Jul/Aug 2020  •   Nonfiction

To Tell or Not to Tell

by Susan St. Aubin

In the summer of 1953, my mother sat down to write, while in the background Miss Frances of "Ding Dong School" kept my three-year-old sister Betsy entertained as she sat in front of our new television set with her thumb in her mouth. My mother started with a title, "To Go or Not to Go," which I didn't realize until years later was a play on Hamlet's soliloquy on existence, or about what a person should do with their life. When we attempt a memoir, the truth often lies in what we don't mention as we write, the details about our lives we refuse to know, or admit. The piece I watched my mother work on circled around her own ambition to write, as well as her older brother Czar's failures in his life, without explicitly mentioning either.

She sat at her ink-stained wooden desk, wearing her usual at-home outfit of jeans with a busted zipper held together with two safety pins, and one of my father's old shirts. Her short frizzy blond hair, already turning white although she was only 35, fanned out around her head like a lion's mane. She hated her hair, which she usually combed flat, but when she wrote, she unconsciously ran her fingers through it as if trying to shake something loose.

I asked my mother what she was doing, not because it wasn't perfectly clear to me that she was writing, but because I had nothing to do. I was eight years old that summer, bored because we'd just moved to a new house in the suburbs, leaving my friends back in Chicago, where we had only lived a year after leaving Madison, Wisconsin, the only home I remembered. I was curious about the process of writing, the movement of pen over sheets of yellow legal paper, and later the slow click of the keys on her old Remington typewriter. I wanted to know what she was writing about, what she saw and knew that I didn't.

"What do you mean, what am I doing?" she snapped. "Painting the ceiling. Writing about our trip last Christmas, that's what. Why don't you go see what your brother is up to?"

Johnny, a sociable little boy of five, was probably off playing with the new friends he'd made already in the neighborhood. My mother ran her fingers through her wild hair. A frown deepened between her eyes as she concentrated.

Her first paragraph began, "I am a sucker for the 'how to' articles in the women's magazines—the ones that tell you how to make bookshelves from orange crates, or how a family of five can spend a week at Pike's Peak for 60 dollars. I am particularly enchanted with articles on how to travel comfortably with small children." From this introduction, she wove a tale in which all the hints on how to successfully travel with children fail to be of any help to this family on their way to visit relatives for Christmas—the scatterbrained narrator mother, the unnamed man addressed as spouse, or father, given to mumbling curses and sarcastic remarks under his breath, and three clichéd bad children: eight year old Susie, surreptitiously eating all the cookies meant as gifts for the relatives; Johnny, five, who rummages around in the backseat opening all the Christmas presents; and three year old Betsy, who begins screaming when her mother takes away the deck of cards she is slowly ripping in half, one by one.

As I surreptitiously read the pages my mother pulled from her typewriter, I was puzzled by the mischievous children my mother wrote about, who seemed like characters in a television comedy. Her amusing story bore very little relation to what I remembered about our trip to Detroit the previous December to spend Christmas with family. There was no destination in my mother's tale, and the relatives to be visited were shadowy, unnamed figures.

In my recollection, a good deal of my parents' conversation on this trip was spent mocking their families' lower class poor grammar and odd beliefs. (Saying "birfday" for "birthday", and "ain't" for "isn't." Imagine! And the prejudice, the things they say about Negroes! The way they still call Japanese people "Japs" even though the War's been over for years!) We were warned such incorrect and racist speech would occur, and told we shouldn't say anything, or, above all, laugh. We were told our grandparents couldn't help it because they'd left school too soon (after sixth grade, for both my grandfathers; perhaps sooner for my grandmothers). We were warned once again of the importance of our own education, how we must go to school every day, and pay attention. Above all, we must never, ever, say "ain't" or "nigger" or "Jap."

My mother's father was very conservative and fiercely anti-union in spite of his recent excellent retirement from General Motors, where he'd worked on line at first, before becoming a skilled tool and die maker. My father's father had a similar work history at Ford, with the exception that he was an early union man, which had caused him to be among the first laid off during the Depression. Despite their differing politics, which led to endless arguments on the rare times both families got together, they were both highly intelligent, self-taught men of whom our parents should have been proud. Our grandmothers were "just housewives," as were most of our aunts. The fact that my mother was at this point just a housewife was temporary because she had ambitious plans to go back to school to get a teaching credential, as well as to sell some of her writing. Their families were people my parents had left behind on their journey to the middle class, which involved moving farther away from Detroit, first to Madison, where my father got a master's degree in history at the University of Wisconsin, and briefly worked for the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and then to Chicago, where he found a better paying job as an archivist at the Chicago Branch of the United States Federal Records Center.

