Homemade Biography

How to Collect, Record, and Tell the Life Story of Someone You Love

Tom Zoellner

St. Martin's Griffin

Chapter 1
 

Failure looks like Phoenix. This was the general drift of my thinking during the spring of 2003, when I moved back to the southwestern city where I grew up. I didn’t particularly want to be there. It was a choice I made after a string of misfortunes.

Over the course of one eventful month, I had been laid off from my newspaper job in California and had seen the disintegration of my engagement to a women I loved. I had also abandoned the hope of finding a publisher for a short novel I had written there in my off-hours. I was broke and unhappy and feeling washed-up, though I was barely out of my twenties. There was an open spot on the metro desk of my Arizona hometown newspaper and I accepted it as a way of getting my life back on track. At least I would be living in a city where I knew a few old friends, and where the streets led. But I could not shake the feeling that I had turned out to be nothing but a disappointment to myself and to everybody who knew me. I had gone to San Francisco with ambitions, but I had failed there both as a fiancé and as a novelist. And so it seemed karmically appropriate that I was slinking back to my hometown, a place I had only wanted to escape while I was growing up.

I have complicated feelings about Arizona. I have loved the place and I have hated it, too, both feelings occasionally expressing themselves simultaneously. My hometown of Phoenix, for example, is a real estate agent’s fantasy. The metro area spreads like a quilt made of black asphalt, red tile, and Bermuda grass over more than two thousand square miles of desert. The urbanized land mass is equal to that of the Los Angeles basin, the population is greater than that of the Republic of Ireland, and it can take five hours to drive across it when traffic is thick, which it usually is. The main roads are seven-laned, wide as midwestern rivers; most intersections are anchored by twenty-four-hour convenience stores and strip malls. The only natural river is called the Salt and it was dammed dry a century ago to water the cotton fields and orange trees. Heat can rise to 120 degrees in June. Housing promoters called the city “The Valley of the Sun” during the sixties and the name stuck. I grew up in a ranch-style house on the north side of town, off the tee of the eleventh hole of a golf course, and near the slope of a coffin-shaped mound covered with lumps of hardened magma. It was named Moon Mountain and I used to climb it for a view of the golf links and the turquoise dots of swimming pools. When I was a kid, I pretended my bicycle was actually a motorcycle and I dreamed constantly of places beyond the mountains and the golf course and of all the places that I would visit and, possibly, live in. Now I was coming back to Phoenix, and it felt like I was sneaking in through the back door.

I drove into town that March evening with my jeep loaded to the roof with everything I owned at the time: a few pots and pans, a few books, a backpack, a wristwatch, an old Macintosh computer carefully wrapped in a blanket. It was just after sunset and the last smudges of pink were on the mountains. The air was full of night warmth and the smell of orange blossoms. There was a couch waiting for me at my grandmother’s house, in a small adobe-walled house that I had been visiting since I was little. My grandmother had lived there for most of her life. It was where my mother had grown up and where my father had come to pick her up for their first date. There used to be a mailbox out front bearing the words Lazy B Ranch written in black paint.

Ours was a relatively old, working-class family in a state overflowing with newcomers. I knew a little bit of the saga: that my great-great-granddad had moved down from Idaho to be a doctor and couldn’t get a license from the Arizona Territory to practice medicine and had turned to farming cotton instead. I knew that the lot where my grandmother’s house stands had been acquired free of charge as ranchland from the U.S. government under the Homestead Act of 1862. It had once been a part of a much larger parcel of desert that had been sold off in the Depression and is now part of a golf-and-tennis resort (a not uncommon fate for land in metro Phoenix). But my knowledge ended there.

I pulled into the dirt driveway on Mockingbird Lane that night, kissed Grandma hello on top of her gray hair, and settled in to stay a week or two until I could find a place of my own to rent. When she asked me how I was doing, I only smiled and told her I was fine. She poured a glass of supermarket box wine and we toasted each other and then turned toward the television.

It may have been that first night, or some night shortly thereafter, but at some point that week, I said over my wineglass: “Hey, tell me that story again. About the guy who owned the water company.”

“You mean, Mr. Cheney?”

“Yes. Didn’t you tell me he had some kind of scam in the 1940s where he bought up one inch of all the properties that faced the street?”

“Why, yes. He said he had bought a long strip of land one foot wide that ran for more than a mile and threatened to charge people an easement fee for crossing onto their own property from the street. Their own property! He even put up a barbed-wire fence on his one-foot strip and ran it all the way down Mockingbird Lane. We used to carry wire cutters in the car and just cut the damn thing open whenever we came back to the house.”

I have always enjoyed hearing this story—and, I have to say, I was amused by the irritation she still felt about it sixty years later. I realized that I must have made her tell it at least three times over the past few years. But I could never quite recall all the details. I really ought to write this down, I thought. She’s not going to be around forever. But I did nothing about it at that point.

