I know they’s a lots of things in a family history that just plain ain’t so. Any family. The stories get passed on and the truth gets passed over. As the sayin goes. Which I reckon some would take as meanin that the truth can’t compete. But I don’t believe that. I think when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet.

—Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men


The Blessing

To say you would never change a thing means you have learned nothing from the mistakes you made in the life you lived.

I would change everything about the last 25 years, starting with how my life took on a life of its own after that letter from my only sister. I would put up an electric fence fringed with barbed wire, a great wall between her demons, still unseen, and my soul. I would look back on the imperfect person I had become back in 1991 with a plan to change everything in my life for the better.

Twenty-five years or so ago I was living in Burlington, Vermont, with my first wife and our six-year-old son Max. A young woman, in her twenties, was walking down Main Street in Burlington when a bowling ball flew from a window and hit her flush in the head. She was a pretty girl but not so pretty afterwards. She walked with a limp after the accident. She would never be the same.

Perhaps life is a bowling ball and we are the pins.

My sister’s letter fell from the sky like a dead weight with my life as the destination—a message delivered without warning and without cause. Were I a better man, say a religious man, I might say God delivers unbearable burdens only to those who can bear them. In another universe, I might say her curse became my blessing. But in my ungodly world my sister’s curse had a godawful life of its own—indestructible and inexorable—like the bacteria that became Black Death disseminated by rats.

In the end, if we are honest, we have no explanation for anything. We posit the Supreme Being or destiny or even predestination (if you happen upon John Calvin). Then we weave a narrative, part of a larger web, until the inexplicable makes perfect sense. Those raised Catholic in the 20th Century—like my family—were born with the supposition of Original Sin wiped clean by Baptism, the only way to avoid an afterlife in the half-life of Limbo. So we were taught. My siblings and I were born guilty of a sin not of our own making.

Then we were told Limbo does not exist.

Five Conniffs came into the world by the time the 1960s came undone: Tony, me, Frank, Rex and finally our only sister Lucy; a sixth child, John, another boy, named after President John F. Kennedy, lived only one day. (May he rest.) When we were children, both our mother and our father became so ill that in the main we were without parents. Frank Conniff, had four strokes starting at age 53, when I was 14, and died of a heart attack at age 57, when I was 17; Elizabeth Murray Conniff, later Liz Murray, suffered from massive depression, alcoholism, and severe back problems all her life—and God knows what else that rendered her unavailable. Our mother was present but not accounted for: she had too many demons to be the only parent left to care for five kids.

So we were on our own, a particularly cruel fate for the two youngest, Rex and Lucy, who were only 8 and 10 when our father died—with a long obituary in The New York Times as the only consolation. We had freedom, independence, and broken hearts. We had each other.

Though the worst was yet to come, some of my siblings might still say they would not change a thing. But I would say there is no such thing as destiny or predestination, that history—personal, familial, global—is a blank sheet, a bowling ball, a letter better left unsent. History is always ready for whatever crimes and misdemeanors (real or imagined) we might dare to scratch upon it. And that’s the truth.