We kids loved visiting Detroit once or twice a year; the uncles teasing, the aunts arranging my curly hair, which my mother was always trying to tame by braiding, the cousins chasing us around their yards and playing endless games of Old Maid and Monopoly. We always had a good time, while our parents sat uneasily by, perhaps fearing we'd be tainted by the background they were trying to deny.

Although my mother's memoir was a litany of all the things that could go wrong in a car full of kids—the fights, the constant bathroom stops, and the disastrous restaurant stop all predictably described—the truth was, we were unusually well-behaved, especially in such close quarters with our mercurial mother, whom we loved and feared equally. As the youngest child in her family, she wasn't sure how to raise her own, and was often impatient with us, once yelling at me to "stop acting like a child" when I was five. She was educated enough to worry that this was a crazy thing to say, yet not perceptive enough to understand that she might not have wanted to have children.

Working mothers usually taught school, because the hours, with summers off, were so perfect for raising your own family. Eventually, my mother taught kindergarten and first grade for 30 years, which must have been a punishing career for a soul who longed for adventures that did not involve small children, and who tried to write, without the success she wanted. "To Go or Not to Go" is among the dozen unpublished stories and articles she wrote in odd moments as she dutifully cared for her own three children, while teaching thousands of others. Telling funny stories about her silliness was an escape from her fear of losing control of feelings she wasn't able to accept.

I was not, that Christmas, her invented child who ate all the cookies. The move from Madison to Chicago at the beginning of the school year had been difficult for me, and that Christmas my parents already were planning to move us again in June to a suburb much nicer than the city, according to my mother, where I would attend a wonderful school and make more new friends. I was already mourning the new friends I'd have to leave behind in Chicago, and fearing the different school I'd need to deal with the following fall.

Dinner was the only meal I was forced to eat, which often made me feel sick enough to throw up. Otherwise, I avoided food whenever I could, which was easy because in our house breakfast and lunch were a free-for-all choice, dried cereal or sandwiches we made ourselves. My throat sometimes felt so tight, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to swallow. My parents were worried enough to encourage me to eat more by cooking a daily family breakfast of eggs or waffles, and to consult a psychologist, who insulted them by suggesting my mother, whom he thought seemed depressed, might be the one who needed therapy.

I laughed as I read my mother's writing that summer because she was funny as she described our stay at the Student Union in an unnamed college town, where she accidentally locked herself out of our room and was left in the hall "clutching my wispy night apparel around me" until my father returned from the car with the worn blanket Betsy couldn't sleep without. I didn't recall this incident because, she wrote, I was sound asleep, which was probably true. What I knew was an invention was the wispy nightgown, since I'd never seen my mother wear anything but plain pajamas, flannel in winter, cotton in summer, which one of her sisters made for her. More likely, she was left in the drafty hall in her Christmas red flannels.

Aside from its many inventions, "To Go or Not to Go" contained an important omission. She wrote that we'd planned to visit a friend of my father's in a college town on the way to the unnamed city where our relatives lived, but this friend, unable to put us up because he was about to leave on a Christmas trip of his own, had made arrangements for us to stay at the Student Union. In fact, we stopped in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to visit my mother's older half-brother, Czar Dyer, who had no children but lived with his wife and mother-in-law in a three-room apartment near the University of Michigan campus, where he was a part-time lecturer in Mathematics. To tell or not to tell, that was my mother's real question, and the answer was "No."

Czar was by far the most interesting person in my mother's family—educated, brilliant, creative, but also an unclassifiable eccentric who never found his place in life. This visit was the only time I remember meeting him, although my mother assured me he'd seen me often when I was a toddler because we used to visit him when we still lived in Detroit. Since Betsy and Johnny had been born after we moved to Wisconsin, Czar had never met them.