My grandmother has been in my life, of course, since I was a baby, but until that moment I couldn’t say that I really knew much that was substantial about her, or that we were “close” in any meaningful way, other than the artificial closeness of people who happen to be related by blood but don’t spend much time together. I knew that her career had been spent as a civil service secretary, mostly for various state agencies. There was a framed certificate of thanks on her wall, signed by the governor and presented to her upon retirement. I saw her at Christmas and Easter and we always exchanged pleasantries. She had been very forgiving when I was twelve and accidentally broke a margarita glass at her house and tried to hide the evidence. She made excellent tacos. On every birthday, a Hallmark card arrived with a crisp five-dollar bill inside. But she was an elderly woman who did crossword puzzles for fun and I was an awkward, unruly boy who wanted to play in the NBA; we didn’t seem to have a lot to talk about when I was growing up. Since I had grown older, the talk had become more genuine—about politics, Arizona history, that water company scam—but I still couldn’t claim to know much about her as a person that spring when I moved back to Phoenix. She was then eighty-seven years old.

I settled into my newspaper job and rented a brick house a few miles away. But I kept coming back to Grandma’s. We started having dinner every Monday night. It was one reliable weekly event in what was turning out to be a long, low period for me. And it was a relief to be there, where I didn’t have to think about my own situation. At these dinners, we talked more and more about the life she had lived and the things that she had seen.

There was a basket of surprises. I learned that Vern, her first husband and my biological grandfather, had been a serious commitment-phobe and had married and divorced eight women before he died (Grandma had been wife number three). I learned that an uncle of mine had been a heroin addict back in the 1950s. A cousin had gone to prison for burglary. I heard about her first job as a New Deal–era clerk in a government warehouse in Tucson, and relatives of whom I had been only dimly aware took on sharper identities and personalities. I began to look forward to these dinners and never let plans with anyone else get in the way.

Then came the day in autumn when Grandma took a bad fall getting out of the car. I wasn’t there at the time. Her face was covered with bruises, and her embarrassment was acute, but she was otherwise unhurt. It still put a shock into me. And several thoughts coalesced very quickly.

One was: I spend all day interviewing people and then writing stories. What’s stopping me from writing down Grandma’s story?

Another was sad and troubling. I had been spending a lot of time that year wondering if I would ever be married or be a father. She may never get to see any children I might have. And they may never know her.

A last one was simply this: I don’t ever want to forget her.

The following Monday, I showed up with a tape recorder.

“I want to get the story of your life down on paper,” I told her. “Would you be willing?”

That was the start of one of the best things I’ve ever done.
 

“Civilization is a stream with banks,” said the historian Will Durant. “The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing things historians usually record—while, on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happens on the banks.”

This book is about the people who lived on the side of the river, the ones who never ran for elective office, made a scientific discovery, played in a World Series, built a dam, gave a speech, or otherwise attracted attention beyond their neighborhood, but whose lives still counted for something. They mattered. Ordinary people built the world with trillions of acts of obscure heroism lost to common memory. There were armies of these now-forgotten people. They grew trees, passed minor laws, sold bread, taught correct spelling, raised polite children. They knew familiar experiences common to all: the taste of good food, the smell of a rainy morning, the touch of another person. Publicity and luck may have secured visited grave sites for a select few, but both the famous and the forgotten have stories that ought to be preserved.

What we call history is, above all, the story of those countless people: what they saw, how they acted, what they built, who they married, why they took the right turn instead of the left, who paid their salary and picked their pocket and how they felt about the whole baffling mess at the end of the day.

The stories of our parents and grandparents are the ones most primary to us; they leave their tracings within us; they gave us the color of our hair and the shape of our tempers, they move with us in our muscles and eyes. Stories of the old ones, passed down through spoken word, have provided a backbone to almost every culture on earth. There may be no more emblematic figure of what we call “civilization” than the lone man standing before a village assembly, relating a tale of what he had seen over the mountain ridge or singing a song about the warriors he had slain or calling out a list of his distinguished ancestors. This is a feature of every civilization. The heroic Greek epics were meant to be recited from memory. The Gospel author Luke says that he personally investigated the stories of Jesus “as they were handed down to us” by eyewitnesses. Likewise, children in Somalia are expected to recite their own genealogy going back twenty generations in order to prove their ties to the larger society.

The classic expression of history—that of scientists and kings and troop movements—tends to ignore the experiences of ordinary people, but some writers have always known that the genuine marrow of life does not always reveal itself at the base of the throne or wherever gunpowder flashes. The most celebrated and widely read history of France was published in 1867 by Jules Michelet, who spent a significant amount of his research time not in the libraries, but recording the opinions and experiences of peasants and workingmen all across the nation. In Britain at roughly the same period, Thomas Macaulay partly drew on ballads and barroom tales to complete his History of England. “The only true history of a country,” he once said, “is to be found in its newspapers.” In the United States, the writer Studs Terkel has made a career of recording the stories of janitors, mechanics, bums, schoolteachers, bankers, and people from every imaginable background to create a tapestry of American history made up of a thousand different experiences and impressions.

The simple fact of being alive and conscious with a brain as powerful as that of a human being—“the wet computer,” as some biologists call it—is enough to make just about anybody interesting by sheer default. They have loved and suffered and questioned and fought the maddening ambiguity of life, just as we have.

But how well do we know some of those who have been beside us all this time?
 

