Monday, October 20, 2014

From the Archives…

   A memory hit me out of the blue recently, of my high school friend Oscar Fernandez. For a time, Oscar lived on the same street as I did, and for a time we were close.  I had not spoken to, or even thought of, Oscar for years, but it suddenly occurred to me that he was worth writing about. Oscar wanted to be a pilot, and after graduation he had gone to aeronautical school in Florida. When he came home for his first Christmas break – and here’s the story part – he was kidnapped.

     Oscar’s family was Cuban. Though they may have been wealthy in Havana, in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1976, they were not. His father worked as a carpenter; he, his wife, and Oscar lived quietly and apparently harmoniously in a gray clapboard apartment building at the end of our street. As I began writing the story, I remembered that the ransom was set at $60,000, and that a relative was rumored to have some connection with the kidnappers. Oscar was a diabetic, and after a day or two without insulin he fell into a coma; the kidnappers got scared and dumped him on the side of a Dorchester street. When I saw him after he got out of the hospital, he had lost his eyesight and all of his plans for the future, but he had found God. He wanted nothing to do with his old friends, including me.

     When I started, my story was about a young man friend profoundly transformed by calamity. I wanted to consider the importance of being with people you wouldn’t mind spending your last moments with, because as Oscar came to know, the world can end right now.

     A little way into a first draft, I checked the archives of the Boston Globe.  I was astonished to find how much of Oscar’s story I had forgotten over the decades.  The kidnappers had come to the apartment. Someone had called for help; when the police burst into the house they had, by some horrible miscalculation, shot and killed Oscar’s father. As I read my memories returned, of standing on the sidewalk as police cars crowded the street; of cutting Oscar’s senior picture out of my yearbook to give to a reporter, and of the hole that remained; of learning that he and his mother, who quickly moved away, got a big settlement from the Brookline Police.  

     I came into the MFA program planning to write memoir. I’m in my first nonfiction class ever this semester, and I’m finding that wrestling with memory is way more complicated than I expected. Talking and reading about the ambiguities involved in telling ``the truth’’ is enormously helpful as I try to reconstruct past events.

     If I had written Oscar’s story without any research, it would have captured something of my loss and its consequences, but totally misstated the dimensions of his. I didn’t know Oscar’s father well; his death had little impact on me in the long run. But memory changes when missing facts are filled in. Even my forgetfulness adds texture, in retrospect, to our relationship, to his decision to jettison me as a friend. I may have been satisfied with whatever story I ended up with had I not checked that archive, but I’m glad I did. I wonder what else I don’t know I don’t know. 

Hilde Hartnett Goldstein is working towards an MFA in creative nonfiction.

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