Reflections on a Memoir: Part I

The Traveled Road, by Bryce Butler

My Uncle Bryce died of bladder cancer in 2001, five months after the birth of my younger son.   In 2003, his long-time companion, Marilyn Mowry published a collection of his writing, some from a memoir workshop and others from a series he wrote for the local newspaper, The Altamont Enterprise, titled “Dead Man Walking.”   In 2005, Marilyn died as well, leaving me with boxes of Bryce’s writing and over 150 copies of his book, “The Traveled Road.”  Lat  week,  I finally read that book.

I’d tried to read the book several times over the years, but a few pages in, I’d always end up in tears.  Bryce’s death was the fourth in my very small immediate family in a span of four years:  two grandparents and my stepfather passed in the preceeding years.  Those dying before him were elderly and largely ready to die.  Bryce’s death, at 56, hit me differently.  He was younger by three decades, which was part of my struggle , but mostly he was younger than my father.  Mortality pounced a generation closer, and his death reminded me that folks my parents’ age could die.

So why read the book now?  In part, I picked it up to search for clues:  insight into my younger child who bears my uncle’s name as his middle name.   In the years following Bryce’s death, I’d occasionally talk with Marilyn, often about the disposition of his writings to me, an agreement we came to before she received her diagnosis of cancer the year following her companion’s death.  In our occasional conversations, I’d update her on my younger.  She commented more than once on my son’s similarities to Bryce, and my father has reinforced this view that perhaps my younger received more from Bryce than his name.  These comments also have come with a sigh and sense of sympathy, followed, on occasion, by vague reassurance :  Bryce came out okay, mostly.

My little one, now eight, has challenged me since the start.  An inconsolable but highly attached infant grew into an even more attached and rather irritable toddler.  Each year found him a bit easier to parent, but he’s always been a puzzle.  Tantrums, tics, uneven social skills, vague neurological signs, and unparalleled intensity are bottled with a brilliant and creative mind in overdrive.  So last week, I opened “The Traveled Road” and began again, looking for connections and clues.

I didn’t crack the case, but in Bryce’s writings I saw shadows of my younger son.  Formal writing filled with detours into details, some pertinent, some not, reminded me of my son’s speech, which is prolific and somewhat wandering.  His childhood loneliness surfaced repeatedly in his tales of his younger years, and a lack of social grace pervaded his tellings. While my younger doesn’t say he’s lonely, I know he struggles with relating to peers and adults, unable to navigate the more subtle  nonverbal language most of us take for granted, and I sense that, at least as a child, Bryce missed those cues, too.   Bryce’s temper, especially toward his brothers, strikes a familiar chord as well.  My son, too, sometimes acts in rage that seems unconnected with his thoughts.

While I finished the book, my goal was not to see what happens next for my son.  Despite some similarities, whether biological or coincidence, my son is his own person in a different time and place.  I’d like to think it’s a more understanding time with greater support for the outliers.  I’d like to spare him some pain that Bryce articulated in his essays but know that sort of protection is every parent’s prayer.  Bryce lived his life, traveled his road, and learned to love and be loved and to appreciate his time on this earth.  Whatever path my younger’s life takes, may he, too, learns those lessons.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on a Memoir: Part I

  1. What good fortune to have that book and those writings! I wish I had similar memorabilia from some of my family. We can all gain personal insight from learning more about our family members, especially those who came before us. I do have a book about bread making that one of my mom’s cousins wrote and published, and I do treasure it. It’s meaningful in its own way, though it doesn’t provide much in the way of history.

    • I am glad to have those writings of his! Not sure how to handle the 150+ copies in my basement, but glad to have that piece of past. I’d love to see the breadmaking book!

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