After dinner on Monday nights, my grandmother and I would go into the living room. She would sit on the couch and I would sit in a side chair. We drank more supermarket wine. And the reels on the tape recorder spun.

I learned that Grandma had walked to high school each day by going east from her house on Polk Street over to the far side of downtown. This would seem to be a trivial detail of geography, but it meant something to me. I had just moved to an apartment half a mile from the newspaper’s office and had gotten into the habit of walking to work on the days when the heat wasn’t too oppressive. My daily path led south, through the heart of downtown. So twice each day, at some point on the sidewalk, I was stepping over the route that my Grandma took seventy years earlier. This pleased me enormously. I lived in a different kind of Phoenix than she had known, dirtier and shabbier, perhaps, but it was still the same city and the streets still had the same names.

My apartment was also not far from the old Greek-columned elementary school building, now abandoned, where she had been given crayons to draw pictures in kindergarten. “I loved the orange ones,” she told me. “I always went for the orange and the poor kindergarten class never had any orange ones because I used them all up. Whatever I colored, it was orange.” The crayons had smelled bitter, “an odor I can still remember, a nice waxy smell.” I know that scent myself. Who doesn’t?

In the fifth week, she told me about the marriage to her first husband, Vern. He had proposed to her at a restaurant near the capitol at lunchtime one day in 1941 and she “floated” back to her secretarial job at the Highway Department with a ring to show all the girls. They were married less than a month later in a quickie wedding chapel in Las Vegas because the divorce from his second wife was not yet official in Arizona. My mother was born not long after, but the marriage was not a good one. Vern loved to go out and drink and be raucous at the downtown bars. My grandmother enjoyed the large life at first, but began to crave nights at home and playing cards and other quiet activities she thought were more suited to domesticity. When they fought, Vern would never stick around to talk things over. His habit, she said, was to storm off to his mother’s house. Then he would feel guilty and send flowers. “So I accumulated a lot of flowers,” she said. More suspiciously, Vern took up bowling as a new hobby and would go by himself to the lanes downtown. Grandma never went along. She suspected it was a cover to go chase girls. He did nothing to clear up this impression, even after coming home with lipstick smears on his shirt. Their breakup seemed inevitable, and indeed he asked her for a divorce after he took up with a woman he said he met while out “bowling.”

Their seven-year marriage quickly unraveled. The divorce proceedings were efficient: He took the car, she claimed the house where they lived on Virginia Street. In the summer of 1948, my grandma was left with no steady job, no car, and a baby daughter to raise by herself. She took my mother to day care on the city bus every morning. Both her parents were dead. Friends were scarce. She didn’t know where to go for comfort. For my grandma in that unhappy season of her life, failure looked a lot like Phoenix.
 

“Just as you feel when you look on the river or sky, so I felt,” said the great American poet Walt Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” “I too walked the streets of Manhattan island and bathed in the waters around it. I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir in me.”

Taking down a history of one of your relatives is rewarding in ways you may not have counted upon. It brings the generations closer together. It reminds older people that their lives were interesting and worthwhile. It creates a record of a life that goes far deeper than names and dates on a family tree.

Most of all, it engenders one of the noblest and best states available to humanity: that of empathy. This is an idea I will keep returning to in the course of this book. Empathy conquers selfishness. It conquers loneliness. It is what makes civilization possible, and what makes love inevitable. It is a good tool for any writer to have, and one that cannot be forced or faked. But I guarantee that if you embark on this project with an open mind, it will emerge naturally and almost effortlessly.

The stream of our private thoughts rolls by unseen by the rest of the world. But the strangeness of that inner life would surely be recognizable and unsurprising to most anyone who could see inside. These stories you’ll take down can be read and appreciated by people who don’t know us and who may never know us except through what we leave on the pages for them to discover fifty or a hundred or five hundred years from today. I’m not sure who might be reading about my grandmother, Ann Mary von Blume, in the future, but the document is there. It is not the most beautifully written story ever penned, but names and addresses and dates and all other kinds of things that I surely would have forgotten are now down on the page. The entire project took ten weeks. I collected about fifteen hours’ worth of tape. I asked questions of my grandmother in an easygoing interviewing style that I had learned as a newspaper reporter and which I’ll discuss in this book. I turned audiotape into instant prose using an easy method I’ll also describe in a later chapter.

It would be too simple to say that doing this project was responsible for leading me out of the doldrums—though that eventually happened—but I know that becoming closer to my grandma during that time in Phoenix was a gift, and one I might not have had if I hadn’t started asking questions and discovering that the person across the Thanksgiving table all those years was a thoroughly complex and multilayered person, just as I was. Just as we all are.

In writing a Homemade Biography, you will be committing an act of deep selflessness. When you and I and everyone we know are gone and dust, this careful reckoning of a life will remain in a bank vault or a basement or a trunk in an attic, to be discovered by somebody we can still touch with our words and make them see what was important to us. It will tell anybody who cares to look into those pages that the life documented within them was worth living. It is a shout across the ages: I existed.

And the larger lesson is this: Reader, your life is worth living, too.
 
 
Copyright © 2007 by Tom Zoellner. All rights reserved.