There are four plastic crates on the floor of my office. Each is full of photographs, notes, personal journals and short pieces written about my family, a few of these published in local Houston newspapers and magazines. There are five Jumbo Hefty bags filled with letters from various family members Each letter is still tucked inside its original envelope, some dating back to 1972. Many of these voices have been forever silenced.
Only a handful of the oldest journals remain, two years worth salvaged from a fire intentionally set by a deranged man in 2001.
If I had them all today, the journal made of notebook paper and bright yellow yarn would speak first, that first entry penned from a pink bedroom in Crowley, Texas, 1974. Those pages would lead to 1984 and a red spiral notebook, unsteady words describing a violent immeasurable loss.
That particular shock was paralyzing. It took three days to write such a difficult entry. Shock is like a tourniquet, to keep a mind and heart from hemorrhaging. I couldn’t speak, eat, or breathe.
Writing this memoir will feel just as difficult at times, but the stories and characters won’t rest until I do. Their chains rattle in my head daily.
This story involves my parents, Joseph and Beverly Williams, my siblings, Charlotte and David. Our family reached completion on East Crenshaw Avenue in Polytechnic Heights, where I was born and my family lived from 1964 to 1973. We then splintered off in separate directions, toward others, toward drugs and alcohol, the streets and homelessness. Mental institutions, hospitals, halfway houses and jail cells received a few family members who wrote letters from these and other temporary addresses. Sometimes home meant a cluster of trees near busy highways, a roach infested motel or halfway house, a trailer without electricity, or a clapboard shack on a hog farm. We each had adventures, lost and found each other over and over again along the way. Some were luckier than others.
It’s quite an undertaking to connect the heavy crates, faded photos, reams of notes and essays, to piece together the letters and journals as one continuum. It’s even more difficult to blend the voices of both the living and the dead into one song.
And where does the song begin? In the one-bedroom house on Crenshaw with my father’s red, white and blue guitar? Or at the Houston morgue where one mystery became two? Do we open with the bloated body discovered by a neighbor, or with the wailing sirens of emergency vehicles racing toward the Crenshaw house, my family gathered in the front yard to escape the fire my mother started in her sleep?
My father has given me what he can to help solve various other puzzles. We’ve exchanged letters for twenty-two years, sometimes in a question/answer format. We haven’t seen each other since 1998, for reasons I still can’t put into words.
My sister Charlotte is also my memory, her almost nine years of back story preceding Crenshaw Avenue, kindle for that first fire.
My task is to paste until every piece has a home, to trust the story to know where to begin, which is like throwing a dart at a Jupiter.