Finding Home: Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t by Ryan Kauffman
My mom, sister, and I moved 21 times before my 18th birthday. We didn’t talk about it much, but we all knew why. Sometimes, the lease was up and we simply wanted something nicer. Others, there just wasn’t enough money to be able to stay. My mother supported two children with the child support payments for one. I know how this narrative plays out from a child’s point-of-view–shared toys and socks and microwaveable bacon. But what haunted my mother as she put on a smile and cracked jokes while our stuff was packed away in yet another U-Haul? Jill Talbot’s newest book offers such a perspective.
In The Way We Weren’t, Talbot delineates her story as a writer/professor, a single mother, and jilted lover by starting with a letter written by her daughter’s father arguing his right not to pay child support. The intimacy of the letter and its content–whether or not the “facts” presented in it are completely true–takes the reader by surprise.
The issue of child support that we both agreed upon has abruptly resurfaced and I am now $40,000 in debt to her, my driver’s license has been suspended, and I am entirely overwhelmed. Dealing with any of these issues could break a person and I need help rectifying this issue quickly so I may focus on my life before it falls apart.
Are we supposed to sympathize with the letter’s author? With Talbot? It’s uncertain at the close of this epistolary prologue, but this uncertainty works in Talbot’s favor. Beyond intriguing the reader, the letter sets up the remainder of the memoir with this question in mind: How does one get over the past before it wrecks the present?
The ways in which Talbot tries to answer that question–ranging from first- and then to third-person narration, to wine lists, to court transcripts–keeps the structure fresh and takes the reader through an off-balanced (in the best possible way) journey with Talbot as she interrogates memory, writing, identity, and how one, by necessity, dictates the others. Early and often, Talbot directs her readers with explicit questions and musings about this flawed aspect of human existence:
How long do we live in the fictions of our past? And how do we convince anyone that who we write is not necessarily who we are?
She stares at the man in the photograph, realizing it is not the man she has been writing for eight years.
Time has become a detail that can change with letters typed on a keyboard, with one click of the delete button.
As I read these lines, took in the philosophy of an author trying to get over something, I found myself tracing my own identity through memories of near countless apartments and houses. Am I the same person who moved, with my mom and sister, on a pouring day in June to a third-floor apartment at Hampton Hills? Was it even raining during that particular move?. No, no, it was raining when we moved to a little ranch-style house on Sylvan Road. My memories are jumbled and conflated. Talbot’s words suggest a deep human truth we might not otherwise consider. The best memoir usually does.
There’s another, more subtle thread to Talbot’s memoir: Finding home. I recognize the feeling of moving so much that the word “home” has become little more than a myth. My best friends spent their childhoods in the same houses, with the same unfinished basements and squeaking living room floors. They had homes. And yet, the more I moved, the more it seemed clear to me that a house is not what makes a home. The idea of home can be grounded by a particular chair or table or person. Talbot comes to this realization as well:
For so many years after Kenny left us, I saw Indie and I as living alone. In Chicago, I saw that we lived together. And that what we have is enough. Even with all we don’t have, with all we have lost, and with all we have had to lose along the way, what we have is each other, and where we have it best is at our kitchen table.
The Way We Weren’t is more than a straightforward memoir about writing, scorned love, and moving. It’s an intimate portrait of a person trying to find her way through the past, present, and future–through life. I don’t know whether any of my own mother’s thoughts correlate to those offered by Talbot, but I know that The Way We Weren’t gave me a deeper appreciation for the only constants in my memories of moving when I was younger–my mom and sister. The book also renewed my appreciation for the work of true memoir, for writers like Jill Talbot, fearless in their excavation of the past–as though the future depends on it.