my dad as that hero.
I’ll listen to his tales, his corrections, his truths. But at the same time I’ll try my hardest to not let them overshadow the way I remember things happening. Because I’ve got my own tale, my own truth, and, in the end, what I want to do is keep it true.