The View From Here: Memories and memoirs

Volodymyr Kish.

Quite a few years ago, my wife and kids came up with the bright idea that I should write my memoirs. They even got me a “How To” book with helpful hints and tips to help me on my way. I was somewhat reluctant at first, figuring that though I am relatively well known in certain Ukrainian circles, I am hardly famous enough to have my memoirs be of any real interest to the broader public. Be that as it may, they insisted that I go ahead anyway, in that though it may never make anyone’s ten best seller list, it would be a useful legacy that I could leave for future generations of Kishes.

That last point persuaded me, since it touched a sensitive spot that I have been feeling guilty about ever since my parents passed away. They both had lived through turbulent times, experiencing war and many hardships before they finally attained some peace and tranquility in their retirement years. When I was young, very little of that had ever interested me, and it was only when they were gone that I began to have big regrets that I had not made the effort to learn more about their lives and what they had experienced. What was it that had shaped their characters and personalities and made them what they were? What experiences, challenges trials and tribulations had been the genesis of their views and perspectives on life, the universe and everything?

I have since then expended a great deal of time and effort at tracing the trajectory of their lives when they were young, and though I have discovered a lot, my understanding is missing the crucial personal details and perspectives that only they could have provided. I recognize it as the greatest missed opportunity in my life.

It was within this context that I resolutely set out to document my life, thinking that it would be a relatively straightforward task. After all, I have developed an adequate command of the writing arts, my memory banks are still relatively easily accessible, and I have literally dozens of boxes of papers and photographs documenting both the most trivial as well as the most important aspects of my life. It should have been a piece of cake.

I have to admit that I am now well into the seventh year of my effort and have arrived at the realization that writing one’s memoirs is neither easy, painless nor straightforward. I have so far produced about a hundred pages of text on my computer and only gotten to covering my life to the age of eighteen. In the process, I have had to confront making some difficult and initially unanticipated decisions.

The first of these is what I call the “embarrassment” factor. As I was writing the early chapters, I would pass on my drafts to my brother and sister for commentary, since they had played an important part in my early life. For the most part, they were quite helpful in adding detail or correcting my imperfect memories of certain events. However, they would also often chime in with “How come you didn’t include…” and then recount in painful detail some silly or stupid thing I did that I have been trying hard to forget. As kids, we all do foolish things that are embarrassing at best, and angst inducing at worst. Should I subject my future readers and descendants to unflattering images of me at my worst or weakest?

This issue of course is not limited to just my youthful years. Even as an adult I have on occasion done some things that I was later to regret or feel less than proud about. Should my autobiography honestly reflect my warts and sins as well as my successes and accomplishments? Writing one’s memoirs forces one to make some difficult personal choices. I don’t want to make my memoirs an exercise in hagiography, but by the same token, I am proud about what I have done and accomplished so far in life, and I don’t want my memoirs to be a literary confessional of where I may have fallen short as a human being either.

Closely related to this dilemma is my struggles with how to portray all the different people that I have met during my life. We all create facades in dealing with the folks we interact with in our day-to-day lives, be they family, friends or casual acquaintances. We form judgments and opinions about them that we often keep to ourselves in the interests of avoiding conflicts and preserving friendly social relations. Even with those most close to us, we can seldom be completely open and honest about what we may really think of them. We may love them deeply despite their imperfections, but that does not give us license to impose our innermost opinions on them. The consequences of doing so would likely turn us all into hermits. So, as I write my memoirs, I find myself being cautious and careful about how I portray someone, lest I cause offence or inflict unintended pain.

All this has not stopped me in continuing to put down on paper my version of my life. It may not be perfect, but I know that some time long after I am gone, one of my descendants will read it and be grateful that I took the time and effort to do so. I realized too late that I knew so little about my own father and mother, and virtually nothing about their parents and grandparents. I am determined to not leave that same king of legacy vacuum to my descendants.