Saturday, September 15, 2012

Judy Goldman's new memoir: 'Losing My Sister'

Judy Goldman often instructs her students: Write about what keeps you up at night.

In “Losing My Sister,” her new memoir, Goldman heeds her own advice as she recalls her intense, loving and sometimes difficult relationship with her late sister, Brenda Meltsner.

Readers know Goldman, 70, as a Charlotte writing teacher, poet and author of two novels, “Early Leaving” and “The Slow Way Back.”

She described her newest work to me as “a small story filled with small events.” Her narrative is, in fact, full of life’s minutiae – childhood play, family dinners, hurt feelings.

And yet, the sum of these small parts gives readers something profound – a look at the hidden dynamics that compel a family’s members to play assigned roles.

In Goldman’s family, sisters were supposed to be close. “Jews don’t have coats of arms,” she writes, “but if my family did, it would say, Sisters Matter. Adoring your sister is as common a trait in our family as red hair or bowed legs might be in somebody else’s.”

But she and Brenda, though inseparable, are raised to be different. Judy is sweet, like her mother. Brenda, three years older, is strong, like her father.

As years pass, the sisters marry, raise children, bury their parents. They have rifts and overcome them. But when Judy writes her second novel, Brenda, who is battling cancer, offers more criticism than support. They stay divided for 18 months before reconciling.

Days after they patch things up, Brenda learns her cancer is back. By her birthday in December 2005, the family knows she doesn’t have long to live. At a birthday dinner, Judy reads a series of vignettes from their childhood.

“As I read, Brenda laughs, shakes her head – Yes I remember that – finishes off some of the anecdotes with details only she can add,” Goldman writes.

Brenda died the next month, January 2006. So she never saw her little sister’s memoir. If she could read it, Goldman predicts she would find parts that would make her smile. But there are parts, too, with which she would take issue.

Goldman says she worked hard to tell the truth. Even so, the act of remembering “is inevitably an act of revision.”

“What I would hope is that she would know how deeply I loved her, and how much I miss her,” Goldman says. “And how this book is just Judy coping with the grief of missing her.”

Goldman will read and sign books, 7 p.m. Oct. 2 at the Mint Museum, 2730 Randolph Road.