Monday, 28 November 2011

Barrie Llewelyn on how as a memoirist she found herself recreating her grandmother as a Chicago prostitute

I never knew my paternal grandmother. Nor did my father. She was persuaded to leave her marriage and her infant son for $500 in 1925. My dad told me the stories he had heard. She was ‘incapable of looking after him’. She ‘left him wet or dirty’ while still at home; afterwards, she’d try and ‘kidnap’ him back. ‘Rosie was a prostitute.’

On car journeys, my father would rage, but not at me. I was a girl traveling alone with him, but I wasn’t scared. I learned to share his pain. His missing mother lived in both our lives. When I had my own babies, I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could give up a child. As the years went by, so my dad’s depression grew, despite his having seemed a happy and popular, if introverted, man. The terrors of his childhood may have caught him up.

Five years after my father took his own life, I found myself in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale. I started to write and before long I had down the first section of Rosie’s story. She is in the waiting room at Chicago’s Union Station, in her purse an envelope containing $500 cash. Rosie isn’t thinking about what she will do with the money, nor about the decision she has just made, nor the new life ahead of her. All she cares about is what she looks like.

My novel in progress attempts to understand Rosie’s choice. In reality, I didn’t even have her maiden name or know where in Chicago she’d lived. The facts my father had, he took to his seaside grave. I had no hope of knowing her, nor the will to conduct a thorough search. When I finished my first draft in 2008, I felt that I had found her story, her truth. I had to accept my own version of her life.

But last month I had a message on Facebook: ‘Are you George Volk’s daughter? I am his half sister.’ I am now in contact with Rosie’s daughter, my aunt Franny. Francine told me stories of her mother’s life. My missing grandmother was a flapper in Chicago who frequented Al Capone’s speakeasies. Francine and her sister Caroline believe that any love Rosie had was left behind with her baby son. How it would have changed my father’s life to know his mother loved him!

Franny and I haven’t spoken since I returned from holiday. I’m hesitating about getting back in touch. Why am I somehow disappointed? This is my theory: I never actually wanted to know anything about Rosie. As a writer and storyteller, I preferred to make it up. So how do I go on with the story now?

A version of this was first published in the Western Mail's Insider books column on Saturday 26 November 2011. Barrie Llewelyn is an online contributor for New Welsh Review.

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Next blog: review of Lucy Caldwell's Dylan Thomas-prizewinning The Meeting Place

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