Where did the name Czar come from? My grandmother was creative with her name choices in her youth, although the two children she had when she was in her 40s, my mother and my Uncle Bud, were named Katherine and John. She had been just 17 when the twins, my aunts Valerie and Gladys, were born, a couple of years older when she had Czar. Gladys was obvious; my grandmother's first husband, Richard Dyer, was part Welsh, and her own father had been Welsh on his mother's side. But Valerie wasn't a common name at the end of the 19th century, and Czar—has there ever been anyone else named Czar?

Richard Dyer was a wealthy man, an amateur inventor in his 60s, when he met my then 16-year-old grandmother on a ferryboat that ran between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. She liked to take the boat back and forth across the Detroit River on her day off from a job as a maid in the home of a family who turned out to be friends of Richard Dyer's mother. This confirmed bachelor, who'd once worked with Thomas Edison, was so taken with the young auburn-haired, brown-eyed Irish immigrant, that he married her, much to the annoyance of his family. Was she pregnant? Possibly. But according to my grandmother, he'd loved her very much.

Where was he going that day? Whom did he know in Canada? I know almost nothing about him because my grandmother's second husband, my grandfather, Jack Crittenden, jealously destroyed any documents related to her first husband. Richard Dyer's books, papers, articles about inventions, letters from Thomas Edison, all disappeared. He died shortly after his son Czar was born, leaving my grandmother unprotected in a mansion with his mother and two sisters.

As soon as her husband was gone, my grandmother and her three children—children his family wanted nothing to do with—were quite literally thrown out in the street. The children were in a Salvation Army orphanage for a time, where, according to my aunts, they were ill fed and the three-year-old twins were forced to help sweep floors, wash dishes, and do laundry. Having some natural talent for mathematics, my grandmother found a job as a bookkeeper for a milk company, a rarity for a woman in those days. She was able to reclaim and support her son and daughters, living in dingy rooms, with barely enough to eat, but living together, and with free milk from the milk company, too.

Considering her background, I'm surprised my grandmother should have become a conservative, like her second husband, scornful of President Roosevelt's welfare state. Perhaps this was predictable, because she had made it on her own (except for that free milk), until she married Jack Crittenden, who would support her for the rest of her life. Her children suffered, though. Early malnutrition left both my aunts with curved legs due to rickets. Czar, a sickly child, was diagnosed with tuberculosis at 11 and spent his teenaged years in a sanitarium at government expense, tuberculosis care still being one of the few bits of socialized medicine we have in this country because it was such a serious epidemic for so many years. While there, he roomed with the son of a state senator, whose private tutor also taught Czar. Like his mother, Czar was a natural mathematician, which probably impressed the state senator as well as his son's tutor. After he recovered his health, this connection led to Czar's appointment to Annapolis, the United States Naval Academy, in 1918, for a college education at government expense, with the only condition being that he serve in the navy for at least one year.

I have only a slim folder containing the known facts about my Uncle Czar. There is the "Ripley's Believe It or Not" column from 1932 with a picture of Czar J. Dyer, the only man who was both a Seaman, Petty Officer, and Commissioned Officer in the Navy, and a Private, non-Commissioned Officer, Cadet, and Commissioned Officer in the Army. The way this happened was pure bad luck: World War I broke out three months after he entered Annapolis, which meant all students were immediately graduated, commissioned, and sent off to war. Czar, just 20 years old, was put in command of a ship on which my grandfather, who was already his stepfather, was an ordinary seaman. Czar had never approved of his mother's marriage to Jack Crittenden, and the long voyage, for some reason to Asia, where luckily they saw no action, did nothing for their relationship.

So Czar was given a degree, but denied his longed-for college education. This he later remedied. The file contains a copy of the page of Collum's "Register of Graduates, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York" in which he is listed as having entered West Point in 1920 and attended until 1924, when he graduated and was promoted in the Army to Second Lieutenant, Signal Corps. In a white on black photocopy of the West Point Yearbook, beneath his ghost-like negative picture, it says, "Of all nature's metamorphoses none is perhaps quite so complete as the changing of a sailor into a soldier." After a description of his Navy service in the War, and his educational prowess, the caption continues, "In consideration of his exceptional versatility, one may expect Czar either to do something noteworthy in the future or to do nothing at all because of the superabundance of his ideas." In the margin, Czar wrote hopefully, "The first it is—that's the answer. I didn't survive George Washington's own West Point in vain!"

By this Christmas visit my mother decided not to describe, it seems that the last was true. A low-level lecturer, brilliant but, my mother admitted to me years later, "somewhat emotionally unstable," he was mostly supported by his wife, Thelma, nicknamed Ted, who had a steady job as a secretary in the Mathematics Department. My mother would sigh as she described Czar's wife, an uneducated woman, only a secretary, who could not possibly appreciate his great mind. She claimed Ted had sold his story to Ripley for God knows how much money. Before our visit, we were warned she was a silly woman, and, again, that we must not laugh at her.

Their small apartment had no living room because in that room was an old lady, Ted's mother, who lay in bed and did not come out during our brief late afternoon visit. She waved as we were introduced outside the door and went back to reading her newspaper. Ted was tall and thin, with dark hair pulled into a bun and a red and white striped apron over the gray wool dress she must have worn to work that day, probably leaving early because of our visit. She looked rather tired, which I now know she must have been, with a full-time job, a sick mother to care for, and a marginally employed, mentally unstable husband. She led us into the kitchen, where we sat around the table while she served coffee to the adults and milk to the children, along with the cookies my mother had brought them for Christmas. She said very little, and seemed to be watching Czar carefully.

I exclaimed, "Uncle Czar, you look just like Grandpa Crittenden!" which was exactly the wrong thing to have said. My mother kicked me under the table, and Ted looked briefly at me, and then back to Czar, who said only, "That's hardly likely. I am not a Crittenden."

"Czar and I have different fathers," my mother explained.

But he did look like my grandpa, the same full head of white hair, the same pot staubiny, alike as all old men seemed to me. I didn't know that he hadn't spoken to my grandfather in years, communicated with his mother only by the long letters he wrote her every week, and was ignored by his sisters, my aunts, who, having married well, were embarrassed by his poverty, and continued to claim association with the wealthy Dyer family who had rejected them. Their membership in the D.A.R. was secured because of a Dyer ancestor who had fought in the American Revolution.

Uncle Czar told us about a more interesting ancestor on his father's side, the great Indian Chief Tecumseh, to whom he was very proud to be related. "Too bad you're not his descendents," he told us, shaking his head sadly. "He was an amazing man, a great warrior. But your mother had that different father."

Johnny sat straight in his chair, impressed with the Indian Chief.

"Tell you what," said Uncle Czar, "You can be his honorary great-grand nephew, all right? I hereby dub you Tecumseh's heir!"

He tapped my brother's shoulder with a hand that held a burning cigarette, which made my mother flinch. Later, she said we shouldn't mention Tecumseh to our aunts because they didn't believe Czar's story that he was related to the Dyers.

"Isn't it true?" Johnny asked.

"I think so," said my mother. "Your grandma says it's true, but they don't like to talk about it."

Uncle Czar also spoke to birds. While we sat in the kitchen, a beak would tap at the window, and Czar would open it to put some breadcrumbs, which he kept in a sugar bowl on the table, onto the sill. Each bird who came tapping at the window was greeted by name. There was a red one, a cardinal, he called Red, and several gray and brown ones who were Eddie, Charlie, Jonesy, Chipper. There was even a robin, Fat Jimmy.

"It's amazing how he keeps those birds alive all winter," Ted explained to us kids. "They don't need to go south. There's a birdhouse out back where they can keep warm, and we give them suet, too. That's fat meat, which keeps them healthy and strong."

My mother shifted uneasily in her chair. "How's the teaching going?" she asked Czar.

"I'm off this semester, but they'll give me two classes in Spring, if I want them, and if they fill." He continued handing out crumbs to the birds, then shut the window.

"I haven't been well," he added.

"He's been in the hospital again," Ted explained.

"Oh dear," sighed my mother. "Well," she said to Czar, "Those classes should do you good, get you out among the students again."

A black cat slunk in from Ted's mother's room, with a wary glance at us.

"Fred!" Czar exclaimed, rubbing the cat's neck. My mother, who did not care for cats, sat tensely as the animal slithered against her legs.

"This is absolutely the most intelligent cat I've ever had. Do you know he'll use the toilet? Perch right up there, and piss in the bowl," Czar said, stroking the cat's long body as it stretched at his feet.

"Really?" said my brother, looking at the open door to the bathroom, right off the kitchen.

"Really," said Czar. "Watch, he'll do it. That's why he came in here. He doesn't like strangers, but he has to get to the toilet."

We all watched, glad of something to do.

"Does he eat the birds?" asked Johnny.

"Of course not; he's too smart," Czar explained. "He stays inside, where we feed him plenty. Look, there he goes!"

We watched the cat slip into the bathroom, look back at Czar, then leap up and perch on the toilet seat, releasing a long stream of urine into the bowl, before shaking his paws and jumping off

"It took months," said Czar, "but he finally got it. He shits in there, too. Can't teach him to flush, though. He's strong enough to hit the lever, but he won't do it."

"It's so convenient that Czar's trained him like that," said Ted, with an admiring look at her husband. "It takes a smart and patient man to do an impossible job like train a cat."

I didn't know then, of course, that Czar frequently had what the family called "nervous breakdowns," which sometimes required him to be committed for a time for "rest," either in the State Psychiatric Hospital in Ann Arbor or in Eloise Psychiatric Hospital near Detroit. Once he'd had to be removed from his classroom and taken away by the police. "Unjustly," my mother later claimed, when I was old enough to be told hints of these family secrets. She never told us (perhaps never knew, or didn't want to know) exactly what had happened. Yet, the Mathematics Department kept hiring him because he was undeniably brilliant, as long as he was given only graduate seminars to teach. He couldn't cope with undergraduates, especially those who weren't math majors.

In another incident my mother later told me about, Uncle Czar, who admired the actress Gale Sondergaard, famous for portraying villainous women in 1940s films such as "The Spider Woman" and "Anthony Adverse," got on a Greyhound bus to Hollywood to bring her a pair of antique Chinese swords he felt she might appreciate. Of course, she called the police on this stalker, and Czar and his Chinese swords were arrested on the front steps of her house. The swords were confiscated—no one knows what became of them—and Ted went to Los Angeles to collect him from a local mental hospital and bring him home for a long stay at Eloise. According to my mother, the family was grateful to Ted for taking care of everything, and smoothly avoiding any publicity. Too bad about the swords, which he'd picked up on his voyage to China during World War I and were probably worth a good deal of money, but still, grateful. I like to think Ted reclaimed those swards and sold them to help pay for this rescue, because I have a feeling Czar's stepfather and siblings didn't donate anything, and my grandmother, who still loved her oldest son, had no money of her own.

"Very sad," my mother said of the incident. "Nobody realized he meant no harm. He was only a fan." Just as she denied her own problems with her life as a wife and mother, she refused to see that her brother might have serious emotional issues. She insisted he was a genius nobody understood, least of all his stupid wife, who kept putting him in mental hospitals, which did him more harm than good.

My Uncle Bud had a quite different view of Czar. When Bud was four, his then adult brother, home on Christmas leave, took him out in a rowboat on Lake St. Clair. In the middle of the lake, Czar suddenly picked him up and tossed him overboard.

"Sink or swim, Buddy," Uncle Bud told me Czar called out, laughing maniacally. "Sink or Swim!"

Bud paddled helplessly in the freezing water. Whenever he managed to clutch onto the side of the boat, Czar would push his hands off.

"He was flat out insane," Uncle Bud told me. "No two ways about it. Katherine could never admit that; she adored him."

Finally, he managed to haul himself back on the boat.

"Okay, kid, you passed," said Czar as he rowed back to shore. "Stop crying, you passed the test. You're a man now."

When Buddy told his mother, she just responded, "Nonsense. He was just trying to teach you to swim. He never meant to kill you."

From then on, Bud avoided being alone with Czar.

In my file of Czar's papers, I have two of the weekly letters he wrote to my grandmother, along with two elaborately designed perpetual calendars of his own invention. The letters are at once loving and intellectually challenging. "Dearest Mother," he began, and, after asking about her health (which was never good after she suffered her first heart attack at the age of 45), goes on to discuss his latest projects for another four or five pages. The first letter I have, dated December 27, 1944, evidently came with two neatly typed and drawn copies of his perpetual calendars, one copy of each I still have. In this letter he discussed how he developed them, and how they might be used. These calendars, which he designed to work with either the current Gregorian or the earlier Julian calendars, are a maze of yellow, red, and blue lines, connected to numbers which, Czar wrote to my grandmother, could easily be used to find the day of the week of any date in history.

"The basic thing to notice is that the order of the colored lines at the top of each bottom column, in all three nomograms (or nomographs, if you like that word better) is exactly the same as the color order of the columns at the top of the corresponding nomogram," he wrote. The following pages make his invention no more clearer to me, or to my mother, who said my grandmother seemed to understand how her son's calendars worked, and always wrote back to Czar in detail, with corrections and additions for his consideration, as he developed them. None of her letters survive.

When I stare at Czar's work, the explanations in his letter only confuse me further. Colored lines leading to numbers leading to what? I've seen other perpetual calendars that are much easier to read, although possibly not as totally accurate as Czar's. He asked his mother to "give one of the calendars to Katy, as I know she will want to frame it or otherwise mount it neatly, as she is well aware of its value and usefulness." He seemed to know that my mother wouldn't be able to understand his work completely, but he added hopefully, "Later when Susie goes to school and studies history, she will be able to have a lot of fun playing with it." No such luck. Neither my mother nor I inherited the family talent for mathematics.

The second calendar, which is for 1945 alone, works by the same inscrutable method. Czar writes, "I doubt if I ever will be able to find a publisher for that calendar. It is not hard to use, but most people are too confoundedly superficial to take time to understand anything, and so they will pass through life, from end to end, completely bewildered, instead of slowly, carefully, thoroughly mastering everything, until at length they possess real, inalienable personal power."

The second letter, written in 1946, was concerned with his mother's health, and includes quotes from medical studies about the use of vitamins E and C to cure heart conditions. Since one of these studies had been done at the University of Wisconsin, where my father had recently begun graduate school in history, Czar felt that perhaps he or my mother could help my grandmother connect with a good doctor at the University. I don't know if anything ever came of this, but I do know that when my grandmother died, in her 80s, it was from cancer, not her heart condition.

My mother later told me she had seen letters written to Czar by famous scientists, mathematicians, and writers with whom he was in correspondence, but only a photocopy of one survives in his file, a letter from George Bernard Shaw, dated July 11, 1947, which said, "Why bother about what you call failure? I was a dead failure for nine years. How can a mathematician be unhappy? Reasoning and measurement are passions which will grow to be more ecstatic than Casanova's." Shaw concluded by saying, "I never before heard of Avogadro or his law, but I read your article through to the end with interest. You can write."

It seems his correspondence with Shaw was personal as well as intellectual, and that Czar was as disturbed as everyone else in his family about his lack of success after such a promising early start. I don't know what became of the original, or any of the other letters from scientists and writers unknown. It seems likely there were more from Shaw. Perhaps Ted kept them, passing them on to her own family, people my mother never met. Perhaps Ted sold them, as they must often have needed money. Perhaps my mother sold the original of the one I have, since our family, too, had been sometimes short of cash.

Our afternoon visit with Uncle Czar lasted until it started getting dark outside. "Where the birds?" asked little Betsy, half asleep on my mother's lap.

"Gone to bed," said Uncle Czar. Through the door to the living room, I could see Fred the cat curled up at the foot of Ted's mother's bed.

"We don't have room for you here, of course, but you can stay at the Student Union, which has quite a nice hotel for University guests," said Ted, who had arranged everything. "And you must have dinner at the Union. Our treat. We'll pay, and for the room, too. I get an employee's discount, so it's all set."

"She could have offered us dinner," my mother grumbled as we walked down the stairs from their apartment, somehow insulted by what she perceived as a lack of hospitality. But even as a child I could see how difficult it was for Ted to entertain her crazy husband's younger half-sister and her family, who, like the rest of his relatives, had done nothing to help him.

At the Union we had steak, which, as usual, I could barely swallow, although in my mother's telling I ate it all, as well as half of hers, and demanded dessert, too. We spent the night in a quiet room with soft, comfortable beds, overlooking an alley. There were bars on the windows, which worried my mother because she had a horror of being trapped in situations over which she had no control.

"What if there's a fire?" she kept saying. "What if we can't get out? I hate this place!"

Now I find it interesting that in her story, she was locked out of our room, while in reality, she feared she would be trapped inside, perhaps as trapped as she felt as a wife and mother.

"Everything will be fine," said my father as I fell into a deep sleep.

At breakfast the next morning, I managed a glass of orange juice, but the blueberry pancakes stuck in my throat.

"They're good," said my father, urging me to eat. "Put more maple syrup on them, they'll go down better."

He was right. I let the sweetness slide down my throat.

I don't remember if we stopped to say goodbye to Czar and Ted before continuing on our journey. I do know that I never saw them again. When we got to Detroit, there were grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and we kids had such a great time, I don't even recall my parents being there. I could swallow again, cookies and eggnog and chocolate and fruitcake, even turkey and stuffing. I was happy, for that holiday. We must have driven back to Chicago, but I don't remember that, either, nor did my mother add the return trip to her chronicle.

She sent her article out to all the women's magazines of the time: Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, The Lady's Home Journal, even The Saturday Evening Post, as she did everything else she wrote. The result was always the same; one by one they came back in the mail. Once she understood there would be no money in writing, she gave up, filing her work away for me to find after her death.

As my mother wrote less, her creativity, and perhaps a need to control the narrative of her life, was expressed in the family stories she told us. She said we—she, my father, and I—met Gale Sondergaard when I was two, not long after the incident of the Chinese swords. In his first semester as a graduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin, my father took a seminar taught by Hans Sondergaard, a recently retired professor of Agriculture, on the history of Scandinavian settlement in the American Midwest, in which he had personal experience since he and his parents had emigrated from Denmark when he was an infant.

At the end of the semester, Professor Sondergaard invited the eight members of the class to tea one afternoon to meet his daughter, Gale, the famous actress. I have no actual memory of this quaintly bizarre occasion, but my mother added such vivid details to the story that I almost feel like it's my own recollection. She said the students were thrilled at the chance to meet this actress. Each one was invited to bring a guest. I was the only child present, probably because my parents couldn't afford a babysitter. My mother was very curious to meet this woman who had so entranced her older brother.

Mrs. and Miss Sondergaard, who poured tea and coffee, and passed around homemade Danish cakes and cookies, made much of me, telling my mother they'd never seen such a pretty child with such wonderfully curly hair—and all-natural, too.

"She could be the dark-haired Shirley Temple," Gale Sondergaard said, half joking, but then, according to my mother, seriously adding that if my parents were willing, she knew people in Hollywood she could refer them to. If they were interested in getting me into films, that is.

I can imagine my mother pausing, since at the time both she and my father had part-time jobs to support his desire to continue the study of American History. She worked as a waitress in the evenings, when he could stay home to study while watching me, and he drove a cab on weekends. They were both uncertain what his prospects for future employment might be. I imagine she thought just one movie might improve their financial situation. Just one. But then she sensibly declined, possibly considering it to be rather low-class to use her child for financial gain. Perhaps this scheme seemed too close to what she thought someone like her sister-in-law Ted might have done, to make a buck. Also, there was the question of her brother and those swords, which of course could never be spoken of.

In the end, Gale Sondergaard's connections would have done us no good. Her husband, the director Herbert Biberman, would soon be called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and asked to name names of Communists he might have known, which he (and later, Gale Sondergaard) refused to do. He did prison time as one of the "Hollywood Ten." Both their careers in film were over, all connections severed.

There is, of course, another version of this story, as there are always multiple versions of family tales. When my mother was dying of cancer in her 80s, it became important for me to listen again to the sometimes shifting narratives she made of her past.

"Czar was the only person in the family who loved me," she said. "We always understood each other."

She described an outing in her father's first car, with her parents and her brother Buddy up front, while she and Czar shared the windy, freezing rumble seat, which she saw as symbolic of their lesser status in the family. She said she'd been an unwanted child—although I'm sure her older brother Buddy was as well since my grandmother was over 40 when he was born. As for my grandmother's first family, the twins she had at 17 were surely not planned, which left only Czar as a possibly desired child. But in those days there was no way to choose to have or not to have children.

My mother assured me I was a wanted child. "You were such a beautiful baby," she said. "You know the actress, Gale Sondergaard?" she added.

Of course. Uncle Czar, the Chinese swords, the tea. I'd heard those stories many times, but that didn't stop my mother from continuing.

"Once, when you and I were at a bus stop in Madison," she began, "we met this old lady who thought you were so beautiful she just had to introduce you to her daughter, who was an actress in Hollywood. Her husband, Professor Sondergaard, had taught at the University, and Gale Sondergaard, of all people, turned out to be their daughter. Gale was visiting; Mrs. Sondergaard was sure she would love to see you. So we had tea at her house and Gale Sondergaard said..."

But I stopped her. Hadn't Dad taken a class with Professor Sondergaard? Hadn't the class been invited to tea?

She looked at me. "Dr. Sondergaard was a professor of Agriculture. Why would your father have been in one of his courses? Anyway, the professor wasn't there that day, just Mrs. Sondergaard and Gale."

"But Dad said he taught that one history seminar, after he retired..."

"But he couldn't have. Professor Sondergaard never taught history. Why would your father have said that?"

Maybe her depression over my father's recent death made her want to erase him from her narrative, just as she had erased Czar from "To Go or Not To Go" because of her sadness at what her brother's life had become. She might have needed to create a different version of the Gale Sondergaard tale in which she wouldn't have to be reminded that my father was no longer with us. Or perhaps she felt the bus stop meeting made a better story. With my parents gone, there's no way to verify any of this. Did I ever meet Gale Sondergaard? Did Uncle Czar really take his Chinese swords to her Hollywood home?

In spite of taking massive doses of vitamins C and E, Czar died a few years after our visit of a heart attack at 63 while shoveling snow in front of that same apartment building, on another bright, sunny winter day, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was subject to sudden enthusiasms, my mother told me, sudden bursts of energy, mental and physical. Inventing a perpetual calendar, writing essays on obscure mathematicians that were never published, shoveling snow in front of a building he didn't own, riding his bicycle all over Ann Arbor, swiping a long stick at the dogs who chased him—that was my uncle Czar.

After his funeral, no one in my mother's family wanted to have any further contact with Ted, although rumor had it she moved out to California, to a suburb of Los Angeles, where her brother had retired, and that after her death, she was buried on top of Czar in Arlington, because, according to my mother, that was how couples were buried there, one on top of the other. I have no idea if this is really how couples are buried in Arlington, but it's a story that made my mother feel better about Czar, lying safely beneath his wife, who, in this version of her narrative, was no longer stupid, but a good woman who would continue to help him through eternity.

To tell or not to tell, to go or not to go into that dangerous territory of your own life, is the work of the memoirist. My mother was much the same as her brother Czar in her enthusiasms and her failed writing projects, but unlike Czar, her attempts to control her narrative, both in the teaching she decided to do, and in the stories she told and retold, saved her from losing the thread of her life.

The family stories we tell or write can be just as creative as fiction. Having no living witnesses can give a memoirist a lot of creative freedom. When I recall the trip my mother writes about, I delete what seems irrelevant to me, and make alterations to some events, dates, and conversations to improve the flow of the story, although I do try not to write around uncomfortable facts.

Yet in writing my version of my mother's memoir, I realize I've decided not to tell another important fact: I, too, always wanted to write, and did write a great deal more than my mother managed, although with marginal success. I did this by taking jobs that left my mind free for writing—I worked in offices, first as a file clerk and finally, like Ted, as a university secretary. I didn't have children; any extra time and money was used for travel. I lived the life my mother would have wanted. Even when she was proud of my few publications, I suspect there was some jealousy involved. She often hinted she wished I had been a teacher rather than wasting my intellect in office work in order to work on writing that brought me no status or money. To her, doing what you enjoy without success wasn't enough.

Who can define what makes a successful life? Czar's story, my mother's, Gale Sondergaard's, even mine, are among many of careers ruined or never properly begun, of lives changed either by our own insanity or the insanity of others. In apparent failure, there can be satisfaction in accomplishing what you decide to do, or in doing what you want to do, or in standing up for what you believe, which may turn out to be different, even contradictory, paths. Any memoir involves invention because it's an attempt to step outside your life to make sense of what happened, or didn't happen.